Lying on your resume

It’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the coverup.
Richard Nixon and Watergate

Getting asked by reporter about where I went to school made me remember the day I had to choose whether to lie on my resume.

I Badly Want the Job
When I got my first job in Silicon Valley it was through serendipity (my part) and desperation (on the part of my first employer.)  I really didn’t have much of a resume – four years in the Air Force, building a scram system for a nuclear reactor, a startup in Ann Arbor Michigan but not much else.

It was at my second startup in Silicon Valley that my life and career took an interesting turn. A recruiter found me, now in product marketing and wanted to introduce me to a hot startup making something called a workstation. “This is a technology-driven company and your background sounds great. Why don’t you send me a resume and I’ll pass it on.” A few days later I got a call back from the recruiter. “Steve, you left off your education.  Where did you go to school?”

“I never finished college,” I said.

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. “Steve, the VP of Sales and Marketing previously ran their engineering department. He was a professor of computer science at Harvard and his last job was running the Advanced Systems Division at Xerox PARC. Most of the sales force were previously design engineers. I can’t present a candidate without a college degree. Why don’t you make something up.”

I still remember the exact instant of the conversation. In that moment I realized I had a choice. But I had no idea how profound, important and lasting it would be. It would have been really easy to lie, and what the heck the recruiter was telling me to do so. And he was telling me that, “no one checks education anyway.” (This is long before the days of the net.)

My Updated Resume
I told him I’d think about it. And I did for a long while. After a few days I sent him my updated resume and he passed it on to Convergent Technologies. Soon after I was called into an interview with the company. I can barely recall the other people I met, (my potential boss the VP of Marketing, interviews with various engineers, etc.) but I’ll never forget the interview with Ben Wegbreit, the VP of Sales and Marketing.

Ben held up my resume and said, “You know you’re here interviewing because I’ve never seen a resume like this.  You don’t have any college listed and there’s no education section.  You put “Mensa” here,” – pointing to the part where education normally goes. “Why?” I looked back at him and said, “I thought Mensa might get your attention.”

sgb 1980 resume at 26

sgb 1980 resume at 26

Ben just stared at me for an uncomfortable amount of time. Then he abruptly said, “Tell me what you did in your previous companies.” I thought this was going to be a story-telling interview like the others. But instead the minute I said, “my first startup used CATV coax to implement a local-area network for process control systems (which 35 years ago pre-Ethernet and TCP/IP was pretty cutting edge.) Ben said, “why don’t you go to the whiteboard and draw the system diagram for me.”  Do what? Draw it?? I dug deep and spent 30 minutes diagramming trying remember headend’s, upstream and downstream frequencies, amplifiers, etc.  With Ben peppering me with questions I could barely keep up. And there was a bunch of empty spaces where I couldn’t remember some of the detail. When I was done explaining it I headed for the chair, but Ben stopped me.

“As long as you’re a the whiteboard, why don’t we go through the other two companies you were at.”  I couldn’t believe it, I was already mentally exhausted but we spent another half hour with me drawing diagrams and Ben asking questions. First talking about what I had taught at ESL – (as carefully as I could.) Finally, we talked about Zilog microprocessors, making me draw the architecture (easy because I had taught it) and some sample system designs (harder.)

Finally I got to sit down.  Ben looked at me for a long while not saying a word. Then he stood up and opened the door signaling me to leave, shook my hand and said, “Thanks for coming in.” WTF? That’s it?? Did I get the job or not?

That evening I got a call from the recruiter. “Ben loved you. In fact he had to convince the VP of Marketing who didn’t want to hire you. Congratulations.”

Epilogue
Three and a half years later Convergent was now a public company and I was a Vice President of Marketing working for Ben. Ben ended up as my mentor at Convergent (and for the rest of my career), my peer at Ardent and my partner and co-founder at Epiphany.  I would never use Mensa again on my resume and my education section would always be empty.

But every time I read about an executive who got caught in a resume scandal I remember the moment I had to choose.

Lessons Learned

  • You will be faced with ethical dilemmas your entire career
  • Taking the wrong path is most often the easiest choice
  • These choices will seem like trivial and inconsequential shortcuts – at the time
  • Some of them will have lasting consequences
  • It’s not the lie that will catch up with you, it’s the coverup
  • Choose wisely

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Teach Like You’re the Student

“I never have let my schooling interfere with my education.”
– Mark Twain

Every time I see my graduate students try to teach for the first time, it’s usually so painful I bite my lip. Then I remember the first day I stood up in front of a classroom.

You Hired
My first job in Silicon Valley was at ESL (a supplier of intelligence and reconnaissance systems,) I had managed to talk myself into getting hired as a training instructor. (Long back-story here.) The company had a major military contract to deploy an intelligence gathering system to Korea, they needed to train the Army Security Agency on maintenance of the system, the 10 week training course (6-hours a day) hadn’t been written, and the class was supposed to start in 6 weeks.

I convinced them that I knew the type of training military maintenance people need, and I had done some informal teaching in the Air Force. Out of desperation and a warm body right in front of them, they realized I was probably better than nothing, so I got hired.

As I wrote the course, I was handed a couple of books on how to put together a training class for the military and given some advice on how to assemble lessons.  But besides my own experience as a student in military technical training classes, I had never taught more than one person at a time.

The Dry Run
About a week before the course was due to start, the manager of training said, “Steve, we’d like to see you do a dry run of a class tomorrow. Pick the material you feel most comfortable with teaching and give us a lecture for an hour.”

I didn’t sleep that night. While I had taught my peers in the military how to repair equipment, it had been informal side-by-side training on a lab bench. I had never been in front of a classroom. I was scared and nervous.

The next day I stood up in front of the classroom and in the audience was the rest of the training department, my manager and the manager of the entire intelligence system program.

I don’t remember exactly what class material I taught, but I do know I gripped the side of the podium so hard my fingers hurt as I read my notes and droned on. I was so nervous that I skipped an entire page of notes.  In the one or two times I managed to look up, I saw my boss wincing, the program manager putting his head in his hands, and then most everyone drift out of the room.  After about 20 minutes my manager said, “Thanks Steve, that’s enough.”  He quickly left and when I passed him in the hall, he was in deep conversation with the program manager, and I could hear snippets of my name and the word “terrible.”

Even I knew I had done horribly.  I was ashamed and disappointed, and when my manger called me into his office that afternoon, I thought I was going to be fired before the class started.

Teach Like You’re the Student
As I sat in his office, I wondered if they would pay me through the end of the month or would they just walk me out the door that day. The latter seemed likely when he said, “I’ve never seen my boss so depressed. He thinks the Army is not going to pay us for the training course if you teach it.”  I was waiting for the “you’re fired” words to come out his mouth. Instead, I was blown away when he offered,” Well the good news is that you can’t get any worse.”  And he was smiling. He continued, “You figured out 6-airplanes and 3-vans full of computer equipment in six weeks.  That’s better than anyone we have on staff could have done.  Your lessons are clear and well organized.  And most importantly you love this stuff, and it comes through when you talk about it.  But we thought you were going to have a heart attack up in front of the room.” I started to exhale.  Maybe he wasn’t going to fire me. He laughed as he said, “In the last 15 years I’ve hired lots of training instructors, and something tells me you’re going to be pretty good at it… if you get through the first two weeks.”  Then he gave me some advice about teaching that’s stuck with me for more than three decades: “Just pretend you’re teaching you.  How would you do that? What would you want to know? What did you dislike when you were taught? What stories would you tell to make it understandable? What would keep you interested and engaged?”

I Love This Job
The class started a week later, and the first two days were as painful for me as they were for my students.  At first I never left the podium and was afraid to stop reading my notes. But after the second night, the class and I all went out drinking in Sunnyvale, and I realized that my manager was right – my students were exactly like me.  What they wanted to know was what I would have wanted to know if I was in that classroom. Over the next weeks as I slowly relaxed, I started to connect with the class. I stopped reading my notes, got out from behind the podium and started telling stories about my own experience and all the things that could go wrong that weren’t in the manual.

I’ve never stopped.

Lessons Learned

  • Research says teaching excellence is associated with extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and low neuroticism.
  • My experience says that all that may be true, but you need to teach like you’re the student.

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The End of Innocence

I love TechCrunch. If you’re a startup raising money or just want to see your name online, there’s not a better blog on the web.  Reading this TechCrunch post made me remember the first time I saw someone confront a worldview they didn’t expect.

TechCrunch PRDiscovering that your worldview is wrong or mistaken can be a life-changing event. It’s part of growing up but can happen at any age. What you do when it happens shapes who you’ll become.

Dinner in a Strange Land
When I was in my mid 20’s working at ESL, I was sent overseas to a customer site where the customers were our three-letter intelligence agencies. All of us knew who they were, understood how important this site was for our country, and proud of the work we were doing. (Their national technical means of verification made the world a safer place and hastened the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.)

As a single guy, I got to live in a motel-like room on the site while the married guys lived in town in houses and tried to blend in with the locals. When asked what they did, they said they worked at “the xxx research facility.”  (Of course the locals translated that to “oh do you work for the yyy or zzz intelligence agency?”)

One warm summer evening I got invited over to the house of a married couple from my company for a BBQ and after-dinner entertainment – drinking mass quantities of the local beer. The quintessential California couple, they stood out in our crowd as the engineer (in his late 20’s, respected by his peers and the customer) had hair down to his shoulders, sharply contrasting with the military crewcuts of the customers and most of the other contractors.

His wife, about my age, could have been a poster child for the stereotypical California hippie surfer, with politics that matched her style – antiwar, anti government, antiestablishment.

One of the rules in the business was that you didn’t tell your spouse, girlfriend, significant other who you worked for or what you worked on – ever. It was always a welcome change of pace to leave the brown of the unchanging desert and travel into town and have dinner with them and have a non-technical conversation about books, theater, politics, travel, etc. But it was a bit incongruous to hear her get wound up and rail against our government and the very people we were all working for. Her husband would look at me out the corner of his eyes and then we’d segue the conversation to some other topic.

That evening I was there with three other couples cooking over the barbie in their backyard. After night fell we reconvened in their living room as we continued to go through the local beer. The conversation happened to hit on politics and culture and my friend’s’ wife innocently offered up she had lived in a commune in California. Well that created a bit of alcohol-fueled cross-cultural disconnect and heated discussion.

Until one of the other wives changed a few lives forever with a slip of the tongue.

Tell Me it Isn’t True
One of the other wives asked, “Well what would your friends in the commune think of you now that your husband is working for intelligence agencies x and y?”

As soon as the words came out of her mouth, I felt time slow down. The other couples laughed for about half a second expecting my friend’s wife to do so as well. But instead the look on her face went from puzzlement in processing the question, to concentration, as she was thinking and correlating past questions she had about who exactly her husband had been working for. It seemed like forever before she asked with a look of confusion, “What do you mean agencies x and y?”

The laughter in the room stopped way too soon, and the room got deathly quiet. Her face slowly went from a look of puzzlement to betrayal to horror as she realized that that the drunken silence, the dirty looks from other husbands to the wife who made the agency comment, and the wives now staring at their shoes was an answer.

She had married someone who never told her who he was really working for. She was living in a lie with people she hated. In less than a minute her entire worldview had shattered and coming apart in front of us, she started screaming.

This probably took no more than 10 seconds, but watching her face, it felt like hours.

I don’t remember how we all got out of the house or how I got back to the site, but to this day I still remember standing on her lawn staring at strange constellations in the night sky as she was screaming to her husband, “Tell me it isn’t true!”

The next day the site supervisor told me that my friend and his wife had been put on the next plane out of country and sent home (sedated) along with the other couple that made the comment. By the time I came back to the United States, he was gone from the company.

It’s been thirty years, but every once an awhile I still wonder what happened to the rest of their lives.

———-

The End of Innocence
In much smaller ways I’ve watched my children and now my students discover that their worldview is wrong, mistaken or naive. I’ve watched as they realize there’s no Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy; the world has injustice, hypocrisy and inequality; capitalism and politics don’t work like the textbooks and money moves the system; you can’t opt out of dying, and without regulation people will try to “game” whatever system you put in place.

Learning to accept the things you can’t change, finding the courage to change the things you can and acquiring the common sense to know the difference, is part of growing up.

While I love TechCrunch, the post and the quote about the PR agency (“one PR firm has discovered a dynamite strategy, throw ethics out the window”) left me wondering; how do PR agencies interact with TechCrunch and other blog and review sites? Is this behavior an outlier or is it the norm in the PR industry?

Or is it just someones end of innocence?

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The Road Not Taken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chose a path and never looked back.

——

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

Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken – 1916

Lessons Learned

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

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Burnout

If you hang around technology companies long enough, you or someone you know may experience “burnout” – a state of emotional exhaustion, doubt and cynicism.  Burnout can turn productive employees into emotional zombies and destroy careers. But it can also force you to hit the pause button and perhaps take a moment to reevaluate your life and your choices.

Hitting “burnout” changed the trajectory of both ends of my career in Silicon Valley. This post, which is divided in two parts, is the story of the first time it happened to me.

Zilog
Zilog was my first Silicon Valley company where you could utter the customer’s name in public. Zilog produced one of the first 8-bit microprocessors, the Z-80 (competing at the time with Intel’s 8080, Motorola 6800, and MOS Technology 6502.)

I was hired as a training instructor to teach microprocessor system design for the existing Z-80 family and to write a new course for Zilog’s soon to be launched 16-bit processor, the Z-8000. Given the hardware I had worked on at ESL, learning microprocessors wasn’t that hard but figuring out how to teach hardware design and assembly language programming was a bit more challenging.  Luckily while I was teaching classes at headquarters, Zilog’s field application engineers (the technical engineers working alongside our salesmen) would work side-by-side with our large customers as they designed their systems with our chips. So our people in the field could correct any egregious design advice I gave to customers who mattered.

Customers
The irony is that Zilog had no idea who would eventually become its largest customers.  Our salesmen focused on accounts that ordered the largest number of chips and ignored tiny little startups that wanted to build personal computers around these chips (like Cromemco, Osborne, Kaypro, Coleco, Radio Shack, Amstrad, Sinclair, Morrow, Commodore, Intertec, etc.) Keep in mind this is still several years before the IBM PC and DOS. And truth be told, these early systems were laughable, at first having no disk drives (you used tape cassettes,) no monitors (you used your TV set as a display,) and no high level programming languages.  If you wanted your own applications, you had to write them yourself. No mainframe or minicomputer company saw any market for these small machines.

Two Jobs at Once
When I was hired at Zilog part of the deal was that I could consult for the first six months for my last employer, ESL.

Just as I was getting settled into Zilog, the manager of the training department got fired.  (I was beginning to think that my hiring managers were related to red-shirted guys on Star Trek.)  Since the training department was part of sales no one really paid attention to the four of us.  So every day I’d come to work at Zilog at 9, leave at 5 go to ESL and work until 10 or 11 or later.  Repeat every day, six or seven days a week.

Meanwhile, back at ESL the project I was working on wanted to extend my consulting contract, the company was trying to get me to return, and in spite of what I had done on the site, “the customer” had casually asked me if I was interested in talking to them about a job.  Life was good.

But it was all about to catch up to me.

Where Am I?
It was a Friday (about ¾’s through my work week) and I was in a sales department meeting. Someone mentioned to me that there were a pile of upcoming classes heading my way, and warned me “remember that the devil is in the details.”  The words “heading my way” and “devil” combined in my head. I immediately responded, “well that’s OK, I got it under control – as long as the devil coming at me isn’t an
SS-18.”  Given that everyone in the room knew the NATO codename for the SS-18 was SATAN, I was thinking that this was a witty retort and expected at least a chuckle from someone.

I couldn’t understand why people were staring at me like I was speaking in tongues. The look on their faces were uncomfortable.  The VP of Sales gave me a funny look and just moved on with the agenda.

VP of Sales?  Wait a minute.. where am I?

I looked around the room thinking I’d see the faces of the engineers in the ESL M-4 vault, but these were different people.  Who were these people?  I had a moment of confusion and then a much longer minute of panic trying to figure out where I was.  I wasn’t at ESL I was at Zilog.  As I realized what I had said, a much longer panic set in.  I tried to clear my head and remember what else I had said, like anything that would be really, really, really bad to say outside of a secure facility.

As I left this meeting I realized I didn’t even remember when I had left ESL or how I had gotten to Zilog.  Something weird was happening to me.  As I was sitting in my office looking lost, the VP of Sales came in and said, “you look a bit burned out, take it easy this weekend.”

“Burned out?” What the heck was that? I had been working at this pace since I was 18.

Burnout
I was tired.  No I was more than tired, I was exhausted. I had started to doubt my ability to accomplish everything. Besides seeing my housemates in Palo Alto I had no social life. I was feeling more and more detached at work and emotionally drained. Counting the Air Force I had been pounding out 70 and 80 hour weeks nonstop for almost eight years. I went home and fell asleep at 7pm and didn’t wake up until the next afternoon.

The bill had come due.

Recovery
That weekend I left the Valley and drove along the coast from San Francisco to Monterey. Crammed into Silicon Valley along with millions of people around the San Francisco Bay it’s hard to fathom that 15 air miles away was a stretch of California coast that was still rural. With the Pacific ocean on my right and the Santa Cruz Mountains on my left, Highway 1 cut through mile after mile of farms in rural splendor.  There wasn’t a single stop-light along 2-lane highway for the 45 miles from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz.  Looking at the green and yellows of the farms, I realized that my life lacked the same colors.  I had no other life than work. While I was getting satisfaction from what I was learning, the sheer joy of it had diminished.

As the road rolled on, it dawned on me that there was no one looking out for me. There was no one who was going to tell me, “You’ve hit your limit, now work less hours and go enjoy yourself.” The idea that only I could be responsible for taking care of my happiness and health was a real shock.  How did I miss that?

At the end of two days I realized,

  • This was the first full weekend I had taken off since I had moved to California
    3 years ago.
  • I had achieved a lot by working hard, but the positive feedback I was getting just encouraged me to work even harder.
  • I needed to learn how to relax without feeling guilty.
  • I needed a life outside work.

And most importantly I needed to pick one job not two. I had to make a choice about where I wanted to go with my career–back to ESL, try to work for the Customer or stay at Zilog?

More about that choice in the next post.

Lessons Learned

  • No one will tell you to work fewer hours
  • You need to be responsible for your own health and happiness
  • Burnout sneaks up on you
  • Burnout is self-induced.  You created it and own it.
  • Recovery takes an awareness of what happened and…
  • A plan to change the situation that got you there

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Agile Opportunism – Entrepreneurial DNA

Entrepreneurs tend to view adversity as opportunity.

You’re Hired, You’re Fired.
My first job in Silicon Valley: I was hired as a lab technician at ESL to support the training department. I packed up my life in Michigan and spent five days driving to California to start work. (Driving across the U.S. is an adventure everyone ought to do. It makes you appreciate that the Silicon Valley technology-centric culture-bubble has little to do with the majority of Americans.) With my offer letter in-hand I reported to ESL’s Human Resources (HR) department. I was met by a very apologetic manager who said, “We’ve been trying to get a hold of you for the last week. The manager of the training department who hired you wasn’t authorized to do so – and he’s been fired. I am sorry there really isn’t a job for you.”

I was stunned. I had quit my job, given up my apartment, packed everything I owned in the back of my car, knew no one else in Silicon Valley and had about $200 in cash. This could be a bad day. I caught my breath and thought about it for a minute and said, “How about I go talk to the new training manager. Could I work here if he wanted to hire me?” Taking sympathy on me, the HR person made a few calls, and said, “Sure, but he doesn’t have the budget for a lab tech. He’s looking for a training instructor.”

You’re Hired Again
Three hours later and a few more meetings I discovered the training department was in shambles. The former manager had been fired because:

  1. ESL had a major military contract to deploy an intelligence gathering system to Korea
  2. they needed to train the Army Security Agency on maintenance of the system
  3. the 10 week training course (6-hours a day) hadn’t been written
  4. the class was supposed to start in 6 weeks.

As I talked to the head of training and his boss, I pointed out that the clock was ticking down for them, I knew the type of training military maintenance people need, and I had done some informal teaching in the Air Force. I made them a pretty good offer – hire me as a training instructor at the salary they were going to pay me as a lab technician. Out of desperation and a warm body right in front of them, they realized I was probably better than nothing. So I got hired for the second time at ESL, this time as a training instructor.

The good news is that I had just gotten my first promotion in Silicon Valley, and I hadn’t even started work.

The bad news is that I had 6 weeks to write a 10 week course on three 30-foot vans full of direction finding electronics plus a small airplane stuffed full of receivers. “And, oh by the way, can you write the manuals for the operators while you’re at it.” Since there was very little documentation my time was split between the design engineers who built the system and the test and deployment team getting the system ready to go overseas. As I poured over the system schematics, I figured out how to put together a course to teach system theory, operations and maintenance.

Are You Single?
After I was done teaching each the day, I continued to write the operations manuals and work with the test engineers. (I was living the dream – working 80 hour weeks and all the technology I could drink with a fire hose.) Two weeks before the class was over the head of the deployment team asked, “Steve are you single?” Yes. “Do you like to travel?” Sure. “Why don’t you come to Korea with us when we ship the system overseas.” Uh, I think I work for the training department. “Oh, don’t worry about that, we’ll get you temporarily assigned to us and then you can come back as a Test Engineer/Training Instructor and work on a much more interesting system.” More interesting than this? Sign me up.

You’re Not So Smart, You Just Show Up a Lot
While this was going on, my roommate (who I knew from Ann Arbor where he got his masters degree in computer science,) couldn’t figure out how I kept getting these increasingly more interesting jobs. His theory, he told me, was this: “You’re not so smart, you just show up a lot in a lot of places.” I wore it as a badge of honor.

But over the years I realized his comment was actually an astute observation about the mental mindset of an entrepreneur, and therein lies the purpose of this post.

Congratulations, You’re now in Charge of your Life
Growing up at home, our parents tell us what’s important and how to prioritize. In college we have a set of classes and grades needed to graduate. (Or in my case the military set the structure of what constituted success and failure.) In most cases until you’re in your early 20’s, someone else has planned a defined path of what you’re going to do next.

When you move out on your own, you don’t get a memo that says “Congratulations, you’re now in charge of your life.” Suddenly you are in charge of making up what you do next. You have to face dealing with uncertainly.

Most normal people (normal as defined as being someone other than an entrepreneur) seek to minimize uncertainty and risk and take a job with a defined career path like lawyer, teacher or fire fighter. A career path is a continuation of the direction you’ve gotten at home and school – do these things and you’ll get these rewards. (Even with a career path you’ll discover that you need to champion your own trajectory down that path. No one will tell you that you are in a dead end job. No one will say that it’s time to move on. No one will tell you that you are better qualified for something elsewhere. No one will say work less and go home and spend time with your partner and/or family.  And many end up near the end of their careers trapped, saying, “I wish I could have…, I think I should have…”)

Non-Linear Career Path
But entrepreneurs instinctually realize that the best advocate for their careers is themselves and that there is no such thing as a linear career path. They recognize they are going to have to follow their own internal compass and embrace the uncertainty as part of the journey.

In fact using uncertainty as your path is an advantage entrepreneurs share. Their journey will have them try more disconnected paths than someone on a traditional career track. And one day all the seemingly random data and experience they’ve acquired will end up as an insight in building something greater than the sum of the parts.

Steve Job’s 2005 Stanford commencement speech still says it best -
Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.

Lessons Learned

  • Trust your instincts
  • Showing up a lot increases your odds
  • Trust that the dots in your career will connect
  • Have a passion for Doing something rather than Being a title on a business card.

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Story Behind “The Secret History” Part IV: Library Hours at an Undisclosed Location

This is Part IV of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“.
Read Part III first and it will make a bit more sense.

All You Can Read Without a Library Card

It was 1978. Here I was, a very junior employee of ESL, a company with its hands in the heart of our Cold War strategy. Clueless about the chess game being played in Washington, I was just a minion in a corporate halfway house in between my military career and entrepreneurship. 74HGZ

ESL sent me overseas to a secret site run by one of the company’s “customers.”  It was so secret the entire site was could have qualified as one of Dick Cheney’s “undisclosed locations.” As a going away gift my roommates got me a joke disguise kit with a fake nose, glasses and mustache.

The ESL equipment were racks of the latest semiconductors designed into a system so complicated that the mean-time-between-failure was measured in days. Before leaving California, the engineers gave me a course in this specialized receiver design. Since I had spent the last four years working on advanced Air Force electronic intelligence receivers, I thought there wouldn’t be anything new.  The reality was pretty humbling. Here was a real-world example of the Cold War “offset strategy.” Taking concepts that had been only abstract Ph.D theses, ESL had built receivers so sensitive they seemed like science fiction.  For the first time we were able to process analog signals (think radio waves) and manipulate them in the digital domain. We were combining Stanford Engineering theory with ESL design engineers and implementing it with chips so new we were debugging the silicon as we were debugging the entire system.  And we were using thousands of chips in a configuration no rational commercial customer could imagine or afford.  The concepts were so radically different that I spent weeks dreaming about the system theory and waking up with headaches. Nothing I would work on in the next 30 years was as bleeding edge.

Now half a world away on the customer site, my very small role was to keep our equipment running and train the “customer.” As complex as it was, our subsystem was only maybe one-twentieth of what was contained in that entire site. Since this was a location that worked 24/7, I was on the night shift (my favorite time of the day.) Because I could get through what I needed to do quickly, there wasn’t much else to do except to read.  As the sun came up, I’d step out of the chilled buildings and go for an early morning run outside the perimeter fence to beat the desert heat.  As I ran, if I looked at the base behind the fence I was staring at the most advanced technology of the 20th century.  Yet if turned my head the other way, I’d stare out at a landscape that was untouched by humans.  I was in between the two thinking of this movie scene.  (At the end of a run I used to lay out and relax on the rocks to rest – at least I did, until the guards asked if I knew that there were more poisonous things per square foot here than anywhere in the world.)

Before long I realized that down the hall sat all the manuals for all the equipment at the entire site. Twenty times more technical reading than just my equipment. Although all the manuals were in safes, the whole site was so secure that anybody who had access to that site had access to everything – including other compartmentalized systems that had nothing to do with me – and that I wasn’t cleared for.  Back home at ESL control of compartmentalized documents were incredibly strict. As a contractor handling the “customer’s” information, ESL went by the book with librarians inside the vaults and had strict document access and control procedures.  In contrast, this site belonged to the “customer.”  They set their own rules about how documents were handled, and the safes were open to everyone.

I was now inside the firewall with access to everything.  It never dawned on me that this might not be a good idea.

Starting on the safe on the left side, moving to the safe on the right side, I planned to read my way through every technical manual of every customer system.  We’re talking about a row of 20 or so safes each with five drawers, and each drawer full of manuals. Because I kept finding interesting connections and new facts, I kept notes, and since the whole place was classified, I thought, “Oh, I’ll keep the notes in one of these safes.” So I started a notebook, dutifully putting the classification on the top and bottom of each page.  As I ran into more systems I added the additional code words that on the classification headers.  Soon each page of my notes had a header and footer that read something like this:  Top Secret / codeword/ codeword / codeword / codeword / codeword / codeword / codeword.

I was in one of the most isolated places on earth yet here I was wired into everywhere on earth.  Coming to work I would walk down the very long, silent, empty corridors, open a non-descript door and enter the operations floor (which looked like a miniature NASA Mission Control), plug a headset into the networked audio that connected all the console operators — and hear the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil.”  (With no apparent irony.) But when the targets lit up, the music and chatter would stop, and the communications would get very professional.

Nine months into my year tour, and seven months into my reading program, I was learning something interesting every day. (We could do what!?  From where??)  Then one day I got a call from the head of security to say, “Hey, Steve can you stop into my office when you get a chance?”

Are These Yours?

Now this was a small site, about 100-200 people, and here was the head of security was asking me over for coffee.  Why how nice, I thought, he just wants to get to know me better. (Duh.)  When I got to his office, we made some small talk and then he opened up a small envelope, tapped it on a white sheet of paper, and low and behold, three or four long black curly hairs fall out.  “Are these yours?” he asked me.

This the one of the very few times I’ve been, really, really impressed.  I said, “Why yes they are, where did you get them?”  He replied, ‘They were found in the ‘name of system I should have absolutely no knowledge or access to’ manuals. Were you reading those?”  I said, “Absolutely.”  When he asked me, “Were you reading anything else?”  I explained, “Well I started on the safe on the left, and have been reading my way through and I’m about three quarters of the way done.”

Now it was his turn to be surprised. He just stared at me for awhile.  “Why on earth are you doing that?” he said in a real quiet voice. I blurted out, “Oh, it’s really interesting, I never knew all this stuff and I’ve been making all these notes, and …”  I never quite understood the word “startled” before this moment.  He did a double-take out of the movies and interrupted me, “You’ve been making notes?”  I said, “Yeah, it’s like a puzzle,” I explained.  “I found out all this great stuff and kept notes and stored in the safe on the bottom right under all the…”  And he literally ran out of the office to the safes and got my notebook and started reading it in front of me.

And the joke (now) was that even though this was the secret, secret, secret, secret site, the document I had created was more secret than the site.

While the manuals described technical equipment, I was reading about all the equipment and making connections and seeing patterns across 20 systems. And when I wasn’t reading, I was also teaching operations which gave me a pretty good understanding of what we were looking for on the other side.  At times we got the end product reports from the “customer” back at the site, and these allowed me to understand how our system was cued by other sensors collecting other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, and to start looking for them, then figuring out what their capabilities were.

Pattern Recognition

As I acquired a new piece of data, it would light up a new set of my neurons, and I would correlate it, write it down and go back through reams of manuals remembering that there was a mention elsewhere of something connected.  By the time the security chief and I were having our ‘curly hairs in the envelope’ conversation, not only did I know what every single part of our site did, but what scared the security guy is that I had also put together a pretty good guesstimate of what other systems we had in place worldwide.

For one small moment in time, I may have assembled a picture of the sum of the state of U.S. signals intelligence in 1978 − the breadth and depth of the integrated system of technical assets we had in space, air, land, and other places all focused on collection. (If you’re a techie, you’d be blown away even 30 years later.) And the document that the head of security had in his hand and was reading, as he told me later, he wasn’t cleared to read – and I wasn’t cleared to write or see.  I’m sure I knew just a very small fraction of what was going on, but still it was much more than I was cleared for.

At the time this seemed quite funny to me probably because I was completely clueless about what I had done, and thought that no one could believe there was another intent.  But in hindsight, rather than the career I did have, I could now just be getting out of federal prison. It still sends shivers up my back.  After what I assume were a few phone calls back to Washington, the rules said they couldn’t destroy my notebook, but they couldn’t keep it at the site either.  Instead my notebook was couriered to Washington – back to the “customer.”  (I picture it still sitting in some secure warehouse.)  The head of security and I agreed my library hours were over and I would take up another hobby until I went home.

Thank you to the security people who could tell the difference between an idiot and a spy.

When I got back to Sunnyvale, my biggest surprise was that I didn’t get into trouble. Instead someone realized that the knowledge I had accumulated could provide the big picture to brief new guys “read in” to this compartmentalized program.  Of course I had to work with the customer to scrub the information to get its classification back down to our compartmental clearance. (My officemate who would replace me on the site, Richard Farley, would go on to a more tragic career.)  I continued to give these briefings as a consultant to ESL even after I had joined my first chip startup; Zilog.

esl-badge

Two Roads Diverged in a Wood and I took the Road Less Traveled By,  And That Has Made All the Difference

Extraordinary times bring extraordinary people to the front. Bill Perry the founder of ESL, is now acknowledged as one of the founders of the entire field of National Reconnaissance, working the NSA, CIA and the NRO in programs to intercept and evaluate Soviet missile telemetry and communications intelligence.

ESL had no marketing people.  It had no PR agency.  It shunned publicity.  It was the model for almost every military startup that followed, and its alumni who lived through its engineering and customer-centric culture had a profound effect on the rest of the valley, the intelligence community and the country. And during the Cold War it sat side by side with commercial firms in Silicon Valley, with its nondescript sign on the front lawn. It had Hidden in Plain Sight.

As for me, after a few years I decided that into was time to turn swords into plowshares. I left ESL and the black world for a career in startups; semiconductors, supercomputers, consumer electronics, video games and enterprise software.

I never looked back.

It would be decades before I understood what an extraordinary company I had worked for.

Thank you Bill Perry for one hell of a start in Silicon Valley.

I was 24.

My first class of students at ESL:  Guardrail V Training Class (note the long black curly hairs)

My first class of students at ESL: Guardrail V Training Class (note the long black curly hairs)

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

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