McGovern recalled as 'a catalyst of the computer industry'

Launched IDG and Computerworld with a focus on user in the era of Cobol, IBM's System/360 and other mainframes from companies long gone

In June 1967, when Patrick J. McGovern published the first issue of Computerworld, the new publication did something different -- it reported on the computing industry from a user perspective.

Computerworld's headlines about disk drive failures, lost data and troubled products upset IT vendors.

"They said, 'You are the enemy of our industry,'" McGovern recalled in an August 2000 interview. "We put out the publication, almost without any ads at all for the first six months."

McGovern, who died Wednesday, was an editor, publisher and entrepreneur who founded International Data Group, a global publishing and market research organization.

He also gave back -- a gift of $350 million from McGovern and his wife Lore in 2000 launched the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

McGovern at the Brain Institute
Pat McGovern at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. (Image: Jason Grow)

He was an MIT grad with a prodigious memory that helped endear him to his employees. Even as IDG's head count grew into the thousands, McGovern remembered the names of individual employees and knew details about their work; he even remembered the names of the spouses and children of those he knew particularly well.

"He had a memory that was absolutely remarkable," said Gary Beach, publisher emeritus of CIO magazine, an IDG publication.

McGovern's work in publishing and market research came at a particularly interesting time.

The 1960s was the era of Cobol, the IBM System/360, and other mainframe and midrange systems from vendors now long gone. Bill Gates was in secondary school.

The first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club, where Steve Wozniak got some of ideas that would help make Apple a success, would not happen until 1975.

McGovern formed his business ideas in an era when IT was called data processing. The role of computing in business was accelerating, but the number of IT professionals was small, in the range of 300,000.

"The data processing manager was sort of the punch card guy and wasn't thought much of," said Drake Lundell, editor of Computerworld from 1968 until the early 1980s.

McGovern's work in IT publishing began while he was a student at MIT, when he got a part-time editorial job at an early computer magazine called Computers and Automation. He started working there full time after graduating in 1959.

Computerworld
The first issue of Computerworld , June, 21, 1967.

Working at Computers and Automation gave McGovern access to vendors and thought leaders, which he relished.

At one meeting with the head of Univac, the No. 2 computer company at the time, McGovern told the company that it was investing millions of dollars in new technology development with "no knowledge about what the needs of the market were."

Univac's officials concurred, saying he was "100% correct" with that assessment.

There was a clear need for market data at the time, and McGovern created International Data Corp. to gather it. Vendor demand for IDC's market research was almost instantaneous.

A few years after creating IDC, McGovern started publishing Computerworld.

In addition to focusing on users, McGovern realized he also needed to make speed a priority so he could meet user demand for timely information about technology. Most computing publications at the time were monthly. Computerworld would be a weekly.

Running a weekly wasn't easy in the pre-Web days.

One year, a major snowstorm shut down Boston, where Computerworld was based. Staffers were "pulling an all-nighter" to get the publication out when McGovern arrived at the office and asked, "What can I do to help?" Lundell recalled. "I said go get pizza, and he did."

Lundell believes that Computerworld helped empower data processing workers and gave them the confidence to think of themselves as IT professionals.

McGovern at CW 45 event
Pat McGovern helps Computerworld celebrate the magazine's 40th anniversary in 2007. (Image: Sharon Machlis)

In 1983, George Colony founded Forrester Research as a competitor to IDG. Despite that, McGovern offered business advice.

"It just struck me," said Colony, now Forrester's CEO, "how magnanimous and helpful he was."

McGovern "was one of the catalysts of the computer industry in the United States," said Colony, adding that, in his various efforts, McGovern "was building the intellectual and knowledge base that everyone was riding. Essentially, he's a massive figure."

Paul Gillin, editor of Computerworld from 1987 to 1999, remembers McGovern well.

"Leo Durocher said nice guys finish last. I always thought McGovern proved that wisdom wrong," wrote Gillin in an email. "One of the most remarkable things about Pat is that everybody loved him. I honestly can't remember anyone ever saying a cross word about him. Pat was honest, compassionate and relentlessly optimistic."

One thing that McGovern did was to send out complimentary memos on stationery adorned with little rainbows. The memos "were an IDG fixture," said Gillin. "He read the publications thoroughly each week and fired off several congratulatory notes each week. People would pin those notes to their cubes like trophies. I still have mine!"

"Shortly before I joined IDG in 1982, I read a profile in the Boston Globe that said that McGovern personally visited every U.S. employee to deliver the Christmas bonus every year," said Gillin. "I couldn't believe it, but a few months later there he was. We used to prepare months in advance for the visits, assembling profiles of each employee. Sometimes he needed the prompting but for longtime employees he always could pull stories out of his elephantine memory. He had amazing recall."

McGovern, said Gillin, "was exceedingly modest man." To illustrate, he recalled McGovern chatting with a Computerworld staffer who mentioned that she was planning to paint her house.

"Pat offered to come over and help. 'I'm a great paint scraper,' he said. I have no doubt that if she had taken him up on his offer he would have shown up, scraper in hand," said Gillin.

Mari Keefe, Computerworld editorial project manager, contributed to this story.

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