The Path of Our Lives

Some men see things as they are and say, why;
I dream things that never were and say, why not
?”
Robert Kennedy/George Bernard Shaw

I got a call that reminded me that most people live their life as if it’s predestined – but some live theirs fighting to change it.

At 19 I joined the Air Force during the Vietnam War. Out of electronics school my first assignment was to a fighter base in Florida. My roommate, Glen, would become my best friend in Florida and Thailand as we were sent to different air bases in Southeast Asia.

An Enemy Attack May Make Your Stay Here Unpleasant

An Enemy Attack May Make Your Stay Here Unpleasant

On the surface, Glen and I couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in Nebraska, had a bucolic childhood that sounded like he was raised by parents from Leave it to Beaver. I didn’t, growing up in a New York City apartment that seemed more like an outpatient clinic. Yet somehow we connected on a level that only 19-year-olds can.  I introduced him to Richard Brautigan and together we puzzled through R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience. We explored the Everglades (and discovered first-hand that the then-new national park didn’t have any protective barriers on their new boardwalks into the swamps and that alligators sunning themselves on a boardwalk look exactly like stuffed ones – until you reach out to touch them.) In Thailand I even figured out how to sneak off base for a few days, cross Thailand via train, visit him in his airbase and convince everyone I had been assigned to do so (not that easy with a war on.) The chaos, the war, our age and our interests bonded us in a way that was deep and heartfelt.

steve in Thailand 2 ARL-46Yet when the Vietnam War wound down, we were both sent to bases in different parts of the U.S. And as these things happen, as we grew older, more people and places came between us, and we went on with our lives and lost touch.

Four Decades Later
Last week I got an email with a subject line that only someone who knew me in the Air Force could have sent. While that caught my attention, the brief note underneath stopped me in my tracks. It read, “You have crossed my thoughts through the years. The other night you appeared in my dreams. I actually remembered it in the morning and googled your name. By God, there you were. A bit overwhelming…”

You bet it was overwhelming, it’s been 40 years since I last heard from Glen.

On the phone together, I spent an hour with an ear-to-ear grin as both of us recounted, “when we were young, crazy and stupid” stories, stories I still won’t tell my children (which makes me grateful it was life before social media documented every youthful indiscretion.) Glen even reminded me of my nickname (which still makes me cringe.)  The feel of long forgotten camaraderie let me wallow in nostalgia for a while. But as Glen began to catch me up with the four decades of his life, it was clear that while we both had the same type of advanced electronics training, both had been on the same airbases, and essentially both had been given the same opportunities, our careers and lives had taken much different paths. As he talked, I puzzled over why our lives ended up so different. Listening to him, I realized I was hearing a word I would never use to describe my life. Glen used the word “predestined” multiple times to describe his choices in life. His job choices were “predestined,” where he lived was “predestined,” who he married and divorced had been “predestined.”  I realized that our world views and how we lived our lives differed on that one single word.

“Predestined.”

The path of our lives
While the call brought me back to when we were foolish and fearless, thinking about how Glen lived his life troubled me. It took me awhile to figure out why. I wasn’t bothered about anything that Glen did or didn’t accomplish. It was his life and he seemed happy with it. Hearing his voice brought back those days of enthusiasm, exploration, adventure and unlimited horizons. But listening to forty years of a life lived summed up as “preordained” felt like a sharp reminder of how most people live their lives.

Glen’s worldview wasn’t unique. Most people appear to live an unexamined life, cruising through the years without much reflection about what it means, and/or taking what life hands them and believing it’s all predestined.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to grips that the unexamined life is what works for most people. Most take what they learned in school, get a job, marry, buy a house, have a family, become a great parent, serve their god, community and country, hang with friends and live a good life. And for them that’s great.stages of awareness

Some do want more out of life, but blame their circumstances on others – their parents or government or spouse or lack of opportunities, but almost never on their own lack of initiative. Initiative means change and change is hard for most. (Clearly there are still pockets in the world where opportunities and choice are limited but they are shrinking daily.)

Perhaps the most painful to watch are those who wake up later in life thinking, “I could have or I should have.”

Pushing the Human Race Forward
Whether we have free will or whether our lives are predestined has been argued since humans first pondered their purpose in life. The truth is we won’t know until the second coming or the solution to the many-worlds theory.

But what we know with certainty is that there is a small set of humans who don’t act like their lives are predestined. For better or worse, regardless of circumstances, country or culture they struggle their entire lives wanting to change the outcome. And a small percentage of these translate the “wanting to change” into acting on it. This small group is dissatisfied with waiting for life to hand them their path. They act, they do, they move, they change things.

Those born into poverty actively strive to change their own lives and that of their children. Those who want to start a company or join one quit their job and do it, while others try to change their political system or fight for social or environmental justice.

And the irony is while the individual stories are inspiring they are trying to tell a much bigger story. These misfits, rebels and troublemakers have been popping up in stories for thousands of years. Every culture has myths about larger than life heroes who rose from nothing. This archetype is a recessive gene common to all cultures. They are the ones that make things happen, they’re the ones that push the human race forward.

This is what makes and drives entrepreneurs. Our heads are just wired differently.

You Are Master of Your Own Fate
The world is much different then when Glen and I were young and foolish. In the past, even if you did feel this spirit of adventure, you had no idea how and where to apply it. Barriers of race, gender or location threw up roadblocks that seemed insurmountable.

The world is much smaller now. The obstacles aren’t gone but are greatly diminished. Everyone within reach of a smartphone, tablet or computer knows more about entrepreneurship and opportunity and where to get it then all of Silicon Valley did 40 years ago. There’s no longer an excuse not to grab it with both hands.

As far as we know, this life isn’t practice for the next one. For entrepreneurs the key to living this one to the fullest is the understanding that you can choose – that you do have a choice to effect the journey and change the rules, that you can decide to give it your best shot to do something, something extraordinary.

If your passion is startups and innovation, and your community, region or country doesn’t have an entrepreneurial culture and community – help start one. If there’s no funding for startups in your community – get up and move to where it is. If you’re in a company frustrated with the lack of opportunity – change jobs.

You are master of your own fate. Act like it.

Lessons Learned           

  • The same destiny overtakes us all
  • It’s what you choose to do with your life in between that makes the difference

The Air Force Academy Gets Lean

I can always tell when one of my students has been in the military. They’re focused, they’re world-wise past their years, and they don’t break a sweat in the fast pace and chaotic nature of the class and entrepreneurship. Todd Branchflower took my Lean LaunchPad class having been entrepreneurial enough to convince the Air Force send him to Stanford to get his graduate engineering degree.

In class I teased Todd that while the Navy had me present my Secret History of Silicon Valley talk in front of 4,000 cadets at the Naval Post Graduate School, I had yet to hear from the Air Force Academy.  He promised that one day he would fix that.

True to his word, fast-forward three years and Todd is now Captain Todd Branchflower, teaching computer engineering at the Air Force Academy.  He extended an invitation to me to come out to the Air Force Academy to address the cadets and meet the faculty. Besides the talk I brainstormed with Todd and other faculty on how to integrate the Lean LaunchPad into the Air Force Academy Capstone engineering class (a Capstone class puts together all the pieces that a students has learned in his or her major.)

Here’s Todd’s story of how we got there and progress to date.

——-

Not That Long Ago
In 2007, I graduated United States Air Force Academy as a computer engineer and entered the Air Force’s acquisition corps, excited and confident about my ability to bring technology to bear for our airmen.

Graduation day with classmate Joseph Helton (right), killed in action in Iraq in 2009

Graduation day with classmate Joseph Helton (right), killed in action in Iraq in 2009

And I couldn’t have been put in a better place: testing the Air Force’s newest network security acquisitions. I was their technical man on the inside – making sure big defense contractors delivered on their promises. We were modernizing datacenters, buying vulnerability-scanning software, and adding intrusion detection appliances – all things typical of anyone running an enterprise-scale network..46th test sqd

I was in the thick of it – chairing telecons, tracking action items, and drafting test plans. I could recite requirements and concepts of operations from memory. I was jetsetting to team meetings and conferences across the country. I was busy.

Sure, I wasn’t working very closely with the airmen who were going to use the equipment.  But they called into the weekly telecons, right? And they were the ones who had given the program office the requirements from the outset. (Well, their bosses had.) And I’d distilled those requirements into system characteristics we could measure. Well, more measurable versions of the original requirements. And meeting the requirements was the most important thing, right?

Doing it Wrong
Here’s what I learned: I was doing it wrong. The way our process worked, customers were just a stakeholder that provided input – not drivers of the process. That meant that program offices were only accountable to a list of requirements, which were locked early. Success only consisted of passing tests against these requirements, not delighting our airmen. I began to wonder – how could we learn about user needs earlier?  How could we deliver them solutions more quickly?  More cheaply?

It was only after returning to Stanford and taking the Lean Launchpad class that I became convinced that a radically different, customer-centric approach was the solution. I returned to the Air Force Academy as an instructor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, intent on spreading the gospel of Customer Development and Lean.academy ee

Our existing Capstone senior engineering design course followed the defense acquisition process; the focus of defense acquisition is to “nail down requirements” early and manage customer expectations to “avoid requirements creep”. I saw this as counter to the joint, iterative discovery process between entrepreneurs and customers I had experienced on my Lean Launchpad team.

I kept in touch with Steve as I started teaching. We discussed how the Lean Launchpad approach might find a place in our curriculum, and how it might be adapted to fit the unique Air Force Academy / military environment. We grew excited about how showing success here might prove a good model for how it could be done in the broader Air Force; how exposing future officers to the Lean philosophy might bring about change from within.

So when I invited Steve out to the Air Force Academy to speak last spring, there was more at stake than the talk.  We set up a meeting with our department head, Col Jeff Butler, and Capstone course director, LtCol Charlie Gaona, to pitch the idea.  They shared our enthusiasm about the impact it could have on our future design projects and how it might bring a change in perspective to our acquisition corps. They gave the go-ahead to send a pilot team through the program in the Fall semester, with the potential for it to be applied across the entire course if we delivered results.

I found a willing co-conspirator in Capt Ryan Silva, a star instructor who mentors a project named Neumimic, using technology to aid in the rehabilitation of patients with chronic loss of limb motion.  In the first year, they had developed a proof of concept around the Xbox Kinect – and Ryan had high hopes for the future. But he found some elements of the traditional systems engineering process cumbersome and frustrating to cadets. Ryan signed on to lead our test class.

V-Model of Systems Engineering
The current Capstone class follows the V-Model of Systems Engineering, with teams creating a detailed system design throughout the Fall semester and building their design in the Spring.

Vmodel

There are a series of formal reviews throughout the two semesters, in line with the Air Force acquisitions process.  Requirements and a concept of operations are presented at the first, the System Requirements Review.  Cadets receive instruction on the process in about a quarter of the course lessons.

What we decided to do instead was have semi-weekly informal reviews Lean Launchpad style, focusing on product hypotheses, customer interactions, learning, and validation / refinement.  We emphasize customer interaction via “getting out of the building” and rapid iteration through “cheap hacks”.  We’ve removed most of the structure and firm requirements from the original course in favor of a “whatever it takes” philosophy.  Instruction is presented in tandem with the reviews, focusing on areas we see as problematic.

Last year’s team meeting with Dr. Glen House at Penrose-St. Francis Hospital

Last year’s team meeting with Dr. Glen House at Penrose-St. Francis Hospital

Back to the Present
We’re about a quarter of the way through the fall semester. Team Neumimic consists of nine sharp cadets across multiple academic disciplines. Based on initial customer interactions, they divided themselves into two complementary but standalone teams. One will focus on design, execution, and measurement of therapy sessions – building on the original Xbox Kinect work.  The other will work on adjustable restriction of patient motion – forcing patients to use the proper muscles for each movement.

Here’s Ryan on the impact of the process change:

“Last year the team found themselves handcuffed to a process that required a 100% design solution on paper before we could even think about touching hardware…crazy right?! We spent the entire first semester nailing down requirements for a system that was supposed to meet the needs of stroke and traumatic brain injury patients as prescribed by their occupational therapists. For five months we slogged our way through the process emerged with a complete design for our system, custom-built to meet the needs of patients and doctors alike. Our design was flawless. We had nuts-and-bolts details all the way down to the schematic level. We were ready to build! The fact that we had yet to even see a patient or spend any real time with an occupational therapist had not even registered to us as a problem, until we were invited to watch a therapy session.

Our entire team walked out of the hospital ashen-faced and silent. We knew we had just wasted half the course designing a system that wouldn’t work. We were back to square one. The remainder of the course was spent in a frenzy of phone calls with doctors and therapists paired with many design reviews, but this time with our customers in the room. We were able to iterate a few solutions before we ran out of time, but the customers were thrilled with what they saw. I could only imagine what we could have accomplished if we didn’t waste the first half of the course on a solution that ultimately wasn’t what the customers wanted. I was fired up when Todd approached me with his idea to fundamentally change the way we did business.

So far the results have been incredible compared to last year. The team has learned more about the problem in a month than last year’s team learned in an entire semester. I’m not saying this year’s cadets are any more capable than last year’s; just that I believe this year’s team has been given a better chance to succeed.  They’re freed of a lot of stifling overhead and are embracing a process where requirements are derived from those who will actually use the system…imagine that! I’m excited to see what the team does with their remaining eight months.”

Current team members observing Dr. House conduct a therapy session

Current team members observing Dr. House conduct a therapy session

But we have experienced challenges in implementing this approach. Here’s what we’ve noticed so far:

In typical Lean Launchpad classes, students apply as teams with their own idea.  There’s also the potential for teams to pursue the opportunity beyond the class if they’re successful. In our Capstone, projects are predetermined and cadets are assigned based on preference and skill set.  Cadets will graduate and be commissioned as officers, doing various jobs throughout the Air Force. It’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to continue their project. These factors might make the initial motivation of our team less than that of other Lean Launchpad teams.  We found that early interactions with customers excited about their work went a long way to remedy this.

We’re offering cadets much less structure than they’re used to. Some cadets are uncomfortable with the ambiguity of the requirements (“What are you looking for?  What do I have to do to get an A?”).  I’d imagine this is typical of most high-performing students.

We’re trusting cadets with more freedom and less oversight than they’re used to.  There’s the potential for our trust to be abused.  I’m hopeful that our cadets rise to this challenge.  I think they’ll feel ownership of the project and empowerment, rather than see an opportunity to shirk responsibilities.

Since this course is a senior design experience, cadets expect to be “using their major”.  There’s the tendency for some to sit on the sideline if the pressing work isn’t directly related to their area of expertise.  It has taken some prodding for cadets to embrace the “hustler” mindset – to take any job necessary to move the team forward.

These are challenges we can overcome.  I know we’re moving in the right direction.  I know we have the right team and project to be successful.  I know our cadets will make us proud.

Up the hill!

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Fly High

Todd Branchflower was one of my Lean LaunchPad students entrepreneurial enough to convince the Air Force send him to Stanford to get his graduate engineering degree. After watching my Secret History of Silicon Valley talk, he became fascinated by how serendipity created both weapon systems and entrepreneurship in World War II – and brought us federal support of science and Silicon Valley.

In class I would tease Todd that while the Navy had me present the Secret History talk in front of 4,000 cadets at the Naval Post Graduate School, I had yet to hear from the Air Force Academy.  He promised that one day he would fix that.

F-22Fast-forward three years and Todd is now Captain Todd Branchflower, teaching electrical engineering at the Air Force Academy.  He extended an invitation to me to come out to the Academy in Colorado Springs to address the cadets and meet the faculty.

Out of the airport the first stop was in Denver – an impromptu meetup at Galvanize and a fireside chat with a roomful of 200 great entrepreneurs.

U.S. Military Academies
Then it was on to Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy. All officers in the U.S. military need a college degree. The Air Force Academy is one of the four U.S. military service academies (academy is a fancy word for 4-year college.) The oldest is the Army’s U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, founded in 1802 to educate Army officers. The next military college was the Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland, set up in 1845 to train Navy officers. The Coast Guard Academy opened in New London Connecticut in 1876. The Air Force, originally part of the U.S. Army, wasn’t an independent military branch until 1947, set up their academy in 1955 in Colorado Springs. Only ~20% of officers go through a service academy. Over 40% get the military to pay for their college by joining via the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program. The rest get their college degree in a civilian college or university and then join their branch of the military after a 10-week Officer Training School.

Secret History
Given my Air Force career I came thinking that sharing the Secret History of Silicon Valley talk with 1000 soon to be Air Force Officers would be the highpoint of the visit. And it was as much fun as I expected – a full auditorium – a standing ovation, great feedback and a trophy – but two other things, completely unexpected, made the visit even more interesting.Air Force Trophy

First, I got to meet the faculty in both electrical/computer engineering and management and share what I’ve learned about Lean and the Lean LaunchPad class. In their senior year all Air Force cadets on the electrical engineering track have a two-semester “Capstone” class project.  They specify, design and build a project that may be of use.  Unfortunately the class operates much like the military acquisition system: the project specification has minimal input from real world users, the product gets built with a waterfall engineering process, and there’s no input on whether the product actually meets real world needs until the product is delivered. This means students spend a ton of time and effort to deliver a “final” product release but it’s almost certain that it wouldn’t meet real world users’ needs without extensive rework and modification.

I was surprised how interested the faculty was in exploring whether the Capstone class could be modified to use the Customer Development process to get input from potential “customers” inside the Air Force.  And how the engineering process could be turned Agile. with the product built incrementally and iteratively, as students acquire more customer feedback. Success in the Capstone project would not only be measured on the technical basis of “did it work?” but also on how much they learned about the users and their needs.  I invited the faculty to attend the Lean LaunchPad educators’ course to learn how we teach the class.

We’ll see if I made a dent.

Table for 4000
In between faculty meetings I got a great tour of the Academy facilities and some of the classes.  As on any college campus there are dorms, great sports facilities (sports is not optional), classrooms, etc. The curriculum was definitely oriented to practical science and service. However not on too many other college campuses will you find dorms arranged in squadrons of 40 of 100 students each, where students have to make their beds and have full-time hall monitors, and simultaneously eat lunch with 4,000 other cadets in one dining room (an experience I got to participate in from the guest tower overlooking the dining hall.)  All the hierarchal rituals were on  display; freshman have to run on the main quad walking on narrow strips, carry their backpacks in their hands, daily room inspections, etc.

And I saw things that made this uniquely an Air Force college – they had their own airfield, flying clubs, the Aero Lab with three wind tunnels, heavy emphasis on engineering and aeronautics, etc. (And it was fun to play “what aircraft is that” with those on static display around the grounds.) But the second surprise for me was the one that made me feel very, very old – it was the Academy’s Cyber Warfare curriculum.

Cyber Warfare
I visited the Cyber 256 class and got a look at the syllabus. Imagine going to college not only to learn how to hack computers but also actually majoring in it. The class consisted of basic networking and administration, network mapping, remote exploits, denial of service, web vulnerabilities, social engineering, password vulnerabilities, wireless network exploitation, persistence, digital media analysis, and cyber mission operations. In addition to the class in Cyber Warfare, there was also a cadet Cyber Warfare Club and an annual National Security Agency Cyber Warfare competition. The Air Force competes with other military branches and National Guard units; the instructor proudly told me that the Air Force has won for the last two years.  I only wish I had taken a picture of the huge trophy in the back of the classroom.

We do what?
On the plane ride home I had time to process what I saw.

When I was in the military the battle was just ending between the National Security Agency (NSA) and the military branches over who owned signals and communications intelligence. Was it the military (Air Force, Navy) or was it our intelligence agencies?  In the end the NSA became the primary owner, the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) owned and built the spacecraft that collected the intelligence and the military branches had organizations (Air Force Security Services, Army Security Agency or Naval Security Group) that manned the collection platforms (airplanes, listening posts, etc) which all fed back into the National Security Agency.

Cyber Warfare has been through the same battles. While each of the military branches have Cyber Warfare organizations reporting into a unified military Cyber Command, the head of the National Security Agency is its director, making the NSA the agency that owns Cyber Warfare for the U.S.  Cyber Warfare has three components:

1) Computer Network Attack (CNA) – shut down an enemies ability to command and control its weapon systems in a war (i.e. Chinese satellite and over the horizon radar systems targeting U.S. carriers) or prevent potential adversaries from creating weapons of mass destruction, (i.e. Stuxnet targeted at the Iranian nuclear weapons program),
2) Computer Network Defense (CND) – stop potential adversaries from doing the same to you.
3) Computer Network Espionage (CNE) – steal everything you can get your hands (China and RSA’s SecureID breach, hacks of Google and AWS.)

While the U.S. complains about the Chinese military hackers from the PLA’s GSD 3rd Department (the equivalent of our National Security Agency,) and their 2nd Bureau, Unit 61398 tasked euphemistically for “Computer Network Operations,” we’ve done the same.

Unfortunately, potential adversaries have much softer targets in the U.S. While the military is hardening its command and control systems, civilian computer systems are relatively unprotected. Financial institutions have successfully lobbied against the U.S. government forcing them to take responsibility in protecting your data/money.  Given our economy is just bits, the outcome of a successful attack will not be pretty.

Summary

  • Thanks to the Air Force Academy, it’s faculty, cadets and Captain Todd Branchflower for a great visit
  • The Lean LaunchPad class may find a place in the military
  • We should be glad that the military is taking Cyber Warfare seriously, you should wish your bank did the same

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Careers Start by Peeling Potatoes

Listening to my the family talk about dividing up the cooking chores for this Thanksgiving dinner, including who would peel the potatoes, reminded me that most careers start by peeling potatoes.

KP – Kitchen Patrol
One of the iconic punishments in basic training in the military was being threatened by our drill instructors of being assigned to KP – Kitchen Patrol – as a penalty for breaking some rule. If you got assigned to KP you were sent to the base kitchen and had to peel potatoes all day for all the soldiers on the base.  It was tedious work but to my surprise I found that it wasn’t the dreadful experience our drill instructors made it out to be. But working in the mess hall, the real eye-opener was the inside look at the workings of something I took for granted – how do you cook three meals a day for 10,000 people at a time. Peeling potatoes was a small bit in the thousands of things that had to go right every day to keep 10,000 of us fed.

One my first career lessons: stop taking for granted finished goods and appreciate the complexity of the system that delivered them.

Solutions From Hands On
When I got to my first airbase my job was lugging electronics boxes on and off fighter planes under the broiling hot Thailand sun, to bring them into the technicians inside the air-conditioned shop, to troubleshoot and fix. The thing we dreaded hearing from the techs was, “this box checks out fine, it must be a wiring problem.” Which meant going back to the aircraft trying to find a bent pin in a connector or short in a cable or a bad antenna. It meant crawling over, under and inside an airplane fuselage the temperature of an oven. Depending on the type of aircraft (F-4’s, F-105’s or A-7’s – the worst) it could take hours or days to figure out where the problem was.

A few months later, I was now the guy in the air-conditioned shop telling my friends on the flight-line, “the box was fine, must be a cable.” Having just been on the other side I understood the amount of work that phrase meant. It took a few weeks of these interactions, but it dawned on me there was a gap between the repair manuals describing how to fix the electronics and the aircraft manuals telling you the pin-outs of the cables – there were no tools to simplify finding broken cables on the flightline. Now with a bit more understanding of the system problem, it didn’t take much thinking to look at the aircraft wiring diagrams and make up a series of dummy connectors with test points to simplify the troubleshooting process. I gave them to my friends, and while the job of finding busted aircraft cabling was still unpleasant it was measurably shorter.

My next career lesson: unless I had been doing the miserable, hot and frustrating job on the flightline, I would never have known this was a valuable problem to solve.

Up From the Bottom
My startup career started on the bottom, installing process control equipment inside auto assembly plants and steel mills (in awe of the complexity of the systems that delivered finished products.) Wrote technical manuals and taught microprocessor design (to customers who knew more than I did.) Worked weeks non-stop responding to customer Requests For Proposals (RFP’s.) Designed tradeshow booths, spent long nights at shows setting them up, and long days inside them during the shows.

Over ten long years I wrote corporate brochures (making legal, finance and sales happy), and sales presentations (treading the line between sales, marketing, truth, and competition), and data sheets, web sites and competitive analyses, press releases (getting a degree in creative writing without being an English major,) and flew to hundreds of customer meetings on red-eyes at a drop of a hat (making sales guys rich and gaining a huge appreciation for their skills.)

Partnered with engineering trying to understand what customers really wanted, needed and would pay for, versus what we could actually build and deliver (and learning the difference between a simply good engineer and working in the presence of sheer genius.) In the sprint to first customer ship, slept under the desk in my office the same nights my engineering team was doing the same.

Each of those crummy, tedious, exhausting jobs made me understand how hard they were. Each made me appreciate the complexity of the systems (with people being the most valuable) that make up successful companies. It made me understand that they were doable, solvable and winnable.

It took me a decade to work my way up to VP of Marketing and then CEO. By that time I knew what each job in my department meant because I had done every one of them. I knew what it took to get these jobs done (and screw them up) and I now pushed the people who worked for me as hard as I had worked.

Career Lessons Learned:

  • Winning at entrepreneurship is for practitioners not theorists.
  • Building a company in all its complexity is computationally unsolvable.
  • There’s no shortcut for getting your hands dirty. Reading stories about the success of Facebook or blogs about the secrets of SEO might make you feel smarter, but it’s not going to make you more skilled.
  • Unless you’ve had a ton of experience (which includes failing) in a broad range of areas you’re only guessing.
  • Great careers start by peeling potatoes.

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Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die

We Sleep Peaceably In Our Beds At Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready To Do Violence On Our Behalf

Everyone has events that shape the rest of their lives.  This was one of mine.

——-

I’ve never been shot at. Much braver men I once worked with faced that every day. But for a year and a half I saw weapons of war take off every day with bombs hanging under the wings. It never really hit home until the day I realized some of the planes didn’t come back.

Life in a War Zone
In the early 1970’s the U.S. was fully engaged in the war in Vietnam. Most of the fighter planes used to support the war were based in Thailand, or from aircraft carriers (or for some B-52 bombers, in Guam.)  I was 19, in the middle of a hot war learning how to repair electronics as fast as I could. It was everything life could throw at you at one time with minimum direction and almost no rules.

It would be decades before I would realize I had an unfair advantage. I had grown up in home where I learned how to live in chaos and bring some order to my small corner of it. For me a war zone was the first time all those skills of shutting out everything except what was important for survival came in handy. But the temptations in Thailand for a teenager were overwhelming: cheap sex, cheap drugs (a pound of Thai marijuana for twenty dollars, heroin from the Golden Triangle that was so pure it was smoked, alcohol cheaper than soda.) I saw friends partying with substances in quantities that left some of them pretty badly damaged. At a relatively young age I learned the price of indulgence and the value of moderation.

What a great job
But I was really happy. What a great job – you work hard, party hard, get more responsibility and every once in awhile get to climb into fighter plane cockpits and turn them on. What could be better?

Near the beginning of the year when I was at an airbase called Korat, a new type of attack aircraft showed up – the A-7D Corsair. It was a single seat plane with modern electronics (I used to love to play with the Head Up Display.) And it was painted with a shark’s mouth. This plane joined the F-4’s and F-105 Wild Weasels (who went head-to-head with surface-to-air missiles,) and EB-66’s reconnaissance aircraft all on a very crowded fighter base.  While the electronics shop I worked in repaired electronic warfare equipment for all the fighter planes, I had just been assigned to 354th Fighter Wing so I took an interest in these relatively small A-7D Corsair’s (which had originally been designed for the Navy.)

He’s Not Coming Back
One fine May day, on one of my infrequent trips to the flight line (I usually had to be dragged since it was really hot outside the air-conditioned shop), I noticed a few crew chiefs huddled around an empty aircraft spot next to the plane I was working on. Typically there would have been another of the A-7’s parked there. I didn’t think much of it as I was crawling over our plane trying to help troubleshoot some busted wiring. But I started noticing more and more vans stop by with other pilots and other technicians– some to talk to the crew chief, others just to stop and stare at the empty spot where a plane should have been parked. I hung back until one of my fellow techs said, “Lets go find out what the party is about.”

We walked over and quickly found out it wasn’t a party – it was more like a funeral.  The A-7 had been shot down over Cambodia.  And as we found out later, the pilot wasn’t ever coming home.

An empty place on the flight line
While we were living the good life in Thailand, the Army and Marines were pounding the jungle every day in Vietnam. Some of them saw death up close. 58,000 didn’t come back – their average age was 22.

Everyone shook their heads about how sad. I heard later from “old-timers” who had come back for multiple tours “Oh, this is nothing you should have been here in…” and they’d insert whatever year they had been around when some days multiple planes failed to return. During the Vietnam War ~9,000 aircraft and helicopters were destroyed. Thousands of pilots and crews were killed.

It’s Not a Game
I still remember that exact moment – standing in the bright sun where a plane should be, with the ever present smell of jet fuel, hearing the engines of various planes taxing and taking off with the roar and then distant rumble of full afterburners – when all of a sudden all the noise and smells seemed to stop – like someone had suddenly turned off a switch. And there I had a flash of realization and woke up to where I was. I suddenly and clearly understood this wasn’t a game. This wasn’t just a big party. We were engaged in killing other people and they were equally intent on killing us. I turned and looked at the pilots with a growing sense of awe and fear and realized what their job – and ours – was.

That day I began to think about the nature of war, the doctrine of just war, risk, and the value of National Service.

Epilogue
Captain Jeremiah Costello and his A-7D was the last attack aircraft shot down in the Vietnam War.

Less then ninety days later the air war over Southeast Asia ended.

For the rest of my career when things got tough in a startup (being yelled at, working until I dropped, running out of money, being on both ends of stupid decisions, pushing people to their limits, etc.), I would vividly remember seeing that empty spot on the flightline. It put everything in perspective.

Entrepreneurship is hard but you can’t die.
Listen to the post here: Download the Podcast here

Philadelphia University Commencement Speech – May 15th 2011

I am honored to be with you as we gather to celebrate your graduation from Philadelphia University.

While I teach at Stanford and Berkeley, to be honest… this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.

I realize that my 15 minutes up here is all that’s between you and the rest or your life, so if I can keep you awake, I’m going to share 4 short stories from my life.

My first story is about finding your passion.
My parents were immigrants…  Neither of them had been to college—my mother graduated from high school but my father left school after the 7th grade.  Still, like many immigrants, they dreamed that someday their children would go to college…  Unfortunately that was their dream—but it wasn’t mine.

I ended up at Michigan State because I got a scholarship…Once I got there, I was lost…unfocused…and had no idea of who I was and why I was in school. I hated school.

One day my girlfriend said, “You know some of us are working hard to stay here. But you don’t seem to care.Why don’t you find out what you really want to do?”

That was the moment I realized I, …not anyone else…was in charge of my life.

I took her advice. I dropped out of Michigan State University after the first semester.

In the middle of a Michigan winter, I stuck out my thumb and hitchhiked to Miami, the warmest place I could think of.

I had no idea what would be at the end of the highway. But that day I began a pattern that I still follow—stick out your thumb and see where the road takes you.

I managed to find a job at the Miami International Airport loading racehorses onto cargo planes. I didn’t like the horses, but the airplanes caught my interest.

Airplanes were the most complicated things I had ever seen. Unlike other kids who were fans of the pilots, I was in awe of the electronics technicians in charge of the planes’ instruments. I would hang around the repair shop just helping out wherever I could. I didn’t know anything, so I didn’t get paid…

But soon some technician took me under his wing and gave me my first tutorial on electronics, radar and navigation. I was hooked. I started taking home all the equipment manuals and would read them late into the night.

For the first time in my life, I found something I was passionate about.

And the irony is that if I hadn’t dropped out, I would never have found this passion…the one that began my career. If I hadn’t discovered something I truly loved to do, I might be driving a cab at the Miami airport.

My life continued to follow this same pattern…I’d pursue my curiosity, volunteer to help, and show up a lot. Again and again, the same thing would happen… people would notice that I cared…and I’d get a chance to learn something new.

Now that you paid for your degree…I’m going to let you in on a secret. It’s your curiosity and enthusiasm that will get you noticed and make your life interesting—not your grade point average.

But at the time…as excited as I was…I couldn’t see how my passion for airplanes and avionics could ever get me anywhere.  Without money, or a formal education, how could I learn about them?

The answer turned out to be a war.

My second story is about Volunteering and Showing Up.
In the early 1970’s, as some of you might remember, our country was in the middle of the Vietnam War—-and the Air Force was happy to have me.

I enlisted to learn how to repair electronics. The Air Force sent me to a year of military electronics school. While college had been someone else’s dream, learning electronics had become mine.

After electronics school, when most everyone else was being sent overseas to a war-zone, I was assigned to one of the cushiest bases in the Air Force, right outside of Miami.

My first week on the base… our shop chief announced: “We’re looking for some volunteers to go to Thailand.” I still remember the laughter and comments from my fellow airmen. “You got to be kidding… leave Miami for a war in Southeast Asia?”

Others wisely remembered the first rule in the military: never volunteer for anything. Listening to them, I realized they were right. Not volunteering was the sane path of safety, certainty and comfort.

So I stepped forward, raised my hand—and I said, “I’ll go.”

Once again, I was going to see where the road would take me. Volunteering for the unknownwhich meant leaving the security of what I knew…would continually change my life.

Two weeks later I was lugging heavy boxes across the runway under the broiling Thailand sun. My job was to replace failed electronic warfare equipment in fighter planes as they returned from bombing missions over North Vietnam.

As I faced yet another 110-degree day, I did consider that perhaps my decision to leave Miami might have been a bit hasty. Yet every day I would ask, “Where does our equipment come from… and how do we know it’s protecting our airplanes?”

The answer I got was, “Don’t you know there’s a war on? Shut up and keep doing what you’re told.”

Still I was forever curious. At times continually asking questions got me in trouble…

once it almost sent me to jail

but mostly it made me smarter.

I wanted to know more.  I had found something I loved to do.. …and I wanted to get better at it.

When my shift on the flightline was over, my friends would go downtown drinking. Instead, I’d often head into the shop and volunteer to help repair broken jammers and receivers. Eventually, the shop chief who ran this 150-person shop approached me and asked, “You’re really interested in this stuff, aren’t you?” He listened to me babble for a while, and then walked me to a stack of broken electronic equipment and challenged me troubleshoot and fix them.

Hours later when I was finished, he looked at my work and told me, “We need another pair of hands repairing this equipment. As of tomorrow you no longer work on the flightline.” He had just given me a small part of the electronic warfare shop to run.

People talk about getting lucky breaks in their careers. I’m living proof that the “lucky breaks” theory is simply wrong. You get to make your own luck. 80% of success in your career will come from just showing upThe world is run by those who show up…not those who wait to be asked.

Eighteen months after arriving in Thailand, I was managing a group of 15 electronics technicians.

I had just turned 20 years old.

My third story is about Failure and Redemption
After I left the military, I ended up in Palo Alto, a town south of San Francisco. Years later this area would become known as Silicon Valley.

For a guy who loved technology, I was certainly in the right place. Endlessly curious, I went from startups in military intelligence to microprocessors to supercomputers to video games.

I was always learning. There were times I worried that my boss might find out how much I loved my job…and if he did, he might make me pay to work there. To be honest, I would have gladly done so.  While I earned a good salary, I got up and went to work every day not because of the pay, but because I loved what I did.

As time went on, I was a co-founder or member of the starting team for six high-tech startups…

With every startup came increasing responsibility. I reached what I then thought was the pinnacle of my career when I raised tens of millions of dollars and became CEO of my seventh startup… a hot new video game company. My picture was in all the business magazines, and made it onto the cover of Wired magazine. Life was perfect.

And then one day it wasn’t.

It all came tumbling down. We had believed our own press, inhaled our own fumes and built lousy games. Customers voted with their wallets and didn’t buy our products. The company went out of business. Given the press we had garnered, it was a pretty public failure.

We let our customers, our investors, and our employees down. While it was easy to blame it on others…and trust me at first I tried… in the end it was mostly a result of my own hubris—the evil twin of entrepreneurial passion and drive.

I thought my career and my life were over. But I learned that in Silicon Valley, honest failure is a badge of experience.

In fact, unlike in the movies, most startups actually fail. For every Facebook and Zynga that make the press, thousands just never make it at all.

All of you will fail at some time in your career…or in love, or in life.

No one ever sets out to fail. But being afraid to fail means you’ll be afraid to try.  Playing it safe will get you nowhere.

As it turned out, rather than run me out of town on a rail, the two venture capital firms that had lost $12 million in my failed startup actually asked me to work with them.

During the next couple years…and much humbler… I raised more money and started another company, one that was lucky enough to go public in the dot.com bubble.

In 1999… with the company’s revenue north of $100 million…I handed the keys to a new CEO and left. I had married a wonderful woman and together we had two young daughters.

I decided that after 20 years of working 24/7 in eight startups, I wanted to go home and watch my kids grow up.

Which brings me to my last story—There’s a Pattern Here.
When I retired I found myself with lots of time to think.

I began to reflect about my career and what had happened in my 21 years with startups in Silicon Valley.

I was all alone in a ski cabin with the snow falling outside…with my wife and daughters out on the slopes all day… I started to collect my thoughts by writing what I had hoped would become my memoirs.

Eighty pages later, I realized that I had some great stories as an entrepreneur and a failed CEO. But while writing them was a great catharsis, it was quickly becoming clear that I’d even have to pay my wife and kids to read the stories.

But the more I thought about what I had done, and what other entrepreneurs had tried, I realized something absurdly simple was staring at me.  I saw a repeatable pattern that no else had ever noticed.

Business schools and investors were treating new companies like they were just small versions of large companies. But it struck me that startups were actually something totally different. Startups were actually like explorers—searching for a new world, where everything—customers, markets, prices—were unknown and new.

These startups needed to be inventive as they explore, trying new and different things daily. In contrast, existing companies, the Wal-Mart’s and McDonalds, already had road maps, guide books and playbooks—they already know their customers, markets, and prices. To succeed they just need to do the same thing every day.

Now it would have been easy to say, “Nah, this can’t be right—every smart professor at Harvard and Wharton and Stanford believes something different.”

In fact, in your lives this will happen to you.

You will have a new idea, and people will tell you, “That can’t be right because we’ve always done it this way.”

Ignore them…..  Be persistent… Never give up. Innovation comes from those who see things that other don’t.

As a retired CEO, I had a lot of free time.  So I was often invited to be a guest lecturer at the business school at Berkeley. They thought I could tell stories about what it was like to start a company. I was generous with my time…and I showed up a lot.

But I began to nag the head of the department about this new idea I had…one that basically said that everything you learn about starting new companies in business schools was wrong. I thought that there was a better a way to teach and manage startups than the conventional wisdom of the last 40 years. And to their credit…Berkeley’s Business School and then Stanford’s Engineering School let me write and teach a new course based on my ideas.

Now…a decade later… that course called Customer Development is the basis of an entirely new way to start companies.

If you’re in a technology company or build a web or mobile application, it’s probably the only way to start a company.

How did this happen?  By showing up a lot and questioning the status quo.

These days I write a weekly blog about entrepreneurship.  At the end of each post, I conclude with lessons learned—a kind of Cliff Notes of my key takeaways.  So in case you haven’t been listening, that’s how I’ll finish up today.

Be forever curious.
Volunteer for everything.
Show up a lot.
Treat failure as a learning experience.

Live life with no regrets.
Remembering…There is no undo button.

Congratulations again to you all…and thank you very much.

Listen to the speech here: Download the Podcast here

Requiem For A Roommate

And, when he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of Heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
William Shakespeare

Last week I had my “public servant” hat on in my official capacity as a California Coastal Commissioner.  Walking out after a 13-hour hearing, one of my fellow commissioners asked, “Why on earth do we do this?” As I got back to the hotel, I found myself wondering the same thing.  What ever got me interested in public service and non-profits? As I tried to unwind, I turned on the hotel TV and caught part of an old movie, The Big Chill.

It reminded me that I volunteer my time because of a gift I had received my first year in college.

Unshakable Certainty
I had never been outside of New York so to me Michigan seemed like a foreign country. On the first day of college I wandered down my dorm hall introducing myself and met Michael Krzys, the guy who would one day be the best man at my wedding, making a salad on the floor of his room.  I provided the bowl and as we started talking, I was fascinated that he was from Adrian Michigan, a quintessential small town in the Midwest. He was equally curious about someone who grew up in New York. As we got to know each other, I pretty quickly I realized that I had met my match, someone with even more curiosity, creativity and a wry sense of humor.  As best friends our freshman year, we did all the crazy things that first year college students do (things I still won’t tell my kids.)

But as I got to know Michael, there was another, completely foreign part of him I didn’t understand. (It would take me another 30 years.) From the day I met him he had a commitment to public service that was deep, heartfelt, profound, unshakable and to me, mysterious and completely unfathomable. Even as a freshman, Michael already knew that his calling was to help others and to do so he was determined to become a public service lawyer. It confused and unnerved me to know someone with so much certainty about the meaning and direction of his life.  It couldn’t have been more different from mine.

After our first year our lives took different paths. When they would touch again, it would be in ways neither of us could have predicted.

Different Paths
With the Vietnam War going full tilt, I left school and joined the Air Force, spending a year and a half in Southeast Asia. Michael and I kept in touch via letters – me telling him about adventures in the military, fighter planes, electronics and foreign countries. His letters explained to me why I was an idiot, war was immoral and that while he appreciated my dedication to national service, it was public servicethat was the higher calling. Each of his letters ended with him reminding me that I was destined for a different career.

When I got back from Thailand the war was winding down and Michael was now in the University of Michigan Law School (having finished his undergrad degree in 3-years.) For my last year in the Air Force, I was stationed on a B-52 bomber base, 183 miles from Ann Arbor. I knew the exact mileage as I would drive it every weekend to see my girlfriend and hang out with Michael. Over dinner we’d argue about politics, talk about how to best save the world, and he’d tell me what he was learning that week in his law school classes.  I remember when he taught me the best way to understand an issue was to learn how to argue both sides of a case.

It didn’t take long before he was loaning me his last quarter’s law books to read during the week at the airbase where I was keeping the world safe for democracy.  (While students in law school were hiding their Playboy magazines inside their law books, I’m probably the only guy who had to hide his law books from fellow airmen under a pile of Playboy magazines.)

Remove the Tag
In his last year in law school, the high point for Michael was arguing his first pro bono case in Detroit for a tenant who he claimed was being illegally evicted. (In Michigan law students could appear and practice in limited court settings under the supervision of an admitted attorney.) When I drove down to Ann Arbor that weekend, I was regaled with Michael’s tale of his passionate defense of his first client as he stood in front of the judge waving his arms for effect in his first-ever sports coat. Michael said he was ecstatic that the judge ruled in his favor, but was a bit confused when the judge motioned him to approach the bench.  In a low voice the judge said, “Son, that was a pretty good argument for a law student. However the next time you’re in court, you may want to remove the price tag from the sleeve of your sports coat.”

When I got out of the military and went back to school, Michael was finishing up law school, and a year later he and his new wife headed to the South to work for Georgia Legal Services in McIntosh County in Georgia. I moved to Silicon Valley, and we kept up a sporadic correspondence, me trying to explain startups and Michael telling me about the world of civil rights and equal justice for the poor. If possible it seemed like his excitement for what he was doing matched mine.  I just didn’t understand why he did it.

It’s a Calling
For entrepreneurs, understanding why people dedicate their lives to working for non-profits is hard to fathom. Why work for low pay, on something that wasn’t going to deliver a product that would change the world?

Today, each time I see the staffs of those non-profits where I’m on the board, I get a glimpse of that same passion, commitment and sense of doing right that I first heard my freshman year decades ago.  For the best of them, it’s not a job, it’s a life-long calling.  The executive directors of the Coastal Commission and POST remind me of what Michael might have become.

A Life Worth Living
One fine California April day in 1981, three years in Silicon Valley now into my second startup, I got a call from someone in Michigan who had been trying to track me down.  Michael and his wife were bringing some kids to camp, and he was killed in a head-on car accident with a drunk driver.  His wife and the kids survived.

It took me a long time, but as I got older I realized that life was more than just about work, technical innovation and business. Michael and others worked to preserve and protect the values that made life worth living.  And while we were making things, they were the ones who were who changing our society into a more just place to live.

There isn’t a day that goes by on the Coastal Commission that I don’t wonder what Michael Kryzs would do. To this day he is my model as a human being who found his own compass.

I always hoped that mine would point in the same direction.

Update: after three decades I finally got to give Michael a memorial even he would have thought was fitting and proper. I established the Michael Krzys Public Interest Fellowship at the University of Michigan Law School. Details here

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