Call him DocuDad.
In his red polo shirt and khakis, Chip Holt–Charles to those few who insist on formalities–looks more like a golf pro than a paradigm shifter.
Don’t be fooled.
Holt invented Xerox Corp.’s DocuTech, the digital-printing Leviathan that itself created the industry of print-on-demand publishing just five years ago.
Holt could easily rest on those laurels and no one would complain–especially not Xerox, where DocuTech and related digital publishing added $1 billion to the company’s coffers last year.
But resting never quite fits into Holt’s schedule.
Instead, as corporate vice president of the Joseph C. Wilson Center for Research and Technology, he is steering Xerox toward its next generation of products, and into the world of color.
“This may border on being secret,” he begins, “but we have a set of technologies right now that are going to give the company an array of color products that are just enormously promising.”
That date is imminent, Holt believes. Technologies for taming color will be ready within a year, though the products they drive are further down the road.
Holt takes pride in knowing that he leads another industry-shaking charge. Yet getting this far has been a tricky task.
A year ago, Xerox reshuffled its research and technology efforts, for the first time bringing them together under one roof at the Wilson Center. By organizing both groups into competency-based labs–one lab works on advanced powder materials, for example, another on paper handling–Xerox hopes to get a jump on how exploratory research eventually can be brought to bear on products.
The move caused a cultural clash, as theory-steeped researchers struggled to understand or at least overcome their disdain for product-driven technologists, and vice versa. Only recently have the groups grown to appreciate each other, Holt maintains.
And the center is recovering from another blow received last year, when it lost 60 people as a result of Xerox’s corporatewide downsizing.
“Technology and research had never been touched before, so even though it was a small number it had a fairly profound effect,” Holt says.
Communication is key to combating these hits, he contends.
To flatten the center’s hierarchy, all 27 laboratory leaders report directly to Holt. He speaks regularly at forums for all 400 employees, and tries to practice what he calls “the old cliche” of management by walking around.
What is more, Holt each month holds a roundtable lunch with 10 workers chosen randomly from all areas of the center. The informal discussions help Holt keep abreast of employees’ concerns, he says.
These efforts, coupled with the center’s growing prestige within Xerox, have helped boost morale.
“I sense a rejuvenation here,” Holt says. “People feel a lot of pride in their work that I don’t think they’ve felt in recent years.”
Holt is one of a rare breed–a technologist with the gift of gab and the willingness to listen. Jack Ratcliffe, who worked with Holt on the DocuTech project, says communication is one of Holt’s strong suits.
“He’s a technical guy who can communicate concepts well to non-technical people,” Ratcliffe says.
Joking, he adds, “He doesn’t take himself too seriously–and when he does, he doesn’t mind direct deflation.”
Donald Post, another member of the DocuTech team who now works at the Wilson Center, notes that even when tensions arise, Holt maintains his sense of humor.
“In that sense he emerges as a charismatic leader,” Post says. “People like working for him.”
Though Holt has mastered a manager’s moves, he speaks most passionately when talk turns to technology and his baby, the DocuTech.
“That was truly an amazing experience,” he marvels.
“The DocuTech was developed in the west complex (of Xerox’s Webster facility). I was asked to go over there one afternoon in May of 1983 to review a block diagram. Honestly, I didn’t leave that building for almost a decade.”
As chief engineer of the project, Holt pioneered Xerox’s effort to marry computer technology and xerography. The project began as a group of roughly 10 engineers; by its official birth in October 1990, the DocuTech team was nearly 400 strong.
“Everywhere you look in the product there was a technology breakthrough that was required,” he says. “But the electronic system was really the challenge. We wound up with over a million and a half lines of software code running, all generated from scratch. And a hardware system that was all VLSI-based, also generated from scratch.”
DocuTech uses digital scanning, laser imaging and xerography to produce professional-quality documents at high speed. It enables users to capture documents electronically and print them on demand, at any networked location around the world.
In addition to technological success, the project had to break barriers of another sort.
“DocuTech required a lot of diplomacy by Chip on many levels,” says Ratcliffe, who now works on product support for Xerox’s production systems division.
For one, Holt had to mollify peers within Xerox who were jealous of the resources being thrown Holt’s way, Ratcliffe maintains. Holt also acted as cheerleader for the DocuTech team, keeping its intensity focused.
Finally, Holt had to pitch the project to senior management, many of whom were skeptical that such a product was technically possible–or worth the expense.
“Management simply could not get how you could put an artsy-craftsy type of process (like graphic arts) on a machine that’s usually run by a guy with grease on his pants and toner under his fingernails,” Holt says.
“They said, “You just can’t do that.”’
Holt admits he enjoys saying, “I told you so.”
In 1991, sales for DocuTech and related digital products bumped the $200 million mark. Last year, that figure climbed to $1 billion. Roughly 7,000 DocuTechs–which sell for $250,000 to $300,000–are in use worldwide.
Bringing an industry-shaping project like DocuTech to fruition was the lure that pulled Holt to Xerox 25 years ago.
After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Holt worked for AAI Corp., a Baltimore- based electronics firm. There he built an integrated-circuit computer, one of the first of its kind–and a feat that won him a top award from AAI.
His prize was a year off with pay and tuition to the graduate program of his choice. He picked electrical engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, graduating with a master’s degree in 1966.
Holt logged another three years at AAI. Then a former boss at AAI who had taken a job at Xerox convinced Holt to join him at the firm’s El Segundo, Calif., operation in 1970.
Holt signed on as a project engineer, with the task of intertwining computer technologies and xerography. But he soon encountered his first cultural mismatch at Xerox, between the California group working on computers and the copier faction in Rochester.
“The environments just hated each other,” Holt recalls. “They started to work to the demise of both–it was really scary. And here I’d never been anywhere but Baltimore–I grew up and went to school there–and I thought I’d just put my entire career at risk by moving to California.”
That fear proved unfounded. In the mid-1970s, Holt joined Xerox’s newly formed electronics division, where he designed microprocessor-based control systems for Xerox copiers. Again, he butted heads with engineers in Rochester, who resented the encroachment of a California computer geek on their copier turf.
Holt got a closer look at the copier camp in 1979, when he moved here to work on Xerox’s main product-development activities and to bone up on xerography, the firm’s primary technology.
A quick study and hard worker, Holt was a logical choice to take on the DocuTech project, which drew upon his background in computers and his knowledge of xerography.
Holt possesses an “uncanny ability to absorb a lot of information, interpret it and come out with a logical conclusion,” Post says. Those skills, he adds, served Holt well on the DocuTech project, as did an ability to manage ambiguity.
“He can manage effectively in an unsettled environment where there are a lot of conflicting views,” Post says. “Where someone else might be overwhelmed and mired in a sea of confusion, he’s able to rise above that.”
Even today, DocuTech’s hold on Holt is strong. His office at the Wilson Center reflects those ties: a photograph of Xerox CEO Paul Allaire giving Holt a congratulatory handshake; framed copies of images made on the DocuTech during different stages of development; and a small-scale model of the product.
Letting go of DocuTech was hard, he admits.
“I went into some mourning there. Being on that project for seven years, seeing it do everything and more than we expected, then walking away and doing something else–that was tough,” he says.
In addition to directing research activities at the center, Holt travels to conferences and other research facilities worldwide.
He also finds time to publish. His latest article, to be published in the Harvard Business Review, discusses how large corporations can nourish an entrepreneurial spirit.
Holt also keeps in close contact with two daughters from his first marriage. Though raised in California, both Shawnie, 32, and Kristie, 28, live and work in Rochester.
Barbara Pellow, Holt’s wife, was marketing manager for the DocuTech project and now works as a print-on-demand consultant in Boston. When schedules permit, the couple spends weekends at their home on Lake Ontario, which Holt calls “the most expensive storage facility I’ve ever owned.”
As a corporate officer, Holt must retire at 60–leaving him only three more years at Xerox. During that time, he hopes to help Xerox master the technology needed to make color copying commonplace.
“When we can make color as easy to use as we now have black and white, we will bring enormous value to the marketplace,” he says.
Even more ambitiously, Holt plans to map out the research and technology that will take Xerox into the next century.
“I want us to understand the interplay of every possible technology that could contribute to our mission, and lay it out so I know what year we should really start getting serious about this technology.”
“And that,” he says wryly, “is a tall order.”
Chip Holt takes Xerox
into the 21st century
Call him DocuDad.