I read Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive last week. I always figured it was an autobiography or memoir, not a business book. But it’s a business book. A very good one.
I avoided it because I didn’t like Andy Grove. I’ve never been a fan of Intel’s business practices during the 1990s and 2000s, including using payola to keep competitors’ chips out of large computer systems, but after reading this book, I’m more disappointed than anything. Whichever company had Andy Grove wins, period. No need to cheat.
Andy Grove wins because he’s remarkably adept at recognizing game-changers. Where Bill Gates completely missed the Internet in The Road Ahead, Grove spent an entire chapter talking about it. Not only that, he walked through the process of determining whether the Internet was one of those game changers, showed how he could talk himself into ignoring it, then said, “But I think it is.”
The other reason I think Andy Grove always wins was because of his willingness to learn. He describes scenario after scenario where he went to talk to people junior to him–sometimes much junior–and wasn’t afraid of hearing, “Grove, you’re out of your element here. Let me teach you something.” He flat out says in the book that he had a degree, but not in computer science, so he had to learn on the fly about microprocessors.
I’d say he did a good job, since it was under his watch that Intel became the leading maker of microprocessors. So much so that the statement that he had to learn about microprocessors seems utterly ridiculous.
There was more than one reason I didn’t like Intel. The other reason comes from my background. Around 1990, I was looking to upgrade from an 8-bit machine to something newer. There were four choices in the U.S. market: Intel-based IBM PC compatibles, and three machines based on a Motorola CPU: Commodore’s Amiga, Atari’s ST, and Apple’s Macintosh. Well, I knew some assembly language, and I could follow Motorola 68000 assembly language. It flowed well and made sense. Intel x86 assembly language was kludgy. The memory management looked like a chip that couldn’t decide whether it was 8, 16, or 32 bits. So I went with the better technology. But Commodore couldn’t build any momentum because its management didn’t know the things Andy Grove knew, and they couldn’t get their chip costs down. The Amiga custom chipset was what set it apart from the ST and the Mac. In retrospect, as great as the Amiga was and as much as it pains me to say it, the Amiga didn’t stand a chance.
And once I did get into PCs, I bought a lot of chips from Intel’s competitors. There were very few times in history where Intel provided a better value for money than its competitors.
So I didn’t go into this book liking Andy Grove. Coming out of the book, I had a great deal of respect for him and, well, actually liking quite a few things about him.