At the start: Pat McGovern and the birth of Computerworld

Started in 1967, the newspaper grew into a worldwide publishing concern that to this day continues to cover the tech industry.

Editor's note: June 21, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Computerworld's founding. Join us for a look back at the earliest days of our publication.

In 1967, Thursday mornings were special at the gray house at 355 Walnut St. in Newtonville, Mass. That's when the first issues of Computerworld were usually delivered from the printers.

Computerworld 50th Anniversary [2017] Computerworld

Much like those tech startups that were born in garages -- Hewlett-Packard and Apple, for instance -- Computerworld was being run by MIT graduate Patrick J. McGovern Jr. out of his colonial-style home. He was 30 at the time, and had started the IT publication just three years after founding International Data Corporation (IDC).

IDC did research on emerging markets, where McGovern, who had a degree in biophysics and a passion for traveling, had seen enormous potential in what technology could offer.

The seed for Computerworld came while he was at an industry trade show, where he saw a business opportunity in a newsweekly for the IT community. He envisioned something that would help users understand how technology could help businesses grow and help them make the right IT purchasing decisions.

cw issue1 Computerworld

The first issue of Computerworld, June 21, 1967.

The booming '60s

The computer industry was flourishing in 1967. IBM created the first floppy disk. The first Computer Electronics Show (CES) debuted in New York City. Chase became the first video game that could be played on a TV.

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In the late 1960s, the business corridor between Routes 128 and 495 west of Boston was the Silicon Valley of its day, with Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) in Maynard, Mass., giving rise to minicomputer companies such as Apollo Computer, Data General, Prime Computer and Wang Laboratories.

McGovern, who had a photographic memory, also had an innate ability to predict emerging IT trends, something that came from his study of industry players.

At trade shows, he never moved randomly but started in the back, left corner of the floor and worked his way booth by booth — visiting scores of companies.

"He'd drive me nuts, because I'd just want to see four companies and he'd methodically go to each one," said his son, Patrick McGovern III. "I think that was his way of figuring out the new trends before they were recognized by everyone else."

From those early days, Computerworld and IDC would grow over the years to include a parent company, International Data Group, and eventually some 300 publications in 97 countries, 460 websites and 700 events. Computerworld itself spawned a half-dozen sister publications, including Network World, InfoWorld, PCWorld, CIO, and CSO, as well as the IDG News Service. And McGovern, who died in 2014, was one of first U.S. businessmen to form a joint venture with the People's Republic of China, bringing IDG there in 1980.

(China Oceanwide Holdings Group and China-based IDG Capital announced plans on Jan. 19 to buy Computerworld's parent company, IDG.)

In addition to spotting industry trends, McGovern had the ability to select and train salespeople and leaders adept at running IDG's various ventures. Among them was Walter Boyd.

Learning by doing

In the mid-1960s, Boyd, now IDG's chairman and CEO, was working for a magazine in St. Louis when he ran a notice in Advertising Age magazine saying he was seeking a better gig.

"Pat answered the blind ad and invited me to call him, and after we talked for an hour he said, 'Please come to Boston to see if we're a good fit,'" Boyd recalled.

Boyd said he arrived at Boston's Logan Airport and waited for McGovern for 40 minutes, "thinking I've been stood up." His introduction to the 6-foot-3-inch McGovern came as McGovern ran toward him in the airport, meeting him with an apology for being late and the explanation that he'd been tied up with "a million and one things."

"His mind worked in wondrous ways — not like you and I. He always had 10 or 12 channels streaming through his brain at any given point," Boyd said. "He would get anywhere from 20 to 30 phone calls an hour. It was amazing. He was not happy unless he was busy."

In the late 1960s, Computerworld and IDC moved from that Newtonville home to Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge near Harvard Square — a perfect spot for McGovern, who loved young people and ended up hiring mostly MIT and Harvard graduate students from the area.

"All the grad students were just absolutely stoned," Boyd recalls. "This was the late '60s and everybody was down with Vietnam and up with pot and Rolling Stone. And, we were right in the center of it in Harvard Square."

Boyd said McGovern was someone who knew "a little bit about everything in the universe."

"He was a very gregarious guy who at heart was extraordinarily shy, but he made a point to meet with as many people as he could and get as many viewpoints as could," Boyd said.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Before launching Computerworld, McGovern first sought guidance from the leading computer manufacturers of the time, colloquially known as "Snow White and Seven Dwarfs." Snow White was IBM, and the seven dwarfs were Burroughs, UNIVAC, NCR, Control Data Corp., Honeywell, General Electric and RCA.

"He listened extraordinarily well when it came to the market. That was one of the key... reasons for the big success of the corporation," Boyd said.

McGovern pulled off a bit of a coup when he convinced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to give him the customer lists for every computer they'd sold, something Boyd called a "gutsy move."

IDC, the research firm, had started as nothing more than a data file that contained the business computer census. The computer printout was about seven inches thick and weighed about 15 lbs., Boyd said. Using that list, IDC would send out an annual questionnaire asking users for details about the operating systems, peripherals or other technologies they were using along with their mainframes or minicomputers.

In 1967, the questionnaire went to 15,000 computer sites, Boyd said. "It just kept growing and growing and growing, and that was the basis of Computerworld," he said. "As soon as we sent out our first mailings, we got an incredible response. We had about 12,000 paid subscribers within the first nine months."

Over time, the number of paid subscriptions rose to 125,000.

"We wound up being the largest paid circulation business publication in the country," Boyd said. "A lot of that was due to Pat's ideas. It was like he had advanced knowledge of these things. Sometimes it was rather spooky."

With the client data file on his rented car's dashboard, McGovern and a salesman would visit customers in the field. McGovern would school them on how to use the data file to point out the plethora of users Computerworld had as subscribers.

"When he drove, you didn't want to be in the car with him," Boyd said. "Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't kill himself. You talk about people texting now. He'd read... he'd go through the data file."

When Computerworld's ad salespeople made their quotas, the reward was not having to be on a call with McGovern. And if they missed their quotas two quarters in a row? They got a week on the road with McGovern.

A shifting IT industry

At the time, computer technology was bundled. If you bought a computer system from IBM, you bought everything from IBM. "You didn't have any choice," Boyd said.

McGovern sensed that the computer hardware market's bundled, proprietary business model wouldn't last. He thought that eventually there would be great demand for third-party suppliers and service providers. He also stayed true to his belief that technology could thrive in emerging markets.

In 1973, he launched Shukan Computer (which means Computer Weekly) in Japan. While it was a Computerworld for that country, McGovern didn't try to duplicate the content from his U.S. publication. He wanted each overseas IT newspaper to be unique, with a local staff that could tailor the content to the concerns in their home markets.

In his very first job interview with McGovern, Boyd was told exactly what was going to happen with IDC and Computerworld — "and it did," he recalled recently.

McGovern explained to Boyd how he planned to establish Computerworld newspapers in all major industrial countries, and that IDC would have offices all over the world.

"That was his master plan, and he had all of that down when he was 26 years old," Boyd said. "People in a certain country were only interested in services and products available in that country. He was very smart doing that."

"I had my marching orders from day one," Boyd continued. "They were etched in stone by the time [McGovern] made the first overseas venture in Japan with Computerworld; it was like dominoes falling: We were in 25 countries in the next three years after that."

The personal touch

While maintaining a decentralized business structure, McGovern fostered a sense of family in his company — a practice that earned him the affectionate nickname "Uncle Pat" among employees. Each December, McGovern would travel to every IDG business unit to hand out bonuses to every employee — more than 1,000 people. In the morning, he'd visit a human resources office and comb worker files to glean personal information he could use to spark a conversation with people as he handed out their bonuses. It was common for McGovern to compliment reporters on their latest articles and thank them specifically for their work.

As McGovern continued to launch IDG and Computerworld units overseas over the next several decades, he did it through either licensing deals or subsidiary arrangements. At IDG's peak, company publications had 280 million regular readers, according to Bloomberg News. And the joint venture McGovern created in China would go on to become the first venture capital firm in that nation.

'Bigger than life'

Built like a linebacker, McGovern could be an imposing figure. But he was also an introvert, said Michael Friedenberg, CEO of IDG Communications Worldwide.

"When you were in front of him... he was just bigger than life. One of the things that he had the ability to do is make you feel as if you could accomplish anything," Friedenberg said. "So even though you might have doubts about the task at hand and even doubts about yourself, he would build you up in such a way that made you feel, 'Not only can I accomplish this, but so much more.'"

He had a knack for choosing managers in each country where he planted Computerworld, and while he pushed them to meet publishing and advertising quotas, he also gave them autonomy to do things their own way.

One such manager was Hugo Shong, with whom McGovern worked to launch IDG Capital in 1993. It grew to become one of the largest VCs in China and is now one of the partners buying IDG.

"Hugo has done such a magnificent job growing that business well beyond what anyone thought it was going to be… except for Pat," Friedenberg said.

"As long as you continued to communicate and deliver on [McGovern's] expectations, then he'd forever give you the road and resources to accomplish that," Friedenberg said. "Pat had two sayings: 'The biggest room in the house is the room for improvement' and... 'Shoot for the stars, and if you land on the moon, we'll all be better for it.'"

Patrick McGovern, founder and chairman, International Data Group [IDG] Image credit: IDG

In addition to his work in publishing, Patrick McGovern was also fascinated by brain research, and in 2000, he and his wife, Lore Harp McGovern, donated $350 million to help MIT establish the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. He's pictured here at the institute, which continues to thrive.

Integrity and independence

One editorial value McGovern refused to compromise was independence — the "separation of church and state" between advertisers and his writers and editors.

Computerworld's first big advertising win came in the form of a four-page color spread from NCR Corp.

"In the same issue, on the front page, the editor wrote a story about [NCR's] disk drives crashing," Boyd said. "You can imagine what that was like. The salesman on the [advertising] account was from Los Angeles... and he wanted to know who the witless clod was who let that happen. I flew to Los Angeles to talk to him and had a business card made up that said, 'Walter Boyd — Witless Clod.'"

"That's the kind of editorial integrity Computerworld is very famous for, and in those days that wasn't very common," he said.

As mainframes, minicomputers and campus networks grew into PCs, mobile devices and the internet, Computerworld evolved, too, and faced its biggest challenge since launch: moving from paper to a digital website.

Computerworld moved to leverage the internet first as a communications vehicle and then as an engine for business commerce, which meant news coverage had to grow from hardware and software to online services and the cloud.

Moving to the web

In 2005, Friedenberg joined IDG as CEO of CXO Media, publisher of the CIO and CSO magazines and websites. He described it as a "tumultuous time, when IDG's publications were trying to find their place on an internet where startup publications, blogs and mainstream media were all attempting to adapt a new communications model.

"Eleven years ago, it was all about, 'What's this going to be?' and today it's all about, 'What can I do with it?'" Friedenberg said.

Before the arrival of the internet, Computerworld represented a "secret club" among businesses where information about IT was shared, and where vendors and users found quirky and creative ways to come together. The magazine was a hub of that universe, helping not only to shed light on where technology was heading but also to bring vendors and user groups together to share ideas.

"Probably the most important thing Computerworld did was to help users make smarter IT purchase decisions," Friedenberg said.

Patrick McGovern III offered up a different analogy.

"I think of the New York Times as being the paper of record in terms of what's happened over the last 130 years, and I think Computerworld over the past 50 years has been paper of record for technology," said the younger McGovern. "If you wanted to know what was happening at DEC in 1978... Computerworld really was the voice for decision-makers looking to purchase and learn more about computer tech."

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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