Whenever we go on tour and show off our newest products, there’s this one affable guy hanging around, giving demos and, on occasion, answering questions from the gathered press. That’s Kevin Wentzel. His official title (Technical Marketing Manager) doesn’t really convey everything he does. When he isn’t digging deep into the guts of HP computers, he’s off on road trips in his Mini Cooper and brushing up on his amateur photography skills (as you can see in this photo). Quite frankly, I don’t know if I could sum it all up in a simple intro. He’s been with HP since 1978 and worn many hats. You read that right, 1-9-7-8. He’s even got some Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard stories if you get him in the chatting mood. So buckle up into the wayback machine as we talk about some of the things Kevin Wentzel has done – and what he’s doing now.
TheNextBench: Kevin, you've been at HP for a while now. How'd you get your start at the company and what were you doing at the time?
Kevin Wentzel: I was finishing off my master’s degree in comp sci at the University of Wisconsin. One day, I got a call from an HP recruiter asking if I wanted to interview.
TNB: Simple as that? They just spotted you and plucked you out?
KW: Yes, I didn't even know HP was on campus till they called. After a couple interviews, I had the job. (My wife was getting her MS in social work at the time…She was a bit jealous.)
TNB: So it’s January 1978, you’re hired out of grad school and now you’re going straight to HP. What was that like for you? What did they have you doing?
KW: I moved to California from Wisconsin in January. Pretty nice to go from deep winter to flowers blooming. When I showed up, I got a table, a phone, a shared terminal, a big source code listing and a set of bug reports.
TNB: ….and so began your glorious rise to power. Starting with compilers.
KW: Yep. Hard to think that we had to share a terminal among several of us. No email at the time – just admins with typewriters......but computers were fun and challenging. From there, I got really interested in PCs and found out that HP's terminals had 8008 CPUs in them and you could get a basic interpreter that you could load from a little tape. got the source code and made some changes to the interpreter so I was using the terminal as a psuedo pc. After that, I worked on HP's first pc, the 125, which ran the CPM OS. It's long forgotten.
TNB: I’m actually interested in your work on the first touchscreen PC - the HP-150 back in 83. How did that seem back then? It must've been an exciting time as so many others were just talking about a "plain ol'" personal computer at home.
KW: I did some graphics work on the HP-150 and wrote a little system utility that allowed us to get smooth motion from a rather coarse touch grid. Again, fun stuff.
TNB: Since it was all so new at the time, it must’ve been rewarding to tackle that….
KW: The funny thing was that I actually had to do some math to get interpolation to work on that. Always joked previously that I had to take enough calculus to be a math major to get a CS degree. But in system programming, the most math I'd done was adding and subtracting integers. Interpolation, acceleration and deceleration. Now I'm doing things like characterizing performance in benchmarks but the math is all in Excel.
TNB: You miss doing all that math? (No need to answer that.) When you think about your work on the 150, how do you feel about where the industry is going with touch now?
KW: I know that we had touch interfaces on some laptops in-between, but when HP brought out the TouchSmart desktops back in 2007, that got a LOT of interest. It’s funny, we had to learn the same lessons over again. It doesn't work to just add touch to an existing machine/OS. You need to design a software environment too. It was refreshing to see that with TouchSmart, HP did both the hardware and the software.
TNB: What is your average day like these days? (If there is an “average” day, that is…)
KW: Well, at the most basic level, I "play" with the newest PC toys. At some point, I’m in phone conferences with India where we have a team that helps us (my early morning call here – is a late evening meeting there). I check the publications and blogs for the latest news. Then I work with my lab team here on testing new machines - run benchmarks…test new software loads and the like…..
TNB: Sounds like you’re not done. There’s more?
KW: As resident geek, I do informal tech support for others in my team, set up demos at HP events and shows, show our latest products to press. (a little bit of travel involved.)
TNB: Sounds like a lot! What would you say is the most rewarding of all these things that you're doing?
KW: Most Rewarding: Working with our regional sales teams. Most Flat-out fun: Getting to see the newest tech gadgets very early.
TNB: Yep, that later answer just described what I love most about my job here. (I just don’t get to see the tech as early as you. I'm jealous.) It doesn't have to be something brand new, but out of all the things you've seen and worked on over the years, what would count as the most innovative thing to you?
It was practical too, though. Took all my notes at CES one year handwritten instead of typed. Handwriting was searchable, so saved it as ink, but could easily read and search for stuff you did.
TNB: Always one to humblebrag about tech -- even back then. Speaking of humblebrags, you’ve been at HP since 1978 so I have to ask: Do you have any Bill Hewlett / Dave Packard stories?
KW: Here’s one: I’m sitting at my cubicle in bldg. 44 in the Cupertino offices. Someone looks over the wall and asks directions to a conference room. That someone was Dave Packard. He, of course, asked me how things were going and after a very short conversation was on his way. (The key to this story was that we had a billionaire CEO and company founder who’d been an assistant secretary of defense in government but was wandering the building on his own and stopping to talk with employees – that is the kind of people Bill and Dave were!)
I also have a “Bill Hewlett” story. I was at HP Labs for its 25th anniversary celebration. Bill was there to say a few words because he'd always been the more techie guy of the pair. After all that was done, he made the cafeteria catering people very uncomfortable when he insisted on serving cake to all of the labs employees. (They just stood aside and let a billionaire do their jobs.)
Kevin is one of the many faces here at HP and you’re going to be seeing even more of him here on the blog. He’ll be sharing thoughts on some of the cool tech that he’s seeing pass across his desk. Have a question for him? Hit the comment box, he’s listening!