Thursday, February 16, 2012

Entering HP's World: My Meeting With Meg Whitman

Meg Whitman crop

Monday morning 6:45 a.m., and its pouring rain and still very dark as I'm pulling into the parking lot at HP's corporate headquarters. Suddenly I hear the sound of a baby wailing. It's the radio -- the San Francisco 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game last night in overtime, and a local sports talk show is playing a loop of baby tantrum sound clips to match the mood of the depressed fan base. I switch off the radio -- I'm bummed about the game, too, but there's no crying in the National Football League, there's no crying at HP, and there's definitely no crying when you're about to meet Meg Whitman.

I'm here to interview Whitman, who joined HP last September as its CEO. She's best known to people outside the tech world for her unsuccessful run for California governor in 2010, during which she reportedly spent $144 million of her own personal fortune. Whitman was also CEO of eBay for a decade, transforming it from a startup with 19 employees into an ecommerce powerhouse that had $8 billion in revenue when she left in 2008. And during her time as an executive at Hasbro, Whitman also managed the Mr. Potato Head brand.

After meeting up with my HP hosts, I'm led to a front desk and given a badge with my name on it. I'm wearing a suit, though, so it's impossible to clip on the badge in a way that doesn't make me look like a moron. After a few attempts, I'm able to fasten it to my lapel so that it dangles out sideways. I'm hoping Meg won't notice.

My hosts lead me up a stairway to a second floor hallway, and the first thing I notice are the high ceilings. The walls are sparsely decorated. It's quiet, and no one is around at this early hour. It feels kind of like walking in a museum, and in some ways it is. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, HP's legendary co-founders, would have been up in years when this building was built, I think to myself, but they probably walked these hallways. Likewise Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and other executives whose ideas form the bedrock of Silicon Valley innovation.

I'm led into a small conference room with very comfy chairs, but comfort is the last thing I'm looking for right now. I'm about to meet a big time shaper of the future of the largest IT company, in terms of employees, on the planet, and in my head I'm nervously sorting through the collection of questions I've come up with.

After a few minute, Meg and her assistant walk into the room. We shake hands, and the first thing I notice is that she's tall -- around 6 feet -- with a strong grip. She is pressed for time, and I get the sense that she's not into trivialities, so I dive right in with questions.

It soon becomes apparent that Whitman is a great interview. She is actually answering the questions I’m asking, and she is acknowledging that her company has been through a rough patch and needs to get better. You don't often get that from tech company CEOs, and it's refreshing. The most surprising thing she tells me is that HP used to have a barbed wire fence that separated the executive parking lot from those other employees. Silently, I'm floored by this.

Whitman has a sense of humor, too, and by the end of the 30 minutes I'm already looking forward to going through my notes and pulling out the best quotes, of which I'm certain there will be many.

Later, Whitman gathers her team of five executives, who each run gigantic businesses with tens of billions in annual revenue, for a group photo. They seem to like each other, and they're joking the whole time. The photographer keeps them in pose for 20 minutes or so, and after a while, one of the execs says hurry up, because another one of the execs rents his suit by the hour. That sends the whole group into peals of extended laughter. The photo shoot is over.

As I'm walking back to my car, I try to imagine the old parking lot barbed wire fence, and I picture a low level employee gazing wistfully into the executive parking lot, with its row upon row of gleaming Lexuses, Jaguars and BMWs.