Thirty years after Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen established Vulcan Inc. to build on his vision of a wired world, he’s giving the job of chief executive officer to an outsider: Bill Hilf, a technologist who’s held leadership roles at Hewlett Packard and Microsoft.
“Bill will join Vulcan Dec. 1, reporting directly to me,” Allen said today in a memo. “I will remain chairman and founder, and look forward to working with Bill in setting Vulcan’s vision and strategy and tackling our slate of challenging initiatives.”
Allen has been serving as CEO since 2014, when his sister, Jody Allen, left that post.
Vulcan spans a dizzying array of Paul Allen’s interests, ranging from real estate and sports (including the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers) to aerospace (including Stratolaunch Systems, which is building the world’s biggest airplane) to research (including institutes that study the brain and artificial intelligence, plus campaigns to fight infectious diseases) to conservation (including a survey of African elephants) to entertainment (at the Cinerama, the EMP Museum and Vulcan Productions).
“The core driver behind this was, Vulcan is scaling up, and has been scaling up over the past few years, and taking on bigger and more challenging problems in a very wide array of areas,” Hilf told GeekWire.
“Paul stepped back and said he wanted to bring some strong senior leadership and talent into the team, to help Vulcan turn into a world-class organization that can scale to address the problems that he’s really after.” he said.
Until this summer, Hilf served as senior vice president and general manager of Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Cloud business unit, based in Seattle. Before joining HP, he was a general manager for Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform, and head of Microsoft’s cloud computing group. And before that, he was a senior architect at IBM working on Linux and other open-source technologies.
“I appreciate Bill’s tech savvy — the capacity to think both logically and creatively, and to zero in on critical details without losing sight of the big picture,” Allen said in his memo. “I believe in the power of shared data and technology to help build a better future. Bill’s extensive open-source, business and technology experience will help further Vulcan’s progress.”
Allen also took note of Hilf’s philanthropic background. “During his years at Microsoft, Bill served as the company’s executive sponsor to the United Nations Refugee Agency, was the divisional leader for the Microsoft ‘Give’ campaigns, and launched a charity that helps street children in the Philippines build self-esteem, confidence and leadership skills through sports,” he said.
Hilf said he’d draw upon his skills as a tech problem-solver to manage Vulcan’s myriad missions. But he downplayed any suggestion that his appointment marked the beginning of the “Hilf era” at the company.
“I don’t think it’s a ‘Hilf era,'” he said. “I think it’s a Paul era.”
Hilf said the Allen Institute was making good progress in neuroscience and AI research, and he expected Vulcan Aerospace to be making “strides in that area in the next year.”
He also highlighted Vulcan’s wildlife conservation efforts, as well as its philanthropic work on ocean health and climate change. “The secret sauce at Vulcan is the application of data and technology and innovation to these types of problems,” Hilf said.
Hilf said he’ll work with Vulcan’s president and chief operating officer, Barbara Bennett, and other executives to focus on the company’s philanthropic, technological and media projects. The scientific institutes and sports teams will continue to report directly to Allen, although Hilf said he’ll be “naturally gravitated” toward AI because of his computer science background.
It’s too early for Hilf to provide a big-picture view of everything that Vulcan’s into. After all, he hasn’t even started the job yet. But he does have a sense of where his boss is heading, right down to the “Star Trek” connection.
“Paul’s desire with Vulcan is to do work that is not just hard work, but to take on some of the problems and opportunities that no one else has taken on yet — for example, SpaceShipOne, or mapping the human brain, or taking a census of all the elephants, to alleviate the problem of what’s happening,” Hilf said. “His goal is the far horizon. To go truly where no one yet has gone.”