A few weeks ago, I had the honor of making my first visit to the inner sanctum of Intel's Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters. On the premises to write a story for a semiconductor trade magazine, I expected the usual smiley-faced Silicon Valley receptionist and maybe a steaming cup of cappuccino.
Instead, I watched in dismay as two rent-a-cops rifled through my bag like I was a ponytailed undergrad smuggling hash out of Turkey.
Welcome to hospitality, Intel-style.
To safeguard precious company secrets, guards at Intel are empowered to hunt through every briefcase and laptop bag brought in or out of the building. Purses, Filofaxes and fanny packs are exempt. But anyone who tries to sneak, say, a Gap shopping bag or even an innocuous diaper bag gets a free ticket to the examining table.
The hard-boiled search policy isn't limited to suspicious-looking visitors or journalists; even the Intel staff isn't beyond its clutches. If you are named employee of the month, Intel will still make sure you haven't stashed secret files in that crumpled lunch sack. Anybody on the premises may be searched at any time for any reason. The firm makes this clear in a sign at its security desk, should anyone be so bold as to challenge the guards.
Why is Intel so security crazed?
The guards are mainly on the lookout for a flash of color -- the smoking gun in the semiconductor world. Intel prints its most important secrets on brightly colored paper: yellow, orange and, for the most classified, red. Tinted trade secrets cannot leave the premises. No buts, no exceptions. Even recycling bins warn employees not to mix confidential documents with old newspapers and memos. After all, someone from a rival company might be digging in the dumpster out back.
The apparent paranoia is well justified; after all, billions of dollars are at stake. Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, commonly known as AMD, are locked in one of Silicon Valley's most cutthroat battles: New chip designs can cost a company hundreds of millions of dollars but can net a hundred times more on the market. Since first-to-market is the name of the game, second place doesn't cut it.
AMD and Intel have been competing lately for bragging rights for the fastest chip. On Monday, AMD unveiled a new version of its chip that can process information faster. With its future earnings and stock price on the line, Intel can't afford to let any confidential papers leave the building. "We have to protect the physical assets of the company," says Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy.
In Intel's defense, it must be said that its secrets are highly portable. Notes on the world's most advanced technology can be scribbled on a sheet of paper, stored on a disk or tattooed on an engineer's frontal lobe. So far, no strip searches have been issued, though one security guard recently joked that he was out of rubber gloves.
Still, aside from the occasional quip, there's nothing funny about Intel's security. Consider these protective procedures: Inside Intel, everyone gets a badge. Employees wear royal blue ID badges and habitually refer to themselves as "blue badges." Visitors receive a red-bordered stick-on badge that says "Escort Required" (and believe me, the company will make sure you don't wander around unescorted). Independent contractors, including the infamous security team, the catering staff and some technical workers, sport bright-green badges. Interestingly, these "outsider" badges are almost the same shade of Kelly green used for AMD's logo.
Guests also have to sign a log when they visit, and register their laptop computers and cameras, listing them both by manufacturer and serial number. Most Intel employees affix a large, blue-bordered photo of themselves on their laptops to help the guards ensure that no machines walk out the door loaded with next year's processor designs.
Intel may indeed seem neurotic compared with companies that make you pen your name in a log book before entering the offices. But in an industry where valuable commodities can be scribbled on a Post-It, they sure don't take any chances.
I'll let you know when they start with the strip searches.