An Interview with Michael 
L. Hackworth

Wolfson :   As someone who skirted the priesthood, what ethical concerns do you see with this booming biomedical technology?
Hackworth :   The ethical concerns are awesome because what we will discover is that we can manipulate things that we thought were strictly natural processes. And, boy, for me, it's a tough one because I'm a believer in the natural law. You don't fool with mother nature.

In biotech, you're manipulating life. You can make mistakes and alter the planet. To me, those are really scary things.

On the other hand, we shouldn't be dismayed by that because there's so much good that can come from it in terms of disease prevention and cures.


Moore's Law has physical limits.
Ricket :   Have you ever run into any ethical dilemmas in your career, and do you have a strategy for avoiding them somehow?
Hackworth :   You run into ethical dilemmas all the time. I was a sales person calling on Hewlett Packard in the late 60s, and it was probably the first time I faced an ethical dilemma. The company I was working for had a product -- we didn't know it at the time -- that had a problem.

We started to hear from Hewlett Packard that they were having these failures. And so we took the failed parts back to the company's headquarters and analyzed them. And we realized that, yeah, this was going to be a problem, and there are going to be more of these problems. Now the question was: How do you deal with this with Hewlett Packard, who has lots of instruments, huge number of customers, and so on?

The dilemma was: If you scare them too much about what could be wrong and how bad it could be, they would overreact and spend a lot of money to prevent the problem or stop the problem on their end, only to find out it wasn't that big a deal, and they wasted millions and millions of dollars. On the other hand, if you didn't share information and be forthright with them, you're not telling them what you know.


I think that medical science is the next technology area in the 21st century, the kind of impact that electronics and semiconductors have had in the 20th century.

What I decided was that we've got to tell them there's a problem, but we've got to roll out the information to them in such a way that they will get their heads into it and they'll start examining their alternatives, what they need to do, and how bad this might be. But not do it in a way that causes them to waste a lot of money.

We got the engineers talking to the engineers and, day by day working through the problem, we had a good resolution and it all ended very well. The company I was working for then ended up going on for another 5 or 10 years being their top-rated supplier.

The ethical issues come all the time. It shows up as people saying to themselves: I know what the right thing to do is; but does management want me to do it? And the trick, in being the CEO of a company, is that you want everybody to believe that, yes, while our goals and objectives this quarter, this year, whatever, are very, very important, we always want to do the right thing. And sometimes doing the right thing means you're gonna miss some of those commitments or objectives. It's a challenge.


In biotech, you're manipulating life. You can make mistakes and alter the planet. To me, those are really scary things.
Wolfson :   Who is the living person you most admire?
Hackworth :   Up until recently, I would have said Dave Packard. I guess the combination of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard would have to fit that category. And, frankly, just for the very thing we talked about: doing the right thing.

David Packard

William Hewlett

The ethical issues come all the time. It shows up as people saying to themselves: I know what the right thing to do is; but does management want me to do it?
Wolfson :   If you could be reborn, what would you be?
Hackworth :   It could be fun to be a cheetah.
Wolfson :   What historical period would you like to visit?
Hackworth :   The Renaissance.
Wolfson :   Have you heard any good computer jokes lately?
Hackworth :   Not a joke, but I saw a list of trouble calls that were actually received by a bunch of computer companies on the Help lines. Here's one of them: The customer called in and said that he's having a hard time loading the compact disk into the CD ROM. And the reason was the customer thought it was a coffee cup holder.

Another: Someone was asking for help and the tech on the phone said, "Put your floppy disk in the drive and close the door." And the tech heard the person put the floppy disk in and then get up and go over and close the door.