Oct 12, 2013

When 30 Was Old

I worked for a huge company when I was in college and I struggled with the predictable pace of the organization.  When I joined National Semiconductor at age 24, I had the freedom to work as hard as I could.  Soon, I was in before 7am and sometimes didn’t leave until 10pm – and then I was in for more on Saturdays.  But I was learning the ropes; paying my dues.  I wasn’t inventing an industry.
I look at photos of the “traitorous eight” or a clean-shaven Bob Widlar – maybe it’s the black and white photo or the crisp shirt and tie – but they don’t look like twenty-something year old kids.  But they were.  And they were inventing an industry.

Fairchild has been likened to a frat house with brilliant young engineers and marketers working long days and partying long nights.  They were number one in linear circuits in the mid-1960s.  The linear circuit market was almost single-handedly created Bob Widlar and Dave Talbert – an incredible duo and with almost no official sponsorship from Fairchild management.  Widlar joined Fairchild at age 26, achieved tremendous commercial success by 29, then retired at 33 with a million 1970-dollars.  He came back as a contractor for National Semiconductor because he just couldn’t not work (forgive the double-negative).  Talbert was maybe 2-3 years older than Widlar.
Dave Fullagar joined Fairchild in 1966 at age 24, the week after Widlar and Talbert quit to create what would become National Semiconductor.  Fullagar’s legendary µA741 was introduced when he was 26.  A year later he left to become the manager of linear integrated circuits at Intersil (or the company's first linear designer, conflicting references, same result).  After huge success at Intersil, he co-founded Maxim at age 39.
Jack Gifford was brought in from Fairchild sales in Los Angeles to be the first product manager for linear ICs at Fairchild to support Widlar’s products.  Jack had only just joined the company at age 24.  By age 25½ he was managing 200 people.  At age 26 he co-founded AMD with Jerry Sanders among others and later co-founded Maxim.
Jerry Sanders joined Fairchild when he was 24 years old.  He became the WW Sales Manager at Fairchild at age 31. 
“I guess what I remember the most is how young everybody was. Gordon (Moore) was 32. I think Bob Noyce and Charlie Sporck were 34. Tom Bay was around 34. This was a really, really young, young group. And the belief of everybody was there was nothing we couldn’t do. … Everybody was just full of energy. It was a 24/7 kind of environment and was growing so fast.”
Charlie Sporck joined Fairchild at age 32 as production manager.  At age 39 he became CEO of National Semiconductor.  When Sporck took over National, the man who helped orchestrate it, Peter J. Sprague, became chairman of the board – at age 27.
At National, Bob Widlar hired Bob Dobkin, then only 25 years old.  Dobkin rose to the top of the engineering ranks at National then co-founded Linear Technology at age 37.
Meanwhile back at Fairchild, Wilf Corrigan was running what was left of Fairchild.  Wilf reflected on the time when he almost joined Fairchild the first time.  
“Charlie tried to hire me to run the materials department at Fairchild in ’62. Now, if you figure this out, I was 23 at the time. Of course, Charlie seemed so terribly old to me at the time. I mean he was 32 with a big cigar. And so I was quite enthused about it. So I went back to Phoenix (Motorola) and I talked to Les Hogan and he said, “Well, why would you want to go do this?” And I said, “Well, I’ll have profit and loss responsibility.” I didn’t know what that meant but it sounded pretty good. So Les said, “Well, I’m making a change in the transistor department, and why don’t you stay and you can have profit and loss responsibility and run Silicon Transistors?” So as a 23- year-old that sounded like a pretty good idea. Leo Dwork, who’s my new boss said, “Can I do anything to help you on this thing?” And I said, “Yes, could you show me how to use a 576 curve tracer?” So I’m supposed to be running this operation and he has to show me how to use the curve tracer.”
Wilf eventually left Fairchild and started LSI Logic.
It’s tempting to think that Fairchild and this group of people were unique.  But there’s a long history of it in Silicon Valley and it continues on today.
Hewlett and Packard were 27 and 26 years old when they started H-P, much like the founders of Yahoo, Google, Facebook and YouTube were kids.
There are some “kids” working in our group at work.  I try to give them all they can handle and let them do as much as they are capable.  I just want to clear away any roadblocks and get out of their way.  I had a really young boss early on at National and he used to say, “fan the flames, man, fan the flames!”  Who knows, they might invent an industry.  Fan the flames.

“They Would Be Gods”, Upside Magazine, October 2001
Silicon Genesis, Stanford University, Interview with Jack Gifford
Silicon Genesis, Stanford University, Interview with Jerry Sanders
Silicon Genesis, Stanford University, Interview with Charlie Sporck
Fairchild Oral History Panel: “The Legacy of Fairchild” (Wilf Corrigan, Gordon Moore, Jerry Sanders, Floyd Kvamme), Computer History Museum, Oct. 5, 2007
“The History of Semiconductor Engineering” Bo Lojek

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