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Book Review: Andy Grove by Richard S. Tedlow

November 15, 2006

I remember the first time I bought a computer that had a sticker on it saying “Intel Inside”. I had no idea what that meant, but figured since the manufacturer thought it was important enough to put it there, “Intel Inside” must be a good thing. That’s exactly what Intel wanted me to think—and if then-CEO Andy Grove hadn’t approved this direct-to-consumer marketing approach, Intel might not have become the company it is, and most of us wouldn’t know the name Andy Grove. That would be a shame, because, as Richard S. Tedlow’s sweeping new biography, Andy Grove, makes clear, the Intel mastermind’s ride to the top of Silicon Valley is an unlikely and amazing story.

If you’ve read Grove’s 2001 account of his early life, Swimming Across, then you know he spent his childhood in Hungary, where he was born Andras Istvan Grof and where his Jewish family lived in fear for many years, first from the Nazis, then from the Communists. His father was taken away with no account of his whereabouts (he eventually made it back; by that time, Grove didn’t even know him), while others in his extended family were taken away and never heard from again. Grove managed to flee the country when he was 20 and made it to the United States. This is where that book ends, and, despite Grove’s having written a number of other business books, Swimming Across is probably the only published work that gives insight into Grove’s personal life with Grove’s cooperation.

Until Andy Grove, that is, which covers both the early life and the stunning career rise of Grove in Silicon Valley. Author Tedlow had access to both Grove and the many personal notebooks Grove had saved over the years. In addition, Tedlow interviewed many of the people who knew Grove best over the course of his career, including former Intel CEOs Gordon Moore and Craig Barrett, current CEO Paul Otellini, Grove’s wife Eva, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and others who worked with Grove at Intel or competed against him at other technology companies. The end result isn’t just a window into Andy Grove, but also a comprehensive history of Intel and to an extent the PC industry itself.

What the average consumer may not realize is that Intel existed for many years before it became a name in the general public’s consciousness (and before it became so important that Time named Andy Grove its Man of the Year for 1997). Intel’s forming was big news within its industry in the late 1960s, but at that point it was a manufacturer of memory for mainframe computers and Andy Grove was an engineer more adept at science than managing a company. Unfortunately, so were the rest of Intel’s executives—no one thought much about management until Grove, out of frustration as much as anything else, started learning what it took to actually run a multimillion-dollar organization. It’s safe to say that without Grove, Intel wouldn’t exist today.

Competition from Asian countries ate Intel’s lunch in the memory market, but Intel came to realize that “The PC Is It” before many others, and established dominance in the market early. In some ways Intel was lucky, but the book also clearly shows where Grove and Intel outmaneuvered their competitors. Examples:

  • By concentrating on backward-compatibility, Intel made it easier for other companies to treat their product as the standard. Because hardware and software vendors could count on Intel’s consistency, software was written to work with the Intel family of chips, making it much harder for competitors to gain traction.
  • Grove ended the “second source” practice which had forced Intel to share its technology with competitors in order to ensure that customers could count on multiple sources for its processors. This was a bold and risky move, but one that ultimately gave Intel a virtual monopoly on the PC market.
  • When computer manufacturers were slow to add Intel’s 386 microprocessor, figuring consumers were happy enough with their computing power, Intel did an end-around by going straight to consumers with its “Intel Inside” ad campaign. This caused consumers to view Intel’s latest chip as the key component of their computer. Manufacturers were thus forced to build PCs with the latest Intel chip, while building the Intel brand in consumers’ minds and guaranteeing that the next time around Intel’s product would be adopted quickly.

As interesting as the challenges and triumphs of Grove and Intel are, at times the book drags. Tedlow is so comprehensive that he actually proceeds year by year through Intel’s history, with sales numbers and Intel’s place on the Fortune 500 dutifully noted. It may be great for historical purposes, but it’s a bit much for the reader who just wants to learn what makes Andy Grove tick. Fifty to 100 pages could have been cut out of this 461-page book and I don’t think readers would miss them.

This review has discussed Intel the company as much as Grove the man. This is understandable, as Grove was really the driving force behind Intel’s greatest successes, but Tedlow does try to give insight into the “why” of Grove’s success, too. He also gives us an idea of what it must have been like to work for the man. Grove is a direct, not entirely patient man, with a propensity for swearing. His direct nature helped make it perfectly clear what needed to get done and what he expected from people. And his “paranoia” ensured that Intel never rested on its laurels but instead kept moving forward, even when its only competition seemed to be itself. However, Grove’s inability to tone down his intensity when dealing with others’ mistakes also drove talented people out of Intel. To his credit, Grove freely, though not proudly, admits this.

Andy Grove has dealt with two major health problems in his later years, one of which is revealed here for the first time. Grove has suffered from Parkinson’s Disease for the last five years or so, but had decided to keep this under wraps. However, just as in Grove’s battle with prostate cancer in the mid ’90s, he has taken an analytical approach to fighting his disease. Grove is currently responding well to treatment, although he’s aware that Parkinson’s treatments often stop providing results over time.

Grove’s life is a bit of a fairy tale–a Communist-fleeing immigrant who comes to the U.S. almost penniless, who is amazed to find that people care more about his ability than his background, and who takes advantage of this opportunity by helping to build and lead one of the most successful companies of the modern age. Tedlow’s Andy Grove is, and perhaps is destined to remain, the most complete telling of this fairy tale.

e-mail me: adam@bessed.com

Adam Jusko is founder and CEO of Bessed, a Web site promising “search without spam”, thanks to human-edited search results and ongoing visitor feedback. Do a search, offer your comments, submit your site–help create the “bessed” search site in the world. 

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