Immigrant rises in computer industry with support and a focus on innovation
The son of farmers in Greece, Chris Christopher came to Colorado State on a student visa in the early 1960s, armed with only a few English phrases and the dream of becoming an electrical engineer.
His humble beginnings progressed to a distinguished 40-year career at Hewlett-Packard Co., a global leader in information technology that since has become HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Christopher started as a product engineer at the plant in Loveland, Colo., and later worked on campuses in Fort Collins and Silicon Valley. He retired in 2008 as senior vice president and general manager of the HP desktop personal computers organization – a multibillion-dollar portfolio that made HP the world leader in PC market share at the time.
For all his success, Christopher is quick to credit mentors who took a chance on a rural Greek kid who wanted to study engineering. The University itself was among Christopher’s supporters, granting him a $1,000 annual scholarship; a lot of money when his part-time job paid just $1 an hour, he recalled last fall, while accepting the 2018 Honor Alumnus award from the Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering.
His circle of supporters also included Professor Emeritus Aram Budak, an influential educator in CSU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. When Christopher arrived on campus, Budak was an intimidating figure: not only a brilliant academic, but a Turk. Though the brutal Greco-Turkish War had ended decades before, tension between Greece and Turkey was so rooted that Christopher endured a memorably sleepless night wondering if he should change his major to avoid the well-known professor.
“I had this dream of becoming an electrical engineer, so I thought to myself, ‘I know he’s Turkish. I know there’s a great Turkish conflict. But if I study hard and I do well, he’s going to be OK to me.’ Indeed, I stuck with it. Well, Professor Aram Budak was an excellent teacher, and furthermore, an excellent adviser and mentor. Later, he became a dear friend and he influenced my life greatly,” Christopher told a rapt audience, his voice still inflected with a Greek accent.
In 1968, as he was completing undergraduate studies, Christopher had no interest in working at Hewlett-Packard – until Budak announced he’d arranged an interview for his student. “Dr. Budak was not a softie,” Christopher said. “Without him, I would not have gone to Hewlett-Packard.”
Years later, Christopher helped establish a fellowship in Budak’s name. It financially supports electrical and computer engineering students based on academic achievement and financial need, a profile that would have described Christopher.
“We deeply value Chris’s commitment,” said Tony Maciejewski, chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “In addition to his support as a longtime donor, Chris brings his passion for innovation into our classrooms through his guest lectures. Our students love having the opportunity to learn from him, and they are inspired by his engaging leadership style.”
Christopher, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 1968 and master’s degree in 1974, was a quick study in technical product design and the intangibles of leadership and innovation. As a young engineer at HP, he soon entered management and led teams in workstations, desktop PCs, client virtualization, and point-of-sale systems, among other efforts. Christopher learned early that innovation is fundamental for survival in business, especially in the quickly evolving tech industry.
While climbing the ranks, Christopher adhered to a four-pronged model for product development: innovation, quality, cost, and on-time delivery. In more recent advisory roles, he reminds entrepreneurs that competitiveness arises from innovation not only in product development, but “in everything you do,” whether internal processes, bookkeeping, marketing, or managing people to boost motivation. Managing effectively also requires open communication and an understanding of work in the trenches, he said.
“If you’re going to lead, you can’t just sit in your ivory tower and get reports from your subordinates,” Christopher said. “You have to know what’s really going on in your organization.”
For more about Christopher, see the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Awards package.