Taking Away “The Doughnuts” (Little Basin)

HP is selling off Little Basin, their company-owned campground near Big Basin State Park. It is sad, but completely predictable. Little Basin summed up a simple, crazy idea, that execs and employees might enjoy spending time together.

I haven’t seen much reaction that this is a blow to the HP Way. It is more like the last throes. HP has been losing the HP Way tradition for nearly twenty years. HP had the strongest culture of any place I’ve worked and they’ve done the least to maintain it.

When I started at HP in 1985, we had “the doughnuts”. They weren’t actually doughnuts, but cookies and fruit brought up from the cafeteria at 9am every morning and put out in a couple of central places on each floor. The story was that either Flora Hewlett or Lucille Packard (I forget which) had started out baking cookies for her husband and co-workers and that the tradition had just stuck.

It wasn’t extravagant, the cookies ran out in about ten minutes, but it was enough to get my twenty-something butt to work by 9:00. More importantly, it was often a quick stand-up meeting for the group and it was a chance to meet people from other groups. If you wanted to talk to someone, you had a pretty good chance of doing that if you hung out by the doughnuts for ten minutes.

The doughnuts were a cultural tradition with a rich and useful social function. Giving food and sharing food is powerful — it is an ancient tradition of hospitality and a sacred duty in some religions. It was the caring hand of Bill and Dave’s family extended to every employee in every division of HP. We were all family.

We used to joke, “You’ll know it’s over when they take away the doughnuts.” Some time around 1990, it was over. It was supposed to be a temporary austerity measure, but there wasn’t a time limit, and the doughnuts came back as a Friday-only thing and as a special thank you. Or maybe a Monday-only thing, I don’t remember and it didn’t matter, the tradition was broken. It was especially clueless to take them away as a “we’re all in this together” symbolic sacrifice, then bring them back as a paternal treat.

The hard part of culture building had been done. We had a daily ceremony, useful to the organization and grounded in corporate myth. But the execs blew it. They killed it for a reason that everyone knew was lame, then brought it back in a way that severed the connection. Now it was just doughnuts, not The Doughnuts. How could they be that dense?

It wasn’t just the doughnuts, it was a hundred clueless things, one after the other. Canceling picnics, switching from engraved clip-on name badges worn where you could read them to laminated cards worn backwards on a string, restricting flex time, the list goes on.

Even then, long before Carly Fiorina, the execs had lost touch with what employees really did. Bill & Dave’s offices were right up against the cubicles in Building 3U, but the new execs had their own isolated Mahogany Row on one side of a floor in Building 20. The execs had already stopped doing “management by wandering around”.

At one point there was a crash project to build a PA-RISC processor in ECL (Blackbird) and the prototype, with really loud fans (ECL uses lots of power) was in some regular cubes right across from Bill & Dave’s old offices. I doubt that they would have minded having real engineering going on across the aisle, even if if it was noisy. The might have joined us at the doughnuts to see how it was going.

Today, HP seems to have given up on even maintaining the pretense of the culture. The HP Way has disappeared from the current HP website, leaving only the Corporate Objectives as the “philosophy and objectives” of the company. The phrasing in this 1992 copy of The HP Way is all about the people, “earn the trust and loyalty of others … passed from one generation of employees to another … shared among all HP people.” The objectives were what we did, the HP Way was how we did it.

As Mike Cassidy said, HP is doing “the wrong thing the right way.” They are selling Little Basin to an open space trust with the plans to add it to Big Basin. They are selling it cheap at $4M, but honestly, that is in the noise when you have $100B in revenue. Why not just give it away? “Citizenship” is still on the Corporate Objectives, I just checked.

If HP has lost its way so seriously that selling off Little Basin is the right thing to do, then I can’t argue with the decision. Making some coin on the deal just removes all doubt.

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