A love letter to Hewlett-Packard

About 18 years ago I dropped out of graduate school at Stanford and took a job as an R&D engineer at Hewlett-Packard Company.  Actually, "dropped out" is a bit too strong of a phrase; it was late June, I had just just won my Stanford undergraduate degrees a few weeks before, I was about to start my summer internship at NASA, it was hot out, and my new dorm room (Rains housing, for those of you in the know) was even hotter, and I was already sick of hearing cars downshifting for the stop sign just outside of my window.  Classes for my masters program in mechanical engineering wouldn't start for a few more months, but the prospect of yet another math class didn't feel like a Big Idea to me.  I forget the the exact chain of events, but I believe I first called Ford to ask (beg) for the job I had turned down a few months earlier, and then coincidentally someone from Hewlett-Packard called me to see if I would be interested in a position with them up in Vancouver, Washington, having passed their grueling phone interview screen a few months earlier.


I flew up to Portland, Oregon to interview with Hewlett-Packard, partly because I was desperate to get out of my room at Stanford and partly because I had never been to a CART race, and there was one happening the coming weekend, which was June 27 (what — you think I've changed?  This one-track mind has taken years to develop).  The job interviews went well, and the race was pretty cool (the good folks at Hewlett-Packard allowed me to keep the rental car for the weekend), if I must say so:

The visit went well, I took the job, and in doing so became a very proud member of the Hewlett-Packard family, starting as a R&D Engineer working on ink-jet printing systems.  I enjoyed what in retrospect was an amazing two years, though I probably didn't fully appreciate everything at the time because I was relatively impatient from a career standpoint.  All things being equal, over my two years there, I was able to do foundational R&D work on what became HP's "off-axis" ink system (which you can stilll find in any large-format printer today), got to help take a new printer up the manufacturing ramp, was allowed to redesign a bunch of parts for another new printer, and was also asked to do some cool user research in the field, including one home visit in Wisconsin where I ended up helping some kids with their homework. 

The best thing about working at Hewlett-Packard was its culture, which was very "adult" in the sense that it was built on a sense of deep trust and respect between individuals and groups within the company.  One day I was using spray-mount glue in my cubicle (bad idea) and my manager stopped by, poked his head in, and said something to the effect of "You can pretty much do anything you want here unless you're endangering yourself or others, and right now you're endangering yourself or others," and then he walked away.  Lesson learned.  Working at Hewlett-Packard meant that I had the good fortune of working for some truly spectacular managers and mentors, such as Eric Ahlvin, Alan Shibata, David Gast, and Rick Berriman.  Looking back on my time there, I realize now the degree to which I imprinted on these people and on Hewett-Packard's culture.  In my approach to work and working with people, I think I've tried hard to live up to the examples they set for me, as well as the ethos that informed the culture of Hewlett-Packard. 

The best summary of the culture I experienced at Hewlett-Packard is summed up in the 11 Simple Rules drawn up by David Packard himself.  These are:

1. Think first of the other fellow. This is THE foundation — the first requisite — for getting along with others. And it is the one truly difficult accomplishment you must make. Gaining this, the rest will be "a breeze."

2. Build up the other person's sense of importance. When we make the other person seem less important, we frustrate one of his deepest urges. Allow him to feel equality or superiority, and we can easily get along with him.

3. Respect the other man's personality rights. Respect as something sacred the other fellow's right to be different from you. No two personalities are ever molded by precisely the same forces.

4. Give sincere appreciation. If we think someone has done a thing well, we should never hesitate to let him know it. WARNING: This does not mean promiscuous use of obvious flattery. Flattery with most intelligent people gets exactly the reaction it deserves — contempt for the egotistical "phony" who stoops to it.

5. Eliminate the negative. Criticism seldom does what its user intends, for it invariably causes resentment. The tiniest bit of disapproval can sometimes cause a resentment which will rankle — to your disadvantage — for years.

6. Avoid openly trying to reform people. Every man knows he is imperfect, but he doesn't want someone else trying to correct his faults. If you want to improve a person, help him to embrace a higher working goal — a standard, an ideal — and he will do his own "making over" far more effectively than you can do it for him.

7. Try to understand the other person. How would you react to similar circumstances? When you begin to see the "whys" of him you can't help but get along better with him.

8. Check first impressions. We are especially prone to dislike some people on first sight because of some vague resemblance (of which we are usually unaware) to someone else whom we have had reason to dislike. Follow Abraham Lincoln's famous self-instruction: "I do not like that man; therefore I shall get to know him better."

9. Take care with the little details. Watch your smile, your tone of voice, how you use your eyes, the way you greet people, the use of nicknames and remembering faces, names and dates. Little things add polish to your skill in dealing with people. Constantly, deliberately think of them until they become a natural part of your personality.

10. Develop genuine interest in people. You cannot successfully apply the foregoing suggestions unless you have a sincere desire to like, respect and be helpful to others. Conversely, you cannot build genuine interest in people until you have experienced the pleasure of working with them in an atmosphere characterized by mutual liking and respect.

11. Keep it up. That's all — just keep it up!

Wow.  These 11 principles are simultaneously super inspirational and super humbling.  Truth be told, on my bad days I fail to live up to all of these.  But I try, and I keep trying to improve myself vis a vis this list, and I think that was the magic of Hewlett-Packard's culture, which allowed you — even encouraged you — to improve yourself just as you were always trying to improve the stuff sitting on your test bench.  And it encouraged you to help the folks around you, too.  What I find interesting about Packard's points is that, starting with No.1, they're all focused on the people around you, not on your inner dialog or whatever.  If you're seeking to establish and maintain a collaborative, innovative culture, you could do a lot worse than to follow these 11 points.

I wrote this post this evening because earlier today I learned that David Kelley modeled much of IDEO's culture on that of Hewlett-Packard.  I left Hewlett-Packard to join IDEO, and in many ways I regard IDEO as a logical extension of Packard's cultural vision.  Trust and respect for your fellow colleagues are indeed the pillars of cultures which routinely create high-impact innovations.

Many thanks to my friend Bob Sutton for telling me about David Packard's Simple Rules.

1 thought on “A love letter to Hewlett-Packard

  1. Diego, Thanks to Bob Sutton, I love his work, and a BIG one to you for sharing this. I will translate it to spanish for my blog.
    Keep it up!

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