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posted: 7/27/2013 7:16 AM

Bill Raduchel on getting into Harvard and the future of newspapers

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  • William Raduchel, a technology consultant and former executive at AOL Time Warner, is little known to the general public, but he is very well known among decision-makers who span the worlds of economics, defense analysis, computers and Silicon Valley.

      William Raduchel, a technology consultant and former executive at AOL Time Warner, is little known to the general public, but he is very well known among decision-makers who span the worlds of economics, defense analysis, computers and Silicon Valley.
    Bloomberg

 
Bloomberg

Ted Leonsis calls Bill Raduchel "a technology guru, a thought leader and an evangelist for all things digital."

Raduchel, 67, is little known to the general public, but he is very well known among decision-makers who span the worlds of economics, defense analysis, computers and Silicon Valley.

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Raduchel is a self-described Sputnik child. "I was starting high school just after the launch of Sputnik," he says. "So I was sent to a summer science institute where I learned mathematics and computers."

Raduchel graduated from Michigan State University, earned a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard and spent five years as head teaching assistant to John Kenneth Galbraith, who "exposed me to people and ideas I never would have otherwise encountered."

He taught several future economists, including former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, TIAA-CREF chief executive Roger Ferguson and Ed Lazear, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush.

He also spent six years as assistant dean of admissions for Harvard and Radcliffe colleges and wrote an article on admissions called "The Agony of Spring."

"It was accepted by Harvard Magazine, but Henry Rosovsky, another person who was good to me and was then dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, asked me to withdraw it as a personal favor -- not because it was inaccurate but because it was too accurate," he says. "Something that still may be true."

Raduchel, who lives in Great Falls, Va., has been using computers for 52 of his 67 years and has watched them evolve from a novelty to a critical part of life. He has worked for or with cutting-edge companies including Xerox, Fujitsu, Sun Microsystems and AOL, where Leonsis -- then a top AOL executive -- introduced him to a young man named Sean Parker, who had just upended the music world with something called Napster.

Raduchel took Parker to dinner, and their friendship has endured to this day.

His associates include the biggest Silicon Valley figures of our time: Sun founder Scott McNealy, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, former AOL chairman Steve Case and another Steve whose last name was Jobs.

Raduchel teaches at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business. He also sits on two public boards and one private one, advises others and does some angel investing. He has advised Naspers -- the giant South Africa-based media company -- for 15 years and advises the London Daily Mail newspaper. "Media transformation still excites me after over 30 years," he says.

I couldn't wait to ask him about the Harvard admissions process:

Q: So here is a question every parent might ask. Other than high SAT scores and straight A's, what does it take to get admitted to Harvard?

A: The challenge at a really selective college like Harvard is finding people who can still find self-esteem in that competitive environment. If you are not the best at anything, life in that environment is not a lot of fun. And every admissions officer who is there a long time, more than a few years, probably had a case or two where he or she pushed someone into the class, only to have it turn out in tears.

You learn to look for what we called "translatability." Do something where you were the best. A kid who got straight A's and was going to get B's wasn't going to work if academic success is how they get self-esteem. So you had to look for people who could come into a very competitive environment, who could still find self-esteem and who in some way, shape or form was still the best at something.

Q: How do you figure that out?

A: It was never the answers they gave. It was the questions they asked. The questions give a much better clue to how a person thinks. Answers can be learned, can be rote. But it's the questions. Like the questions Sean Parker asked me that day at AOL.

Q: What was it like serving on the admissions committee?

A: It's incredibly competitive. If you take the job seriously, it's really stressful, because at the end you realize you are affecting lives. You are making choices that are intrinsically very hard to do. You want to learn about how to work with people, how to evaluate people, how to make great decisions.

It was a committee process. Your peers had to vote to let anybody in. If you didn't get along with your peers, you didn't get many people into the class. We all had candidates. Some private schools sent large numbers of kids.

What you are looking for is trying to put together the best class for the college. That doesn't mean the brightest. You always had conflicts between kids who are very smart but were not otherwise exceptional and kids who were exceptional but not quite as smart.

The data showed kids who did something else but were smart and not exceptionally smart always did better in life and in grades. The cynics would say the reason was course selection.

Q: What do you say?

A: If you have a good and solid group of friends, college comes down to having the right dozen people around you. And if you find them and prod them on the success, you will do fine. The trick is to go find that group of people.

The kids who were smart but exceptional, they look in the mirror and look at themselves and say, I'm in charge. And they act accordingly.

Kids who look in the mirror and they see Mom and Dad and the teacher and say to themselves, "What do they want me to do?" -- it's a very different feeling. That's what you are trying to sort for. Have you figured out how to take control of your own life?

Q: You are a strategic adviser to the Daily Mail newspaper in Britain, and you consult with Naspers, the South Africa-based media giant that has publishing and pay television and is the largest Internet service provider in the emerging world. Are you bullish on newspapers?

A: Am I bullish on the need for information that is structured, organized and curated? Yes. How else do we make sense of the world?

In 10 years, we will still have things that are called newspapers. They may be electronically delivered. Historically, people have read a morning paper for 20 to 30 minutes on average and newspapers ended up evolving to fill that need. You sat down and they tried to give you 20 to 30 minutes. What matters in most newspapers is owning that habit. If I own a habit, that's really valuable.

The Washington Post owns the habit in that I read the paper every morning. I have allocated 20 minutes of my life to The Post. That's the asset. I start my day with the premise that I am going to spend 20 minutes or more consuming information that has been structured and organized for me by The Post.

It really doesn't matter whether it's on the tablet, online or on paper. Unfortunately, not many 20-year-olds have that habit. Now we are delivering content in shorter bursts that are far more intense.

Q: What is the answer?

A: If you listen to the elites, they say you go on Twitter and get a list and track them and build your own newspaper. But those people are a tiny percent. Most people need structure and curation and want to know what they should know.

Q: What do you mean by structure?

A: Why do you read a book? Because someone has collected enormous amounts of information and structured and organized it so that it is easy to absorb. Authorship is vital, but it is an art that we see increasingly less of.

I want an author to take a point of view and put material together. That's how I learn.

We all learn linearly. If I give you 20,000 pieces of paper and say here is all you need to know about world history. So why would you read a book that looks at history, but they put the pieces of paper in order and explain why one is linked to another? Because even if you memorized all 20,000 pieces of paper, it's understanding how they fit together and what the flow is and how one thing leads to another. Do people want to understand or just want a fact?

We all depend on news organizations to help fill in those gaps. News per se is only going to get more important. Inherently, newspapers have always tried to build understanding. That means context, background, importance and veracity. But there is going to be more change coming. The fundamental need is not going away.

Q: What change are you referring to?

A: There is no doubt about there being a newspaper business. The question is how big a business. If you look at the world, for 30 years people ask me, "Where are we in the information revolution?" For 30 years, I have said we are halfway through it.

Q: What is the biggest challenge companies face?

What do you do with somebody who is obsolete? Maybe the person is a great performer. Maybe the best employee. But what you need to do in the next two or three years, maybe that employee doesn't have the skills that are required.

It's a horrible problem, but if you don't change, you risk the entire organization. That is a social problem for the years ahead. The idea that you come out of college with a profession or degree that keeps you employed until you retire is a lunacy today. The world is changing too fast, too quickly and is too disruptive.

You have to continually reinvent yourself to stay employable, to stay productive, to stay valuable.

Q: What is "the next big thing?"

A: Sensors. Freescale introduces a processor that is smaller than an ant. It is designed to be swallowed. You swallow this pill in the morning and it tells your smartphone how your health is as it goes through your body.

This is not science fiction.

You take a pill. It generates a small electrical current on your skin and you touch the phone and it senses an 18-digit number and you don't have to unlock it.

Anything you touch, if it's there it recognizes the 18 digits. You go to work in the morning and instead of logging in, you take a pill. It's so eerie, you don't even want to think about it.

Q: What were your financial home runs?

A: I grew Fujitsu from $100 million in revenue to $1.4 billion. I'm a millionaire. In the '90s, you made an order of magnitude less money than you do today. People at Sun were making half a million a year. Today's wages are so far beyond what they were then.

In stock, over 12 years at Sun, I probably made, after tax, under $10 million.

Q: So you don't need to work?

A: I'm not ready to retire.

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