Assholes I Have Known

I have been particularly lucky to have experienced so few undesirable characters over the years. Not all of them have earned a spot on this list, but in these few, I attempt to make the point that it can be exceedingly helpful to look past the mistakes and the personal faults and foibles, to focus on their valid accomplishments.

Jerry Sanders

It was the mid-1960s and I had recently become a wafer fab engineer in the PNP section of Fairchild Semiconductor. Fairchild was literally where the Semiconductor industry began, but at the time none of us had any idea where it was going (including Sanders). He was a tall handsome, smooth-talking guy – perfect salesman credentials, while my job was to characterize new transistors as they came into production from the R&D division. He would take my data and dress it up into a published datasheet.

He was probably 20-years my senior and several layers higher on the Company organization chart. Nonetheless, we interacted often with nothing in common other than hFE, BVceo, and other such stuff, all having to do with groundbreaking advancements in the technology at the time.

There was a Semiconductor technology conference going on in New York and we both were in attendance. My engineer friends and I all went to a well-known restaurant – the name of which I have long since forgotten. A bit later Jerry came in with an extremely voluptuous blond on his arm. As he passed by our table I reached out a hand and said, “Hi Jerry”.  He totally ignored me as if I were not there – no doubt because I had previously met his wife and this was definitely not her.

The following week, back in Mountain View, everything was back to normal. I never mentioned the restaurant meeting and neither did he, but I knew and he knew that I knew.

Jerry went on to found Advanced Micro Devices, which earned its fame by becoming the only licensed “second source” to the Intel microprocessor product family. I met him once more after we both had left Fairchild when he told me about his plan to sell one of his houses in Malibu for many millions of dollars. When I questioned him about what seemed to me to be a totally ridiculous price, his answer was, “it’s all in the terms”, a line that I have used often since and one of the few meaningful things I learned from him.[i]He sold the house for the asking price but I never learned any more about the “terms”.

Andy Grove

I hesitate to put Andy in this class, even though most people who knew him or worked for him at Intel would not be as generous as I. He was harsh, demanding, sometimes belligerent, always confident and the smartest guy I ever had the displeasure of working for. I have often said that I learned more from Andy in those few short years than in my entire professional career, prior to that point.

One of the cornerstones of Intel’s success in the early years was MBO (Management By Objectives) and something they called the MOMR (Monthly Operations Management Review). Anyone having a management position of any kind in the Company would work with their subordinates to develop a Charter for their group and certain “Key Results”, to be accomplished, then report on progress toward those things monthly at a group gathering. Andy would often attend these after-hours MOMRs and generally had little to say. In front of a room overflowing with my peers, and subordinates, including several of the top management of the Company, I was attempting to bluff my way out of admitting that my group had missed an important Key Result that month. Nobody was buying it – certainly not Andy. From the back of the room he roared, “BULLSHIT” at the top of his lungs in that infamous Hungarian accent of his, and I never attempted such a maneuver like that again.

On one occasion I told him the story about a fellow by the name of Joe Jakaby, whom I had just hired. His reaction was a surprise to me at the time but in retrospect, I think I understand it. Like so many in this category of individuals, ego rises above almost all else – but rarely above his or her personal skill and accomplishment.

Steve Jobs

He was arrogant, aggressive, impatient, belligerent, and pretty much any other undesirable adjective one might think of, but not to the exclusion of being one of the smartest and most ambitious people of our time. I only met him once and that should be enough for anyone.

This was in the early 2000’s, at a time when the first Apple iPod Nano was coming to market. A lighted enunciator was needed on one of the outside edges of the device but there was no room at that spot for even the smallest LED, so it had to be mounted on the PCB a couple of inches away. They thought that if they simply connected the LED to the external enunciator with a transparent plastic tube, the light would magically come out where they wanted it. But alas, the engineer had forgotten about Snell’s Law, something engineers never forget. It didn’t work of course because in order to obtain the desired Total Internal Reflection (TIR) one must pay attention to the details of refraction.

Our goal, of course, was to supply the LED and whatever else it took to solve the problem. So, after meeting with Jobs and his purchasing and engineering staff, we proceeded to design a proper “Light Pipe” for them and as I recall, even machined a hand-made prototype for them. Weeks went by without any news of Apple’s intention to proceed with an order for us to make this delicate optical device for them. Our sales representative was continually stalled and told that things were, “held up in engineering”. A few weeks later the new iPod hit the shelves of every Apple store in the Country, using the Light Pipe, we had designed for them, along with an LED made in China. At the direction of Jobs and his staff, their engineers in China had reverse-engineered our design and put it into full production while we were being told that the project was “held up in engineering”.

Donald Trump

I never met Trump of course and I am sure I never will but no list of assholes could ever be complete without at least an honorable mention.

Politics is but one example of what often becomes a case of misplaced priorities. Trump and others like him often accomplish things that go unnoticed or worse yet ignored and condemned solely because of where they came from. Is Advanced Micro Devices’ success no longer valid because of Sanders’ personal behavior? Should the incredible successes of Grove or Jobs be discredited because they were undesirable characters? Should we pretend that Tump’s long list of achievements is of no value because an asshole was behind the progress? If voters were able to set aside their personal feelings about the leaders they choose, the Country would be richer for it.[ii]If we move quickly, perhaps Jimmy Carter could still be available.

By: Jim
Written: c2019
Published: April 2022
Revised: May 2022


i He sold the house for the asking price but I never learned any more about the “terms”.
ii If we move quickly, perhaps Jimmy Carter could still be available.