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.
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
- 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