Feb 27, 2015

The Heart of the Matter

Sometimes you get off track temporarily, and sometimes you change course completely. I have many interests and Analog Footsteps is only one of them. I’ve been off track lately. Cycling is another interest and usually there is almost no crossover between the two. Cycling picked up for me in the fall and consumed a bit more of my free time. So did another chip veteran’s story. If I were writing “Digital Footsteps” then the two tracks would have been aligned perfectly.

A friend sent me a link to a story about an executive from Intel who had a stroke. His recovery was amazing, given the severity of the stroke, and now he’s planning to ride his bicycle across the country to raise awareness for the American Heart Association. So I began to research the story of Sean Maloney and it fueled my own bike riding. Although he received the Lee De Forest Award from the Radio Club of America (for WiMAX), Sean was not an analog circuit engineer. Sean’s background is in software and microprocessors – although he does concede that analog engineers are more and more important. Accordingly, he wouldn’t normally be of interest for this blog but portions of his story are closer to my own than many of the others that were recounted in the cloud-space occupied by Analog Footsteps.

Born on July 5th, 1956, Sean Maloney grew up the Lewisham district of South East London. It was a rough place to be a kid. He was the youngest of six, the grandson of a dock worker, and got kicked out of school at age 15. In the 1970s, he sold left-wing newspapers outside the docks in London for the Socialist Labor League, a group pitched against the neo-Nazi movement. Sean organized anti-government demonstrations and used his passion to recruited new members while developing his charismatic speaking style. “That boy has a skill,” his father told Sean’s mother once, “He’ll do something great with it or something terrible. Either way, he’ll inspire people.”

Sean attended Thames Polytechnic in London – formerly Woolwich Polytechnic prior to 1970 (and now the University of Greenwich since 1992). However, he didn't finish his degree. Instead, he became interested in programming and discovered an enthusiasm for computing. He worked briefly at Barclays writing mainframe software, and then joined Intel in the UK office. “I joined Intel because of the microprocessor. I believed, like many people, that the microprocessor was going to change the world.” He said, “I came to Intel for a pay cut. I was in software, and deliberately came to Intel because I believed the microprocessor was it.” “If not the 386, then the 486 ...eventually they would rule the world.” He was right.

“I started out as a field applications engineer with responsibility for LAN technology,” said Sean. And constantly promoting Intel, he added “we created the first LAN networks. Later on, we built Wi-Fi.” Sean rose through the ranks; applications engineering manager, then country manager and then director of marketing for Intel Europe. In less than 10 years, he had the unique good fortune to be hand-picked by Andy Grove to be his technical assistant. It wasn’t luck, of course, he relentlessly pursued Grove for the position. Grove needed someone with knowledge of the Internet, network bandwidth and communications. But Sean also brought a gritty determination and work ethic, a visionary quality and was a truly gifted, passionate, inspiring speaker.

He said Grove was the first boss who totally knew what he was doing. “Some days, he would really piss me off because he would say to me, ‘It’s not good enough. It’s not good enough.’ And then, late at night, he would call me at home and he’d say, ‘I know I went too far.’” He said Grove kept the pace red hot. “He’s very kind as well. He didn't come across as being kind at work, but he was really kind.”

Sean rose quickly to EVP of Intel Communications Group, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, and co-GM of the Architecture Group. Eventually, Sean was being touted as next in line to be CEO. Along with a punishing work schedule and global travel, Sean was an avid sculler. (“Rowing” is a generic term, I've learned. Athletes with two oars – one in each hand – are scullers. Athletes with only one oar are sweep rowers.) During the Olympics in 2008, while in Beijing on business, he managed to get a boat and permission to scull down the Olympic course at Shunyi. He still recalls the awesome feeling of rowing down the lanes where the world’s best would compete a few days later.
Sean Maloney at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park in Beijing

Then he had a stroke.

On February 18th, 2010, his youngest daughter, Catherine, – a premature baby who was still on a respirator – almost died. Sean was away on business and chartered a private plane to fly home to be at Catherine’s side.

By Sunday, Catherine’s condition had stabilized and that afternoon he felt normal enough to run the Stanford Dish, a hilly loop near Stanford University. He ran with his son George, competitive as usual.

Around 4 o’clock, he had an awful headache and felt “really weird,” he told George. “I went up and sat on my bed,” he said, “and the stroke happened.” His carotid artery seized up and – bam!

Sean’s stroke resulted from a clot in his left carotid artery, the main supplier of blood to the brain’s left hemisphere. The left hemisphere controls movement in the right side of the body and, for most people, speech as well. So he couldn't talk. The doctors didn't know whether he would ever walk or talk again.

During his first week in Stanford Hospital, he was frustrated, angry and impatient. “By Wednesday or Thursday, I was thinking, ‘How can I come back?’” he recalls, adding, “I had to get back.” A few days after the stroke, the right side of his body came back to life. One of the first words he was able to croak out was “now!” Ten days later he was heading home to Palo Alto. Margaret remembers driving Sean home as he excitedly pointed and grunted directions: “Uhhh … Uhhh … Uhhh!” He was taking her to the rowing club. Margaret recalled “With his left arm, he lifted the boat. He uncovered it, washed it off, and put the cover back on.”

The next morning Sean appeared, dressed in his rowing clothes and pointing toward the car. Margaret called Jean-Pierre van Tiel, Sean’s rowing buddy from Intel. Sean and J.P. took out a double scull. In the weeks that followed, he started rowing alone, at first in circles (“I nearly cried,” he says) but straighter and straighter each time.

Learning to speak has been his toughest challenge. The stroke destroyed a walnut-size section of his brain that produces language, so he had to learn to speak from the right side of his brain. To help him relearn the “flow and melody of speech,” speech pathologist Lisa Levine Sporer says they read poetry  Keats, Byron and Tennyson, his mother’s favorite  standing up, because talking to 1,000 people is Sean’s natural way of speaking.

Once a month the doorbell would ring and Margaret would open the door to find Steve Jobs asking whether Sean could come out and, well, play. “Like this nice, giant adult kid,” Margaret recalls. They occasionally walked and biked around the neighborhood together.

On Jan. 3rd, 10 months after suffering his stroke, Sean Maloney returned to Intel.

Determined to prove his worth, he led the company’s business in China, but he got passed over for the CEO position and decided to retire and focus on preventing strokes in others. He became chairman of the American Heart Association’s Silicon Valley Chapter. The viral success of the Ice Bucket Challenge for the ALS Foundation gave him the idea for the “Heart Across America” bike ride. He will ride his bike from Palo Alto to New York City to raise money and awareness about stroke and heart-attack prevention. He will launch his ride on March 22nd. It will be “the second-hardest thing I've ever done.”

And he’s recruiting friends – execs at companies such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Qualcomm, Dell and Google – to ride at least part of the 5,000-mile route with him through San Diego, Dallas, Chicago and a dozen other cities, where the American Heart Association will host events. He’s creating a movement and reaching out to everyday cyclists like me to join him for a day or even a few hours.

This is not a complete course change for me, however, just a little shift. I’ll get back on track with more analog stories. But for now, I’m riding for Sean. I donated. I tell people about arterial ultrasound scans. I had the scan, myself (clean). I rode over 1,400 miles in January as a fundraiser, with friends and coworkers pledging a penny or a dime per mile. And I’ll ride a few days with Sean in California and a few more days in Mississippi. If you are a circuit cyclist, consider riding with us (www.heartacrossamerica.org). If you are feeling charitable, donate (heartacrossamerica.kintera.org/todd_nelson). If you have the classic profile of an analog guru, please get the scan. If you are an endurance athlete and feel immortal, get the scan anyway.
Todd Nelson (me) and Sean Maloney after a bike ride

I've spent some time with Sean. He’s kind and appreciative but clearly very determined and mildly impatient. You can’t help but be inspired. Sometimes I forget he had a stroke and see him as a cyclist in training for a long ride. Knowing how his brain was affected by the stroke, it’s amazing he can ride at all. But he’s so eminently likeable; you just want to join him.

“I am incredibly grateful for my life” says Sean. While he appreciates his family more than ever, he has the same inspiring grit and the same drive that got him this far. “Never give up,” he says. “No matter what anyone says, you can attain your goals if you never give up.”

Sean Maloney is back.


“Intel's Sean Maloney: The man who couldn't speak” By Patricia Sellers, September 9, 2011, http://fortune.com/2011/09/09/intels-sean-maloney-the-man-who-couldnt-speak/ This article is from the September 26, 2011 issue of Fortune.

“Sean Maloney Looks Back” December 26, 2012 (https://www.intelfreepress.com/news/sean-maloney-looks-back/3627/)

“Andy Grove: How to Be a Mentor” By Andy Grove, September 22, 2011 (http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/magazine/andy-grove-how-to-be-a-mentor-09222011.html )

“Intel’s executive vice-president Sean Maloney on the future of Culv and how he’s solving a chicken-and-egg problem with cheap chips” Jack Schofield, Wednesday 10 June 2009 (HTTP://WWW.THEGUARDIAN.COM/TECHNOLOGY/2009/JUN/11/INTEL-CULV-SEAN-MALONEY )

Sean Maloney’s Rowing Recovery” Published by David Churbuck

“Back in the running and rowing” By Kathrin Hille, February 26, 2012, The Financial Times LTD (London) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/8a0ddbb8-5d6b-11e1-889d-00144feabdc0.html


  1. WOW! Todd, I can see you did some great research and interviewing. Great read. I really enjoyed it and am more inspired than ever!

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