Some baseball players are known for being consistent, if not flashy, hitters. They get on base and keep the game going. Then there are the sluggers, who bring the crowd roaring to its feet every time they step up to bat. You know they're going for that home run.
When Prithviraj Banerjee arrived at HP Laboratories, in Palo Alto, Calif., as the organization's new director in August 2007, he was intent on pushing the researchers to swing big. HP Labs, a sprawling enterprise with some 500 researchers spread over seven locations worldwide, is the company's advanced research arm, spending about US $150 million annually. The first commercially available LED, the pocket scientific calculator, thermal inkjet printing, and reduced- instruction-set computer architecture were all born in the labs. The labs got the company into digital printing, and HP is counting on those researchers for future wins.
In recent years, company executives had grown concerned that the labs had lost their focus. When Banerjee arrived, there were 150 projects under way, most of them involving just a couple of researchers and having no overarching goal. He didn't know yet which ones had home-run potential; he just knew he had to focus on those that did and forget about the rest.
And he had to move fast. Since his arrival he has flattened out the labs' hierarchy, restructuring the organization into 23 laboratories, each with a leader and a single research focus. He asked researchers and lab directors to come up with 20 "big bet" projects that would advance the state of the art of technology and have a significant impact on HP's businesses now and in the future.
This bold strategy didn't immediately win everyone over. Under Banerjee many longtime employees were forced to set aside projects they had spent years on. Many people wondered why he had been tapped for the job at all.
HP has a history of promoting its management from within. Not only had Banerjee never worked for Hewlett-Packard, he had never worked for any large corporation. He'd spent nearly his entire career in academia, with a brief detour to start a software company. Banerjee was the ultimate outsider.
A year into his tenure at HP, Banerjee has won over some skeptics. Crawford Del Prete, executive vice president of worldwide research at International Data Corp., a market research and analysis firm, says that Banerjee has "brought a level of focus to HP Labs that before didn't exist. I see a number of focused teams working away, and far more cooperation between product groups and labs than I ever saw before."
And even his critics can't question Banerjee's energy, dedication, or passion. Whether those qualities and the changes he's set in motion will be enough to put the labs in a position to score big for HP is not clear.
Of course, Silicon Valley is a culture of outsiders, drawn from all over the world and all walks of life, united by their common passion for technology. In that sense, Banerjee fit right in. Born in Sudan, he spent much of his childhood in the Himalayan foothills of Bhutan, to this day one of the most isolated nations in the world. The nearest school was a 2-hour hike through steep hills, so Prith studied at home. In his middle school years, the family settled in Calcutta, where Banerjee began more formal schooling. He was always tinkering with electronics, and in high school he won the top prize at a national science fair with a widget that measured the flow of water in a pipe using an external transducer. From an early age, he also liked to be in charge. His older brother, Sanjay, remembers 8-year-old Prith once shoving his father onto a train, impatient with his father's extended farewells.