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The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company (1960) (gizmodo.com)
109 points by Tomte 4 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments

I worked for HP in the late 90s / early 2000s. Right around the time Agilent was split off.

It was a remarkable place to work. "Bill and Dave" were household names: I was really struck by how much of their vision and values had been embedded in the firm's DNA. Quite amazing for a multi-national.

I remember the UK general manager coming to visit our site. He wasn't immune to the usual entourage of hangers-on, but always insisted on going walkabout on his own for an hour or so. Precisely so he knew what was actually happening at the coal face, not the filtered and abstracted artefacts of managerial reports. He stopped to speak to one of my colleagues - a recent graduate. The grad had no idea who the manager was, and asked him politely to give him 10 minutes as he was waiting for a build to finish (1990s remember). Those of us who knew the manager were aghast and assumed the grad would be in for a bit of a tough time. But the GM just smiled and said "of course, hope it compiles OK", went away, and came back later.

That moment has stuck with me throughout my career. I've sought to emulate that level of humility and respect. Can't say I've always been successful, but it remains inspirational.

Your experience sounds like from some sci-fi book written by Isaac Asimov. My reality looks way different: there was Vice President from USA checking the German branch couple weeks ago. 3 days of management presentations full of inaccurate information to show how excellent are we managing our projects. The Vice President had absolutely no interest in the real projects in the labs. Nobody does, project checklist and weekly hours reporting are only 2 interesting things. I am still dreaming experiencing management HP Way, but it’s not happening. Current leaders are accountants and not technical leaders anymore.

HP now is incredibly different from HP then. My dad was there for 38 years before retiring, my mom as well before choosing to stay at home and support the family once I hit 1st grade. Growing up most of our family friends were HP employees and engineers (they were the 2nd largest employer in town). I remember summer picnics meeting high up managers from all over the country. From maybe 2004 to 2010 the culture and management style changed a lot especially under Fiorina. Honestly, from everything I've seen and heard she was the death knell of OG HP simply by crushing the free form engineering spirit of R&D by streamlining and significantly cutting back research. She made HP a lean machine that couldn't innovate and so the dream died.

Which HP? There are two now.

Enterprise (HPE) or Inc (HPQ)

Excellent! They were the true Titans of the Tech. industry. How i wish "modern" tech companies followed this advice.

This passage in particular should be memorized by every "Manager".

Over the years we have developed the policy that it is important for the supervisor to thoroughly know and understand the work of his group. A debate on this has been carried on by management people for years. Some say you can be a good manager without having the slightest idea of what you are trying to manage, that the techniques of management are all important. There are many organizations which work that way. I don't argue that the job can't be done that way but I do argue strongly that the best job can be done when the manager or supervisor has a real and genuine understanding of his group's work. I don't see how a person can even understand what proper standards are and what performance is required unless he does understand in some detail the very specific nature of the work he is trying to supervise. We have held closely to this philosophy and we intend to continue to do so. We expect you who are supervising to learn techniques of supervision and keep up to date. I want to emphasize you can supervise best when you know a great deal about the work you are supervising and when you know the techniques of supervision as well.

That’s something I miss a lot in my company. When you go up one to two levels management already has no understanding of what I and the people I work with are working on and it doesn’t seem they are interested. They see their only role as enforcing deadlines and budgets. I think a lot of better decisions could be made if managers made an effort to understand what their underlings are doing. Managers who don’t understand the work are very susceptible to political games and manipulation.

For people who are only familiar with the sad decline of this company, HP computers used to be great.

I learnt to program on an HP-85a. At the time, my friends had ZX80s or ZX81s with 1k of RAM. My HP-85a (my dad's really) had an insanely massive 32k. It came with really great manuals which taught you to program in basic, a built-in screen, magnetic tape drive and thermal printer and was fantastically engineered in general.

The HP12c financial calculator is legendary. There are HP12c still running on their original battery 30+ years after production (the original battery now no longer permitted for non-military applications due to toxic chemicals and what-not) and the legend goes that a zookeeper once accidentally fed one to a hippo (he had been using it to calculate how much feed to give it or something) had it travel through the whole digestive tract of the aforementioned beast and had it still working. My two HP12cs have each been running for 10+ years on their original batteries even though they are using the inferior modern battery technology.

I could go on but you get the point.

They also were a real leader in scientific and precision metrology equipment, like interferometers.

They still are in a sense. That portion of the company is now called Keysight.

I'm not sure if Keysight is doing any innovation anymore or just subsisting on their legacy. (They also wouldn't answer my company's calls when we tried to purchase equipment from them, which I generally take as sign of decline).

It probably depends on where you are and what level of equipment you are looking at. All of their low end stuff goes through distributors which was implemented in the bad old days of the 90's and just sort of carried over peaking in the mid 2000's. Since the Agilent/Keysight split they seem to be pulling stuff in house little bit by little bit and their support is improving but you need to find out who your local sales manager actually is. If you are in a low volume area like Arkansas, there may only be one for the state. If you are in a busy area like California or Texas, there will probably be half a dozen or more. In my experience they are getting better with support coverage, but like all vendors will try to nickel and dime you for it. Their CEO has made some noise about being a services company for growth so it will be interesting to see where they go in that regard in the future.

On the high end technical side, they are absolutely killing it lately. They have a new out of the box modular system for quantum computing, a new 100 GHz bandwidth oscilloscope that has crazy good noise performance, and their new portable microwave analyzer is a VNA and RTSA in one that works better than many previous generation benchtop boxes but runs on a battery. Those were all released this year.

We were definitely looking for their top end systems. But you're probably right, we might have just gotten lost in some tangled chain of distributor responsibility.

I'm very relieved to hear that they're still innovating, actually. Thanks :)

Random HP praise:

I was working on a project Sunday that involved fairly precise current and voltage measurements using an HP3458A benchtop meter. I was a little careless and put about 4A through the current shunt (which is rated for only 1.25A). It immediately failed open circuit, shutting down my circuit. I finished up the work using a lesser quality meter and figured I was in for an annoying repair task, at a minimum pulling the meter out and replacing a fuse in the back or, worse, maybe having to take the cover off (and break the cal stickers).

Instead, the design is incredibly thoughtful and user-friendly, obviously designed by someone who cared to think through how the device would actually be used in the field and not just relentlessly “cost engineered”.


If I’d known, I could have replaced the fuse faster than going to get the other meter.

I've never worked at HP, but I recall this: "The day the HP Way died": https://www.netfunny.com/rhf/jokes/02/Mar/hpway.html

Heh. I worked for Compaq in Houston when HP bought Compaq. I remember people saying that the HP way was, "Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim.... " and the Compaq way was, "Ready, Fire, Aim!"

Sometime before the merger, they were both great companies that did innovative and high-quality things. It's sad they apparently went through some rough times for a while.

For those who want to relive the HP Way or learn about it for the first time, I highly recommend:

"Bill & Dave: How Hewlett and Packard Built the World's Greatest Company" by Michael S. Malone


Strikes me as heavily influenced by Deming. Was he?

Url changed from https://fs.blog/2016/05/the-hp-way-david-packard/ to a URL that appears to contain the complete text of the speech.

Following the links from that article -- Packard's "eleven simple rules for getting along with others" is a pretty good read too.


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