Shane Robison: Managing All the Geeks

During his long career as a technologist, Shane Robison worked at Apple, AT&T Labs and Compaq. Now, as the chief technology and strategy officer at Hewlett-Packard, he oversees the computer giant's small army of big thinkers. In the latest in his series of interviews as part of NEWSWEEK's partnership with the Kaplan University M.B.A. program, NEWSWEEK Chairman Richard M. Smith spoke with Robison about the special challenges of managing a high-tech work force. Edited excerpts:

Smith: You worked for years in computer science before making the leap into management. Was that a tough decision?
Robison:
It was a hard personal decision … in management, you do lose some of your edge in terms of being able to actually do technical work. As an engineer, your real mission is to [create] cool things, have people use them and see them successful in the marketplace. Management contributes, but in a different way.

What's been the biggest challenge?
Most good engineers are a little introverted and would prefer to be left alone with their computer screens … [As a manager] you have to care about communication. Communication is what keeps organizations moving forward.

How do you identify when someone is ready to move from the lab to a management role?
It's less often my choice and more often their choice. I certainly don't believe you should force good technical people into management roles just because they're a technical leader—and in fact, one of the things we've done since I've been at HP is to create a dual-path ladder for technical people, all the way up to VP with the same sorts of benefits and compensation. That lets people advance their careers without going into management, which many of them don't want to do.

Why is it so hard for managers to go back into the lab?
Technology is moving so fast that unless you are active every day, it's very difficult to keep up your edge, to keep up with the current tools and issues. When I was a programmer, we used a very different set of software development tools—that's changed every couple of years for the last 20 years. New tools, new technologies, different approaches—you just can't keep up to speed on all that stuff. If you're going to manage technical groups, you need to have a good technical background and basic understanding of how things work, but you probably won't be on the edge of all of the nuances.

You're in charge of a $3.6 billion research-and-development budget. How do you balance projects with a short-term payoff versus the kind of visionary science that might transform HP in five or 10 years?
Well I don't personally make all those decisions—most of them are made in the business groups. We help them with tools and modeling to give them data to make good decisions. It's an analytical process combined with some intuition, and a forward-looking belief about where the market is going. The hardest part is shifting that investment over time, because what naturally happens in most engineering organizations is you work on a project you really care about too long and you tend to over-invest, which means you're starving the new [projects] of capital.

You've spoken about wanting HP to place fewer, bigger bets. That means saying "no" to a lot of projects. How do you do that and still keep your teams engaged?
It's a performance culture. People need to be in an environment where it's a little bit competitive. Resources are something you have to compete for. If people have to go through the process of selling their idea internally, that's a very healthy checkpoint and we do it all the time. In the labs now, when people come forth with proposals, it's a zero-sum game. We have a finite amount of money that we spend on research. The ultimate goal is to be right where we place our bets, and this is a process that allows us to use the collective intelligence of the organization in a competitive situation that really gets the juices flowing. That's pretty healthy.

For people who may think of HP as a printer company, what's the best-kept secret?
The breadth of our portfolio. If you think about what we have today, we're No. 1 in PCs around the world. We've got incredibly sexy new PC offerings, everything from our high-end supergaming machines to the mini-notebook we just announced. We've got the world's leading automation technology for running big data centers. We've got a growing business in outsourcing people's IT infrastructure, an advanced set of blade server and blade storage offerings, and strong positions in all of our enterprise businesses.

Some people say HP's products have been better than its marketing. Is that fair?
I think it is. We're a great engineering company. We've done a great job with our products … [But] we need to get the word out on more of our capabilities and the breadth of our portfolio.

You've talked about how the environment has become a priority for HP. A lot of companies are saying that these days, so how do we know HP's commitment is real?
There is a bandwagon effect and everybody jumps on if it's hot. The way I think about our environmental activities—and this is another area in which we've done a poor job of communicating—is, we need to improve our carbon footprint. But it's not a separate activity. The things we need to do are also things we need to do for business reasons, to improve the performance and reliability of our products, and reduce their costs … Consider our conversation today [which is taking place on HP's HALO videoconferencing system]. It saved me a trip to New York or you a trip to California. So we can communicate more, have a much smaller carbon footprint, and everybody wins.