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Pat McGovern stories

Pat McGovern stories
By Harry McCracken • Issue #8 • View online

The technology media business has been around for decades. It played a meaningful role in the tech revolution that has shaped our lives. But its golden age has gone oddly unchronicled, aside from occasional articles here and there. There just isn’t all that much documentation of the industry’s most significant people, companies, and publications.
I’m happy to say that there’s now a book about IDG, the company which kept me busy editing and writing stuff—mostly for PC World—from 1991-2008. More specifically, Glenn Rifkin’s Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media is about Pat McGovern, who started the company in March 1964 and remained its chairman until he left us almost exactly 50 years later. (My time as editor of PC World is mentioned in the book, and I also helped out a bit with its publication, mostly by conducting a few interviews.)
Pat’s son–who’s also a Patrick McGovern–spearheaded the publication of Future Forward to make sure that his father’s story was written down on paper and reached people who didn’t live part of it as IDG employees. He did so as part of his stewardship of the Patrick J, McGovern Foundation, which received the proceeds from IDG’s sale last year and makes grants in the areas of neuroscience and information technology, two areas dear to Pat’s heart.
As its title suggests, this book is not structured as a biography of Pat or a history of IDG per se; instead, it’s about Pat’s business philosophies as expressed in the IDG story. That makes a lot of sense, since Pat believed deeply in setting some overarching principles and then mostly getting out of the way; he contributed immensely to IDG’s success by worrying about the big picture and finding other entrepreneurial people–all over the world–to take care of the details.
I’ve now spent more years as a student of IDG than an employee of it, but Glenn’s book is full of details I didn’t know, many of them told by the people who worked most closely with Pat. (That’s a surprisingly small group considering his half-century at IDG; one of his rules was to keep the headquarters staff lean, and some of his closest associates stayed with the company for decades.)
Beijing 2004: Pat's wife Lore Harp McGovern, myself, and Pat (the McGoverns dolled up specifically to take a picture with every attendee of an IDG gala, and the signed note is typical Pat)
Beijing 2004: Pat's wife Lore Harp McGovern, myself, and Pat (the McGoverns dolled up specifically to take a picture with every attendee of an IDG gala, and the signed note is typical Pat)
The moment I heard Pat had died, I wrote about him for Three days later, I shared the inside story of his famous holiday visits over at Medium. Now that a few years have passed, I’m even more grateful that I got to work at the media company he shaped. And I have some more stories about him—not because I spent a tremendous amount of time with him, but because our encounters were few enough in quantity that I tend to remember them.
Wakefield, Massachusetts, circa 1992
I’m working at a small, short-lived, extremely unsuccessful IDG publication called Computer Buying World. Pat has come by the office to eat breakfast with the staff and field questions—my first face-to-face time with him. In retrospect, it’s an unusual event; in my thirteen years at PC World, he never did anything similar.
For some reason, the topic comes up of whether IDG ever entered a business which he later regretted—and I think maybe I’m the one who raises it. It seems—again, in retrospect—like a blunt thing to ask the chairman during a meet-and-greet. Tell us about your mistakes, Pat!
Pat has a ready answer: He explains that IDG had produced a Computerworld TV show in the early 1980s, and it had been a waste of money and a lesson that broadcasting was not in IDG’s wheelhouse. Although I don’t mention it to Pat, I’m familiar with the Computerworld show: It visited my high school and taped material for a segment in our computer lab, circa 1981. Being interviewed for the program was my first association with IDG beyond buying its magazines.
Boston, mid-1990s
Pat has come by our little PC World Boston bureau for his annual holiday visit, which involves him visiting every employee in his or her workspace to chat briefly and hand off a card and bonus. Making small talk, I make a joke and Pat laughs vigorously. (I have a vague memory we were talking about the Pentium bug, which would place this in 1994, though I could be conflating two Pat encounters.)
After Pat leaves, my boss, who had been present, tells another colleague that “Harry managed to talk to Pat like a human being.” Many years later, when I shepherd Pat around to meet dozen of staffers during these visits, I see for myself that Pat is most at ease when encountering employees who talk to him like a human being.
San Francisco, 2003
If you worked for IDG for 10 years, you got to have dinner at the Ritz Carlton with Pat. (Eventually–there was a waitlist–and usually shared with a couple of other long-timers.) Pat sent around a limo to pick you up, and greeted you in the lobby, where he’d present you with a corsage and then hand his point-and-shoot camera to a waiter to preserve the occasion for the IDG newsletter.
Before the night arrived, Pat procured notes about your interests and accomplishments so he could weave them into the conversation. At the dinner I attend, at least, the conversation gets looser and more unpredictable as we work our way through multiple courses, each accompanied by a glass of wine.
Toward the end of the night, the area in suburban Boston where I lived as a kid–Newton Corner–somehow comes up. Pat startles me by mentioning Sklar’s, a neighborhood grocery store a half-block from our home. (It had closed before we moved in, but they didn’t bother to tear down the sign.) It turns out that IDG, early in its history, had thought about moving into the Sklar’s building. The fact that I came thisclose to growing up practically next door to IDG boggles my mind. If Pat hadn’t taken me out to dinner, I’d never have known.
At my 10th anniversary dinner, wearing a corsage Pat pinned on my himself
At my 10th anniversary dinner, wearing a corsage Pat pinned on my himself
San Francisco, 2004
PC World is holding its product line meeting, a giant confab with representatives of PCW editions–of which there are about 70–from all over the planet. It’s held each year in one of the world’s great cities, and this year it’s in our hometown of San Francisco–a decision made for budgetary reasons, though the only people who might be a tad disappointed are those of us who live there.
The event is being held at the Fairmont; rather than be gouged by valet-parking prices at the hotel, I decide to take advantage of the Early Bird Special at a garage several blocks away. As I pull in, I see that the car in front of me is an aging Mercedes. Out steps Pat McGovern, who’s also spending IDG’s money carefully.
Beijing, also 2004
My boss invites me to travel with him to a different IDG meeting held each year in one of the world’s great cities, and not normally attended by editorial types. It’s in Beijing, which I’ve wanted to visit for 20 years.
The event includes nightly cocktail hours at the Grand Hyatt, a place rife with high-rolling foreigners. I’m chatting with Pat when another member of our party approaches him urgently, wanting to introduce him to some German film producers who happen to be at the bar.
Pat looks very mildly irked–which is about as angry as I ever saw him. It’ll have to wait, he says. “I’m talking to Harry–he’s the editor of the biggest computer magazine in the world!”
One of Pat's "Good News!" letters (of which he must have written thousands)
One of Pat's "Good News!" letters (of which he must have written thousands)
San Francisco, numerous times from 2003-2008
Other than his holiday ritual, about the only time Pat comes to PC World‘s offices is for a thrice-yearly event called the ORB, which is IDG’s euphemism for a board meeting. Various people are charged with updating him and other IDG executives about the state of the publication, including our CEO, CFO, sales chief, circulation director, and online general manager. But I, as editor, always go first, because my boss, the CEO, knows that talking about editorial accomplishments–traffic improvements, print and online redesigns, awards won, and the like–puts Pat in a good mood. And indeed, he does tend to just sit there and beam.
San Diego, 2008 (I’m fairly sure)
It’s been a few months since I left PC World to start my own site, Technologizer. I’m attending IDG’s DemoFall conference, which is mostly held in a large Sheraton ballroom with demos going on onstage. As I survey the crowd, I spot Pat sitting by himself at least a third of the way back, attracting little or no attention. This is a striking contrast with, say, some of the Wall Street Journal conferences I’ve attended, where Rupert Murdoch sits in the front row in literally the best seat in the house. I walk back from my seat–which is better than Pat’s–to say hello and we have a pleasant chat.
Las Vegas, 2009 (I think)
I’m attending CES, and at the moment, I’m on the lower level of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s massive South Hall. The industry’s giants are over in the Central Hall; the South Hall is home to 1.3 million square feet of mostly small booths occupied by often obscure companies.
I glance at the booth across the aisle–and there’s Pat, in the small booth of some obscure company. He’s standing by himself, in a suit (I’m sure), with a plastic bag of brochures in hand. I amble over and he explains that it’s his practice at trade shows to visit every single booth. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. Though I don’t realize it at the time, I’m having my last Pat encounter.
When I worked at IDG, I’m not sure if I understood what a remarkable place it was. After all, it was the only media company I’d worked for at the time; as far I knew, it might be pretty typical. Now I know that other businesses–in publishing or otherwise–have a lot to learn from what Pat McGovern built. Thanks to Future Forward, they have that chance.
More by me
Here are some Fast Company stories I’ve written lately:
Google Maps VP Jen Fitzpatrick on 20 years at Google
Ted Nelson's old junk mail is a treasure trove for tech nerds
Square’s reader, now compatible with Apple’s Lightning jack
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 and the triumph of the phablet
Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S4: The Android tablet that thinks it’s a PC
That’s it for now; drop me a line at if you feel like it, and see you soon.
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Harry McCracken

A roundup of technology-related stuff I'm writing, reading, and remembering.

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