The Road Not Taken

At Zilog I was figuring out how to cope with job burnout.  And one of my conclusions was that I needed to pick one job not two. I had to decide what I wanted to do with my career – go back to ESL, try to work for the Customer, or stay at Zilog?

While it may seem like an easy choice, few people who love technology and who work on black projects leave.  These projects are incredibly seductive.  Let me explain why.

National Efforts
In World War II the U.S. put its resources behind a technical project that dwarfed anything every built – the atomic bomb.  From a standing start in 1942 the U.S. scaled up the production of U-235 and plutonium from micrograms to tens of kilograms by 1945. We built new cities in Hanford, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos and put 130,000 people to work on the project.

During the cold war, the U.S. government kept up the pace.  Hundreds of thousands of people worked on developing strategic weapons, bombers, our ICBM and SLBM missile programs, and the Apollo moon program. These programs dwarfed the size that any single commercial company could do by itself.  They were national efforts of hundreds of companies employing 10’s or 100’s of thousands of engineers.

ESL – National Technical Means of Verification
The project I was working on at ESL fit this category. The 1970’s and ‘80’s were the endgame of the cold war, and the U.S. military realized that our advantage over the Soviet Union was in silicon, software and systems. These technologies which allowed the U.S. to build sensors, stealth and smart weapons previously thought impossible or impractical, would give us a major military advantage.  Building these systems required resources way beyond the scope of a single company.  Imagine coming up with an idea that could work only if you had your own semiconductor fab and could dedicate its output to make specialized chips just for you.  Then imagine you’d have to get some rockets and put this reconnaissance system in space – no, make that several rockets. No one laughed when ESL proposed this class of project to “the customer.”

If you love technology, these projects are hard to walk away from.

The Road Not Taken
At first, I thought my choice was this: working on great technology at ESL or continuing to work on these toy-like microprocessors at Zilog.

But the more I thought about it, the choice wasn’t about the hardware or systems.  There was something about the energy and passion Zilog’s customers had as they kept doing the most unexpected things with our products.

While I couldn’t articulate at it at the time (it would take another 25 years) at ESL the company and the customer had a known problem and were executing to building a  known solution, with a set of desired specifications and PERT charts telling them what they needed to do and in what order to achieve the goal.  There was a ton of engineering innovation and coordination along the way, and the project could have failed at any point. But the insight and creativity occurred at the project’s beginning when the problem and solution was first being defined.  Given where I was in the hierarchy, I calculated that the odds of me being in on those decisions didn’t look high – ever.

In contrast, my customers at Zilog had nothing more than a set of visions, guesses and hallucinations about their customers; who they were, what they wanted to achieve and what was the right path to get there.  At these startups both the problem and solution were unknown.

Startups were not just smaller versions of a large company, they were about invention, innovation and iteration - of business model, product, customers and on and on. Startups were doing discovery of the problem and solution in real-time.  I could see myself doing that – soon.

Unbeknownst to me, I was facing a choice between becoming an entrepreneur or working for a large company.

I chose a path and never looked back.

——

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken – 1916

Lessons Learned

  • There is no “right” choice for a career
  • There’s only the choice you make
  • Don’t let a “career” just happen to you
  • A startup is not a smaller version of a large company

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10 Responses

  1. I’m a big Frost fan. You might be interested to know that Frost called this “a tricky poem.”. Try searching for some of his letters on the subject. This fact kind of added to my enjoyment of the poem in the end.

  2. Great post! You did an excellent job articulating this concept!

  3. Robert Frost’s poem raises questions. Is taking the road less traveled really the right policy. If so, why?

    To begin with, one needs to know what roads are available and what criteria are to be used in selecting one. The problem, I assume, is to select the RIGHT road. That is no simple matter, given two very uncertain variables. One must know one’s self and one must know the future. Very few of us do. However, if the choice works out well, one can retrospectively write a poem about it.

    How delightful it would be to have a presidential candidate named Frost. I have a ready made slogan: Frost in war, Frost in peace, and Frost in the hearts of his countrymen. Pols love ambiguity.

  4. [...] quote from Steve Blank “Startups were not just smaller versions of a large company, they were about invention, [...]

  5. [...] Small Companies “Startups were not just smaller versions of a large company, they were about invention, innovation and iteration – of business model, product, customers and on and on. Startups were doing discovery of the problem and solution in real-time.”  (From Steveblank.com) [...]

  6. Wonderful insight between two ‘right’ decisions. Comprehension of why we choose one over another is often delayed, if only because the reasoning comes down to preference not fact. I really enjoyed reading through this (and wrapping up with Frost always makes my day).

  7. [...] The Road Not Taken (steveblank.com) [...]

  8. “You make a choice. You make a call. You may rise, or you may fall. You will pay for what you get. You’ve got no room in you bag for regrets.” Groovelily

  9. I made a similar decision when I left a defense contractor to “go to California” and work at startups nearly 20 years ago.

    At the time I couldn’t articulate it either, and I just told my friends and family: “I want my work to make a difference in the success of the project/company”.

    You can’t do that on those big black projects. They’re so big that your technical contribution ends up being a circuit in a sub-systems of a sub-system… :)

  10. Enjoyed your presentation last week at the Plug n Play Centre. I was down with Canada and CardioComm (which I founded 21 years ago). I read your book on the plane home to Canada – and was delighted to see you worked for Zilog. Back in early 80’s I had a company in Victoria selling more Z80 systems (using RIO) than the rest of the Zilog world put together. John White and Many Fernandez came to Victoria to find out how we were doing it. We wlaked the beach at 4 am and talked about a pre-Visio tool I had got my hands on. Manny told me a new thing called Networks would eb even more significant :-)

    I found your concepts quite brilliant and I plan to use your customer development model for my ventures.

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