But Norris wasn’t part of the dot-com era. His heyday was two generations earlier, in the 1950s and ’60s. As founder of Control Data Corp., Norris ran a firm that developed the first supercomputer, a marvel that trounced IBM and all competitors. This happened in a tiny, loosely structured company that grew to become the fourth largest computer manufacturer in the world.
IBM wondered how Control Data managed to achieve with a few dozen people what IBM had not done with several thousand. The answer: Norris let his lead engineer seclude himself and work uninhibited.
The mainframe computer, however, became only the first of Norris’s two great innovations. The second was his socially responsible business: doing well and also doing good.
Norris built plants in violent inner cities and desolate small towns, offered free corporate child care and built some of the first wind farms.
Norris’s ideas about corporate citizenship aren’t controversial today— witness Newman’s Own, Starbucks and Timberland—but in his day were considered utter folly.
Lesson: Follow your own north star, no matter how much it seems at odds with the current culture.
—Adapted from “The Lives They Lived: The Bleeding-Heart Rationalist,” Walter Kirn, The New York Times Magazine.