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McGovern recalled as 'a catalyst of the computer industry'

McGovern recalled as 'a catalyst of the computer industry'

Launched IDG and Computerworld with a focus on user in the era of COBOL, IBM's System/360 and other mainframes from companies long gone

In June 1967, when Patrick J. McGovern published the first issue of Computerworld it did something different. It reported on the computing industry from a user perspective.

Its headlines about disk drive failures, lost data and troubled products upset IT vendors.

"They said, 'You are the enemy of our industry," said McGovern, in an earlier interview. "We put out the publication, almost without any ads at all for the first six months."

McGovern, who died Wednesday, was an editor, publisher and entrepreneur who founded International Data Group, a global publishing and market research organization.

He also gave back -- a gift of $350 million from McGovern and his wife Lore in 2000 launched the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

Pat McGovern at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. (Image: Jason Grow)

He was an MIT grad with a prodigious memory that he used to endear himself to people, even as IDG grew to thousands of employees. McGovern remembered the names of employees, details about their work, and even the names of the spouses and children of those he knew particularly well.

"He had a memory that was absolutely remarkable," said Gary Beach, publisher emeritus of CIO, an IDG publication.

McGovern's work in publishing and market research came at a particularly interesting time.

The 1960s was the era of COBOL, the IBM System/360, and other mainframe and midrange systems by vendors now long gone. Bill Gates was in secondary school.

The first meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club, where Steve Wozniak got some of ideas that would help lead to Apple, would not happen until 1975.

McGovern formed his business ideas in an era when IT was called data processing. The role of computing in business was accelerating, but the number of IT professionals was small, in the range of 300,000.

"The data processing manager was sort of the punch card guy and wasn't thought much of," said Drake Lundell, editor of Computerworld from 1968 until the early 1980s.

McGovern's work in IT publishing began while he was a student at MIT. He got a part-time editorial job at early computer magazine Computers and Automation, which became a full-time job after graduating in 1959.

The first issue of Computerworld, June, 21, 1967.

Working at Computers and Automation gave McGovern access to vendors and thought leaders, which he relished.

At one meeting with the head of Univac, the number two computer company at the time, McGovern told the company that it was investing millions of dollars in new technology development with "no knowledge about what the needs of the market were."

Univac's officials concurred, and said was "100% correct" with this assessment.

There was a clear need for market data at the time, and McGovern created International Data Corp. to gather it. Demand for its market research from vendors was almost instantaneous.

A few years after creating IDC, McGovern followed by founding Computerworld.

Along with its focus on users, McGovern realized he needed to fill a need in the IT publication business -- speed. Most computing publications at the time were monthly. Computerworld would be a weekly.

Running a weekly, in the pre-Web days, wasn't easy.

Lundell recalled how a major snowstorm shut down Boston, where the publication was based. They were "pulling an all-nighter" to get the publication out. McGovern arrived at the building "and said 'What I can I do to help?'" recalled, Lundell. "I said go get pizza and he did."

Lundell believes that Computerworld helped empower data processing workers, and to think of themselves as IT professionals.

Pat McGovern helps Computerworld celebrate the magazine's 45th anniversary in 2012.

George Colony, founded Forrester Researcher in 1983 as a competitor to IDG. Despite that, McGovern offered business advice.

"It just struck me," said Forrester CEO Colony, "how magnanimous and helpful he was."

McGovern "was one of the catalysts of the computer industry in the United States," said Colony. In his various efforts, "he was building the intellectual and knowledge base that everyone was riding. Essentially, he's a massive figure."

Paul Gillin, editor of Computerworld from 1987 to 1999, recalls McGovern well.

"Leo Durocher said nice guys finish last. I always thought McGovern proved that wisdom wrong," wrote Gillin in an email. "One of the most remarkable things about Pat is that everybody loved him. I honestly can't remember anyone ever saying a cross word about him. Pat was honest, compassionate and relentlessly optimistic."

One thing that McGovern did was to send out complimentary memos with little rainbows on them. The memos "were an IDG fixture," said Gillin. "He read the publications thoroughly each week and fired off several congratulatory notes each week. People would pin those notes to their cubes like trophies. I still have mine!"

"Shortly before I joined IDG in 1982, I read a profile in the Boston Globe that said that McGovern personally visited every U.S. employee to deliver the Christmas bonus every year," said Gillin. "I couldn't believe it, but a few months later there he was. We used to prepare months in advance for the visits, assembling profiles of each employee. Sometimes he needed the prompting but for longtime employees he always could pull stories out of his elephantine memory. He had amazing recall."

McGovern, said Gillin, "was exceedingly modest man," and to illustrate, he recalled McGovern standing with a Computerworld staffer who mentioned that she was planning to paint her house.

"Pat offered to come over and help. 'I'm a great paint scraper,' he said. I have no doubt that if she had taken him up on his offer you would have shown up, scraper in hand," said Gillin.

Mari Keefe, Computerworld editorial project manager, contributed to this story.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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