Thinking of and Thanking Paul Otellini

A friend just sent me the surprising and sad news of the unexpected passing of former Intel CEO, Paul Otellini. Paul did so many things for me over a long career at Intel, and I had to put fingers to keyboard (something Intel enabled, of course) right away to acknowledge his many (and unknown) contributions to my work.

I first met Paul over thirty years ago.  My first (successful) Silicon Valley company had Sevin-Rosen as lead investors, and Roger Borovoy was our board chair, the former Intel General Counsel.  Roger thought that outside board service would be a good experience for an up and coming Intel executive, and that our startup would really benefit from Paul's input.  The company went on to great success, and today is still represented in the product lines of Nuance (NUAN).

Paul was there on the fateful day when I presented a reading machine prototype to the Calera Recognition Systems board.  The board's veto of the project (because it wasn't a big enough financial opportunity) led to the founding of what is today my nonprofit organization, Benetech.  Paul was helpful in getting Calera to approve incredibly favorable terms for the sale of its TrueScan hardware OCR boards to my nonprofit (roughly a 80% discount off a hardware product, plus extended credit), which made the Arkenstone Reader possible (the first affordable reading machine for the blind).

Years later, after I was full-time at the nonprofit, we had replaced the TrueScan card with the WordScan OCR software (today's Omnipage software is probably a great granddaughter product), and the largest single cost in our reading machines was the Intel chip inside it.  And, because the OCR was very compute-intensive, the speed of the Intel chip mattered a lot.

Intel didn't have a great reputation for being socially conscious back then. I remember an Upside magazine cover from early in Andy Grove's tenure (he was CEO of Intel back in those days) that portrayed Intel as Scrooge.  A very different Intel than today, which has a great reputation for environmental sensitivity and is a huge funder of education work (something that Paul greatly expanded later on when he became Intel's CEO).
Paul otellini
Paul Otellini
I called Paul, who was then heading Intel's division in Folsom, California, and asked him if he could find top of the line 486 DX-2 chips that were cosmetically flawed (like the label was misapplied) but fully functional.  His team scrounged up hundreds and sent them to us for free, which were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  It enabled us to cut the price of our reading machine to blind people by $1000 (the chips cost $500 each, and our markup was twice the cost to cover our staff and our dealers, who were mainly blind business-people, so we lowered the price by twice the value of the discount). 

When we were running low on the donated chips, I circled back to Intel and asked for their newest chips, the Pentiums.  I think that by that time Paul had already moved up at Intel, and his successor Vin Dham (pretty much Mr. Pentium) was happy to continue to do as Paul had. They mentioned that finding cosmetically marred chips was too time consuming, would we mind getting regular chips of their second fastest Pentium model?  Oh, and would it be ok if they sent a million dollars worth of chips: it would make a better press release!

You might imagine I said yes.  And two days later, a step-van showed up and a million dollars of Pentiums were delivered to our back door.  We were flabbergasted! It turns out that a million dollars of Pentiums is worth more than its weight in gold; it was roughly a quarter of a single pallet. We were also terrified, since at the time in the 90s, there was a spate of chip robberies in Silicon Valley.  We put some in a safe deposit box in our bank, and hid a bunch of them in different places for safekeeping.  Luckily, we managed to use all of them in reading machines.

Our team was so excited, we made a tactile version of the "Intel Inside" logo and put them on our reading machines so that our blind users would have access to the same labels sighted people had! I don't think it was very easy to get Intel's approval of the variation of their logo/label, but we did.

Of course, one of the major breakthroughs in our reading machines were that they were all Intel PCs, which meant that our users not only got the benefit of a talking reading machine, they also had all of the capabilities of a personal computer to use in education, employment or social inclusion.  At the time, I wrote an article about the PC as the "Swiss Army knife" for people who had disabilities: it was able to overcome so many challenges for them, allowing them so much of the independence that people without disabilities had when it came to working with information. 

I have a feeling that these were some of the earliest big donations from Intel to social good, and Paul was the guy who made it happen.

Of course, Paul went on to eventually become the CEO of Intel and accomplish big things in the business world.  But, he kept a strong connection to the disability field.  One of his children was identified with dyslexia, and he and his wife, Sandy, became major leaders in the dyslexia activism field.  Paul championed the Intel Reader, a reading machine for people with dyslexia, and we worked closely with Ben Foss, the dynamic "out" dyslexic who drove that project forward.

Paul also helped us when we were fighting the biggest advocacy battle of our history, to get the Marrakesh Treaty.  A patent alliance of major manufacturers came out against the Marrakesh Treaty, and Intel's name was on the mast-head.  I followed up with Paul and quickly figured out Intel had had nothing to do with this anti-accessibility position.  As a result of that ping (and a bunch of others, I'm sure), a whole bunch of major tech companies disavowed the position of the patent alliance.  Getting industry to back off their opposition to a treaty for people with disabilities was the turning point to getting a treaty that the United States government could endorse. 

His commitment to people who read differently is illustrated by the family's request that contributions to Paul's memory be made out to UCSF's Dyslexia Center. I know I share the opinion of many people that we lost Paul far too soon, and that people who need technology to achieve full equality in society are poorer by his passing.  Thank you, Paul, for this part of your storied career!


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