Thursday, January 05, 2006

Robert De Niro, a man who means what he says

“Are you talkin’ to me”? is one of the most famous lines of Hollywood! It is none other than the great Robert De Niro, who utters them in the movie “Taxi” (?? Need to check the facts). I have been a huge fan of De Niro for a long time. He can be funny, dangerous or down right mean! I saw him for so many years on the celluloid hat I never thought that I would ever meet him in person.

Some time in 1995. I was at Intel, working on a strategy for introducing technology in media companies. We were working with a lot of actors, directors, producers to see how we can use the power of the new medium called Internet in entertainment. Mind you! This is way before Internet was popular. DVD technology was just coming in & the entertainment industry was very reluctant to adopt this new technology because of the ease with which one could copy information from this digital format. It is natural for the entertainment industry to doubt any new technology that makes its way into general public. They fought the talking movies, they fought the TV, they fought the VCR and now they are fighting the Internet & other new technologies. A small group of us at Intel were working on this plan to establish good relationship with media companies so that we could exchange ideas more freely and work on blending the best of the two disciplines. Silicon Valley and Hollywood are worlds apart in every way possible. SV crowd thinks that HW crowd is full of air & HW crowd thinks that SV has no sense of personal relationships & sense of aesthetics. One look at SV cubicles, taste in clothing and general lack of interest in the fine arts can support the HW perception. Also, one look at the valet parked cars costing six figures, personal tours on private jets, vacations in vineyards also attest to the flamboyant life style sported by HW that is abhorred in the corridors of the traditional SV industry. You have to remember that this is early 1995 & the fast paced life style of the Dot bombers has not come and gone yet! Both parties were right in their criticism but neither one of them seen the positive side of the possible union. The power of the new medium fostered in the corridors of SV merged with the creative capabilities gracing the studios of HW had the capability to witness the birth of a powerful new form of entertainment. We prepared a list of creative people that we could contact and talk to them about the possibility of doing some projects together. We also had a technology lab at Creative Artists Agency (one of the top talent agencies in Hollywood) so that artists could play with technology and get familiar with its usage.

One day, my boss called and told me that we were going to be visited by Robert De Niro in a week’s time. He might have as well said that we were going to be visited by God!! It was one of those tough situations. He was going to visit us as a possible business associate. So, I could not quite drool over like a teenage girl (at least not in front of him). Also, his visit was requested to be kept a secret because we did not want to attract a huge crowd. So, you can imagine my plight! I could not share my excitement with anyone .. especially not in front of him. Finally the day arrived. Robert De Niro himself came to visit us with his colleagues. We went through the usual business discussions. Fortunately for me, the only thing that can make me forget that I am sitting in front of my idols is be totally engrossed with the mission at hand. Once I start talking about technology & how it can be applied to various aspects of life, the personalities almost blur in front of my face. So, we got through the meeting without making a fool out of myself. After the meeting, we took them to see Intel museum, which goes through the history of Intel, the infrastructure of the fabrication labs, applications of technology etc., I love that museum and was only too happy to talk to them about the various aspects of technology. At one point, I was aware that only De Niro & I were talking to each other & everyone else had left to continue the business discussions. He was so curious about the details of the technology that I felt as though I finally found someone who was equally interested in the application of technology as I was fascinated. After we finished the meeting, he asked me if I would mind talking to his script writer more about technology. He said that he could ask his writer to call me and visit me so that he can document some of the things that I was talking about. I told him that I would be delighted to host his writer but I had my doubts. In Hollywood, there is a term called “Let’s do lunch”, which means pretty much “Good Bye”. I always take a comment made by anyone from Hollywood with a grain of salt. But, true to his word, De Niro’s writer called me a few days later, visited me, and collected a lot of information.
This encounter made me understand why De Niro is a great actor and how he survives being on screen year after year. It is because nothing is trivial for him and because he is an eternal student. When he wants to learn something, he will employ all his resources to really gather the data. That is why, whether he plays the member of mafia or the suspicious father putting his so in law thought hell or a psychopathic killer, he is equally believable. It is the home work that he continues to put in, that makes him a star in my eyes!

Gordon Moore, The Man Who Laid the Law

“Moore’s Law” is synonymous with semi conductors.

I worked as a Technical Assistant for Ron Whittier, who was a Senior VP at Intel 1996-1999. As a part of my job, I worked with Ron to write his speeches and create the best examples that demonstrate the key points. In 1997, Gordon Moore was invited to go to Vienna to give a speech at a conference. I was asked to help him with the speech. I was so thrilled to get this opportunity to work with him that I accepted it despite a heavy work load. I started working with Gordon on developing a speech, identifying demos, making it all work. Those sessions that I had brainstorming the flow of the speech & contents were absolutely priceless. I had the opportunity to observe at close quarters, how his mind works & how sharp his observations would be. He always came prepared for the sessions, he knew what he wanted & he took my inputs graciously. All the calculations that I did using my computer, he would do them by hand and at times, I would be wrong but he wasn’t. He was never rude with me when I made a mistake but I have been told that he has mellowed out! Traditionally, Gordon used to land up to do his speeches with 35mm slides & he did not particularly care for a large entourage to assist him in his speeches. This meant that his speeches had no demonstrations of nay technology, no guest speakers .. basically no pizzazz! The audience often came to listen to the words of the genius and talking about his law was enough for them to consider their evening well spent. In this speech, I was determined to do something different. I really wanted to incorporate some really cool demonstrations to show applications of computing technology. The plan was to connect by video conference to the fabrication lab that we had back in San Jose and show the audience a live demonstration of the cross section of the micro processor that was being manufactured, to showcase how PC technology was used in a variety of industries like Fashion, Design automation etc., I had a feeling that Gordon was patiently putting up with all this but I really wanted to make sure that all this worked without a glitch.

One of the main aspects of working at Intel is that you learn to Prepare, Prepare and then prepare again. No incident is left to chance and all bases are expected to be completely covered. So, to support this speech, I landed in Vienna with my crew two days ahead of time. On the day before the speech, I set up the demos on stage, conducted a video conference with Sa Jose to make sure that the technology worked. Gordon landed up that morning. We let him unpack & explore the area while we went through the mock speech to make sure that the flow was flawless. Organizing a speech is like directing a play. We had a 45 minute presentation, which included one demo with the crew in San Jose, one with me on stage and another one with a third person demonstrating speech technology. We have 30 slides of power point presentation interspersed with 3 demos. We have to rehearse the entrances & exits and the pacing of the slides to make sure that we stay on time. It is one of those jobs where, if everything works well, nobody notices it & if it does not work, the whole world notices it. And this is the author of Moore’s law .. we just could not afford to have anything go wrong. The plan was that we would rehearse the whole day, make sure that everything worked & then rehearse with Gordon at 9.30pm.

As planned, Gordon landed in Vienna around 10am, and decided to go for a walk. If Gordon allowed, the company would have provided a body guard for him but it was beyond imagination for Gordon to TROUBLE someone to accompany him on his trip. He showed up by himself, and told us that he needed to stretch his legs & go for a walk. I was a little concerned. What if some bozo, who knew about how famous Gordon was .. kidnapped him? I meekly asked Gordon if any of us could accompany him (fully confident that any of us women would fight off any couth that dares to lay hands on Gordon) but he firmly denied. He said that he could not inconvenience any of us .. and walked off with a map of Venice in his hands. In the evening, I attended a welcome reception for him and it was quite amazing to what a celebrity he was! Somehow, till that moment, I have not realized how famous he really was. We often tend to take for granted what exists right under our nose. I am so used to seeing him get his lunch in the cafeteria that I was quite amazed to see people of all nationalities surround him, asking him if they could take a photograph with him. After the reception, we walked back to the hotel. On the way back, we stopped at a small café and had dinner. To this day, I do not remember the contents of our conversation. We had the most regular conversation as though we were friends. All I remember is that as we were talking about the evolution of the PCs, I asked him if he EVER thought PC would become as successful as they did, he chuckled and said something that closely resembled “not quite”. We walked back to the rehearsal hall, where I made him go through the entire speech twice just to make sure that he remembered the sequence of the demos. As we finished rehearsing close to midnight, he said “My God! I had no idea that these speeches took so much work. I think that I will go back to my 35mm slides!” The next day, he did a great talk, all the demos went off without a flaw and we were done with the speech. I started breathing easy because the toughest part of the journey was over (so I thought!). Afterwards, there was a Press conference & Gordon had to answer a few questions over the next hour, and then lunch & off we head back home! I was looking forward to the 5pm date that I had with Klimt at the art gallery!! I will finally get a chance to see the original of one of my most favorite paintings “Kiss” at the gallery! Most of our demos were about the latest chip being released by Intel & we were talking about all the software that was available that was optimized for the chip & the entire campaign was that everyone needs to buy the latest processor based technology to be able to use latest software. We were really fighting off the myth that faster PCs are only for those so play games on PC. That is why I chose a variety of applications used by business people and others to show that the applications were beyond games. As expected, most of the questions were the usual technology stuff that Gordon could answer in his sleep & I decided to take a short break to go out of the room & get a glass of water. Within 5 mts, I was back & I saw that one of the Intel employees who was traveling with me looked totally pale. She motioned me out of the room again & said “Disaster! One of the press people asked what Gordon used at home and he said that he used an old Pentium® processor based computer. When they further asked him as to why he does not use the latest processor, he said that he did not need to use it because he checks only email and because he does not play games on the PC. I had to shut my open mouth before any imaginary flies started getting into it .. because I knew that this would be a PR nightmare. I was so concerned about the speech going well that it did not occur to me that Press interview is where the bomb would fall! There was nothing we could do except pray that the Press would somehow forget the comments. Of course! They did not forget. The next day, some of the papers were plastered with his comments. After the interview, I asked Gordon why he said what he did subtly hinting that it was the wrong answer. He just looked at me straight in the eye & simply said “Because it was the truth. He asked me what I had at home & I told him the truth.” On one hand, I was so mad at him for saying something that was a PR disaster; On the other hand, I was moved by his adherence to truth. In the midst of all the PR frenzy that surrounds us, it was so refreshing to hear someone say the truth, without paying attention to a PR savvy answer.

When we got back home, the news got there before our arrival & a “roast” was awaiting Gordon in the next executive staff meeting. I understand that everyone had fun at the expense of Gordon & they did the only thing they could to make sure that Gordon told the truth – they shipped a brand new PC filled with all the latest technology to his home so that he could continue telling the truth.

Clarence Chandran

Born in India, studied in England, worked in Canada, rose to be the COO of Nortel Networks. We met October 2000 and when CEO of Nortel, Joe Roth, announced his intention to retire in Summer ’01, I was sure that Clarence was THE man in running to be the next CEO of Nortel. Clarence and I met through work but our mutual love of Shakespeare & Tagore drew us together as friends. Personal friendship grew to being family friends & my husband & I began to enjoy our conversations / visits with Clarence & his wife. Clarence’s job took him all around the world, as he oversaw the operations for the than $28+B company. Company jet flew him around the world; limos whisked him away to his the pre planned destinations the moment he stepped foot on land from the plane; his movements were planned to the minute with even his sleep scheduled in. He dined with dignitaries & industry stalwarts; made multi million dollar decisions everyday and managed almost 50,000 people at Nortel. Despite all the glitter that surrounded him, I always noticed an innate calmness within him. It was as though he is enjoyed all the pleasures without being attached to them, making tough decisions without being ruthless, and being able to have conversations with people at every level.

We often talked about how difficult it is to balance professional and personal lives. When I met Clarence, I was in the process of changing careers. I left a corporation where I worked for 12 years & was having a tough time deciding what to do next. Clarence was my sounding board. I talked to him about what I perceived to be the most difficult time of my career. We kept in touch and agreed to visit each other if we were ever traveling in the neighborhood. In July, my husband Rajat & I decided to go away for a weekend to race cars in South Carolina. We had a great time driving fast cars at top speeds, learning how to control skidding and spinning on simulated ice & racing against one another to beat the clock going around obstacles. It was an exhaustive yet exhilarating weekend. After being done with the racing, we decided to visit Clarence at his home.

At that time, Clarence was on a medical leave of absence. He was so busy traveling around the world that he was not taking care of his health. His doctor ordered him 6 months of complete rest or the alternative was bidding permanent farewell to the loved ones quite soon. So, he decided to take the time off & was on his way back to recovery. He said that he saw his doctor on Friday & that he was getting better. So, we decided to celebrate his road to recovery. We all went for a drive and came back home for a drink. We spent most of the evening talking about Rajat & me .. our careers, decisions, about life in general. We all went out for a long meal with excellent wine and cozy conversation. We talked about the importance of family, the need to balance work and home and more than anything, the wonder of spending evenings like this at home! The evening would have been one of the many that we spent together had it not been for what happened the next day. We read in the newspaper that Clarence has resigned from Nortel! The man who I thought was going to be the soon to be CEO of Nortel quit & he did not even give a hint of his decision the night before during our conversation. We were shocked to say the least. He did not exhibit an ounce of remorse the evening before the announcement of the most difficult decisions of his life. Imagine walking away from what you worked for 25+ years, when you are so close to achieving what you always wanted, to decide to take a break to take care of your health, to quit the jet set life with a presence in corner of the world, ….. Could I have entertained guests and enjoyed the evening, if such a news was breaking the following day? That evening that we spent together says more about Clarence than all the articles I could read about him

I think of him as a person who loves life without being attached to it, who sits in the lap of luxury without being a slave to it. On top of it, he is a gentleman tool! As I was reading the news paper, the phone rang & it was Clarence! He called us to explain that when he saw the doctor the day before we arrived, the decision has been handed to him that his body was not healing as fast & that he needed to take time off to completely heal. He could not keep the company waiting. So, he decided to let go of his career dream to take care of himself to be a husband, father & a son. He neither spoke of it as a sacrifice nor painted himself as a martyr. It was simply a choice. He wanted us to know that he could not tell us before it was public. While Rajat was speaking to him, I ran up to get the “Gitanjali” by Tagore to read a poem to him. I opened the book to verse (x). As I opened it, I heard him say that he wanted to read a poem to us & I could not believe my ears, as he started to read verse (x) from Gitanjali. It was as though he was reading from the pages that were right in front of my eyes. I was crying the entire time he was reading the poem. It was as though our bond was changed from a career counsel to embracing life itself. We talked for a long time about the importance of family over career. I asked him how he felt about making such a tough decision. He said that if he took care of himself and continued living, he could reinvent himself again. But if he ignored the needs of his body, there would not be anything left to continue. He took on this .. not as retirement .. but as a new phase of life; a second honeymoon with his wife, a long holiday with his sons and a time where he can learn a whole new area of expertise. We have become even better friends over the years and he now calls me his long lost sister. All I know that no matter what he plans to do, he will do it with the same enthusiasm yet detached determination that he perfects.

Andy Grove, the Person Inside

Andy Grove: Born Andras Grof in Budapest, Hungary in 1936, came close to being deaf in childhood after a bout with scarlet fever, escaped from Hungary at the age of 20, got under grad degree from at age 24, PhD from University of California at Berkeley at age 27, became founding member of Intel at the age of 32, President at age 43, CEO at 51, retiring at age 62, 30 years after starting the company. In his 10 years as CEO, Intel had annual return to investors of 44%. In 1997, on the 30th anniversary of the birth of the transistor, he was recognized as the “Time Man of the Year”. On the personal front, he survived the Nazi occupation in World War II and the Russian invasion escaping to U.S in 1956, he narrowly escaped being deaf after a bout with scarlet fever, he beat prostate cancer at the age of 61(1997). “Enigmatic”, “Elusive” “Unforgiving SOB” are three adjectives used for Andy in the same article (The Enigma of Andy Grove by Michael Malone, Sept 15, 1996).

That is what you would find if you did a “search” on Andy Grove on the Internet. But, what about Andy Grove, the man? What is it that makes him so successful? What are the little things that endear him to those who work with him? Anyone who has worked with him will tell you that he is demanding¾a perfectionist to the core¾and difficult to work with. But, they will also tell you that there is something about him that brings out the best in them. Even though I never worked for him directly, I had the opportunity to work on projects for him, attend a few strategic meetings, share the table at social occasions, exchange jokes, and watch him make billion-dollar decisions. I think that he is obsessively organized, incredibly direct and amazingly personable. I’ve had some great opportunities to learn from him. Here is one event that is my most favorite incidents.

Year - 1997. Event - E3, the largest consumer electronics show in the U.S; Highlight ¾keynote speech by Andy Grove, CEO of Intel Corporation.
The show opened with a dance sequence by the Intel bunny people. These were the advertising icons of Intel. As it was in the ads, the dancers swung to music and when it stopped, everyone expected Andy to walk up on to the dais from behind the curtains. Instead, one of the dancers stepped forward, removed the facemask, and ….. lo and behold! It was Andy Grove. The press and the crowd went wild! Who could have believed that the CEO of the largest semiconductor company in the world, a person who without question is a management guru and an industry icon, would swing his hips along with dancers from Broadway! And mind you, the dance steps were quite complicated, but he held his own.

This particular incident says it all about Andy. He is fun, takes great risks and is always prepared¾no one could have guessed that he was not one of the dancers till he took the mask away. I had the privilege of watching him rehearse for this event. Perhaps the best quality of Andy is the time he puts into preparing for anything.

Andy arrived at the venue a day before the speech. The stage was set as a living room. His speech covered various applications of PCs through half a dozen products. After rehearsing his speech, checking all the demos he went on for his dance rehearsal. They were professional dancers who put together the dance sequence. I was one of the three people in the auditorium who watched him rehearse. Truth to be told, dancing is not Andy’s forte! He loves to dance and for most of the company events he dances with his colleagues, friends and family and generally has fun. Having fun, however, does not equate having a talent for it. With that said, imagine him rehearsing for this complex dance routine. Now, if you have ever performed a group dance, you will know that a tremendous amount of coordination is required among the dancers. You cannot afford to have one dancer stick out like a sore thumb. To be honest, when they started the rehearsal, I had to really try hard not to burst out laughing. Andy was so out of synch that it was too funny. But as I continued to watch the rehearsal, I was filled with admiration for this man who was as focused about learning these steps as he was about reviewing a business plan. He was determined to get the steps right. His coach asked him if they should make his steps easier so that it would be easier for him but he refused. He wanted to learn it like anyone else. By the time I saw him on stage the next day, the audience outburst was evidence that he was not out of step even once.

This incident taught me a lot about Andy and his perseverance, but more than that it taught me the importance of preparation. When you have taken something on, no matter how trivial it may be, it requires the same amount of focus and dedication as the most important task of the day. I can never forget the look of concentration on his face, his obliviousness to our giggles as he practiced his steps. What was even more appealing to me was his willingness to play along and do “fun” things despite being a management guru. I somehow can’t imagine too many people at his level getting away with it. It is this ability he has of being a “child” in learning something new and being an “adult” to implement it with responsibility, is what I found to be the most valuable lesson.

I always feel like Ekalavya with Andy because I learnt so much, not by working for him but by watching him. Even today, when I am solving a problem, I ask myself “How would Andy have dealt with it?” The one thing I miss about not being at Intel is bumping into him at the cafeteria. He was and always will be my Dronacharya. Thankfully, he is not the type who would ask for my right thumb!!

In Process

One of the most difficult questions for me to answer is the enquiry - "What do you see yourself as in five or ten years?" All I can say is "Breathing". I am not one of those who have an ambition and a career path. I do things that I love and try to make a living out of it. In my 12 years at Intel, I had over half a dozen distinctly different jobs learning and positioning completely new technologies. I worked in for-profit, non-profit, Venture Capital ...even as an Avon lady. The only common denominator through all my jobs is my love for people. I loved meeting interesting people and working on unique ideas - not the best strategy to make a lot of money but a definite formula for having fun while working. Throughout the years, I met some amazing people and had the opportunity to talk to them - what I call interviewing them. Some interviews / observations are a result of working together for years and some are summary of one lengthy conversation. If there is one thing that I found is my true calling is my ability to talk to people, to interview them and understand them in a new light. These articles are meant to give an insight into the person behind the position that touched my heart.

Here are the people I interviewed / observed so far (In alphabetical order of the last name - just so that you don't think that I am writing them in some sort of personal preference!). Over time, I want to post my interactions with these people in this section. So, here is the list

- Shabana Azmi, Actress and activist from India
- Balasubramaniam, Artist, India
- Prakash Bhalerao, Venture Capitalist, USA
- Ela Ben Bhatt, Social activist and founder of SEWA
- Clarence Chandran, Former COO of Nortel Networks, USA
- William Dalrymple, Author, UK
- Gurcharan Das, Economist and Author, India
- Robert De Niro, Actor, USA
- Chitra Divakaruni, Author, USA
- Kamran and Zohre Elahian, Citizens of the world
- Andy Grove, Former CEO of Intel, USA
- Kamal Haasan, Actor, India
- Kamala Harris, San Francisco District Attorney
- Raghava KK, Artist, India
- Lata Krishnan, Entrepreneur, USA
- Thomas Middelhoff, Former CEO of Bertelsmann AG
- Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, Author, India
- Lakshmi Shankar, Musician
- Tanushree Shankar, Dancer, India
- Shashi Tharoor, United Nations
- T.Vaikuntham, Artist, India