Al Shugart, founder of Seagate Technology, the leading hard disk manufacturer, died yesterday at 76. Shugart invented the technology behind the hard disks, starting from a a capacity at that time unbelievable of 5 MB, and built starting from scratch the company that brought them with a constant evolution, to become the basis of our digital world of today. Moore’s Law dictates the financial and engineering efforts necessary to keep progressing microprocessor power, and double their speed every eighteen months. The doubling index of hard disks is even quicker at 12 months, and they keep accelerating in the overlap of successive leapfrogging technologies.
At the head of this economic and technological development, Shugart has always been able to keep a very direct and human style, even when his company grew to revenues of several billion dollars. I met him at a Seagate Technology event in Las Vegas, at the beginning of the nineties. There were 200-300 people and he was calmly sitting on a sofa in the back of the room, with his marquee hawaiian shirt, chatting along. We were introduced, exchanged a few sentences, and our business cards. On his, instead of the traditional CEO title, under his name it read simply “zookeeper”.
In his excellent book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clay Christensen takes the hard disk industry, and specifically Seagate Technology, as an example for how delicate and difficult it is to keep cannibalizing your technologies in a continuous innovation, where the new process seems a failure at the beginning, and menacingly efficient when it starts to kick finally in.