Should Marc Andreessen Become HP’s Interim CEO?

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Mark Hurd could have been one of the greats, at least from Wall Street’s perspective. He took a unruly mess that Carly Fiorna left in her wake, and turned Hewlett-Packard into one the biggest technology companies on the planet: leaving International Business Machines behind and daring to take a bite out of Cisco Systems’ bread-and-butter switching business.

Hurd should have been subject of Harvard Business School case study. Instead, he left under a cloud of doubt, with a somewhat sullied reputation, in an all-too-familiar tale of hero-today-villain-tomorrow, tossed aside on the garbage pile of ruined reputations. He may end up a mere footnote in the history of Silicon Valley.

Whatever the reasons for his departure –- the full story will come out soon enough –- one of the biggest knocks against Hurd was his ruthless cost cutting, which essentially alienated him from the rank-and-file and destroyed HP’s culture of innovation. (Just read the comments in response to this excellent piece by Fortune editor-at-large Adam Lashinsky to see employees’ reactions to Hurd.) Perhaps that’s why the next chief executive of HP needs to “reinvent” the company.

The question is: Who should reinvent HP? There’s a long list of people speculators deem fit for the job. However, the CEO search for the top job at the biggest tech company (by revenues) is going to take time. The trouble is, HP doesn’t have time, and needs to figure out its role in the future, as computing shifts from hardware and desktops to the cloud and our pockets.

Scott Olsen, a web company executive, argues that HP doesn’t have much time to waste.  “Putting in your CFO is the equivalent to hanging a Gone Fishin’ sign in the storefront for all your employees, partners, suppliers and customers to see,” Olsen writes. Like The New York Times’ Joe Nocera, Olsen takes HP’s board to the task.

Olsen argues that it’s time for the board to show that they have an option better than Hurd, who was a Wall Street darling. Olsen says the best way to do this is to see if Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen will take over as the interim chief executive of the company, and couple him with a top-caliber chief operating office. Todd Bradley, current executive vice president for HP’s personal systems group, is being viewed as a likely candidate for the top job, and would make a good interim COO. If nothing, consider it as on-the-job training for Bradley.

Andreessen is already an HP board member, and is quite intimate with the company (remember HP bought his company Opsware for $1.6 billion in 2007). He’s already heading up the CEO search committee, and he was the public face of HP right after the scandal broke.

Andreessen as an interim CEO is not such a preposterous idea: His investments in hot companies such as Zynga, Foursquare, Skype and Facebook gives them a whole lot of cachet both in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street. He understands the world of technology as only an engineer can, but by now, he’s also a seasoned executive and Silicon Valley diplomat. His investments have made him privy to new and emergent technologies.

About ten years ago, Andreessen told a Forbes reporter that “being a CEO is a very, very difficult job, and it’s almost a personality hard-wiring issue. Not that many people are suited for it, and I’m not sure I am.” He’s been steadfast in that belief. That should help make the board ‘s decision easy, as they shouldn’t expect him to stay in the job permanently. However, for the duration of the CEO search (which could last between three and nine months), he would be ideal to portray the new “innovation-centric” HP. As Olsen puts it:

It would be a crystal clear message to the tech industry that HP is aiming to be a technology player again.  Internally, HP knows that it has —zero— ability to recruit and build a cadre of game changing technologists.  Somebody very high up in BD told me with shocking plainness that the only hope HP has of attracting top tech talent is to do “talent acquisitions” of startups whereby HP would buyout the startup company solely for the purpose of hiring that team as a group.  The back of the envelope was that HP would pay $1 million per developer.  Ouch, and you thought you had a recruiting problem. Marc Andreessen and his considerable tech cred could serve as a rally point for top talent to meet.  It would give the top talent a reason to take the risk and bite the hook on “this is a huge platform.” Continue stable caretaker management while Mark Andreessen works on the plan for the technology and strategic revitalization of HP.

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Meanwhile, some institutional investors in his fund (Andreessen Horowitz) with long time partner Ben Horowitz might not be too pleased by this short-term distraction, but nothing assuages the hurt than a nice profit return on investment –- something a successful Skype initial public offering will ensure.

What do you guys think?

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