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The "Vaunted" HP Way

By John Wolff

In reading the opinion piece by Holman Jenkins, Jr. titled “The Mark Hurd Show” in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, I was struck by his reference to the “vaunted HP Way.” The word vaunted means boastful or extravagant self praise; i.e., overdone. He went on to refer to the HP Way as “a set of admirable teamwork principles that nowadays is mostly invoked to resist unwelcome change.” Since I worked at Hewlett-Packard for six years beginning in 1968, this somewhat disdainful characterization of the HP Way bothered me. I would like to explain why.

BillNDave In the last 10 years or so it has become fashionable in some circles to call the HP Way a quaint philosophy that no longer applies within a modern large scale business. I strongly disagree with that notion. As a fresh 22-year-old college graduate with a Computer Science degree, I interviewed several major and minor computer manufacturers in the spring of 1968. Even at that tender age and with limited business experience up to that point, the job interview with HP left a particular and lasting impression on me that still stands out in my mind today.

First, HP at that time had just entered the mini-computer industry by deciding to make the computers they used as a component of their automated instrumentation systems, rather than to continue buying them from Digital Equipment. In fact, HP did not really think of itself as being in the computer industry at all; they were an instrumentation company and their mini-computers were really considered to be just another kind of instrument.

Second, HP had a first-class engineering reputation revolving around the measurement and instrumentation business that it led. As a computer science graduate these facts were interesting but not impressive to me, so they did not rank the company especially high in my mind when compared to other more established computer manufacturers (most of which are no longer in that business). Rather, the take-away item for me from the job interview was the unmistakable observation that HP, as a company, believed its most important asset was not their technology, but their employees. So without knowing what it was called, I had made my first contact with the HP Way.

I did not sense this concept of company-employee mutual loyalty from any other company I interviewed -- HP stood alone in this respect. I had several job offers to consider and the HP offer was not quite the highest, but I knew that this was the company I most wanted to work for in spite of their relative obscurity in the computer field.

Whether by sheer luck or good management (I tend to think the latter), HP hired other high-caliber software engineers who must have also sensed that HP was a special kind of company. These folks were not content to just develop instrumentation programs, but had a vision of creating products that would put HP squarely in the computer business.

The HP Way provided a limited freedom for employees to experiment and innovate. Products that evolved from this process included several Timeshare Basic systems used in education and the HP3000 Business Computer, among others. The marketing department was slow to support products that seemed to deviate from the division's formal mission, but as the success of these products became evident, the road to HP's future became clearer. This process was at work throughout the company. Indeed, I submit that HP would not even be in the computer business today if not for the HP Way.

Today the HP board of directors is again faced with searching for a new CEO after releasing its second outside CEO in a row in an embarrassing way. Up until the hiring of Carly Fiorina in 1999 HP had always grown its own management and built its business organically through internal growth. Perhaps the company needs to return to its roots when “invent” meant something and rekindle the magic and vision created by Bill Hewlett and David Packard -- by bringing back that sense of company-employee mutual loyalty called, The HP Way!

John Wolff is VP and CIO of Los Angeles real estate firm LAACO, Ltd. He served for seven years on the board of OpenMPE, including six as co-chairman.