A Seaman's Journey

Adventures of a Lifetime

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The Prima Donna Farm

by Mark Seaman


I grew up on a Prima Donna Farm, which could explain how I turned out.  My young adult years were spent in an environment that can be described as a large-scale Darwinian ecosystem where only the fittest survive.  My early adult years were devoted to be the best of the best.

Opera singers are not the only profession with Prima Donnas.  In fact, they exist in any career path that requires complete and total devotion to achieve at the highest level.  Special forces, brain surgeon, rocket scientists, fighter pilots, Olympic athletes, and Harvard lawyers, and 100 other professions.

When breeding dogs there is a constant and conscious attention applied to the gene pool to ensure that only the chosen traits survive.  Undesirable traits are identified and weeded out.  All of these elite professions are supported by a Prima Donna Farm that guarantees the characteristics of of those that will be selected.

My farm was headquartered in Silicon Valley and dominated the economics of the entire world.  In the early 1980s there were 10 companies that controlled the entire electronics industry.  Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard started a company in their garage in 1928 that would continuously breed small companies.  Many of these companies would grow to be larger than nations.

The culture of HP was not for the faint of heart. The company practices and policies were designed to recruit, train, and deploy global leaders in the electronics industry.  The expectation was that every employee was to operate at the top level of performance every day. Each person was expected to be brilliant but also able to sell ideas to others.

Every engineer in the R & D lab must be able to design complex systems and forcefully present their views to others with confidence.  Any sign of weakness or uncertainty was like blood in the water and would soon gather sharks.  This culture of toxic competition was delightful to some and utterly destructive to many.

A system of forced ranking was used quarterly to establish a pecking order that determined pay and promotion. Each one would be assigned a number that designated your relative worth.  This created a "zero-sum-game" that encouraged engineers to undermine others in order to advance their career.  On several occasions I saw incidence of actual sabotage but in every meeting there was a great deal of posturing and confrontation.

This intense atmosphere of competition would break many.  My wife would visit for lunch and comment that she could not stand being around so many large egos for any more than an hour at a time.  I had a friend that left HP describe that each morning he would drive into the parking lot and shake uncontrollably for about ten minutes before he could work up the courage to enter the building.

It must be in my genes but I found this environment to be exhilarating and stimulating.  Looking back I viewed it mostly as a game.  Each day was a new opportunity to fail.  But it was also an opportunity to win... constantly striving for a higher number on the ranking.

The farm was designed to nurture people of a very specific profile.  White men graduating at the top of their class with aggressively confident personalities.  Some women were allowed but they had to adjust to reflect the male norms of the workplace.  Very few minorities were present in the environment as it was not a very welcoming or inclusive place for them.

The one form of diversity that we experienced was with age.  When I joined at 21 there were many people that had worked at HP for 20 to 30 years.  This was true the whole time that I worked there. I guess once a Prima Donna always a Prima Donna. We had both kinds of people young white men and old white men.

I was pretty proud of my 4.0 GPA in Electrical Engineering until I went to work at HP and realized that everyone else could trump that with degree from big name universities.  The thing about pride is that it is never satisfied.  Even in a highly selective environment of elitism I want to be ranked in the top ten percent.  Anything else feels like failure.  This is not a realistic or healthy way to live.

As I look back years later I realize that I did little to challenge the Prima Donna mindset that was the cultural norm.  I also know that this must have taken such a great toll on so many lives of people that worked there but could not thrive in that environment.

Over the last year I have been confronted by the bigotry and brutality that is a part of our society. But I now see this in a more holistic way.  I view the elitist culture of HP as part of the same type of prejudice that victimizes so many of people in our society.  I think it may be time to take an honest look at attitudes and begin to make amends.