Andy Grove’s Ghost Speaks Out
Last week Andrew Grove, the legendary former CEO and chairman of Intel (INTC), died. The first hire at Intel, Grove is credited with turning the company into Silicon Valley’s top chipmaker. Here Catherine Fredman, a long-time collaborator of Grove, recalls what it was like to work with Grove.
Andy Grove and I used to joke that he talked and I typed. But, of course, there was much more to it.
I first started lending Andy an editorial hand back in 1990 at Working Woman magazine. Then president of Intel, he wrote a Q&A column on managing but was irritated with the frequent demands for embellishments and revisions. Newly assigned to edit the column, I proposed that he talk through his answers on the phone; I could ask for clarification and examples during the course of our conversation, I explained, then would polish up the column and send it to him for approval.
In his wonderful throaty Hungarian accent, Andy, the great innovative thinker, retorted, “I don’t think it can be done.” “I do,” I replied. “Why don’t you give it a try?”
“How long do you think it will take?” he demanded. “Forty-five minutes,” I said. Ever the negotiator, he countered, “I’ll give you half an hour.”
We finished in 29 minutes. It was the start of a collaboration that took us through two best-selling books — his management strategy masterpiece Only the Paranoid Survive and his 2001 memoir, Swimming Across — as well as numerous op-eds, speeches, and his 1996 Fortune cover story on his experience with prostate cancer.
Getting the Grove glare
At the time, Andy was known as one of the toughest bosses in Silicon Valley. Being the target of the Grove glare was like getting hit in the stomach with a medicine ball. But I found that while he was demanding, he wasn’t a tyrant. What I saw were the characteristics that made him a great leader.
I want to be clear that I didn’t write Andy’s books or articles for him. As anyone who ever heard him knows, Andy had complete command of the vernacular (especially when calling a fellow Silicon Valley CEO an “arrogant asshole”). But like many people, Andy tended to sound formal and stilted when translating his thoughts onto the page. It was my job to make his written words sound like his spoken words — to make him sound like himself.
Telling Grove what he didn’t want to hear
My job also, although we didn’t realize that at the beginning, was to ask questions that Andy either hadn’t considered or didn’t want to consider. Andy wrote that the CEO is always the last person to know what’s really going on — and it was up to me to tell him when his tone or content was off course. But that didn’t mean he liked it.
Chapter 1 of Only the Paranoid Survived told the story of the Pentium crisis in 1994, when a flaw was detected in the floating point unit of Intel’s best-selling microprocessor. By the time the crisis was resolved, it cost the company a $475 million write-off.
Per our usual procedure, Andy was talking on the phone in California and I was typing away at the other end of the line in New York. After he mentioned the $475 million figure, he paused for breath. “So was that a lot or a little?” I asked.
There was an ominous silence that must have lasted at least 20 seconds. I could feel him glower from 3,000 miles away. Then he erupted: “It’s a fucking enormous amount of money!” “Okay,” I said, “so it’s a lot. But what does it mean?” $475 million was a figure incomprehensible to most people, I pointed out. If Andy wanted the book to appeal only to Fortune 500 CEOs, fine. But if he wanted ordinary readers to understand the implications of a $475 million write-off — and, I added, recommend the book to enough other ordinary people to make it the best-seller it deserved to be — he needed to explain what it meant in a context they recognized. There was another silence. “Oh,” he said. And then he did exactly that.
That “oh” was Andy’s way of admitting, “I hadn’t thought of that.” If he conceded — and he only did about half of the time — he did it without caviling. He got down to business, no matter how touchy the topic.
By the time we worked on the article about his prostate cancer, our talking/typing routine had evolved to include him asking if I had any questions. “Just two,” I said. “What about incontinence? And what about impotence?” He had talked in dispassionate detail about the diagnosis and treatment, but had neglected to address these two issues which were so private for him yet foremost on the mind of anyone with a high PSA score. “Oh,” he said. He took a minute to absorb this intrusion into such an intimate aspect of his life, then answered the questions with courage and dignity — and the article went on to be a finalist in that year’s National Magazine Awards.
There were more “ohs” during the writing of Swimming Across. Going into it, I don’t think either of us realized how much I would demand of him as he dug into deeply buried memories: memories of his mother’s rape by Russian soldiers during World War II; of the routine antisemitism he encountered growing up, all the more cutting for being so casual; of the triumphs and tragedies, big and small, that made him who he was. It wasn’t easy for either of us, but by then our partnership was strong. Andy trusted that my questions weren’t a result of prurient curiosity; I knew I could ask him anything and receive an honest answer.
Some people might have wanted the small satisfaction of having him say, “You’re right” but his acknowledgement was more generous than I could ever have imagined. By asking me to type while he talked through Only the Paranoid Survive and Swimming Across, he singlehandedly jumpstarted my career not once but twice, first as a collaborator on management strategy books and then as a midwife of memoirs.
Working with Andy was exhilarating. He was like the best teacher you ever had: He not only brought out your best but raised the bar so that your best became even better.
And it was so much fun. Behind the Grove glare was an utterly disarming giggle. And his uncompromising intellect was matched by a huge heart.
A huge heart
Every book has one chapter that is a wrestling match. In Only the Paranoid Survive, Chapter 4 just wouldn’t come out right no matter how much I struggled. When I told Andy that I didn’t know what to do, I expected an explosion, a caustic remark or being told that it was my responsibility to figure out how to fix it. Instead, Andy showed why he was not just a true leader but a mensch. “We’ll work on it together,” he said, “until we get it right.”
It was my turn to say, “Oh.” I hadn’t thought of that option but I’ve never forgotten it.
Catherine Fredman is a ghostwriter/collaborator of blogs, books and memoirs, including the best-selling Direct from Dell by Michael Dell, Use the News by Maria Bartiromo, and Swimming Across by Andy Grove.