'Future Forward' Examines A Tech Titan You May Never Have Heard Of09:44
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"Future Forward," by Glenn Rifkin. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
"Future Forward," by Glenn Rifkin. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

International Data Group, IDG, is known as one of the most influential media empires in the world, but was started out of MIT graduate Patrick McGovern's house in Newton in 1964. Author Glenn Rifkin, who worked for McGovern as an editor at Computer World in the 1980s, examines his late boss's legacy in his new book, "Future Forward."

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Rifkin (@glennrifkin) about the book.

Interview Highlights

On who Patrick McGovern was

"He was the entrepreneur and visionary who started a company called International Data Group, IDG. And what he saw was that the information technology revolution was getting started in the early '60s, it was slow and steady. But he saw something bigger happening, and over those years he decided that somebody needed to tell the story of this revolution. It was one thing to be the Bill Gates or the Thomas Watson Jr., who made things — the software and the hardware. But somebody needed to chronicle what was going on, and that was his mission.

"He created actually nearly 300 publications around the world over the course of 50 years running the company. The first publication was Computerworld, which became the Bible of the information technology industry. ... It was news, weekly news, it was product reviews and things like that, but mostly it was taking a look at the people and players in the industry, the companies that were moving and shaking. They were big in covering IBM in the late '60s into the '70s when they were the 800-pound gorilla in the industry space, and as it moved along, as the industry changed — the personal computer was created in the 1980s — Computerworld be the newspaper of record, so to speak. It was kind of the New York Times of the computer industry."

Patrick McGovern, International Data Group founder and chairman of the board, poses in his office in Boston in 2007. (Lisa Poole/AP)
Patrick McGovern, International Data Group founder and chairman of the board, poses in his office in Boston in 2007. (Lisa Poole/AP)

On working for McGovern at Computerworld

"I joined in 1983. At the time, [I] didn't know a computer from a washing machine. If I could turn on the on switch, I was happy. Never dreamed of getting involved in the technology industry. But I got a job there at a time when jobs were a little bit scarce, and ended up just loving it, because something really exciting was happening. I started interviewing Bill Gates and Steve Jobs before The New York Times and Wall Street Journal did. So I was right there, as I say in the book, at the tip of my keyboard, things were happening. And I stayed there for seven years, during which time I got to know Pat McGovern."

"It was one thing to be the Bill Gates or the Thomas Watson Jr., who made things — the software and the hardware. But somebody needed to chronicle what was going on, and that was his mission."

Glenn Rifkin

On how McGovern interacted with his employees

"There's lots of visionaries, lots of entrepreneurs out there who've done great things. But Pat had a very unique style of management and leadership, which is what the book is about. He saw the world differently. He didn't need to be in the spotlight. What he wanted was to fulfill a mission, and one of the keys to him to fulfill this mission was to treat his employees around the world in a way that most companies didn't.

"This was a guy, for example, at the holidays, he would go around to every office in the United States — we're talking about 5,000 people at the time — he would go to every desk, he would meet and greet every employee. He knew if you had worked there before and he'd seen you the year before, he not only remembered your name, he knew your wife's name, he knew how many kids you had. He would congratulate you on some project that you did, and he would thank you for the contributions you were making to the company. And then he would hand you a holiday card, which was stuffed with cash, a holiday bonus, and people were blown away by this. ... This need, this desire to make a connection to every employee, I mean I can't think of another CEO who did that."

On McGovern's willingness to give people a long time to try things out and experiment

"One of Pat's mottoes, one of the actual corporate values, the 10 corporate values of the company, is, 'Let's try it.' His idea was that great ideas were going to emanate from everywhere and anywhere inside the company. If somebody was smart enough to come up with the idea, could make a case for the idea, he said, 'Let's try it.' And he would give you some funding and he would let you go with it. It created numerous publications, it created numerous opportunities.

"One of the great stories that came from that attitude was the 'For Dummies' books, those are from him. ... They started a book division, and they had this gentleman named John Kilcullen who'd come in, the division wasn't doing well at all, he remembered a story about a friend who was at a computer store back in the '80s and asked the clerk, 'Listen I need a book about this MS-DOS thing. But I don't know anything. It's got to be something like "DOS for Dummies." ' And Kilcullen remembered that title, suggested to McGovern, 'Let's do a series of books about this,' and McGovern thought, 'Well, we're insulting our readers if we're calling them dummies.' And Kilcullen said, 'No. What we're doing is' — this is pre-YouTube, pre-internet — 'we can give them really reasonable instructions on how to be smart about technology, because technology is complicated.' So they went with that, and the 'For Dummies' books became this remarkable global brand. I mean, literally two or three thousand titles in print."

Book Excerpt: 'Future Forward'

by Glenn Rifkin

By Christmas of 1983, I had been working at Computerworld for nearly a full year. For a technology neophyte, this immersion into the exploding computer industry was astonishing. A revolution was underway as personal computers, networks, and powerful new software applications were fueling a shift in both the business and personal sides of this world. Computers were moving from glass enclosed data centers to individual desktops, and the implications were enormous. Being at Computerworld, widely considered the bible of the technology information marketplace, was a fortuitous happenstance, a front-row perch from which to observe and meet the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Thomas Watson Jr., Ken Olsen, Mitchell Kapor, and other industry heavyweights intent on changing the world.

This was before the advent of Apple’s Macintosh, Microsoft’s Windows, the Internet, smartphones, Wi-Fi, broadband, and the flood of technology-driven upheaval around the globe. But you could feel the earth moving, and there wasn’t any doubt that something big was happening right at the tip of your keyboard. For journalists like me, whose careers were birthed when electric typewriters and Wite-Out were de facto tools of the trade, this new era was exhilarating.

Inside Computerworld, on a wintry afternoon a couple of weeks before the holidays, a buzz of a different kind was sweeping through the weekly newspaper’s editorial offices in Framingham, Massachusetts. Word got out early in the day that Patrick J. McGovern, the formidable founder and CEO of our parent company, International Data Group (IDG), was going to be making his annual holiday rounds. Although the several hundred staff members in the building were adults, the feeling could only bedescribed as giddy, a childlike sense of anticipation that reminded me of grade-school birthday parties.

I had seen McGovern in the building a few times during the year, but we had yet to meet, and he had already taken on the Paul Bunyanesque persona that turns ordinary businesspeople into celebrities. Larger than life, he was a big man who stood six feet, three inches tall and had the burly build of an NFL linebacker. He had a loud, distinctive voice and laugh that could be heard across a huge room. When we got word that Pat was in the building, work essentially ceased. We stayed at our desks in the cubicles that dotted the newsroom, feigned effort, but accomplished little as Santa in a dark blue suit and yellow tie approached.

To be clear, our excitement was not only due to the wide-eyed exuberance of celebrity worship. There was the mercenary, Pavlovian vibe that emerged with the reality that Uncle Pat, as he was fondly called, had arrived with a Brinks truck loaded with some serious dough for each of us. He was here to hand out Christmas bonuses, and though the amount was meager compared to the six-figure bonanza bonuses of Wall Street investment bankers, it was a considerable sum for blue-collar journalists, production workers, and sales staff. That year, the bonus was equal to a month’s pay, and that was a good reason to anticipate his arrival.

What made the event more memorable was the fact that McGovern, a media mogul by any measure, a wealthy, self-made visionary who transformed the technology information and research industry, handed out every envelope personally. He stopped at every desk, greeted every individual by name, shook hands, chatted about their work, their families, their dreams, and left behind a glow of good feeling that dwarfed the money and created an indelible imprint.

The fact that he did this with every employee in the company in every office in the United States was mind-boggling. By the time I joined, there were 13,000 employees around the globe and 5,000 in the United States alone. The scope of his effort, his determination to make that personal connection, spoke volumes about the man.

For those of us who had worked at other companies, the idea of the CEO personally delivering a bonus and a good word was pure fantasy. If you were lucky, you got a cooked turkey, a Swiss Army knife, or a holiday memo from the chief to the troops. The odds that the CEO would personally deliver said turkey were very slim. But Pat McGovern was a different kind of executive, an iconoclast who was driven not merely by profit but by a desire to better the lives and careers of his employees and a lifelong calling to understand technology’s impact on humanity. He was indeed on a mission.

When Pat McGovern started the company in 1964, not long out of MIT, he had a perfect combination for entrepreneurial success: an abundance of self-confidence, a prescient vision, and a wellspring of curiosity to find out what he didn’t know and spread this information around the globe. In an era when computers were giant, mysterious, unattainable machines guarded by the high priests of the data center, McGovern foresaw an immense shift in the power of these machines to impact individuals, to enhance the human brain, and to spawn a better future. That he operated in a familial manner and built an employee friendly corporate culture just added to his reputation. In the 1980s, the era in which Gordon Gekko declared, “Greed is good,” Pat McGovern chose to share the wealth. That’s not to say he wasn’t making a fortune for himself, because he was. He became a billionaire and was a regular on the Forbes list of the richest people. What he proved was that being good to his employees turned out to be a very sound business strategy.

If you were lucky enough to be part of the workforce near where IDG was headquartered in Massachusetts, the Christmas bonus was only the beginning. The company threw a lavish annual holiday party, hosted by McGovern and his wife, Lore Harp McGovern, in a ritzy downtown Boston hotel just before Christmas. Attendees brought their spouses and significant others, ate and drank and danced the night away, and some went home with door prizes of trips for two to tropical resorts, ski chalets, and Europe. Each year, McGovern and the executive team would create a holiday video to share the habitually positive corporate results and thank everyone for a job well done. Dressed as Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, Batman, Ben Franklin, Obi-Wan Kenobi, or James Bond, McGovern showed no reluctance to shed a little dignity for a good laugh.

News staffers went on an annual trip to resorts in the Bahamas or Puerto Rico for an “editorial meeting,” and IDG was among the first companies in the country to take advantage of federal regulations allowing employee stock ownership programs. The ESOP created a cadre of millionaires among IDG’s longest-serving employees and allowed others, such as me, to take a nice nest egg along with us when we left the company. Many who departed for jobs at rival organizations realized quickly that they’d made a mistake and returned to IDG.

What McGovern created was a large extended family. In a high powered,often cutthroat industry like high tech, it was unusual to feel part of a culture of inclusion where your CEO had your back, valued your ideas, prodded everyone to push their own envelopes, and accepted failure as a stepping-stone to achievement.

As my tenure continued, I came to learn that McGovern’s contributions far exceeded the corporate largesse. The empire he had built starting in 1964 played a major role in the evolution of computer technology around the globe. The emergence of information technology as a mainstream business topic was happening as I immersed myself in the stories of automation, desktop computing, software, networks, and a shifting computer landscape that was changing the world. I found myself covering the same people and companies as the Wall Street Journal, Businessweek, Fortune, and the New York Times. Indeed, we were out ahead of all those publications because Computerworld had staked this territory nearly two decades earlier.


Excerpted from the book FUTURE FORWARD by Glenn Rifkin. Copyright © 2018 by Glenn Rifkin. Republished with permission of McGraw-Hill Education.

This segment aired on October 23, 2018.

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