Talking Career Background at the South Carolina Governor’s School
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Math, a statewide school for advanced science and math students. I was allowed to speak to several classes, with the highlight of my day being in front of an entrepreneurship class talking about my background. Being around the energy and enthusiasm of a talented group of students made my week, and provided a much needed energy boost for my personally as I head into the holiday season.
My discussion with the entrepreneurship class hit on some common themes I’m often asked about,
so I thought it was worth summarizing my remarks in a blog post.
In a nutshell, my background is pretty typical in that I came to the tech industry after training academically as a scientist. My academic background is an undergraduate degree in physics with a pair of National Science Foundation-funded summer research experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I had great fun my first summer, and the second summer told me that I did not want to be an academic physicist.
As a sideline in college, I had done a great deal of work on campus computing, capped off by winning an award named after Intel co-founder Robert Noyce for successfully proposing that the campus network extend into student residences. As one of the IT staff members (who has gone on to a long career at Cisco) pointed out, anybody at the time who had an interest in networking was moving to Silicon Valley. So, that’s precisely what I did.
I held a variety of positions dealing with various aspects of computer and network security, and I was fortunate to be working at an acquisitive Nokia during a time when they were snapping up companies to build a portfolio of IP network equipment. One of those acquisitions was a wireless LAN company, and it was, quite simply, the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
Around the same time, I started writing for O’Reilly. My first couple of books for them are not well known, though I believe they are both still in print. I was fortunate enough to be working closely with O’Reilly when I first saw wireless LAN technology, and I quickly sent them a book proposal. More than ten years later, that book is in its second edition and there are two companion volumes about subsequent developments.
The books have helped me meet a number of smart people throughout the wireless LAN community, which is where I have made my professional home for a decade. I have been fortunate to do a wide variety of work, ranging from high-level customer interaction, leading product definition, and even leading task groups within the standards organizations that define our basic technology. (One of the students at GSSM asked a question about the purpose of standardization that requires too long an explanation to go into here, so I’ll have to leave it for a future post.)
My discussion with the class also pointed out that I’m pretty happy with how my career has gone. I was asked both about what I “did right” to arrive where I am, and what I would have done differently. On the plus side, I am pleased with my educational background. Writing about technology is one of the primary methods I use to understand what I’m working with. Needing to understand something well enough to teach it is a valuable checkpoint that I use to be sure I should be opening my mouth.
On the “what would I have done differently” side, I couldn’t think of much. I often wish I’d done more to challenge myself academically at a younger age, and I had turned down a couple of opportunities to do so (an advanced math program at University of Minnesota and enrolling at the Illinois Math & Science Academy are both paths I wish I had explored more). I also wish I had done more to build a professional network in the early years of my career, though having learned that lesson it is much more of a focus for me these days.
Fun flash forward: