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October 2004

Up to the challenge: A conversation with HP Labs Director Dick Lampman

Director talks about fostering innovation in a changing world


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Current HP Labs Director Dick Lampman talks with his predecessor, Joel Birnbaum, at an HP Labs gathering
Current HP Labs Director Dick Lampman talks with his predecessor, Joel Birnbaum, at an HP Labs gathering

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It's at the intersection of our research programs and priorities with the individual creativity and capability of our teams where the magic really happens.

by Jamie Beckett

Dick Lampman likes a challenge, whether it’s paddling a kayak along Alaska’s glacial coastline or steering a modern industrial research lab through today’s rocky waters.

As director of HP Labs since 1999, Lampman has kept HP’s central research laboratory focused on invention in a volatile environment that’s included the dot-com boom and bust and HP’s merger with Compaq, the largest tech merger in history.

Through it all, the lab has continued to contribute key technologies, ranging from the world’s first molecular logic gate to smart cooling for data centers, from “immune systems” for IT security to in-camera red-eye removal.

“Despite changes in our structure and technologies, the beauty of all this is that innovators still win,” says Lampman, who is also HP’s Senior Vice President for Research. “You develop something unique for HP, something customers value, and so you build a profitable, growing business -- ultimately, that’s what it’s about.”

In the interview that follows, the director discusses the purpose and value of a central research lab, why he’s “gone public ” with more of Labs’ accomplishments, some of the lab’s key contributions in the past five years and how he hopes to see technology change in the future.

How do you, as a manager, foster and maintain a culture of innovation at HP Labs?

It’s not a simple thing. If it were, there would be more innovative organizations. I contribute to creating a culture of innovation, but I don’t think any manager can claim sole credit. The culture and environment here reflects the work of a lot of people -- people with formal management responsibilities, technical leaders and the technical staff of HP Labs.

What I’ve tried to do is ensure that we stay focused on what’s really important. That kind of focus helps foster and maintain a culture of innovation, and it helps us maintain an appropriate level of ambition in our research programs. The research programs and the goals we go after are what inspire people.

Innovation means betting on people. Any organization needs an appropriate balance between maintaining a strategic focus and leaving room for new ideas -- for people’s creativity. Although it’s important to have a strategy, it will never replace the sheer creativity and energy of the people we have here.

The world of technology and the world in general are constantly changing. How do you keep HP Labs ahead of the curve?

For HP Labs to continue to contribute at the high levels that we have over many years, we need to continue to evaluate both what we work on and how we work on it.

If you look back, HP and most other technology companies tended to be vertically integrated -- that is, we made almost everything we sold. We invented lots of components at all different levels. That’s changed over the last 20 years. IT businesses have become a network of enterprises with a flexible network of partners around the world.

In the R&D world, we also have a network. Technology continues to move into HP through our traditional network, the universities. Now we also have large technology players such as Microsoft and Oracle and Intel, and we leverage their investments. We also work with small companies, which play a role in some of our technology programs.

In this environment, a laboratory that wants to contribute looks at these networks and figures out where it can have the most impact.

HP talks about a strategy of focused innovation. The way I like to approach it is to think about how to leverage others’ capabilities and concentrate our efforts on technologies unique to HP that the company can pursue.

If you look at our programs over the years, you see a systemic change from doing everything top to bottom in the Labs to focusing on very specific areas.

For example, HP Labs made many substantial contributions to microprocessor architectures over the years. [These include pioneering work in Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) and the research program on Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW), along with the development of the Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC) architecture used in Intel's Itanium processor specification (formerly known as IA-64).]

We’ve largely moved out of that area because our investments were not giving us a lot of differentiation. Our customers still want strong products, but whether we develop the microprocessor technology with partners or do it on our own is less of a focus than it was in the past.

At the same time, we’ve increased our investment in areas such as software for the Adaptive Enterprise where we think we can have more impact. In this area we are developing software tools to help automate many data center functions, which lowers costs and enables more flexible and effective use of IT resources. With these new capabilities, we can realize the long-held vision of delivering services from an IT utility.

In printing and imaging, which used to be completely dominated by hardware investments, we now have more balance between hardware, architectural, and software investments.

Similarly, the lab has dramatically increased its investment in solutions and services, and even dedicated a whole research center to this area. This area has become more important for our customers and for HP, and it’s a chance to differentiate ourselves with advanced technologies.

HP is one of the few high-tech companies that maintains a central research lab. What’s the value in doing that?

A lot of central research labs are gone because they were having difficulty making substantial contributions to the parent company. There was a period when the model for industrial research was much more detached from the rest of the company and its businesses. Many companies pursued that course; we did not.

That’s one reason. Another is that a lot of other companies are not as committed to striving for technical leadership.

The fundamental reason HP has continued to maintain a central research lab is the same reason we’ve always had one. When HP Labs was formed in 1966, the idea was to have a group that kept looking forward beyond the current pressures of business. In the technology industry, it’s a key way of differentiating your company, helping solve customers’ problems and building a healthy, profitable business.

Not so long ago, HP Labs was HP’s "secret weapon." You’ve made the lab much more public, speaking to the press and analysts and working more closely with customers. What’s the advantage to that?

It was clear to me that in addition to our fundamental role in improving HP’s technology options, HP Labs could contribute in other ways -- we could be a proactive voice for the company, talking about the HP’s future direction, its commitment to technology, really helping the world and our customers understand the strength of HP and HP Labs as part of that.

At the same time, there were competitive reasons for making the change. Our competitors were better at making the capabilities and accomplishments of their research labs visible to the market in a way that helped customers better understand their companies.

It was a conscious choice to invest in communications, ranging from public relations to the Web to working with the sales teams worldwide. Now we speak at sales force gatherings and we have an extremely successful customer-visit program. We’ve received tremendous feedback from the field.

The customer visits also benefit HP Labs research programs directly by providing an effective way to test our ideas and expose our research programs to customer feedback early in the process.

In the last few years, we’ve been called upon to talk to even a broader audience that includes industry analysts. Analysts’ reports are widely read by our customers and help them make decisions about what company to buy from. This is important because not only is R&D changing -- the whole industry is changing, and people are constantly trying to evaluate which companies are on the right track. HP Labs has an opportunity to contribute to that discussion.

What do you consider some of HP Labs’ key contributions during your tenure as Director?

One key thing has been simply to maintain a high level of ambition in our programs and make significant contributions to the company in the midst of the period of uncertainty over the past few years.

I’d cite four areas where our contributions have been particularly significant.

  • We helped open up new categories of publishing and digital photography for our Printing and Imaging business. HP’s newest cameras (the Photosmart R707 and R607) are loaded with HP Labs’ technology, and are really breakout cameras for HP. [The cameras, the first to incorporate HP’s Real Life technologies, are able to eliminate red-eye, stitch together panorama photos in preview mode and produce pictures closer to what our eyes see -- all inside the camera, without a PC.]

  • In publishing, we introduced a whole new industry segment to HP – commercial printing. [HP Labs played a key role in identifying the superior technology in the Indigo commercial printing presses – which HP acquired -- and has since made key contributions to reduce the cost and complexity of the presses.]

  • We’ve focused much more attention on services and solutions. The Services business itself has become a more important part of HP, and we’re making strong contributions to that part of the business.

  • HP Labs has had a major impact on HP’s Adaptive Enterprise strategy, developing innovative technologies and many key concepts that are the foundation of the Adaptive Enterprise program.

All those achievements show the benefit of getting the right balance between strategy and creativity. We didn’t have a detailed roadmap for any of those, but we had a broad sense of the fact that these were new opportunities for us, and the teams did spectacular work in pursuing it.

Our strategic focus is the umbrella we use to bring some structure to our research programs and our priorities, but it’s really at the intersection of those with the individual creativity and capability of our teams where the magic really happens.

Can you talk further about the Labs’ contributions to the Services group?

We’re currently very involved in HP’s services businesses (HP Managed Services revenues grew 42 percent year-over-year, as measured by the latest quarterly report). We’ve made contributions to help drive down the cost of service delivery, and an HP Labs technology is now being used help harvest the knowledge bases our Services business has built up over the years.

Services is a very people-intensive business, and the question is, “How do you efficiently communicate and organize information so that it can be shared by a global team?”

Another contribution was Open Analytics, a tool to analyze and communicate to business stakeholders the critical tradeoffs that have to be made between the performance, availability and cost of complex computing systems.

We’ve had some great partnerships. We have a creative team here that has continued to understand more about the Services business and where HP Labs can develop new technologies to help strengthen that part of HP.

The function of the lab is to come up with ideas and inventions no one has considered before. Yet often ideas that are way ahead of people’s thinking are also controversial. How do you address the skepticism you encounter?

One of the reasons HP Labs has been so successful at overcoming skepticism is the widespread understanding here that it’s not enough for you to believe you’re right – you need to help other people understand your ideas. You need to understand the framework in which they evaluate ideas, how are they deciding what to do and address those kinds of questions.

Even so, sometimes the things we do are quite controversial. It’s hard to believe that something like Inkjet, which is one of the main pillars of the company, was in its early days considered extremely controversial. Fortunately we have people here Labs who believed strongly that there could be two printing technologies for HP (the other was laser) and that they could be quite different.

Moreover, there’s the Adaptive Enterprise and some of the key ideas behind it. When we started working on these in Labs, these ideas were not mainstream thinking for HP or the IT industry. Yet at one of the key strategic points, even as the computing business was under a lot of pressure, Duane Zitzner (Executive Vice President, Personal Systems Group,) invested in our ideas.

The old model where R&D just throws things over the wall doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t know if it ever existed.

How do you get others to understand the ideas coming from Labs and see the value in them?

That process begins long before you get to the point where you actually have to persuade people. Labs teams spend a lot of time with HP businesses and customers, understanding the problems they’re trying to solve. That increases the likelihood that you’re working on something people will get excited about.

What’s been your biggest challenge over the years?

I’d say our biggest challenge has been around change, particularly organizational change. For many years, the way we’d done things was to have individual teams own a problem and to proceed about their work without much interaction across the organization. This method has low complexity and is very straightforward. Unfortunately, many of the important problems we want to work on need to draw on capabilities throughout the Labs.

There are two choices when you see a situation like that. We could either restructure around the individual projects, sort of a task-based organization, or we could go to what we have, which is more of a capability-based organization.

By organizing that way, we have strong pools of expertise, led by people who have a deep understanding of those areas, and we can build programs as an overlay on that kind of structure.

Another dimension of change has been in technology, in where we find the best opportunities. That has forced us to move out of some areas where we had a long period of accomplishment such as microprocessors. Those moves are not always easy, but if we’re going to be successful and going to be relevant and have a real impact, then we have to confront those kinds of issues.

Yet, despite changes in the structure and technologies, the beauty of all this is that innovators still win. You develop something that is unique for HP, something that customers value, and so you build a profitable, growing business -- ultimately, that’s what it’s about.

When I joined HP, the term people used for innovation was “contribution,” and I used to ask what they meant by contribution. The answer? Contribution is something customers are willing to pay for. That was back when Bill and Dave were running the company, and that fundamentally has not changed.

How do you see technology changing our lives in the future?

That’s a tough question. My view for a long time has been that if you ask me what’s going to happen in two years, five, maybe even ten, I could make a reasonable speculation, but beyond that, probably scientists or engineers aren’t the best forecasters. Jules Verne probably did a better job than his scientific colleagues at the time.

Some of the mega trends we’ll see are that the kind of technologies we work on -- whether they’re computational- or imaging- or service-related -- will become more pervasive in every institution, in society, in people’s lives. We have to continue to strive to make that technology less intrusive. A successful example of that is a mobile phone, an unbelievably complex technology that has been "civilized."

There’s still too much complexity in information technology. Our greatest achievement would be to make more and more of what we give customers simple and natural to use -- on their terms, not ours.

How did you get into technology? Were you interested in science or math as a boy?

As a child, I was definitely interested in technology, math and science. When I was in seventh grade, I was given a handbook of mathematical tables, those "quaint" things we used before we had calculators, and I remember looking at the logarithm tables.

After a while, I figured out how logarithms worked and the elegance of the whole system. That probably should have been a wakeup call that I would someday have a fascination with math and technology.

By the time I got to high school, it was clear that I was going down that course. I was fascinated by technology – the ideas, the capabilities of it – and that hasn’t changed to this day. It’s fresh every day.

The amazing thing about technology is it’s a product of human creativity, and we’ll never run out of that.

Many people know you in your role as Director of HP Labs. But there’s another side to you that’s adventuresome in a whole different way – the side that went up Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome (a granite monolith 4,800 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor) at 3 in the morning, for instance.

I do have some hobbies that are at least non-traditional for many people. I enjoy the outdoors, and I have done quite a bit of backpacking, mountaineering and ocean kayaking. I enjoy the beauty of these places, and in some cases, the challenge.

When I describe one of these trips to someone, there tend to be two classic responses. One is, “I can’t believe you paid money for this and think it’s fun.” And the other response is a glazing over, followed by the “where do I sign up?” kind of look. And so it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I very much enjoy these trips. In fact, I’m in the process of planning for a vacation right now.

What are you planning for?

A sea kayaking trip in Patagonia.

How do you deal with some of the challenges inherent in ocean kayaking, or say, going up Half Dome in the dark? How do you keep having fun?

I generally like to focus my energy on the positive side of whatever I’m involved in. I think actually to be in research you have to be an optimist. You have to keep thinking about possibilities.

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Dick Lampman talks with researchers at an HP Labs gathering
Dick Lampman talks with researchers

Innovation means betting on people. Any organization needs an appropriate balance between maintaining a strategic focus and leaving room for new ideas -- for people's creativity.

To be in research you have to be an optimist. You have to keep thinking about possibilities.

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