Bill Raduchel’s life winds through the tech leaders of our time

Thomas Heath
Reporter July 14, 2013

I couldn’t make up William Raduchel’s résumé if I had the imagination of Steven Spielberg.

A science and math whiz, he was known as a “Sputnik Kid” and enrolled at Michigan Technological University while still in his teens. He was an IBM scholar at Michigan State University.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

Raduchel, 67, earned a doctorate in econometrics (statistics for economists) at Harvard, where his oral final exam featured questions by two Nobel Prize winners, including the real Dr. Strangelove, Thomas Schelling.

He taught a Harvard econometrics class that included Ben S. Bernanke and a pair of future “micros”: Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy and Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer.

Raduchel, who lives in Great Falls and teaches at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, also spent six years as assistant dean of admissions at Harvard and Radcliffe College.

He met Facebook President Sean Parker when Parker was still poor, and Bill Gates when he was rich — and getting richer. He made a weird sales call on Steve Jobs and got a job with McNealy’s Sun Microsystems while they were stopped in traffic.

I usually write about entrepreneurs and companies. But after sitting next to Raduchel at a recent Terk Tech dinner hosted by former Washington Post chief technology officer Ralph Terkowitz, I wanted to share some of his story. There will be more of our chat, including how to predict success at Harvard and the state of the media industry, in an upcoming Sunday Business section.

How do you know Sean Parker?

I was nice to him when he was poor.

Sean was thrown out of Napster [the music-industry disrupter]. He came back home. He lived in Fairfax County. He showed up at AOL looking for something to do around the spring of 2000.

He literally came to the receptionist and asked to talk to somebody. He didn’t know anybody. He was a high school kid that went off to do Napster. The receptionist sent him to Ted Leonsis, then the AOL vice chairman.

I was chief technology officer at AOL, and Ted walked him into my office and said, “You should talk to him.” And that’s how I got to meet Sean.

He never took a job. I gave him advice, took him to dinner.

Why did you give time to some kid off the street?

I have always had this principle that talent comes as talent comes. And he was talented. Just talking to him for three minutes, you realized he had an understanding of the world and where it was going. I don’t think his presence was overpowering, but his brain was. Sean is unbelievably clever and perceptive.

I talked to him probably 100 times over the next four years. We had dinner all the time.

I was an admissions officer [at Harvard]. You learn pretty quickly how to sort through who is truly different and who isn’t. And Sean was.

Sean asked questions about AOL, what AOL did and where it was going. He was still a bit perplexed from Napster. He was a young kid all of a sudden caught up in lawsuits, being sued for every penny he will ever make. It had to be a brutalizing experience for any 20-year-old.

If you weren’t shellshocked, you weren’t human.

You attended his wedding this year?

It was beautiful, and it was wonderful. It was at Big Sur at Ventana resort. It could have been outrageous and over the top, and it wasn’t.

When you taught economics at Harvard, some of your students included future bigwigs like McNealy, Ballmer, Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, presidential adviser Ed Lazear, TIAA-CREF chief executive Roger Ferguson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. Looking back, whose success surprised you the most?

I remember McNealy and Ballmer. I don’t think people would have thought that either of them were going to be CEO of a major tech company. Ballmer was the football manager, and Scott was captain of the golf team. That was probably their most memorable accomplishments at Harvard. They were not scholars, but they were good students.

Tell the story about your visit with Steve Jobs when he was trying to sell NeXT, the computer company he founded after Apple.

I was working at Sun Microsystems, and one day, I went to present Sun’s offer to acquire NeXT Computer.

This was the early ’90s. NeXT was in a nondescript office building in Silicon Valley. I went over by myself, walked in and the receptionist said, “Mr. Jobs is waiting for you in the boardroom.”

I walked into the boardroom, and there was Steve sitting at the end of a table with a spotlight on him, but otherwise the room was dark.

So I sat down in the dark in the chair next to him, and I started making a comment on the latest Pixar movie, which I think was “Toy Story.”

He cut me off and said, “What’s the number?” I told him. He said: “Congratulations. You found the right number. That’s what I would pay if I were Sun. But I want my number, and someone will pay it. Goodbye.”

And that was it.

Steve was Steve.

What do you mean?

He was in­cred­ibly smart, incredibly brilliant and in­cred­ibly eccentric.

There’s a lot alike between Sean Parker and Steve Jobs. They could see things other people couldn’t.

Human beings’ horizons are limited by their experiences. Theirs weren’t. Most people hit a brick wall when they try to look farther ahead.

Steve and Sean don’t hit the brick wall. It makes them unique minds. Steve said himself several times that his greatest strength was understanding when something wasn’t ready. He killed multiple tablet ideas at Apple because he said it wasn’t good enough.

[AOL co-founder] Steve Case had the same abilities to understand what would work with consumers and what wouldn’t. What would succeed and what would fail. How much consumers could absorb. It’s an uncanny skill.

AOL, for example, was simple. You brought up the program, typed in your phone number and you hit “go.”

How did you come to work for Sun?

I was driving to work one day at Xerox in Palo Alto in 1988, and [McNealy] pulled up next to me in his car and rolled down his window, and he said the CFO was going to call me and try to hire me as head of planning for Sun. I said okay, and he drove off.

I started in September of 1988 as vice president of corporate planning and development at Sun.

I started at Sun on the day of the $1 billion party [when Sun revenue exceeded $1 billion], and it was so loose compared to Xerox. Controls and plans were absent. The quarter I joined, I was one of 7,000 new hires. Sun was the Google of its day. It had incredible talent.

How was it to work for McNealy?

He fervently believed in pushing responsibility out as far as you could. The job of the management team was to set boundaries and give employees the freedom to act. A lot of management conventional wisdom today came from Scott. It was revolutionary at the time.

Sun managed transition really well.

You spent five years as the head teaching assistant for John Kenneth Galbraith. What was he like?

An imposing figure. He was like Steve Jobs, in a very different way. Like Steve Case. His ability was to perceive the public at large and what the public needed to understand as opposed to what the intellectuals saw.

Your doctorate interview was conducted by three professors, two of whom were Nobel Prize winners. Pretty intimidating?

They already had hired me as an assistant professor, so it would have been very embarrassing to fail me.

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