Bob Finocchio: The Magic of Silicon Valley
Bob Finocchio teaches the Introduction to Business course at Santa Clara and currently serves on the boards of five Silicon Valley companies. Finocchio worked at influential tech companies Rolm and 3Com in the 80’s and 90’s and served as CEO of Informix for two years before beginning the second stage of his career as a professor and start-up director.
In this conversation, we cover why Finocchio chose to attend Santa Clara, how he got his career started in Silicon Valley, the opportunities and decisions that propelled him to business success, and the best investments of time he has made. Personally, Professor Finocchio has been one of my favorite teachers at Santa Clara, and I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.
Selected Interview Highlights
Gavin Cosgrave: What were your career plans in college?
Bob Finocchio: I had no idea. I started as undeclared arts and sciences. My advisor happened to be a French professor, so I signed up to be a French major. I changed majors four or five times—English, math, theater arts… As I got towards my senior year, I decided I wanted to pursue graduate school in economics. I started a doctoral program at Claremont Graduate School, and I thought my career would be in higher education. After a short time there, I realized I didn’t want to study graduate economics. I had applied to Harvard business school just to see if I could get in—it was really more of an ego thing to me than a desire to study business.
GC: Are there any moments from your time at Harvard that stand out?
BF: Harvard was a big cultural shock; I had never been to the East Coast. I was convinced I was the least-prepared person there. The atmosphere was gladiator-like—you’re in an arena everyday in the classroom and you argue with other students. The first couple weeks, I was convinced I had been admitted by mistake.
One day, I got a note in my box to visit the admissions office because someone wanted to see me. I literally thought they were going to tell me that they had admitted me by mistake and send me home. When I got there, they wanted me to sign a release to use part of my application essay in their brochure about the business school. As time went on, I found out that I was well-prepared and did very well.
GC: You spent the first nine years of your career at the tech company ROLM. Were there moments working at ROLM where you learned something important that helped you in the rest of your career?
BF: ROLM hired me, initially, doing finance work with the treasurer. But, very quickly, they started asking me to do things I had no idea how to do. One day they said, “Go buy a company.” I had no idea how to buy a company! A year later, someone running one of ROLM’s sales and service subsidiaries died jogging at lunch, and they asked me to go run that part of the business in Detroit. I didn’t know anything about sales or service, but they kept betting on me even though my profile had nothing to do with what you needed to be successful.
GC: For a couple years in the late ‘90s, you served as the CEO of Informix. What were you tasked to do, and what ended up happening?
BF: Informix was soon to be a billion-dollar database management company that had some well-established operational problems. They had a sales-oriented CEO and wanted somebody who could run things better, and that was my reputation. I took that job, and on the third day I found out there was accounting fraud committed, in part, by my predecessor. We went through a couple years of very trying times. Some people ended up going to jail. Eventually, the company stabilized and, after I left, it was sold to IBM. That turned out to be a very formative experience for me.
After that, I was tired emotionally and wanted to do something different. My family had made immense sacrifices with the amount of time I had been working and traveling. I probably traveled 70% of the time and was never home. I decided to not have a day job for a while and heard that Santa Clara was starting this course called Business 70 where they wanted practitioners to teach an introductory business class. At the same time, I had started joining boards of companies.
GC: What would you say is one of the best investments you have made in your life? (Could be of time, money, energy, etc.)
BF: I don’t really have a long list of spectacular financial investments I’ve made. I’m sort of liberated from having to worry about making the next big bet myself. I have enough to do what I want with the rest of my life.
One more important investment would be the investment in having a family and the joy, benefit and experiences I’ve gotten from that.
For most of my life, I’ve invested in keeping myself physically healthy. I wasn’t a very good athlete or in very good shape, but I started running around 40 years ago and became a marathoner. The only thing I’m good at athletically is endurance—mind over matter— and that’s what I learned in long-distance running. I’ve morphed into doing mountain climbing and hard hiking, but I think it’s important to try to stay physically relevant.
I invest a lot in travel and adventure—going to places in the world that are hard to get to. It’s just pure pleasure, but I just find it very exciting and a very legitimate way to spend money.
I had the opportunity 17 years ago to climb the tallest mountain in Antarctica - something that I was barely qualified to do. With the help of a good guide and team, I got to the top of this mountain that, at the time, only 300 other people had climbed.
GC: What are you most proud of?
BF: I feel more lucky than proud, and I’m reluctant to say, “Because I did this, I have that,” or “I caused this wonderful thing to happen.” It’s more about stumbling into Silicon Valley in 1977. Maybe having the guts to change jobs multiple times and go into things I didn’t understand and taking advantage of bosses who were willing to take chances on me. The way I look at it is that I got lucky: I made some good choices, I got exposed to some people who were extraordinary and I was lucky enough to invest in having a family.
The reason I like to teach at Santa Clara is to share my experiences and have some impact on students. It’s hard to know how that works out. The real test is what happens in the student’s life the next year, or in the first, second or third job. That’s where the impact of a good teacher really happens.