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.


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 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.


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.


  • 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.

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.
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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 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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Nuke’em ‘Till They Glow – Quitting My First Job

I started working when I was 14 (I lied about my age) and counting four years in the Air Force I’ve worked in 12 jobs. I left each one of them when I was bored, ready to move on, got fired, or learned as much as I can.

There was only one job that I quit when I feared for my life.

Life Is Good
The Vietnam War had just ended and I was out of the Air Force back in college living in Ann Arbor Michigan. Colors other than olive green or camouflage slowly seeped back in my life as “Yes sir, and no sir” faded away. Unlike my previous attempt at college as a pre-med, four years working with electronics convinced me that perhaps I ought to study engineering.

Civilian life was good, the government was paying my tuition and I got a college work/study job in the University of Michigan physics department. After a few weeks, the Physics lab staff realized I knew something about repairing electronics (you try fixing a sodium-iodide scintillation detector without a manual.) I got asked, “Would you like to work at the nuclear reactor?” I thought they were joking. “The university has its own nuclear reactor?”

Oh man, something really new to learn. “Heck yes, sign me up.”

Nuclear Reactors on Campus
Starting in 1953 the U.S. built over a 150 research reactors. Much smaller than the ~500-1,500 megawatt nuclear reactors that generate electricity, by the late 1960s these 1 to 10 megawatt reactors were in 58 U.S. universities. In addition, 40 foreign countries got research reactors in exchange for a commitment to not develop nuclear weapons. (But these reactors used weapons grade Uranium-235 for their cores, and by the late 1970’s we realized it wasn’t a good idea to be shipping highly enriched uranium overseas.)

My first day in the reactor electronics lab I got a lecture from the health physics department. I was given a film-badge (a dosimeter to measure whole body radiation) and taught how to use the hand and foot monitors (to prevent radioactive contamination from spreading outside the containment dome.)

Lots of things could go wrong in a nuclear reactor – loss of cooling, power failure, jammed control rods, reactor power excursions, etc. While a reactor failure can’t create a nuclear explosion, if its core is uncovered long enough it can generate enough heat to melt itself, with all kind of nasty consequences (see Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.) To “scram” a reactor means an emergency shutdown by inserting neutron-absorbing control rods into the core. This stops the nuclear chain reaction. My job in the reactor electronics lab was to rebuild the reactor “scram system.”

Ford Nuclear Reactor at the Phoenix Lab

The scram system had three parts: the mechanical part (the control rod drives and electromagnetic latches), the electronic part (comparators circuits and trip logic), and the sensors (to measure neutron flux, core temperature, pool water level, etc.)

The 20-year old electronics in our existing scram system were based on vacuum tubes and had the annoying habit of scramming the reactor every time a thunderstorm was nearby. And summertime in the Midwest has lots of thunderstorms. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had approved a transistorized version of the electronics. My job was to build the approved design, retrofit it into the existing power supplies and integrate it with the existing mechanical systems and sensors.

But first I was going to see the reactor.

Cerenkov radiation
Over time I would get used to visiting the reactor, but the first visit was awe-inspiring. Entering the containment building through the air lock, my eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the dim light. The first thing I saw was a gigantic mural of the earth rising over the moon painted on the side of the dome. After another few seconds I realized that the mural was illuminated by an unearthly blue glow coming from what looked like a swimming pool below it. My eyes followed the source of the light down to to the pool and there I first saw the 2 MW nuclear reactor in the bottom of the swimming pool – and it was generating its own light. When I could tear my eyes from the pool I noticed that in the far end of the building was a glass wall separating a room bathed in red light, where the reactor operators sat at their console. The lab manager let me stand there for a while as I caught my breath. Hollywood couldn’t have set the scene better.

As we walked towards the pool I learned that the bright blue light was Cerenkov radiation from the reactor core (electrons moving faster than the speed of light in water polarizing the water molecules, which when they turned back to their ground state, emitted photons.) We briefly walked across a bridge that spanned the pool and stood directly over the core of the reactor. Wow. They were going to pay me for this?

Dose Roulette
Over the next few weeks, as I began work on the scram system, I got to know the control room operators and others on the staff. Most of them were ex-Navy reactor technicians or officers. They had been around nukes for years and were bemused to find an ex Air Force guy among them.

One of their weekly rituals was to read the bulletin board for the results of the dosimeter readings. Since most of my time was spent outside the containment dome my radiation exposure numbers were always zero. But there was a bizarre culture of “you’re not a real man until you glow in the dark” among the ex-Navy crew. They would celebrate whoever got the highest dose of the week by making them buy the beer for the rest.

After spending the last four years around microwaves I had become attuned to things that you couldn’t see but could hurt you. In the Air Force I had watched my shop mates not quite understand that principle. On the flightline they would test whether a jamming pod was working by putting their hand on the antenna. If their hand felt warm they declared it was. When I tried to explain that the antenna wasn’t warm, but it was the microwaves cooking their hand, they didn’t believe me. There were no standards for microwave protection. (I always wondered if the Air Force would ever do a study of the incidence of cataracts among radar technicians.)

You Buy The Beer
In a few months I had the new scram system ready for debugging. This required connecting the new electronics to the neutron detectors in the pool that monitored the core. We timed this for the regular downtime when used fuel elements were swapped out and they had lowered the pool water level for easier installation. I remember standing on the bridge right over the reactor core watching as the reactor techs remotely connected up the cables to my electronics. I leaned over the bridge to get a better look. By now the reactor was so familiar that I didn’t think twice of where I was standing.

A week later as I was about to enter the dome, I heard someone congratulate me and ask when I was going to buy the beer. They were pointing to the Health/Safety printout on the wall.  In one week I had managed to get close to my annual allowable radiation dose  (~5 rems?).

In my mandatory talk with the the safety officer to figure out where I got exposed, I remembered hanging out over the core on the bridge. The heavy water in the pool was both a moderator and a radiation shield. With the pool level lowered I shouldn’t have been on the bridge. I had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Don’t do it again” was his advice.

Career Choices
That week I finished up the installation and resigned from the lab. While the radiation dose I received was unlikely to effect my health, the cumulative effect of four years of microwaves and the potential for more unexpected “winning the dosimetery lottery” convinced me to consider alternate jobs in electronics.

In some sense my career in startups was steered by deciding to avoid future jobs with gamma rays or high-power microwaves.

But I sure learned a lot about nuclear reactors.


Postscript: a year and a half after I left, the power reactor at Three Mile Island had a core meltdown. For years I would worry and wonder if I had wired my scram system correctly.

Lessons Learned

  • Things you can’t see can hurt you (microwaves, gamma rays, toxic bosses.)
  • No job is worth your health.
  • If it seems dangerous or stupid it probably is.
  • Rules and regulations won’t stop all possible mistakes.
  • No one but you will tell you it’s time to quit.

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Ejection Seats

I pulled a few pranks in the military, but the one that got pulled on me took years off of my life.

Alone in the Cockpit
There isn’t anything cooler for a 19-year old then getting into the cockpit of a fighter plane. While most of my time was spent in the shop repairing electronic warfare receivers, every once in awhile I got called out to the flightline to troubleshoot a problem that couldn’t be duplicated on the bench. In the year and a half I was in Thailand I climbed in and out of the cockpits of F-4’s, F-105 Wild Weasels and A-7’s.

If you worked during the day, the flightline felt like organized chaos and viewed from above it might have looked like an anthill (if it had 500lb bombs.) Planes were prepped for maintenance and had all the service equipment you needed and a crew chief nearby. But at night the flightline had a different, slower tempo. You’d catch a ride to the revetment, and you’d be out there alone watching the moths and baht bugs dance in out of the beams of the portable light carts. You’d have a “start cart” towed to the plane, lug a power cord the size of a fire hose and plug in the external power to the plane, climb the ladder, open the canopy, and get into the cockpit, turn on the aircraft circuit breakers and power up my electronic countermeasures equipment (no I never got to start the engines.)  It was way cool. Even more so at night when the cockpit lighting and displays and the stars above made you realize that even a delivery vehicle of death could be beautiful.

It made you forget you were sitting on top of a rocket two inches from your rear end.

Ejection Seats
All military fighter and bomber aircraft are equipped with ejection seats. If the plane is damaged in combat the pilot (and crew) can escape before the plane crashes.  To eject the pilot pulls a handle and the next thing he knows he’s hopefully seeing his chute above him and damaged plane spiraling into the ground. Ejection seats work on a simple principle. Underneath each of the seat(s) is a rocket designed to shoot the crewmember out of the damaged plane. The seat is mounted on rails that guide the seat out of the plane. After clearing the plane the seat then falls away and a parachute deploys to gently land the crewmember/pilot.

Each type of military plane has a slightly different ejection sequence. On fighter planes they work by blowing the cockpit canopy off and then firing the rocket under the seat. On bombers they worked by blowing hatches off and then firing the crew up, or in some cases down, away from the aircraft.

The last thing you want is a seat going off by accident when some maintenance guy sticks his hands to rummage under the ejection seat when he dropped his screwdriver. (Something I did many times.)

When the airplane is parked the crew chief inserts safety pins to “safe” the seat. These pins stop the mechanical systems used to fire the seat.  The pins had long red streamers attached to them that said “Remove before flight.”

Into the Hanger Ceiling
Each time you got to an airbase you’d get briefed on aircraft safety on the “egress” systems. Someone in your shop would take you out to an aircraft and show you where each of the pins were supposed to go and make sure you knew what not to touch, kick or remove.

The accidents that happened when something did go wrong were gruesome. When I got to my first airbase in Florida they first thing they told me was, “You might want to pay attention, we scraped some airman off the hanger ceiling three months ago.” And a few months later at my base in Thailand the same thing happened again.

B-52 Egress Training
When I came home from Thailand I was stationed on a B-52 bomber base. These 8-engine bombers carried nuclear weapons and had a crew of six in a two-story cockpit. On the upper deck the pilot and co-pilot faced forward, and right behind them sat the Electronic Warfare Officer and the Tail Gunner facing backwards. All four crewmembers had upward firing ejection seats just like the fighter planes I had worked on.

But on the bottom deck sat the Navigator and the Radar Navigator (the bombardier) and their seats ejected downwards.

Two of my new shop mates took me out to my first B-52 to get me “checked out.”  You entered the plane from a hatch in the bottom deck and climbed a ladder to the top deck. We started on each of the four seats on top as they taught me where all the safety pins went.

As they showed me around the cockpit they kept emphasizing how much more dangerous the B-52 ejection systems were than those I was used to on fighters. “These are really old planes and these ejection systems are really, really touchy.”  By the time we got to the bottom deck, I was gaining a real respect for these seats. “Oh, these seats down here?  If they ever went off you’d be fired right into the ground and then burned to death by the rocket.”

They sat me in the Navigators seat as they kept telling me more and more horrific B-52 ejection seat stories. “Yeah on these seats the ejection sequence automatically starts when it grabs your legs. The rocket fires in 10 seconds.” Sitting in the navigators seat, I was processing that when they said, “Move your legs back to get some more room.” I kicked my legs back and then heard a loud metallic noise.

All of a sudden my legs couldn’t move. Something had grabbed my ankles.

My shop mates looked at me and yelled, “Holly sxxt! He’s initiated the ejection system! The rocket is going to fire!! Lets get out of here!”

I looked in horror as they jumped out of the hatch and left me alone to die. I struggled to find a way to get out of the seat. Through the open hatch I could hear my shop mates counting down waiting for the seat to fire. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

I closed my eyes and prepared to die.

Time passed. I was still alive. I could hear laughter coming from the hatch as my shop mates came back up and unlocked the leg restraints. (They were just mechanical devices that didn’t arm the ejection system.)

As they helped me down out of the hatch there must have been 10 more of my shop mates gathered on the tarmac.

“Hey, he didn’t even wet his pants.”

I had just been initiated as a maintenance technician on the B-52.

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Airman Roachclip, Ashley P.

I thought today was an appropriate time to tell this story. I’m hoping the Statute of Limitations has run out.


As I’ve gotten older, I realized that one of the skills I have is pattern recognition across large data sets.  When I was young, I didn’t have much data. So back then I constructed “what if…” scenarios in my head to amuse myself. The first time I did this I created havoc on an Air Force base by convincing everyone that gravity would be turned off. This time what was meant as a private joke accidentally ended up involving the entire U.S. Air Force Pacific Command in the middle of the Vietnam War.

The Night Shift
I was 20 years old in Thailand repairing electronic countermeasures receivers on the “graveyard” shift (midnight-to-eight in the morning.) Outside our air-conditioned shop, the nights were still warm and muggy as other maintenance technicians were also working through the night repairing all the broken parts of fighter planes; navigation, radar, jet engines, etc. The fighters would sit in their protective revetments until morning slowly being reassembled for the next days shift over North Vietnam. As the early morning sun was lighting up the flightline I could hear the rumble of the fighters taking off. I’d get off work with the sun still low in the morning sky and watch them taxi to the ready line, arm their weapons and roar down the runway.

Since I was responsible for my tiny part of the 150+ person shop, I had the keys to the electronic warfare administrative office. Giving a 20-year old with an active imagination and a history of large scale pranks access to an administrative office was a bad idea. The office had file cabinets with personnel records, training records, administrative records, etc.  And with time on my hands I went through everybody’s files, and while there was nothing particularly interesting, it kept me busy reading for weeks.

As I looked at all these personnel records, I thought it would be funny to create an entirely new person who didn’t exist.  To amuse myself, my project over the next few months would be to create all the records for this fictional persona. But what to name him?  Cheech and Chong, a comedy team in the early 1970’s, had come up with a character whose name I had found laugh-out-loud funny (remember I was 20) – Ashley Roachclip.

That’s who I was going to have join the war effort –  Airman Ashley P. Roachclip.

Airman Ashley P. Roachclip Reporting For Duty
Each evening after I finished repairing microwave warning receivers that hopefully would allow our fighter planes to see the North Vietnamese Surface to Air Missiles before they launched, I sat and typed away. I spent weeks copying all the personnel and training forms, assembling a complete dossier for Airman Roachclip. This was my first attempt at creative writing, and I gave him a very interesting career (he was a very bad airman.) When I was done, there must have been 70 pages in Airman Ashley P. Roachclip’s personal file.

Airman Roachclip was now part of the Vietnam war effort. Feeling fulfilled, I put his records back in the files and never had a second thought.

Fast forward a few months. Most of the time my only interaction with our shop’s military hierarchy was getting briefed by the swing shift which preceded me, and me briefing the day shift which followed me. We’d discuss transition issues about equipment problems or talk about parts needed to fix the remaining equipment, etc.

But one day as I came into work, the swing shift said, “There is a mandatory military formation (meeting) at 0900.” And the meeting wasn’t just for me, it was for the entire 150+ people in the shop.

At 0900 we stepped out into the bright Thai sunlight and formed up. And I realized that it’s not just our shop, but it looks like it’s most of the 500 person avionics squadron.

On the Record
A few captains surrounded the assistant base commander. For an enlisted man sighting of an officer other than the flight crews was never a good sign. I managed to work my way to the back row. Stacked on a long table in front of the officers were boxes of personnel records. As we formed up, we’re all asking each other, “What’s going on?”

Finally someone calls us all to attention, and the assistant base commander announced, “We’re here today because of a personnel matter. This base submitted the total number of airmen we have to Pacific Headquarters in Hawaii.  According to USAF records, 123,912 airmen were sent to Southeast Asia, but they have records showing that are 123,913 airmen here. That means there is one extra airman we can’t account for. Headquarters has traced that one extra airman in the entire Pacific theatre down to this avionics squadron.”

“When we call your name come up to the table, report in to your shop chief and pick up your personnel record. We’ll start with the radar shop,” a captain announced.

At this moment I realized the personnel record I created had somehow gotten reported as being a real member of our shop and had screwed up the system. I’m in a war zone, and I’m probably going to be shot for this.

The captain read names alphabetically through each shop. When he called out, “Airman Jones,” you went up, saluted and picked up your records. They looked at it, they looked at you, and then you were dismissed.  I died a bit at each time they called a name. They called all the names in radar shop, then the nav shop and now they were down to the electronic warfare shop.

He’s A Mythical Character Sir
The names became a blur, “Airman Johnson, yes, sir, Airman Potts, yes sir…” I couldn’t tell if I was sweating from standing in the Thai sunlight or out sheer terror. How did this happen? Unlike my previous prank I had no intention of this one becoming public. Now I was wondering if they’d arrest me in front of my entire shop. And I wondered what kind of prison the military had.

Finally the captain calls out, “Airman Roachclip,” … Silence.  They call again, this time louder, “Airman Roachclip front and center.” People began to snicker, as they yell again, “Airman Ashley P. Roachclip front and center.”  And all of a sudden all the young guys started to laugh out loud.

The assistant base commander who had been irritated at the start of this process was now really mad. He walked out from behind the table and put his face right in front of one of my shop mates who had been laughing the loudest. “What’s so funny, airman?” He shouted. The startled airmen replied, “Sir, Ashley P. Roachclip is a mythical character, sir.”

This time it was the major’s turn to be surprised, “What did you say, son?”  My shop mate managed to stammer out, “Sir, Ashley Roachclip is in a Cheech and Chong album and he’s the President of the United Heads For Hemp.”  The base commander started to turn red, but before he could say anything else someone else volunteered, “I have the album in my barracks, sir. I can get it for you.”

Finally the base commander asks, “Are you telling me Ashley P. Roachclip is not an airman in the United States Air Force?” The airman replied, “ Yes, sir, no he’s not, sir.”

You can just imagine the fur ball of activity this revelation created among the officers and shop chiefs. All I could think is: “Why did I do this again?  It was the same chaos that happened the last time I pulled a prank in the military. I promised myself that if I somehow got out of this one without being caught, I was never going to do another practical joke again.

After 15 minutes of further discussion, (and after review of the clearly fantastic accomplishments in Airman Roachclip’s personnel record) they dismissed us. For the next three months I thought they would dust the personnel record for fingerprints, find out it was me, and send me to jail.

And then one day the air war was over the North was over. We were all going home.

I never did do another prank…

Until 20 years later when I put the Moon Rock in the Rocket Science lobby.

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The Seven Days of Christmas

I’m sitting next to the fireplace in my favorite chair listening to holiday music, looking at the ocean and making occasional attempts to “help” get ready for Christmas dinner. We went for a hike checking out our new trail signs and playing “spot the bobcat.” Our kids are home for the school break, some friends are visiting from the east coast and we have everything for the holidays but snow on the California coast.

My kids are now almost the age I was long ago at another Christmas.

So This is Christmas
As a 20-year old in Thailand in the middle of the chaos of the Vietnam War, my days were filled being a infinitesimal part of the synchronized machinery of maintaining, arming, and launching row after row of fighter planes parked in their revetments –
F-105 Wild Weasels, F-4’s, A-7’s, as well AC-130 Spectre gunships.

There was something both awe-inspiring and incongruous watching fighter planes with bombs on the wing racks take off two at a time. They would accelerate down the runway with full afterburners with sound you could feel in your chest, climb steeply banking sharply to avoid the towering thunderstorms and seem to fly through double rainbows so bright and beautiful they looked painted on the sky.

While I spent most of my time in an air-conditioned avionics shop, my forays out to the flight-line forever made the smell of JP-4 (jet fuel) an integral part of my life. I still associate the kerosene odor with the ballet-like choreography and precision of hundreds of bomb loaders, pod loaders, start-carts, maintenance crews and the cacophonous sound of dozens of jet engines and fighters purposefully taxiing to the runway. As I look out of the window from a seat of a commercial airplane and see the fuel trucks and baggage carts scurry about, the smell of jet fuel still makes me remember somewhere else.

Halfway through my tour of duty I got to go on vacation – what the military called R&R (rest and recreation.) All my buddies went to Bangkok or somewhere equally exotic. I decided to go to Ann Arbor Michigan to see my girlfriend. Normally you got 5 days off and then it was time to forget civilian life and get back to the war. Somehow (lost in the mist of time, or perhaps it was because my R&R would occur over the Christmas holidays) I managed to make my R&R 7 days.

One day I was in the middle of Thailand and the next I was hopping space-available military flights to snow-bound Michigan.

So This is Christmas
To my girlfriend Christmas was the high point of her year. Getting off the plane I was in a jet-lagged daze, standing out with very short-hair in a ‘70’s college town, as she met me by at the gate reminding me that having me back was her best Christmas present. As soon as we left the airport we began a 7-day frenzy of a full-immersion Christmas. (All of this was new for me, as I was raised by a single mother who never celebrated holidays- secular or religious, including events like birthdays.)

I still remember some of the things we did; making wrapping paper by tie-dying plain tissue paper, baking Christmas cookies and Gingerbread men and fruitcake. We made our own Christmas ornaments. I even believe, given how little money we had, we made each other our presents. We went caroling in the snow and had Christmas dinner with friends.

Yet with all of that holiday activity the one thing I still remember, the one thing I can still feel after almost 40 years, was regardless of the adventures you have, how important coming home to a family was.

Of all the goals I set in my life coming home to a family was the one I set standing in the snow that Christmas.


Duality of Man
On the flight back I had plenty of time to think of the contradictions of war with the messages of peace, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays

From our family to yours.

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Thirty-Six Years Later

One of my first posts (here) was learning about bats, moths and electronic countermeasures in natural systems in Thailand in the middle of the War in Vietnam.

Catching up on my back issues of Science magazine all I could do was smile when I read the title of an article in the July 17th issue:  Tiger Moth Jams Bat Sonar

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Gravity Will be Turned Off

Part of marketing is the ability to communicate a message to thousands of people and convince them to believe your version of reality. When I was 19 I accidentally had a test run of my ability to do so. I created havoc at an air force base by convincing thousands of airman that gravity would be turned off so that the Air Force could make repairs under their buildings. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Two Million Students
First some background. Ever since WWII U.S. Air Force aircraft have carried sophisticated avionics equipment – radar, navigation, electronic warfare, etc. While the sharp end of the stick were the pilot and/or crew, each of these systems required a cadre of technicians to maintain and repair the equipment. Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi was the Training Center responsible for teaching 10’s of thousands of students a year how to repair radar, communications, and electronics. Some 2 million students have trained there since it opened in 1942. Think of it as the ultimate vocational training school.

Trade School
At the height of the Vietnam War, I was at Keesler learning how to repair electronic warfare equipment, a skill which had gone from theory (our B-52 bombers might one day have to use this stuff –once – penetrating the Soviet Air Defense system) to practice (our fighter/bombers were encountering the murderously effective North Vietnamese air defense system every day.)

In hindsight the USAF did a damn good job. We spent the first five months learning basic electronics theory and the next months getting our hands dirty with the theory and practice of electronic warfare receivers and jammers. As it was a vocational school, I think the most math we had to do was to figure out whether we got a passing grade, and no one was in any danger of actually designing new equipment, but I left with an excellent education in troubleshooting, and solving complex problems in real-time.

Duality – Student Life – in the Military
Here we were, thousands of students with an average age of 19 going to school and living in barracks on the airbase. The barracks were like college dorms except we had to polish the brass doorknobs, wax and buff the hallway floors and make our beds.  We attended classes from 6am to noon – five days a week.  And we had to march to class (I’m convinced it was the only way they figured they were going to get us up and out of bed at that hour).

There was a duality to our existence.  On one hand, we were in a rigid command and control system where we had to follow orders, salute officers and understand the military hierarchy, yet on the other we were in an educational institution where we were encouraged to ask all the questions you wanted.  And we had afternoons and weekends off.  We could go off base and do anything a group of 19-year olds wanted to, like skydiving, but that’s another story.

Library Hours
I loved libraries since I was a kid. Growing up in New York, the library was the only calm and stable place in my life, a refuge from home. I read my way through our small neighborhood library.

My fondness for libraries and my reading habit carried through to the Air Force, and this technical school had an awesome technology library. One day I opened up a Scientific American magazine and read an article on a prank that had been pulled at CalTech the year before. And something about the story clicked for me. I thought that this practical joke would be even funnier in a military organization than it was at Caltech. (I’ll describe the actual prank in a bit.)

Alone with Letterhead
Every evening someone in the barracks had to serve as the “fire warden” for the night.  In hindsight, fire warden meant you were a manual smoke alarm. You walked around the barracks and made sure the building wasn’t on fire. (Anytime you put 10,000 19-year olds on a base you can bet one of them will go to sleep with a cigarette and burn his mattress, if not the building.)

The other minor duty of the fire warden was to update the squadron bulletin board. This was the one place you had to go daily to read all the official notices, and orders.  Reading official military notices and memos always seemed funny to me as they had the most verbose and obtuse ways of saying even the simplest things. You usually had to read two pages to realize the memo said, “No Smoking Indoors,” or “Mandatory meeting on Thursday.”

Following Orders
One night it was my turn on fire warden duty, and with way too much time on my hands, I was mulling over the philosophical contradictions of the literal interpretation that my fellow military students placed on even the most trivial orders.  Orders didn’t have to make sense, we were told, “an order is an order. Don’t think, just follow it.” I wondered how far that would really go.

Then I thought of the Caltech prank. If it worked on a college campus, I wonder what would happen on a military base?

So working into the wee hours of the morning I typed up a version of the Cal Tech prank (on official base letterhead,) translating it into military phraseology. I typed 30 copies, and using the master key I went into every squadron building bulletin board, and posted these orders from the base commander on all 30.

The memo I posted looked something like this:gravity 1gravity 2Friday Formation
I had posted my memo on Wednesday, got a good chuckle over it and promptly forget all about it. I thought it was very funny, a good one-time joke and people would laugh and then remove it from the bulletin board. But a few days had passed, and I hadn’t heard anything, so I thought the joke had fallen flat on its face.

Every building/squadron had an officer in charge of us, and all 300 hundred or so would gather in the courtyard every Friday for our squadron meeting, where our lieutenant would give us orders for the weekend, (usually have a good time) and answer any questions.

We’re standing in the Friday squadron formation, and the lieutenant comes out, who is all of 22 years old. The sergeant calls, “Squadron a-ten hut,” we all snap to attention. The lieutenant reads the orders of the weekend, blah, blah, blah, and then says, “okay, any questions?”  And usually there weren’t any questions because everyone wants to go and be dismissed for the weekend.  But today was going to be a bit different.

I’m ready to run for the gate, but wait, there’s a raised hand.

“Sir, about the gravity being turned off, what if we have fish?  Should we cover their bowls?” I almost burst out laughing surprised there was at least one person in the squadron who believed the memo. The lieutenant is silent for a long minute, staring at the airman who asked the question, and calculating whether he heard it correctly or was being made fun of. But before he could respond, someone else raised his hand and says, “Sir, what if we have small children and they’re crawling, and we can’t get them off base, will they affected by the gravity?”

Ok, I think, maybe there were two.

But that was the cue for 10 more people simultaneously to burst out with questions, (“How about motorcycles will they be OK? Can we go to the bathroom when the gravity is turned off?”) And I started to panic as it dawns on me that this conversation is occurring 30 times the 300 people in each of the 30 squadrons on this airbase.

The lieutenant looks stunned.  Were we all on drugs?  What on earth were we talking about?  He sent the sergeant to get the memo from the bulletin board, reads it and he starts looking really confused.  It can’t be real, but yet… it does look like an official order from the base commander.

The lieutenant leaves to call the base commander,(about the same time 29 other lieutenants were doing the same.) “But sir, the order came from you.” An hour and a half later we finally get dismissed with a, “Ignore that order, it wasn’t really an order.”

Years later at different air bases, at the most unexpected times, I’d hear someone bring up, “Hey, were you at Keesler when they had those orders about the gravity being turned off?”  And I always say, “No, never heard of it, tell me about it.”  The story was even better when someone else told it.

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The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part VI: Every World War II Movie was Wrong

This is Part VI of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“. This post makes a lot more sense if you look at the earlier posts as well as the video and slides.


The next piece of the Secret History of Silicon Valley puzzle came together when Tom Byers, Tina Selig and Mark Leslie invited me to teach entrepreneurship in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) in Stanford’s School of Engineering.  My office is in the Terman Engineering Building.

Fred Terman – the Cover Story
I’d heard of Terman but I didn’t really know what he did – his biography said that he was one of the preeminent radio engineers in the 1930’s literally writing the textbooks. He was the professor who helped his students Bill Hewlett and David Packard start a company in 1939.  In World War II he headed up something called the Harvard Radio Research Lab. There was plenty in his biography about his post WWII activities: chair of electrical engineering in 1937, dean of engineering in 1946, provost in 1955. He started the Stanford Honors Co-op in 1954 which allowed companies in the valley to send their engineers to Stanford graduate engineering programs.  74HGZA3MZ6SV

Since I was interested in the history of Silicon Valley, Entrepreneurship, and now Terman, I began to understand that Terman had a lot to do with the proliferation of microwave companies in Silicon Valley in the 1950’s and ’60’s. But how? And why? So I started to read all I could find on the development of microwaves. That led me back to the history of radar in World War II – and a story you may not know.

What Does WWII Have to Do with Silicon Valley?
Just a quick history refresher. In December 1941, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and Germany declares war on the United States. And while the Soviets are fighting the Germans in massive land battles in eastern Europe, until the allies invade Western Europe in June 1944, the only way the U.S. and Britian can affect German war-fighting capability is by mounting a Strategic Bombing campaign, from England. Their goal was to destroy the German capability to wage war by aerial bombing the critical infrastructure of the German war machine. 

The allies bombed the German petroleum infrastructure, aircraft manufacturing infrastructure, chemical infrastructure, and transportation infrastructure. The Americans and British split up the air campaign: the British bombed at night, the Americans during the day.


b-17The Odds Weren’t Good
These bombers flew for 7+ hours from England and over occupied Europe, through a gauntlet of intense antiaircraft fire and continuous attack by German fighter planes. And they got it coming and going to the target.

But what the bomber crews didn’t know was that the antiaircraft fire and German fighters they encountered were controlled via a sophisticated radar-guided electronic air defense system covering all of occupied Europe and Germany.

The German electronic air defense system was designed to detect the allied bomber raids, target and aim the German radar-guided weapons, and destroy the American and British bombers. The German air defense system had 100’s of early warning radars, and thousands of radar controlled anti-aircraft guns, and Ground Controlled Intercept radars to guide the fighters into the bombers.


And the German night fighters had their own on-board radar. In all the Germans had over 7,500 radars dedicated to tracking and killing the allied bombers.


Each allied bombing mission lost 2-20% of their planes. Bomber crews had to fly 25 missions to go home. The German objective was to make strategic bombing too costly for the Allies to continue.  

By 1942 the Allied Air Command recognized they needed to reduce allied losses to fighters and flak. We needed a way to shut down the German Air Defense system. (Bear with me as this history takes you from the skies of Europe to Fred Terman.)

The Electronic Shield
To shut it down we first needed to understand the German “Radar Order of Battle.” What radars did the Germans have and what were their technical characteristics? How effective they were? What weapons were they associated with? We needed to find out all this stuff and then we needed to figure out how to confuse it and make it ineffective. 

So the U.S. set up a top secret, 800-person lab to do just that, first, to gather signals intelligence to understand the “Radar Order of Battle” and then, to wage “electronic warfare” by building mechanical and electronic devices to severely hamper the Germans’ ability to target and aim their weapons.

Ferrets and Crows  Signals Intelligence
The first job of the secret lab was to find and understand the German air defense system. So we invented the U.S. Signals Intelligence industry in about 12 months (with help from their British counterparts at the Telecommunications Research Establishment.) These mission of the planes called Ferrets, manned by crews called Crows, was to find and understand the German electronic air defense system.  We stripped out B-24 bombers, took out all the bomb racks, took out all the bombs and even took out all the guns.  And we filled it with racks of receivers and displays, wire and strip recorders and communications intercept equipment that could search the electromagnetic spectrum from 50 megahertz to 3 gigahertz, and this is 1943. 

We flew these unarmed planes in and out of Germany alongside our bombers and basically built up the “radar order of battle.” We now understood where the German radars were, their technical details and what weapons they controlled.

Tin Foil Rain – Chaff
We first decided to shut down the German radars that were directing the anti-aircraft guns and the fighter planes. And to do that we dropped tin foil on the Germans. No kidding. Radar engineers had observed if you cut a strip of aluminum foil to 1/2 the wavelength of a radar transmitter and throw it in front of the radars antenna, the radar signal would reflect perfectly. All the radar operator would see was noise, rather than airplanes. 

Well, you couldn’t stand in front of the German radars and throw out tin foil, but you could if you had a fleet of airplanes. Each plane threw out packets of aluminum foil (called “chaff”.) The raid on Hamburg in July, 1943 was the first use of chaff in World War II.  It completely shut down the German air defense system in and around Hamburg.  The British and then the Americans firebombed the city with minimal air losses.

Chaff used 3/4’s of all the aluminum foil in the U.S. in World War II, because by the end of the war, every bomber stream was dumping chaff on every mission.

Jam It and Shut it Down – Electronic Warfare
But this secret lab was focused on electronic warfare. So they systematically designed electronic devices called “jammers” to shut down each part of the German air defense system.  Think of a “jammer” as a radio transmitter broadcasting noise on the same frequency of the enemy radar set. The goal is to overwhelm the enemy radar with noise so they couldn’t see the bombers. We built electronic jammers to target each part of the German air defense system: their early warning radars, the short range radars, the antiaircraft gun radars, the Ground Control Intercept Radars, the air to ground radio links and even the radars onboard the German night fighters. By the end of the war we had put multiple jammers on every one of our bombers, and while their power output was ridiculously low, these jammers were flying in formation with 1,000 other planes with their jammers on, and the combined power was enough to confuse the radar operators.

Just to give you a sense of scale of how big this electronic warfare effort was, we built over 30,000 jammers, with entire factories running 24/7 in the U.S. making nothing but jammers to put on our bombers.

By the end of World War II, over Europe, a bomber stream no longer consisted of just planes with bombs.  Now the bombers were accompanied by electronics intelligence planes looking for new radar signals, escort bombers just full of jammers and others full of chaff, as well as P-51 fighter planes patrolling alongside our bomber stream.


Every WWII Movie and Book with a Bomber was Wrong
While there were lots of stories about how the British early warning radar system, called “Chain Home” saved England during the Battle of Britain by giving the Spitfire pilots time to scramble to intercept German bombers, there wasn’t a coherent story about American and British bombers encountering the German radar-guided air defense system.

This lack of information meant that every World War II movie or book that had airplanes on bombing missions in it was wrong.  Every one of them. (To someone who had grown up with reruns of WWII war movies on TV, this was a shock.) Every movie I had seen – 12 O’clock High, Memphis Belle, etc. –  assumed that there were no electronics other than radios on these bombers. Wrong. Not only didn’t the movie makers know, but the pilots and crews didn’t know about the German radar guided system trying to kill them. Nor did they know about the electronic shield being assembled to try to protect them.

But while this may be a great story what the does this have to do with the history of Silicon Valley?

The answer lies with who ran this lab and became the father of electronic warfare and Signals Intelligence in the Cold War for the next 20 years.

Who Ran the Most Secret Lab You Never Heard of?
It was Fred Terman of Stanford.  The Harvard Radio Research Lab was his creation. A Stanford professor was at Harvard in World War II because the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development thought Terman was the best radio engineer in the country. (Why couldn’t he have set up a lab at Stanford?  Apparently, the Office of Scientific Research thought that Stanford’s engineering department was second rate.)

Finally, I had an answer to the question I had asked 35 years earlier when I was in Thailand: “How did electronic warfare get started?” Now I knew that it began in the early days of World War II as a crash program to reduce the losses of bombers to the German air defense network.  Electronic warfare and signals intelligence in the U.S. started with Fred Terman and the Harvard Radio Research Lab.

Spooky Music
Reading about Terman was like finding the missing link in my career.  Here was the guy who invented the field I had spent the first five years of my adult life working on. And 30 years later I was teaching in a building named after him and never knew a thing about him.  Play spooky music here.

I began to realize a few things: First, everything we had done in electronic warfare in the Vietnam War was just a slightly more modern version of what we had done over occupied Europe in World War II.  (And in hindsight, we seemed a bit more agile and innovative in WWII.)

Unbelievably, in less than two years, Terman’s Radio Research lab invented an industry and had turned out a flurry of new electronic devices the likes of which had never been seen.  Yet decades later the military lacked the agility to write a spec in two years, let alone get 10’s of thousands of new systems deployed on aircraft as Terman had done.  How was this possible?  In 21st century terminology we’d say that Terman built the Radio Research lab into a customer-centric organization doing agile development.

Just the Beginning
The public history of Terman’s involvement with the military ends when he returns back to Stanford at the end of the war. Nothing in his biography or any Stanford history mentions anything as exciting as his work in World War II. The public story of his last 20 years at Stanford, in the 1950’s and ’60’s, seems to have him settle into the role of the kindly dean and innovative provost.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Secret Life of Fred Terman in a War you never heard of in Part VII of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.

The Story Behind the Secret History Part II. Getting B-52s through the Soviet Air Defense System

This is post II of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“.

1974. The Vietnam war was winding down. After been stationed at three fighter bases in Thailand (Ubon, Udorn and Korat) and working on Electronic Warfare suites on F-4’s, A-7’s, F-105’s and AC-130’s, I got orders to report to a Strategic Air Command (SAC) B-52 bomber base in Oscoda Michigan. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Imagine how hot, humid and unbearable the weather was in Thailand. Now I was on an airbase that issued some very ‘cool’ gear – bunny boots and arctic parkas.  The downside was that the average winter temperature was about 10 degrees.  I remember the few times I had to go out to the flight line, it was usually 15 below zero (Fahrenheit.)

The B-52 – When it Absolutely Had to Get There the Next Day

During the Cold War, the B-52 bomber was one-third of what was called our strategic triad – meaning, it made up one-third  of the U.S.’s strategic weapons: ICBMs, nuclear submarines, and manned bombers.  The notion was that while the Soviets could knock any one or any two of those out, we still had a retaliatory capability.  (That was our strategic posture from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, the ’80s, and I think maybe even through the ’90s. Now we have ditched the cold war triad in the 21st century since the Soviet Union became Russia again and discovered its own style of capitalism.)

Think of a plane the length of a 767 airliner (but with 30 foot longer wings and 8 engines rather than 2) whose only mission was to FedEx 70,000 pounds of nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union.


Soviet Air Defense – PVO Strany

The B-52s had to get through a massive Soviet air defense system that had been built and evolved over two decades and was designed to shoot down manned bombers.  Not only did Soviet Air Defense have the same SA-2 missiles the North Vietnamese had (since they had given it to them), but the Soviet air defense environment was much denser with a layered defensive system of radars, Surface to Air Missiles (old SA-1’s and newer SA-3s, SA-5s) and a huge manned 1000+ plane fighter interceptor fleet.  In fact, the Soviet Air Defense Forces, PVO Strany, was so important in the defense of the Motherland it was a separate branch of their military.

And just to make the problem harder, the North Vietnamese had shot down B-52s in December 1972 and given the Soviets the captured electronic countermeasures equipment.  Even though the bombers we lost over North Vietnam were older versions, called B-52 D-models, many of the systems were the same.  Now the Soviets had first hand knowledge of how their air defense systems would work against the nuclear armed B-52G and H models in an operational environment.

Ann Arbor to Alpena – 180 Miles and a Major Culture Gap

While I never got tired of looking at the planes, one my fondest memories of this base was driving down U.S. 23 to Ann Arbor when the leaves turned in the fall.  Late September to mid-October the riot of the colors was so intense I pulled the car off to the side of the road to just stare for awhile. Each week as I would head down south, I could track the progress of the trees putting on their electric reds and yellows fall colors as they also headed south.  I’d spend a weekend in a college town, without a uniform, in a world as far away from nuclear weapons and the Strategic Air Command in politics and culture as you could get. While it seemed a bit incongruous, it was fun listening to my friends in graduate school over dinner worrying about grades and jobs. Then I would return back north to the much drabber green palette of bombers and uniforms and continue to defend democracy.  I had plenty of time in those three hour drives to ponder the value of universal National Service.

The Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) and the Nielsen Ratings

The largest payload next to the nuclear weapons on B-52s was the electronic warfare equipment, which was to designed to help the bomber jam its way through the radar environment in the Soviet Union.  The bombers had wideband panoramic receivers and displays, chaff, and kilowatts of jammers up and down the frequency band.  One of the six crew members was solely dedicated to get the plane to the target through the gauntlet of the Soviet air defense system: the EWO or Electronic Warfare Officer.

When I first got to this B-52 base, I started asking: “What are we working on?” Again, just like in Thailand, the answer was, “Just fix the damn boxes.” I’d always be the one in the shop going, well, “Why? What are we jamming, how many Soviet radar types are there what does each one of them they do, how do we know about them, how did someone know to build these jammers to these specifications, how do these bombers penetrate Soviet airspace, how, when and where did the EWO use his equipment?” People used to just look at me: why are you asking these questions?

But I was now running the part of the electronic warfare shop that repaired the receivers and could get some of my questions answered.  The receiver I worked on, the ALR-20, when turned off looked like nothing more than a big orange TV display. But it was the main display for the EWO on the B-52 for situational awareness.  When it was on, he could see every signal from one end of the electromagnetic spectrum to the other and for a long way out around the aircraft.  Think of the most amazing spectrum analyzer you could build with 1960s technology.  Then think some more.

In time of war, the B-52’s would be piloted into Soviet territory at 500mph at 500 feet above the ground (by eyeball and by using some pretty sophisticated  low-light TV and infrared cameras.) Sitting behind the pilots, the EWO was also steering the plane, but he was taking it through the hostile electromagnetic spectrum.  He was constantly looking at the multiple lines on the ALR-20 display and could see the Soviet radar order of battle: ground to air communications, what radars were around (search, acquisition, tracking, etc.), were they about to get locked on the bomber and whether they were going to get a SAM up their rear or was it going to be an air-to-air missile from a fighter.  And because of his training, an EWO could identify and prioritize the threats.

The signals displayed by the ALR-20 were used to control the jammers of the rest of electronic countermeasures systems – putting out enormous number of kilowatts using brute force noise jamming and later on some much more sophisticated jamming techniques. All of this designed to make the plane if not invisible to Soviet radar, at least really difficult to lock onto and shoot down.

Just to rank how difficult it was to protect a B-52 in a dense defensive radar environment, our current B-2 stealth bomber has a radar signature of about an aluminum marble, while the B-52 designed in 1950 has the radar signature of a 170-foot sphere.  It was like trying to fly a whale through a fish tank and not get noticed.

(I remember a few times when the bombers were flying practice missions over their test ranges. On the way home the Electronic Warfare Officer would “accidentally” turn on the communications jammers over populated parts of the U.S. and shut down television and FM radio stations for hundreds of miles. This stuff was so powerful it probably could affect the Nielsen ratings. When they landed, the EWOs would write it up as an “equipment malfunction.” I could never tell if they had a sense of humor or just wanted to see if the equipment would work in the real world.)

Peace Is Our Profession – Is It a Drill?

In front of the entrance to every Strategic Air Command air base was a sign that said, “Peace is our Profession.” No joke.  Really.  Yet every time I came back to base, I kept thinking about whether this was the day for the alert drills.

At this time in the cold war, several B-52s at every Strategic Air Command base were on ground alert – they were loaded with nuclear weapons, had their orders and targets and were cocked and ready to take off to execute their mission – to destroy some part of the Soviet Union with large nuclear weapons.  All as an integral part of the Strategic Integrated Operating Plan – our war-fighting plan to destroy the Soviet Union.  When the alert sirens sounded, the bomber crews and the ground crews raced for their planes and they and their KC-135 refueling tankers would take off − hoping to miss the incoming Soviet ICBMs and SLBMs intended to destroy the bombers, the base and a good chunk of Michigan.

The problem for the rest of us on the base was that when the alert sirens went off, you did not know it was a drill.  I would always look at my watch and count down 10 minutes to see if we would be vaporized by a submarine-launched attack, and then hold my breath for another 15 minutes to see if there were ICBMs coming across the pole to take us out.  I wondered if I would actually see the flash or feel anything.  At these times, you never forgot that peace was the last profession we were in.

I never got used to it.

Stay Hungry, Stay Curious

When these bombers got their first modern Electronic Countermeasures suite (the ALQ-117 with automatic wide-band receivers and jammers), I got sent back to school for three months (to scenic Biloxi Mississippi again) to learn how to repair it.  This equipment was modern in the sense that it used integrated circuits rather than transistors, and it responded to threats “automagically” rather than requiring the EWO to do something. Learning about integrated circuits in the mid 1970s was fun as it meant learning a whole new language of digital versus analog computing and learning how to use a logic analyzer instead of just an oscilloscope.  Little did I know that these integrated circuits were coming from a place I would one day call home, and I’d be working at the companies who were designing them.

But once again, learning about the new electronic warfare equipment meant learning more about the Soviet threat environment and what we knew about the latest Soviet radar order of battle.

So now with a bit more “need to know” and a lot more “I want to know,” I started reading all the technical manuals I could get my hands on.  One of the wonderful things about a classified location is once you are inside, you have access to everything and can read anything − and I did.  I not only knew about my equipment but everyone else’s in the shop.  And I began to understand a bit about the Soviet radar order of battle at the height of the cold war from reverse engineering what our jammers were designed to counter and what frequencies our receivers were looking at and how the EWOs were trained to use our equipment.

I was always kind of curious. I was always curious about, and asking about, the big picture.

I was 22.


Part III of the Secret History of Silicon Valley continues here.

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