By Walden Kirsch
Of the countless tech industry titans Silicon Valley has minted over the past six decades, Gordon Moore stood alone. He was “easily the most beloved,” wrote biographer Michael Malone.
Moore was utterly unlike Robert Noyce and Andy Grove. Those two were the bigger-than-life personalities with whom Moore joined in 1968 to create Intel – what Malone, in his now-classic book “The Intel Trinity,” called “the world’s most important company.”
By all accounts, Moore was neither brash nor in-your-face like Grove. Nor was he charismatic and high-energy like Noyce. The “law” that bears his name was not self-proclaimed, but popularized by a Cal Tech professor in the mid-1970s. As one measure of his modesty, Moore once confessed to biographer Leslie Berlin that he was “embarrassed to have it called Moore’s Law for a long time.”
I recently spoke with three people whose Intel lives significantly crossed with Moore’s. I was hoping to better understand the man’s character. What led Gordon Moore to achieve such success, fame and multibillion-dollar wealth — nearly despite himself?
Arthur Rock: There at the start
Gordon Moore “commanded authority because he was so bright,” Arthur Rock said from his office in Silicon Valley when I visited with him in 2022. Rock, age 95, is the famed early Silicon Valley venture capitalist who helped launch Intel in 1968. In addition to Intel, Rock also provided the important early funding for Apple and dozens of other firms. He would later serve as Intel board chair and watched Moore up close for many years.
“When he said something, you’d better listen,” is how Rock recalls Moore.
Rock has been widely credited with creating the venture capital model that gave rise to California’s tech industry explosion in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rock was especially skilled at listening to pitches, ideas, people with big plans.
“All of Gordon’s decisions were methodical, well-thought-out,” recalls Rock, who chipped in $310,000 of his own, then rounded up the rest of the up-front money in 1968 to get Intel on its feet.
I ask Rock what impression Moore left after their initial meeting. “None whatsoever,” Rock says with a laugh. That would soon change. Rock came to understand that Moore was not into “yelling and screaming,” but his ability to quietly analyze issues and challenges was “really remarkable.” For example, when the painful decision was at hand in 1985 for Intel to pull out of the money-losing memory-chip business due to cutthroat competition from Japanese chipmakers, Moore “analyzed it and came to a conclusion, and that was it,” says Rock. No drama.
Moore was always focused and serious — and not just on the job. Rock recalls once asking Moore if he could join him to go fishing on his modest boat in San Francisco Bay. “I never got an answer,” Rock recalls. Why was that? I ask. “I didn't know how to fish. Gordon didn't want someone around who wasn't going to be serious about fishing.”
Dorenda Kettmann: Where’s your badge?
“He was just a very gentle, nice guy,” recalls Dorenda Kettmann.
Kettmann started at Intel in 1972 as a lobby receptionist of the still-young company and saw Moore coming and going many days. Kettmann clearly recalls the morning Moore forgot to show his badge as he breezed past her into the building. “Oh my god, it’s Gordon Moore,” she remembers thinking. But she stopped him anyway. Did he raise even a minor fuss? No. “Oh yes, of course, here it is,” he told Kettmann, pulling out his Intel ID.
“He was very unassuming, not flashy, didn’t try to show off,” Kettmann says. She remembers his car – a decade-old Mercedes – at about that same time. “Wow, he could do better than that,” she remembers thinking. Moore’s biographers confirm it. His favorite vehicle was a pickup truck that Moore and his wife, Betty, would drive up into the mountains, where Moore loved to go rock hunting. For a time, Moore was the wealthiest individual in California, and in his later years became a leading American philanthropist. But in an interview for Intel’s quarterly video about 15 years ago, Gordon confirmed his shopping preference: Costco.
Later in her career, as Kettmann moved up in the Intel HR organization, she was in meetings with Moore. “He just seemed brilliant, and when he spoke it was important to listen, because he didn't talk a lot like some others … He was very effective, just not the big voice in the room.”
Intel had (and still has) a tradition of interviewing people who choose to leave the company. Kettmann says Moore took a special interest in these “re-interviews.” He would ask to see the notes. “He loved understanding what people thought ... and how the company was doing, and what worked well and what didn't work well.”
Leslie Vadasz: In the room where it happened
Flip over your Intel badge and check our your worldwide ID. It’s a big number, right? Les Vadasz was Intel employee number 00000003. (Actually, there’s some debate whether Vadasz or Andy Grove was employee No. 3, and they didn’t use all those zeros back then, but you get the idea.) I talked in mid-2022 with Vadasz, who was then 85, from his home north of San Francisco.
“Gordon would ask questions, not order people to go do things. He would ask questions,” Vadasz recalls.
During the 35 years he spent at Intel, Vadasz was often in the room where it happened — where the biggest and most important decisions were made. An electrical engineer and, like Grove, a Hungarian immigrant, Vadasz initially headed chip design at Intel and later ran Intel Capital, the company’s investment arm.
I asked Vadasz to help me understand what accounted for Moore’s remarkable career.
“There is position power and there is knowledge power,” Vadasz says. “He did not exert his position power. He exerted, if anything, his knowledge power. People wanted to talk to him for his knowledge, for his instinct, not because he was the chairman of the company or the CEO. That was a unique capability of Gordon. It was very effective.”
Although Moore was not a finance or a money guy, Vadasz says Moore was especially effective talking with Intel investors. Moore “never tried to sell them. He tried to teach them. He tried to explain our business … He was very straight with them. But he gave them an explanation, which the investment community needed because they didn't really understand the semiconductor business.”
Everyone I talked with agreed that the preternaturally calm Moore never lost his cool. But Vadasz did recall the one time he heard Gordon Moore swear. Vadasz says he remembers it like it was yesterday. A half-dozen people were in a meeting discussing MOS technology. “Suddenly we hear Gordon say ‘s**t!’ The whole room became quiet because nobody had ever heard Gordon say anything like that.” What had just happened? Moore had been playing with his coffee on the meeting room table. “He punctured a hole in the Styrofoam cup, and coffee had spilled onto his tie.” This is what counted for personal drama in the life of Gordon Moore.
What I learned about Gordon Moore
What I learned from my conversations is that Gordon Moore achieved greatness in the quietest way possible. He almost never sought out attention or demanded to be at the center of it all. If anything, he ran the other way. His name and success at creating “the world’s most important company” might ultimately eclipse the big headline-grabbing tech names of the current moment — Musk, Zuckerberg, Jobs, Nadella, Gates, Thiel and others.
I recall the day in January 2015 when I covered a brief visit Moore paid to Intel’s headquarters in Santa Clara. This was a big deal, and a small crowd of Intel folks had gathered to greet him. Moore arrived with no retinue or PR or minders. He pulled up in a less-than-sparkling Mercedes, parked in just another space, and walked into the building. He watched a few tech demos, shook some hands, sat for a brief video interview, and smiled broadly when Intel’s then-CEO introduced himself as “the guy running your company.” Then he walked back to his car and drove off. That was it, no big speech, certainly no efforts at image-burnishing.
Intel co-founder Gordon Moore generated respect and admiration from all who met him — just by earning it.
Walden Kirsch has worked as a writer, photographer and editor at Intel since 2000.