WHILE Twitter celebrated its 10th anniversary last week, the world said goodbye to a man without whom the social media site would never have been possible.

Former Intel CEO Andy Grove, who built this early Silicon Valley business into the powerhouse it is today, died last week aged 79.

“The man who put Intel inside,” as The Economist so neatly summed up, using the company’s most famous marketing phrase, was the first person hired in 1968 when Intel was an unknown maker of memory chips for the IBM mainframes of the day. After Japanese chip makers took an early lead in the 1970s, Grove helped switch the company to making microprocessors. Intel’s first attempts failed; but Grove’s repeated successes would put Intel, and him, among the greats of business. His hard-driving business style would become known as “creative confrontation” and his famous quote that “only the paranoid survive” became his defining maxim.

The New York Times wrote in its obituary last week: “Grove helped midwife the semiconductor revolution — the use of increasingly sophisticated chips to power computers — that proved to be as momentous for economic and social development as ... electricity and telephones were in earlier eras.”

Time magazine called him “the person most responsible for the amazing growth in the power and the innovative potential of microchips” when it named him 1997 Man of the Year.

Grove’s rags-to-riches life story is the stuff of legend. Born Andris Istvan Grof, he renamed himself Andrew Stephen Grove when he arrived in the US in 1956, after the Soviets invaded his native Hungary. He suffered from chronic hearing loss, caused by scarlet fever as a child, that required bulky hearing aids, and it took numerous operations to repair his hearing. He was notorious for banging his hearing aids on boardroom tables when verbose underlings spoke for too long. He also battled prostate cancer and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2000.

He studied chemical engineering, and later pursued a PhD. He struggled his way through lectures by learning to lip read and checking his notes with an English dictionary.

Time wrote: “His character traits are emblematic of this amazing century: a paranoia bred from his having been a refugee from the Nazis and then the Communists; an entrepreneurial optimism instilled as an immigrant to a land brimming with freedom and opportunity; and a sharpness [that was] tinged with arrogance that comes from being a brilliant mind on the front line of a revolution. ”

It is interesting to note that that profile was written by Walter Isaacson, who would also write the biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, the other Silicon Valley icon with whom Grove is always associated. And, in many ways, Grove enabled the success stories that Apple and Microsoft would become.

Intel worked closely with Microsoft in a partnership that dominated the desktop PC era of the 1990s — their duopoly would be called “Wintel”, and be fraught with anticompetitive misbehaviour.

Grove, by then the CEO, turned the chipmaker into as big a brand as the computers it powered. This was in no small part through a huge marketing budget Intel afforded PC makers as long as they included the now famous “Intel Inside” phrase in all adverts and on the computer itself. It also spurned the so-called microprocessor myth, a favourite of computer sales people wanting to convince buyers that a faster chip would solve their problems.

My favourite quote of Grove’s reflects a clear understanding of how human nature bestows undue praise or condemnation on tech: “Technology happens. It’s not good, it’s not bad. Is steel good or bad?”As is fitting in the social media age, Microsoft founder Bill Gates expressed himself on Twitter: “I’m sad ... I loved working with him. He was one of the great business leaders of the 20th century.”

This article first appeared in the Financial Mail

• Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @shapshak

 

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