“Goodbye HP,” was the tweet from Phil McKinney, the chief technology officer of the company’s Personal Systems Group.
McKinney’s announcement is yet another twist in the ongoing HP saga, which began with a circus of a conference call on August 18. That day, the company not only threatened to jettison its PC biz. It discontinued the TouchPad, a tablet it had launched just weeks before. Since then, HP has fired software-minded CEO Leo Apotheker and replaced him with Meg Whitman, a woman best known for running an online auction house.
After Whitman’s arrival, the company parted ways with executive vice president and chief strategy and technology officer Shane Robison — who also happens to be McKinney’s boss.
In a post his personal website, the famously outspoken McKinney said that his would not be a traditional retirement. “I’m not planning on spending my days playing golf or sitting around the house driving my wife crazy,” the post read. “My definition of retirement is the freedom to write, speak, mentor, advise and teach without the restrictions of the traditional employee/corporate structure.”
McKinney noted that during his tenure at HP, he was instrumental in creating the company’s Blackbird, Firebird, Envy 133, Gabble, Twynergy, Pluribus, Vantage TouchWall, and DreamScreen machines, and that he was running the PC division when Fast Company named HP one of the world’s most creative technology outfits.
On Monday evening, after his tweet and blog post hit the web, Wired contacted McKinney to discuss his departure and the ongoing turmoil at HP, and yes, he picked up the phone.
Wired: Announcing your retirement with a tweet and a personal blog post doesn’t seem to fit with the HP way. Was this something you discussed with the company’s media relations department?
PM: Part of my agreement with HP when I came on here full-time was that they don’t control my blog or tweets. Typically, HP only makes an internal announcement, but I wanted to control that message.
Wired: Is your agreement common at HP?
PM: No, it’s a unique structure at HP. But it’s the conditions I put in place to agree to come out of retirement. I’d been the CIO at Teligent and came on as a consultant here nine years ago, saying I’d only be here a year. [laughs] Nine years later, here I am. But the freedom allowed me to write my book and pay a lot of knowledge forward, via podcasts and my blog.
Wired: HP has been in the news a lot recently — for all the wrong reasons. Can you comment on how much the recent turmoil factored into your decision?
PM: I’m not going to comment on the August 18th announcement, and Leo’s back and forth comments.
I’m an innovation guy, and now I think I can have that again.
Wired: Would your retirement decision have been different if HP had pushed ahead with a PC division spin-off?
PM: No. My decision wouldn’t be any different.
Wired: What are your impressions of Meg Whitman?
PM: I have not met with Meg since she took over the company. I was out for medical leave for most of the summer, came back, and everything was different. People jokingly yelled at me that I wasn’t allowed to get sick again.
I’ve spent every week on the road meeting with employees and partners trying to calm them down. You have no idea how many miles I’ve logged.
I’ve met Meg at industry events in the past, but she wouldn’t know me from Adam.
Wired: How much did the departure of chief strategy officer Shane Robison factor into your decision?
PM: None. I reported to Shane, and Monday is his last day. But I made my decision a while ago.
Wired: How are things going to change now that he’s gone?
PM: Senior technology officers will now report into their respective divisions.
Shane had set up a structure that I thought was weird at first, but it’s highly efficient. CTOs reported into him and, by meeting with other CTOs, were allowed the perspective of what is good across all of HP, versus getting caught in the silos. That was a structure that worked extremely well.
I’m not saying the change is a bad decision. Meg has her rational, and it may very well work. It’s just not a structure that’s proven at HP since I’ve been here.
Wired: What are the products and projects you’d most like to be remembered for?
PM: I came in just after the Compaq merger and [the Personal Systems Group] was number three in the market and losing billions. Now we’re number one and quite profitable. I think we proved that the PC business is more than just a commodity market. You still can innovate and turn a profit.
But also, we’ve been the one group at HP that’s really been able to take innovations out of HP’s Labs, bring them to light and put them to products with a meaningful impact that will live long after I’m on gone.
Wired: What is your advice for the PC group after your departure?
PM: There’s always room to innovate. People whine about how hard it is to innovate. But if it ever gets easy, you’re not innovating. You’ve got to be willing to fight the battle. If you’re thin skinned and don’t have the endurance, don’t get into the innovation game. You’ve got to be willing to fight the corporate antibodies: the people who tell you you can’t do something. You’ve got to be willing to challenge every roadblock that you’re facing.
If you think you can get over the mountain and it’ll be easy sledding, you’re in the wrong game.
Wired: So, now, onto the book tour?
PM: Yeah, book will be out at the start of 2012. I’m looking forward getting back to helping folks innovate again.