Former BBC executive heading up Intel’s consumer electronics efforts on management, smart TV and life.
When Intel went looking for a new leader to replace departing executive Eric Kim as head of the Digital Home Group, they went to someone who knew very little about silicon.
But through his work at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as director of the Future Media & Technology organization, and Microsoft, where he drove a wide variety of digital media initiatives, Erik Huggers is no stranger to digital media innovation.
In the following Q&A, Huggers, a native of The Netherlands, talks about why he joined Intel, how the company needs to get into the heads of digitally savvy teenagers, and why his new user experience design team is in London is a key asset.
Since joining Intel 4 months ago, have you ever asked yourself, “What have I gotten myself into here?”
On day one. I’ll tell you the honest truth. Let me first say, I do not regret joining Intel for a second. I’ve been overwhelmed by the warm reception I’ve gotten.
When I was at the BBC as an executive board member in a media and entertainment company, you get a certain set of privileges when it comes to office spaces.
I had a proper executive suite on the top of the building, lots of windows, a living room set up in my office, projectors, televisions. That’s how it’s done for those companies for the last 90 years.
When I arrived here on day one and they showed me to my cube on floor five [in the Robert Noyce Building of Intel's Santa Clara, Calif. headquarters], I literally thought, what have I done?
I’ll adapt, don’t get me wrong. But the delta on day one between the executive suite and my new cube (laughs). I had a bit of detox to go through, I think.
So when I moved [in 2007] from Microsoft to the BBC I had people in front of BBC Television Centre dressed up in these chemical nuclear suits picketing against my appointment.
At Intel, I’ve only been warmly welcomed by colleagues and folks around the business. And so far, it’s been an amazing 4 months.
During your short tenure at Intel, have you seen areas where we can improve?
As someone who’s been here for 4 months, I don’t claim to have tons of wisdom. I was surprised by the number of steering groups and meetings that happened. Some of these meetings are like professional debating societies, where there are armies of Intel people talking about incredible minutia. I would’ve thought we would be fleeter of foot.
In these meetings, I am surprised by the number of people doing email. If you don’t want to be in a meeting, get out. Don’t do mail. Close your laptop.
One of the things that I really learned being in the media industry directly and indirectly for 15, 20 years now, is that what those industries do really well is put the audience at the heart of everything they do. I don’t think that’s what we do today.
What we talk about is valid stuff like the next process node, or putting more transistors on a die, or can we do more gigahertz or flips or flops or whatever we measure, and we get really excited — for good reasons. But what’s more important is: What does this stuff enable for the consumer?
And I’m not talking about the people who buy our technologies and build end-products. I mean the person who buys the end-product. How is what we build valuable to a 15-year-old who’s completely connected?
We need that hardcore technical super-engineering capability that we have in spades here. But we also need the audience insight.
Finally, I’m a big supporter of our investments in software development, and I think that’s absolutely critical. We need to attract the best possible engineering talent in order to take a bit more control over our own destiny as a company.
Can you talk more about user experience?
Everyone talks about user experience at Intel these days. I’ve come to the conclusion that most people don’t know what they’re talking about.
We have great talent inside Intel, don’t get me wrong. Genevieve Bell and the team [Interaction and Experience Research (IXR) group in Intel Labs] clearly get it.
We need to bring top talent that can execute on that user experience and design piece into Intel so that starts to influence our culture, our way of thinking, how we think about products, the audience. So, we just hired a user experience design crew in London.
Here in the Silicon Valley, when it comes to those sorts of skills, it’s impossible for us to — well not impossible — but it’s very difficult for us to compete, because you’re competing with Facebook, Apple, Google. We don’t have that same sort of competitive situation in the UK right now, and traditionally the UK has been a hub for design talent.
Plus, the people that I’ve been able to attract I know very well, because they worked in my organization. These are the guys that have designed industry award-winning services across television, telephone, tablets, PCs.
I think bringing that expertise into Intel will influence the direction of travel for whatever we do in next-generation silicon, next-generation software, next-generation services, so that we start with that audience in mind, and then we work our way back.
So in 2 years, where do you see smart TVs and Intel’s play?
My hope is that our play in smart TV is going to be more than just silicon. Silicon is absolutely a critical element to get right, and I would argue that the silicon engineering team has performed miracles.
Just having that platform in your living room means nothing if there’s no content, no services, no applications, if there isn’t a vibrant ecosystem of third party ISVs and media companies who target that platform as a means of reaching the consumer and building a viable business.
So is DHG only about smart TV?
I think it’s important to realize that we have some pretty interesting early momentum. Getting Comcast to work with us is a huge milestone. Getting other service providers to take us seriously, like Free in France, a wonderful success story, and Sony on Google TV. As Intel, we’re going beyond the PC. We have early glimpses of what that world could look like in DHG. We have shipping products, we have customers.
My entire career has been dedicated to digital media. And consumers do not care whether it’s consumed on a TV, a PC, a phone or a tablet. It doesn’t matter.
Consumers today are hungry for taking control over their digital media consumption.
And so to me, DHG is not just about television. DHG can potentially help the rest of Intel with our digital media ambitions.
How would people at the BBC and Microsoft describe your management style?
In some cases, if a project is going completely off the rails, maybe the management style is slightly more autocratic and directive and hands-on and micromanaging. In other cases, you have a great leadership team in place and they’re ticking along quite well, it’s much more coaching and supporting and helping resolve blocking issues. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a single style.
Dutch people are very direct, and they call it as they see it, and I think that’s very important.
Is there some area of management that you’ve had to improve upon?
No one’s perfect. Everyone has opportunities to improve their day to day work, the way they interact with others. I think everyone always has to work on communication style and over-communicating, because just because you think something doesn’t mean that everyone automatically understands what you’re saying.
What I’ve found is that when I get bored of the message, that’s when it really starts to ring through with other people.
Who was your best manager?
Two individuals that I have in mind were both entrepreneurial, self-starters, not afraid of managing up or managing down.
They also were able to create teamwork, group spirit, and didn’t necessarily pit their best people against each other. A bit of creative tension is good, but animosity and negativity, that’s simply not good.
What made you decide to come to Intel?
[President and CEO] Paul Otellini convinced me that he was absolutely, completely, and utterly dead serious about moving Intel beyond the PC.
The PC was going to remain critically important as were servers, but he was dead-set on making sure that we as an organization were going to be successful in phones, in tablets, in television, and whatever other form or factors comes along. We’re going to move from a PC company to be a compute company.
How do you balance work with life?
I’m passionate about what I do. This is not for me about a paycheck. I want to be part of an organization and contribute to an organization and lead an organization that has the ambition to change the world, change the industry.
When you’re mission-driven like that, putting in the long hours doesn’t matter. You’re passionate about it, you love what you do, you enjoy it, that’s what gets you out of bed every day. And so, work/life balance is tough, but I’m fortunate that I’ve got a brilliant wife who’s very understanding and forgiving.
How do you relieve stress?
What I do is I talk all day with customers, with partners, with employees, with colleagues. To relieve some stress, I like to be quiet. Maybe simple stuff like watch a movie or go for a walk.
What are your hobbies, besides traveling?
I’m passionate about technology, keeping up-to-speed with the latest and greatest of what’s happening on the web, what’s happening with consumer electronics. I get the latest widgets and gizmos and try them out.
My wife is a Formula 1 fan, and because of her, I get kind of forced into it.