John Fremlin's blog: High Output Management by Andy Grove

Posted 2016-01-15 02:29:00 GMT

High Output Management by Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, was released with a new forward by Ben Horowitz, calling it a masterpiece. The concepts of objectives, key results, and one on ones are all very standard practice now. Intel has a long history of industry leading innovation (and of course cut-throat business tactics), and Grove is widely respected (though not as widely quoted as his predecessor Gordon Moore).

The book announces its premise that writing a compiler is a process, just like cooking an egg for breakfast — maybe true, in that compilers are well studied software products, with well defined inputs and outputs, but most software development is not really like this: if a thing has already been written and understood, then why replicate it? Writing a compiler is hugely expensive and one would much prefer to adapt an existing one.

Grove describes how to deal with the comfortable situation that a manager fully knows a process (like cooking a fixed breakfast) and just has to train up workers. In this benign environment, Grove suggests that the task specific competence of the employee be estimated, so that the manager can adjust the level of detail in delegating and monitoring tasks. One idiosyncratic demand is that the manager shield customers from the consequences of the employee's inexperience: i.e., learning from mistakes (that affect customers) is not accepted. This actually makes much more logical sense than the typical corporate schizophrenia of asking people to pretend to trust someone who is messing up a project and likely to fail to meet agreed goals, with the understanding that the only lever over this individual is probably to encourage them to leave (if only by not allowing them career progression) — unlikely to be the best choice for the business if the poor performer has proved value in another area. More importantly, it doesn't at all address a typical research situation in technology where nobody knows how to solve a problem and a manager can't just step in and show the right way.

On the other hand, the very paternalistic approach to management espoused has a warm human side, in that Grove emphasizes the importance of training and one-on-one meetings with subordinates. Under his leadership, Intel agreed to replace (very expensively) all Pentiums that suffered from a floating point bug, so unlikely as to be almost theoretical, and he paints the decision as one of corporate values, customer trust but also because employees were facing questions from friends and family about the issue: their personal identities were tied up in it.

Grove reiterates that it is future needs that should be focused on, rather than current deficiencies. Intel's business has very long and expensive planning cycles, as they innovate on transistor technologies requiring whole new manufacturing processes, followed by multiyear productionisation of chips even once their functional design has been fully finalised in great detail, so I was hoping that Grove might provide some insight into how to drive this uncertain process. It seems he is very pleased with his identification of the power of the Internet, and he talks at length about the need to identify trends, but in particular to follow the logical consequences of those trends to their conclusions and to anticipate the shift in power relationships that will occur. Then he urges vigilance in catching and not discounting the early warnings that something is changing — as CEO by making sure the concerns of lower ranking employees can filter up by holding townhalls, etc.

It was disappointing not to have a chapter about the Itanium (Itanic), a massively bold investment in a new sort of chip that had huge repercussions across the industry, and contributed to AMD beating Intel and achieving brief market leadership in desktop processors. Grove claimed to have trouble understanding the pros and cons of CISC versus RISC as well — oddly given his technical training. But having foresight for market secular trends is probably more valuable than predicting the outcome of technoreligious schisms.

All in all an exceptionally well written book, with a wonderfully clear purpose, followed up with a homework section to try to force its message into practice.

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