The crazy boss Hall of Fame

CNET's Michael Kanellos salutes a litany of zany personal behavior in Silicon Valley and beyond.

We've all had crazy bosses.

Take Fred, my first boss, for instance. It was the late 1980s and he insisted our four-person team follow the edicts laid down by Sun Tzu in The Art of War. We were to be like the wind, the mountain, the sea and the tree.

Naturally, conflicts emerged.

"I want to be the tree this week. Vinny can be the wind."

"I was the wind throughout July. Maybe Brian can double up and be a bad ocean storm."

"Can't we be Cossacks instead?"

The role playing eventually paid off in some major victories, which brings up the unanticipated side effect of nutty supervisors: they are often very effective. Thus, to be in the Hall of Fame, they can't just be crazy. Like Highlights magazine, they have to be crazy "with a purpose."

So with that in mind, here's a list of touched leaders, in no particular order, who I wish to salute for their zany personal behavior and the dreams they accomplished. A lot of these come from the hardware world, because that's where I work. But if you have suggestions for membership into this august organization, please send them in.

Credit: Naval
Historical Center
Hyman Rickover

Admiral Hyman Rickover
Rickover built the U.S. nuclear navy, but he was a stickler for time management.

Roger Gower, CEO of Micro Component Technologies, remembers his job interview with Rickover. Rickover grilled McGowan, a recent top graduate from Ole Miss, about how many dates he had a week. Five, McGowan guessed. "How long did the dates take?" Rickover asked. Three hours, he replied.

That's 15 hours a week, Rickover barked. What a waste of time. Why don't you take three women out at once and spend only five hours a week on dates? Rickover then grilled him on a bad grade in a class. Not satisfied with the answer, Rickover began to yell and throw pencils and other office products at McGowan, who beat a retreat for the door.

Outside an officer asked how the interview went. "Just listen," he replied. "That's great. You lasted longer than anyone else," the officer replied. McGowan got hired and stationed to a nuclear sub, where he discovered that Rickover rotated the bathroom reading--philosophy one day, physics the next--in the bathroom.

William Shockley
Credit: IEEE Virtual
William Shockley

William Shockley
In the late 1940s at AT&T, Shockley led the team that invented the transistor. Coaxed by then-Stanford President Fred Terman, Shockley came to California to start Shockley Semiconductor, the founding company of Silicon Valley.

He was also an egomaniac, according to The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley, a biography of Intel co-founder Noyce that was written by Leslie Berlin. Shockley recruited some of the best engineering talent to his company and systematically alienated all of them. He put his name on some of his employees' patents, submitted people to lie detector tests, and was obsessed with his place in history. He also dissuaded Noyce from pursuing further research in quantum effects, a phenomenon that later won Leo Esaki a Nobel prize.

Shockley Semiconductor faded as a Silicon Valley star, and Shockley later taught at Stanford University, gaining notoriety by proposing that some races were intellectually superior.

But he was a genius. The "Traitorous Eight" employees that Shockley scared away also went on to start Fairchild, Teledyne, Intel and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

"He was a brilliant physicist, but he had very peculiar ideas of how people work, and he had some destructive practices. I had a reasonably good relationship with Shockley because I was a chemist, and he didn't think he had to know everything I do," said Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in an interview in 2005.

Without his abrasiveness, job-hopping may never have become fashionable.

Robert Noyce
Credit: National
Science Foundation
Robert Noyce

Robert Noyce
Noyce was the flipside of Shockley. He led the Traitorous Eight, founded Intel and always remained something of a party goofball.

"He hadn't shaved; he looked like he'd been living in his suit for a week, and he was thirsty," Julius Blank, one of the eight once said in an interview about their first meeting. "There was a big goddamn bowl of martinis on the table there. Noyce picks up the goddamn bowl and starts drinking it. Then he passed out. I said to myself, 'This is going to be a whole hell of a lot of fun.'"

He also temporarily got kicked out of college, so two points for misbehavior.

Al Shugart
Al Shugart

Al Shugart
Shugart, founder of Seagate Technologies, put hard drives on the map, according to, among others, Seagate CEO Bill Watkins. But he also had novel views of corporate culture. Watkins recalls his first executive-level meeting at the company:

"The meeting lasted about four or five hours, and I have never been around so many people who just screamed and yelled at each other. Everyone was, 'F--- you, f--- you.' The sales guy would say, 'I need this' and the operations guy would say, 'Well, f--- you. I'm not doing that.' And the design guy would say, 'F---, I hate doing that.' It was six hours of 'f--- you,' Watkins recalled. And when it was over, they brought out the dog head. It was a head of a stuffed dog. They cut it off and sewed up the bottom. Then they all took a vote on who is the biggest ---hole in the meeting and they gave him the dog head award."

Henry Nicholas

Henry Nicholas
How many companies did buy during the 1990s? 117? 238? As CEO, Nicholas helped steer the company into the top ranks of semiconductor makers. During that time, he was also like something out of Grand Theft Auto: He surfed, listened to Metallica, held huge parties, skydived, and was confrontational with employees, all on three hours of sleep a night.

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