Storyteller-in-chief: Signals From the Top

Oregon’s chief hog herder Matt Alford describes his former life as technology worker.

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I graduated from Oregon State University in 1989 and set about looking for work in an economy that had been flattened in the “Black Monday” crash of 1987. Internships were few and far between, and local job prospects were slim. Wearing my only suit and tie, and with résumé in hand, I applied for anything and everything in which a bachelor’s degree was desired.

I scoured the want ads, pounded the pavement and worked the phones. I even cold-called businesses. My hard work paid off with interviews but no job offers. I finally started asking interviewers: “Is my hair a problem?” Over and over I got the standard response back: “Well, I don’t have a problem with it, but our customers…” It was my first lesson in shallow stereotypes, and it was discouraging.

I could cut my hair and move past this roadblock, but I resolved to never work for anyone who only cared what I looked like. If they didn’t like me the way I was, they didn’t deserve me. I kept looking.

Eventually I was hired as a production manager at the small husband-and-wife software firm of ESHA Research in Salem. Bob and Betty didn’t care what I looked like or what I wore to work. They cared about results, honesty and teamwork. They started me down a high-tech career path that lasted 24 years and spanned many jobs and companies. I didn’t set out to work in tech; tech chose me for me.

Ten years into my tech career, I was hired by Intel as a technical marketing engineer. On my first day of employment, I was given a badge to wear around my neck listing the Intel values: customer orientation, discipline, risk-taking and a few others. The conference rooms had posters on the walls describing the values, and there were articles and emails from Intel CEO Craig Barrett reiterating his personal commitment to the Intel code. This wasn’t the usual mission statement hung on the wall in the far corner of the cafeteria like I’d seen at other companies. This was values first, people first, from the top down. It made me want to work there.

In the decade between ESHA Research and Intel, I learned that while tech was inclusive in some ways, bad habits and signals from the top had a way of percolating down through the organization. Most of my Intel colleagues had never worked anywhere else and didn’t know what life was like in other companies. They didn’t realize that those Intel values were something rare and powerful. Craig Barrett preached that the power of Intel came from our people and our values. He meant it, and having seen the alternative, I knew he was right.

Still, Intel wasn’t perfect, and soon after joining the company, I had a series of odd run-ins with colleagues over the fact that I wore a tie to work. When I accepted the job at Intel, the company had 85,000 employees. I speculated that it probably had 100 or more people named Matt, so I decided to set myself apart by wearing a tie to work four days a week. My lost jobs over hair length taught me an important lesson: humans are visual creatures. This time I set out to use that fact to my advantage.

Hostility over my neckties started almost immediately. People would stop me in the hall and say, “You don’t need to wear a tie, that’s not our culture here.” As the weeks went on, their advice started changing from informing me of the culture to telling me that I needed to fit in. One of my first meetings with my manager started with him asking me, “Don’t you want to fit in?” I said, “I do fit in,” and he said, “No, you don’t. People are coming up to me and complaining about your tie. That’s not the culture here. This isn’t IBM.”

I calmly showed him my Intel values badge and he realized I was right. It was an Intel value to treat me with respect regardless of what I looked like. It was a powerful moment, and I fully understood the strength of that badge and why it was so rare and precious. It was as though Craig Barrett was standing there in the room beside me. The CEO at the top of our 85,000-person organization had declared that our culture was going to be a great place to work, and that meant we would work with respect for one another, and there would be no discrimination based on age, race, sex or any other irrelevant nonsense such as whether I wore a tie to work or the length of my hair.

Corporate values matter. They make and break opportunities and careers. Thank you, Bob and Betty Geltz, for hiring me. Thank you, Craig Barrett, for being there when I needed support. I couldn’t have done it without you.

 Matt Alford left tech for pig farming in 2014. He is the owner and chief hog herder of Elkhorn Farm & Forge.