The crazy boss Hall of Fame

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

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
7 min read
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 Broadcom 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.

"At the company's annual sales conference a few years ago, he ordered attendees to take a detailed quiz about Broadcom chip designs," reported The Wall Street Journal.

"The worst performers were summoned onstage, Mr. Nicholas says, so he could identify them by name and penalize them by having them drink shots of hard liquor," the Journal article continues. "'I called it the sales week from hell,' he recalls with a chuckle.'"

When Nicholas stepped down as CEO in 2003, he said it was to spend more time with his family. For once, the answer seemed believable. (He is now engaged in a divorce.)

Gary Kildall
Credit: University of
Gary Kildall

Gary Kildall
Kildall, founder of Digital Research (once called Intergalactic Digital Research), had the best operating system in computerdom in the early 1980s. IBM wanted to license it for the first IBM PC. Kildall missed the first part of a crucial meeting and dithered about a nondisclosure agreement. By contrast, the Microsoft guys showed up in suits and gladly signed. IBM even granted them an option to license DOS, an operating system they actually didn't own yet, to other PC makers.

Sometimes, that free-wheeling Silicon Valley culture bit just doesn't pay off.

Jen-Hsun Huang

Jen-Hsun Huang
If there's one thing competitors, allies and others who have dealt with the CEO of graphics chip maker Nvidia agree on, it's that Jen-Hsun certainly has a way with swear words. And every time it's a novel concatenation of body parts.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs

"Microsoft is going to (&#$# you. Do you want to *&^&*# Microsoft's @$%#," is how George Haber, founder of Gigapixel (and the most successful DJ in Ceausescu-era Romania), describes one of his conversations with Huang. Gigapixel was going up against Nvidia for the graphics contract on the first Xbox. Nvidia won. Haber also added that the two are friends.

Steve Jobs
Start the carping now. Yes, Jobs has rescued Apple from oblivion and made it a standard bearer in design and consumer electronics. But try being a personal assistant for him. You'll end up begging restaurants to craft vegan to-go meals for his highness, according to one former assistant. Who said only meat eaters are aggressive.

Craig Benson
Credit: Wikipedia
Craig Benson

Craig Benson
If you were a reporter in the early to mid-1990s, the Cabletron Systems founder was tough to forget. He admittedly built a corporate culture based around confrontation and aggressiveness. People who showed up late to meetings got locked out of the room. Then there were those basketball stories.

"A top executive at his company donned combat fatigues and thrust knives into basketballs to demonstrate the damage he intended to wreak on competitors," wrote Alexandra Starr in the Atlantic.

A famous VC?

The sporting goods stabbings, however, failed to scare off Cisco Systems. Eventually, Cabletron got broken up into parts. In 2002, Benson got elected as governor of New Hampshire, where he insisted on conducting meetings while standing up. He didn't win re-election.

A famous venture capitalist
I haven't confirmed this, but apparently he spends several thousand a month to get someone to take care of his house plants. "He doesn't hear 'no' much," said one person. But he's been behind some of tech's biggest successors.

unnamed investment banker
Unnamed investment

An unnamed investment banker
"We're on the verge of something big," he told me in a 1996 interview. "We're calling it 'The Webvolution.'"

"Really," I replied.

The bank broke up and the term never took hold, but they orchestrated some of the biggest deals in the Internet era.