FIRESIDE No. 9 with Dr. Howard Johnson
Posted on November 1, 2017 by Blake Leath
"STEM, MUSIC, MENTORS, DESIGN, EDUCATION,
AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT PATHS"
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I’m an organizational sociologist, strategist, writer, and teacher, but am—first, foremost, and always—a student of enterprises and those who lead them. In my 2007 book, Cultivating the Strategic Mind, I explored the transition from leader to visionary, creator, and architect of strategy. Today, I continue studying strategists and leaders but am increasingly haunted by what I see as a more fundamental, personal quest: understanding and improving the dying sub-disciplines of management, whether time, conflict, self, or life-management. Leadership gets a lot of glory, but management is the nuts & bolts practices of every day that gets it done. Fireside (which admittedly began as a series of ruminative 1 ½ to 2-hour one-on-one conversations with seasoned management executives reflecting on their life’s work) quickly evolved into dialogues about work within the context of life and life after work. This ricochet took me by surprise, but I found it an exceedingly pleasant one. After all, “Though we hire employees, we get people.” My sincerest hope now is that—in an oft-discouraging world—Fireside might prove a respite, a source of light, warmth, energy, encouragement, safety, nourishment, perhaps even inspiration in your own career or life, whether at home or out in the big, bad world. Around the fireside at the end of the day, it’s clear that we are all in this together, and everyone has a story worth sharing and hearing. You will be the ultimate arbiter, of course, but I predict we shall learn a great deal about management, yes, but even more about ourselves and this enterprise we call life.
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Today’s guest is Dr. Howard Johnson.
Though most do not know Dr. Johnson by name, we do know him through his many product developments that have affected our lives. If you use voicemail, he was among the first to invent that. Gigabit LAN networks? Made the first transceivers. Ethernet? He was integral to the development of that standard. Robotic vehicles? Yup, those too. As an independent consultant, Dr. Johnson served literally hundreds of companies, from Google, Amazon, Intel, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, Cisco, Apple, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, to tiny startups in remote locations. The common thread in all his assignments was to seek out the new, the untried, the never-been-attempted idea and make it work.
If reading our interview together inspires you to learn more about him, you may do so here. If you want to learn something of his spirit, or want to master the art of high-speed digital design, then watch his seminar courses available now in The Collection. These are the same courses he taught at Oxford University and other sites worldwide over a period of 20 years to more than 12,000 students and are regarded—without question—as the most successful courses in the field ever created.
Now enjoying his retirement, I caught up with Dr. Johnson at his ranch high up in the Cascade Mountains on the dry, sunny side of eastern Washington State.
He insists I call him Howie, not Dr. Johnson.
Blake Leath: Howie, what have we caught you in the middle of doing?
Howie Johnson: [Laughter] Weed-eating! We host the annual Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival at our ranch, so I’m out preparing the property.
Blake: Ha! Good grief. Okay, well, sorry to drag you inside.
Howie: No problem. I needed a drink. [Laughter]
Blake: Then thank you, all the more, for joining us today, because there are few things more satisfying than manual labor and immediately seeing the fruits of one’s labor, be it a mowed row or whacked weed!
Howie: Right on.
Blake: I thought you’d be a timely interview this week, as next week I’ll be leading a workshop for aerospace engineers. In light of your background, I thought today might be a twofer, capturing Fireside wisdom from an exemplar who’s lived and breathed science, technology, engineering, math—STEM!—while also helping me get in the proper mindset for next week. Maybe you can start by describing that world a bit?
Howie: Engineers, as a breed—and I taught around 12,000 of them—love to come to the front of the room and ask specific questions about stuff, about their circuits and their schematics and the things they are working on, and we work them out on a flipchart sheet during lunch and on breaks and on trips to the bathroom. They’ve always got questions, and engineers are the only men I’ve seen talk in the men’s room! They’re desperate for information, that’s all they want, so social mores go right out the window in the quest for information. They’re not like salespeople or high-level managers; there’s something in them that drives them to want to know things and control the world around them and make stuff happen. That’s what they want. At least, that’s what drives them to become good engineers, because you don’t become a good engineer unless you put in a lot of time, and that only happens if it’s something you really like—so it might be interesting, Blake, for us to just to step back a bit and look at what causes a person to be like that…because there are all sorts of different reasons.
Blake: Bring it.
Howie: In some ways, it’s not dissimilar from autism, which often presents as a strong internal focus and preference over things, not people. In my own case, it was very poor eyesight as an infant. I couldn’t focus on anything because my eyes were terribly crossed. The doctors were concerned that I was going to lose sight in one eye, because when your eyes are crossed your whole life, eventually your brain gives up on one. As a baby, everything was blurry to me. One day when I was eighteen months old, my mom took me to Kilgore, TX to see the eye doctor she trusted most, and he prescribed glasses. He said he had never before given glasses to a child of eighteen months, but that I had to have them, so she got these glasses and brought them home and set me in my high chair and tried to put them on me and I ripped them off and threw them on the floor. She put them on me again…and I ripped them off again and again and again. In hindsight, of course, I was a child, and I didn’t know what they were, so off they came.
Blake: What’d she do?
Howie: She gave me a piece of pound cake, which is my favorite food in whole wide world, and I had this piece of pound cake clutched in one hand gnawing on it and she put the glasses on (which I tore off with the other hand). Being a smart woman, she gave me two pieces of pound cake. Now I have a piece in each hand and she puts the glasses on again and I’m just torn. I don’t know what to do, but I’m not going to set down that cake, so I stare through those glasses just long enough to realize what she’d done…and then all of a sudden, the world came into focus. I could see it—starting with the pound cake, of course—and I never touched my glasses again. I’ve worn glasses my whole life, and it changed everything, but let’s unpack that for a minute.
At the very beginning, when my mom handed me the first piece of pound cake, why didn’t I set it down? I think it’s because I didn’t trust my own mother, and I think that happened because I couldn’t see her face. For my first eighteen months of existence, I was unable to see faces and expressions and understand the emotional communication that is supposed to happen between people. That didn’t develop in the first eighteen months, and I’ve never had that ability. When I look at somebody’s face, I don’t read squat out of it. I just see a face. They might as well be an alien or talking head on TV, because I don’t get that aspect of facial communication, nor can I convey it very well myself, so this naturally creates a huge degree of difficulty for a child striving to develop relationships with other children. I did not get along well or easily with other kids, so I spent a lot of time alone and became interested in things rather than people. I developed a real love for how stuff works, all stuff, whether it’s physical or software or biological or theoretical physics. I loved those subjects because they spoke to me; I could communicate with and understand them, and with people I simply didn’t get that for a very, very long time. It took me decades before I finally realized that I am missing this form of facial communication and began to understand what it was that caused me ultimately to become an engineer. I think a lot of engineers have stories like that. Something in their past that had some effect on turning them toward working with things instead of working with people.
Blake: Thank you, Howie, for sharing your experience and epiphany, hard-earned over decades, because I know a great number of people who’ve had similar experiences but didn’t quite know what to make of them. You’ve done a great job of slicing through.
Howie: I read in an earlier introduction to this series that you’re introverted, and that’s a related topic. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I would say generally that engineers are extremely introverted, most of them, and in a lot of cases something has caused that to happen, whether it was an accident, or death of a family member, or something external perhaps that caused them to turn inward and to start studying everything all the time as a way for their brain to give them something to do, something that’s rewarding—that feels good—where they can experience a sense of accomplishment, and that’s an important thing because that creates the sort of people that make the machines that keep everybody alive. If we didn’t have engineers, if we were all outgoing people, maybe nobody would have invented the wheel! I think having this perspective, this empathy, is helpful when you’re addressing groups of engineers and communicating with them. You can motivate them more effectively by understanding what it is that motivates, and it’s rarely the desire to be well-thought of or loved by peers.
Did you ever read the Dilbert comic strip?
Blake: I love it!
Howie: Ol’ Dilbert, he’s an engineer, right, and really epitomizes our lot. My favorite is this: Dilbert goes bungee jumping because the boss decided the team needs some sort of outdoor teambuilding experience together. There’s this bridge people are jumping off, one by one, and as each person comes up, the operator asks, “How much do you weigh?” and he adjusts the rope so that you’ll get an exciting experience and go down and almost touch the water and come back and it will be the most fun ever. He looks at Dilbert and asks how much he weighs, and Dilbert says, “I weigh 600 pounds.” [Laughter] Plain and simple. He doesn’t care about all the rest; he just doesn’t want the rope to break! Everything else is extraneous noise, and that’s the case with most engineers.
Blake: Love it. Which leads me to wonder, “How do engineers feel when they’re promoted to managers?” I’ve worked with a lot in that transition, and it’s not something they welcome. It often feels extraneous…a distraction.
Howie: Whew! All of a sudden, they have to be the person that’s the interface between engineering types and the rest of the world, and that’s a very difficult thing to do, especially with so many lacking the basic personality and people-orientation required to be able to do all that readily.
Blake: Please, elaborate on this, because you’re right—I’ve met many engineers who struggle to make the leap, but I’ve also met 300-400 in twenty-five years who have. How is it possible for an engineer to successfully transition to managing or leading people?
Howie: “What makes them possible?” That’s a great question. Well, first, I’d say they have to master their engineering discipline, you know, some area or domain in which they really become knowledgeable. I think it starts there, and I’ve never seen it work the other way around. I can’t think of a single example of a great people-person who then chose to become an engineer.
Second, I would say that great engineers are great listeners, and I think that’s true of great managers and leaders, too. You can’t talk too much, and your interest can’t be in impressing others. Somewhere down the line, a great engineer began seeking out other people that knew more things, began listening to them, and that’s when they really evolved. Immature engineers may be smart, and they like to show-off sometimes, but they’re really just blabbermouths who intimidate everyone around them through bullying behavior, like they know something and you don’t, and they throw it in your face or challenge you. But the best engineers who truly know the most didn’t figure it out alone, which means that somewhere along the way they began listening. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the one key characteristic that differentiates engineers who could have become great managers from engineers who actually do.
Blake: If you had to give a blooming engineer advice, let’s say as his or her mentor, how would you help a technical expert step-up to become a successful influencer of people?
Howie: Wait ‘til you’re bald and you’ll be better at it! [Laughter] There’s that truth, because it takes a lot of time! But really, it begins with a mentor. Finding a great mentor is probably the most important thing a young engineer can do. Find somebody who is older—whether they’re in management or not—because to be a successful, old engineer means you’re a lifelong learner, a reader, a doer, someone who is doing great things you need to know, and someone who is curious. I read a survey in IEEE one year that said the average career span for engineers in the U.S. is seven years. An engineer goes seven years doing their software high-tech thing, then burns out and becomes a manager or pursues some other career, whether car salesman or something else. Around seven years, you are technically obsolete because technology is changing so fast. So if you see an old engineer, that guy probably spends a lot of his time reading and learning and researching and gathering more information so he can stay current. That’s how he’s been able to continue being an engineer at an advanced age like 40 (!), and those are the people you want to learn from because they’re the ones who’ve figured out how to learn.
Blake: Would it be sacrilegious for you to single-out for us a particular strain of engineers among whom you’ve seen this learning mindset?
Howie: I did a lot of standards work throughout my career, for computer networking. One year it was an ethernet that went at 10 million bits per second, and we were going to multiply the thing by a factor of 10, like 10 times faster, and a couple years later we made it 10 times faster than that, but at some point in the standards process you have to go to all the other standards groups and explain to them what you’re planning to do to find out whether you’re stepping on anybody’s toes. And since I was the chief technical editor for the standard, I was one of the people that had to go to all the other standards groups in the IEEE Computer Society at a huge conference and explain to them what we were doing. So I have this two-minute summary to give of our project, but before addressing each group I have to wait in the back of the room for the chairman to acknowledge me so I can walk forward and give my presentation. Standing in the back of the room, what I noticed was that in the RF and wireless standards group…there were way more bald guys in that group than in any of the other groups! Standing in the back, it was just such a startling difference. I started talking with some of them, and that’s when I began to understand that those guys took home more journals, they read more books, they went to more conferences. They knew more people at other companies, and collaborated with them, and met with them on a regular basis more than any other kind of engineers I’d ever met, and that’s why they were able to get so old and continue doing the thing they loved for their whole careers. Because they really understood the importance of ongoing education.
As a group, I would also add that they were friendlier, I liked them, they were easier to get along with. Not to say not that any of them were in management, but they definitely possess the qualities that would be really great for young engineers to learn. So it comes back to this: Find an old guy that’s been doing engineering for a long time, and beg him be your mentor.
Blake: When you were running your company, answering emails, responding to questions, traveling and teaching…were most of the questions from technical people asking interpersonal things, or were they always wanting to pick your brain about just the technical stuff?
Howie: It was almost always technical. Very few of them asked questions about interpersonal matters, or even how to find venture capitalists, but there was one group that always impressed me.
Howie: I taught seminars in the UK at one of those Oxford University colleges, so one semester I spent a whole semester there. We took our kids, put them in private school—which was exciting for them because they had to wear uniforms! [Laughter]
While there, I was what’s called a tutor, which means there was a big class of students studying electrical engineering and they have a professor who does the lectures, and then the students break into groups of four or five in each group, who meet once a week with their tutor and the tutor checks their homework and answers questions for them. In most colleges, kids are kind of bored, they’re not paying attention, they’re playing games on their laptop or farting around until the bell rings and, Boom!, they run off. But the groups at Oxford were completely different. They showed up on time, they had all attempted their homework…every single problem they were assigned, and sometimes the ones they weren’t assigned, just for the hell of it. And they had questions about them, and great questions. Not questions like, “Which formula do I use here?” but questions like, “How is this related to thermodynamics—or to something else I’m studying in another class? How does it fit into the grand scheme of things?” And then, and the end of the session, they all wanted to know how to meet a venture capitalist, produce what they were working on, and become rich! I just thought they were the greatest group of students at that age level that I had ever seen, and I came to understand that they go through one heckuva process to get into Oxford. It starts in 4th grade and they work their butts off the whole time in order to be the one who gets selected to go to this university, and wow, it really makes them intentional people. Being English, sometimes they’re kind of reticent; they don’t want to open up too much about personal details, and yet they were the group that was the most interested in career advancement. Other STEM kids ask about whether they should get a master’s degree or PhD, or what technology area do you think is going to be hot that I should go into, but the Oxford kids had much broader inquiries and interests.
Blake: But still, none of them asked how to be a great manager in a technical field?
Howie: I’ve fielded thousands of questions over the years, but I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone ask me, “How can I become a great manager?”
Blake: But you’ve written about it.
Howie: I have. In 2001, I wrote an article called Managing Scotty, which was a bit about giving your engineers time and space to do a good job, to come up with something that’ll surprise you—more than you ever expected.
Blake: Just a couple more questions about this, then we’ll move on to something else.
Howie: No problem.
Blake: Long ago, I had an exchange with a gentleman who is literally at the top of his field. Countless awards, impeccable pedigree, regarded by all as one of the top five scholars in leadership. I shared with him my personal frustration of working with those who are employed by lousy employers…where money is scarce, the carpet is peeling up, the paint is chipping off the wall, the toilets don’t flush, the HVAC doesn’t work, and the employees have to bring in personal fans in the summer and space heaters in the winter, and the turmoil at the top and throughout the hierarchy strangles every single effort to move forward. I feel that if an evil czar were to design the worst corporate environment possible, this would be the environment he’d create. It’s bad, really bad. Anyway, I had one-on-one time with this guru to share my frustration, hoping against hope that he might have some brilliant words of wisdom about solving my conundrum, which I’d framed as, “Do you have any advice for me as I work to help and encourage these people?” His response was, “Learn the Serenity Prayer.” I was crestfallen. As an 80-year-old guru advising a young buck, he’s surely right, but boy is that a depressing response. But I guess I’ll ask the same question of you: “Have you got any advice for the discouraged engineer working in a hierarchical company or paramilitary government agency? For the employee who is frustrated by politics and bureaucracy in all its thwarting forms?”
Howie: I think for engineers, it all depends on the project they’re working on. The rest is extraneous! Years ago, I went to the Mojave Desert, to the Naval Weapons Research Center [NWRC]. I was called several times to teach groups there, and they literally live in the middle of the desert, so it’s an isolated environment, to say the least. I would check into my hotel, one of two in town, and the tanked water was so hot you could neither shower nor brush your teeth. I asked, “How am I supposed to brush my teeth in the morning?” and they said, “The trick is to fill a glass of water each night before you go to bed, put it in your mini-fridge, and it’ll be ready for you in the morning when you need it.” The employees were working in a cinderblock building from the 1950s, with inadequate air conditioning. Everybody’s sweating all the time and the buildings are really far apart—which I think they do in case something explodes—you don’t lose all your buildings at once! So there’s a lot of walking around outside to get from place to place, and physically it’s not an attractive place at all, but mentally those guys were jazzed about what they were doing. They had a project they loved and wanted to work on!
Blake: Why were you there?
Howie: They were having some problems they wanted to fix, problems they never wanted to see again. “What are the ten principles I need to know to make sure we never face this problem again?” They’d memorize the principles. Everyone paid attention. Generally, in my lectures, nobody was playing games or had their laptop open—which is astounding when you’ve got an audience of 50 guys. At NWRC, they were desperate for knowledge, so I just fed it to them rapid fire, one subject after another, all day long. They’d eat it up as fast as I could serve it! When you’re doing an engineering lecture, there’s no here let me tell you what I’m going to tell you, then tell it to them, then tell them what you told ‘em, it’s just subject after subject after subject. It's like let’s talk about setup time, now let’s talk about transmission lines, now spurious harmonics, now crosstalk, ringing, probes, power…bam—bam—bam…you just go through it one thing after another, knowing nobody’s going to remember everything, but also knowing that you’ll hit two or three topics for each guy during your two days of lecturing that will really resonate and solve a huge problem that could be worth millions to the agency or company, every one of them, and that’s how it happens and why they’ll sit there for two days absorbing this firehose of information. It doesn’t matter that they’re in a crummy building in the middle of the desert, they were just so happy to be there, so I think what project you’re on and whether employees think they have the ability to pull it off—if given the opportunity—is what truly motivates. Especially engineers.
Blake: If—whether as a parent or employer—you believe you have a young person who’s eager to contribute, and perhaps innately technical, how would you advise them to design their career?
Howie: I think it starts, first, with knowing what you love. But after that, after identifying that, I’d encourage a young person to consider what it would take to be successful, to be sufficiently independent, so they can find their own projects, choose what they want to do and work on, and that—ultimately—involves money, so I encourage everyone to take an accounting course. To learn where all the money goes in a start-up, because when it fails it often has as much to do with money as it does with technology. I would then encourage them to learn more about people, and how to be outgoing. People management is key. Anything classic they can learn about motivation and motivating people. Third, get a mentor. Finding someone in your field would be ideal, because they’ll teach you how to think, and if you’re with them for three to five years, it will be wonderful for you. As a first step out of college, I also encourage kids to go straight away and work for a large company—which is easy to do, because they’re always hiring—and learn how big companies operate. Big companies teach processes, repeatability, management, finance, and how to design things. They are also rife with mentors. But you’ll also learn about dysfunction, and how to overcome it, and what it is you don’t want to create in your own project or organization. From there, start branching off into a specific technical area, seek out experts and conferences, and, oh sweet Mary, Mother of Jesus, if you can get a large employer to send you to a conference to deliver a paper about a specific topic, that is the motherload of goodness, because then you meet tons of people in that industry and they’re all interested in what you’re doing and you get to go to lunch with them and hang out and make some new friends in exactly the industry you want to penetrate! And then, after that, you have choices. If you’re visible like that, you’ll get offered choices all the time, which allows you to carefully choose the company or project you want to lean into for the next, say, five years or so. That’s my formula for young kids.
Blake: That’s tremendous! So, would it be selfish of me to ask you to continue? You’ve described how a young engineer might benefit from balding engineers (!), and you’ve described great stepping stones for a kid who might be interested in technical work, but how would you advise a consultant? Specifically, a person interested in technical consulting?
Howie: Okay. The accounting and interpersonal advice still applies, but here’s the pattern I typically see that may prove instructive. It starts with landing a project. Technical consultants often land a job doing something, so they work really hard doing that—and nothing else. Then, when they get done with that one project, and they lift their head up and look around they realize, hey, I don’t have any more work, so they start calling friends and take the first thing they’re offered and go do that. It’s very hand-to-mouth and myopic, so I advise against it. Instead, young consultants should be really purposeful about marketing themselves, about telling the world what work they want and don’t want. And stay at it. In ten years, everyone who knew you will forget you, so you have to constantly remind them you exist, even if it annoys your close friends! I personally believe writing is the best thing—any sort of writing—whether it’s blogging or conference papers…anything that gives people a window into your world, a means to know you, to come alongside you through your writing.
The objective is to develop way more leads than you could ever possibly satisfy. 10x more! When people call you, and you’re too busy to help, just say, “Oh, hey, Fred can do that,” and give them Fred’s number. Tell them Fred would be happy to do it; he does it all the time, and pass off the leads you don’t want, because people will come to trust you, and they’ll get the idea that if they call you, you can help. Either you’ll do it, or your trusted friends will! The goal is for them to first think of you; you’re the connector. The answer man. Eventually, out of the 10x leads, a plumb assignment will come along, and you’ll think to yourself, Oh wow, this one’s great. I can solve it, get paid well, write about it, help some friends along the way, and then one thing will lead to another. It’s a virtuous cycle. The more helpful you become—utilitarian—and the more people know about you—the more you’ll be called, the more you’ll help, the more you’ll be able to write, and that’s how you build a wonderful consulting career.
Blake: You wrote so beautifully, Howie, so extensively, and for so long. Do you miss it, now that you’ve retired? Surely you have more to say!
Howie: I’m in a good place. I’m busy, we travel, I tinker with software, build and repair things on the ranch. Life is good. Who knows, maybe someday, but no—not yet—I haven’t felt a twinge to write again.
Blake: Well, you’re a fascinating subject, because you’re technical, but also very self-aware about the social and interpersonal dimensions and able to communicate them, so that’s a real gift. But hey, let’s switch gears again. When you think about the world we’re in today, and technology, is there anything that excites you? Any observations about where we are, and how social media has created a connected world?
Howie: Hmm. Well, every generation believes the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and sometimes I believe that, too, so you’ll have to discount much of what I say. I think the most disturbing trend is that people have retreated from individual, face-to-face interactions, and communication has devolved into texting, sending emojis back and forth, and little Snapchat pictures which, to me, all feels very shallow. To the young, however, it feels like a very rich and satisfying experience, so I guess I’m just an old fart who doesn’t understand it.
Our social circle—Liz’s and mine—we kicked this question around: “If, by taking this one pill, you could live 500 more years in perfect health, would you take it?” Almost all the young people said yes, and more than half the mature people said no. Some of it was philosophical, like, I don’t want to take up others’ space, I want to make room for the next generation, etc. The best response though was, “The world’s already changed enough for my taste, so I’m not interested in seeing where else it’s headed.” Some people suggested how fun it’d be to hang out with great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren, but if you’re going away eventually anyway, what’s the point of hanging on? Nevertheless, it was an interesting question that prompted a lot of interesting replies, but I really believe the future is for other people to live, and it’s for them to decide the world they live in, not me.
Blake: What about unfinished work, though? Is there unfinished business you’d like to explore?
Howie: I’m sure if I thought about it more I’d come up with some social causes, particularly ones that could be advanced and aided by technology. I’ve long said that, due to the danger of distracted driving—especially texting while driving—cell phones should not work if they appear to be moving faster than 20 mph; they should simply shut off or hibernate. I don’t know whether this answers your question though, and, to be honest, I’ve made a concerted effort to enjoy the here and now.
Blake: I understand. Totally fair. You’ve earned that and contributed so much already.
Howie: Will Rogers said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” As a society, we’ve got to keep moving, adapting, and if you want to be relevant in a changing society—dealing with other members in that society—you have to keep up. If I was still running my business, writing, developing and teaching seminars, yeah, I’d be on Twitter and Facebook and every other little thing to make that work. But for me, at some point I’d had a great career and was really more than happy to step away from it, to let it go, to move on. I just thought to myself, I’m not interested in going that other direction, so when it was still going well—but a bit past its prime and peak—I just stopped, and I think that was a good decision for my family. So I don’t have a need to pursue those avenues. I’m a retiree now, and I leave it to the next generation to make their way in the world and fill its voids.
Blake: The circle of life.
Blake: Are you optimistic about our future, as a civilization, a world, a country?
Howie: Am I optimistic? That’s a broad question, and I’m afraid I don’t have the answer. We have a huge divide, politically, and it’s affected my industry a lot. Historically, engineers were overwhelmingly conservative voters and political thinkers. I think that was at a time when most of them were influenced by having worked in the Department of Defense or adjacent sectors. Today, most people in high-tech are software engineers producing things like Twitter and Facebook, and that’s an overwhelmingly liberal crowd, so the industry at large has changed dramatically. Hardware people and software people are very different. When you address them, make sure you know which they are!
Blake: To your way of thinking, how do hardware engineers and software engineers think differently about the world?
Howie: Hardware engineers are constrained by physical realities of the universe that cannot be circumvented, and they must understand them and work within them in every activity they do, whether it’s heat or power or space or weight. They have all these constraints they’re constantly running up against, and they’re very used to operating in that situation. For software engineers, hey, anything’s possible! If you can imagine it, you can code it. There’s no limits and, as a result, I think they think differently about society, politics, everything.
Blake: Talk to us about what you’ve seen change, technologically, from a hardware engineering standpoint? How is it different today than, say, a half-century ago?
Howie: If you look at products from an earlier era, like the 1950s, everything is going to be made of metal, and the individual pieces themselves could withstand hammering. Products today are completely different, more delicate, they do precisely what they’re designed to do, and nothing more. I’ll give you an example. I was recently building a stage for our local music Festival, and we had to put in joists, which hold the floor up. Each runs end to end, and you nail the floorboards on top of it. The joist has to be really strong and stiff—which it is when placed vertically—but if you turn it on its side, boy, it’s really floppy. In fact, when they ship ‘em to you, there’s this safety label that says don’t step on it sideways, or it’ll break, and you’re thinking to yourself, if I step on my floor, it might break? It’s beautifully engineered, but to the point where they’ve eliminated all the unnecessary waste and weight. Just think about the glue, the cost and composition of the glue. They’ve made it so insanely complex that if you change just one thing, say, the ratio of epoxy to hardener by 10%, or if you change the chipboard size by 10%, or you change the thickness of the plywood involved by 10%, it wouldn’t meet its specs anymore, and would be utterly useless. There is no room for error, but if you said, hey, I want this stuff harder, stiffer, chunkier, glue-ier, and unbreakable if I step on it sideways, well, it’d be more expensive. It’d be a product from the 50s! On the one hand, I absolutely love the lightweight, high-precision joists I got, but on the other hand I miss the heavier, unstoppable products of the 50s. It’s true that by optimizing things you can control everything and get a really beautiful end-product, but it bugs me when engineers take it too far.
Blake: Are there two to three consumer products that you love, or are impressed by?
Howie: I’ve always liked the Mossberg shotgun. I just like the sound it makes when it clicks shut. And the sound of the door on a Rolls-Royce when it clicks shut. They have a sound quality to me that I really appreciate. I got a Buck knife the other day, a big-ass 7” straight blade that gleams—is polished to a high sheen—with beautiful woodworking on the handle. Every part of it is really pretty. I like it a lot.
Blake: Fun! What else?
Howie: I loved my Univac keyboard. It was really clacky and had a huge amount of key travel, so it actually makes your hands stronger when you use it. One of our daughters, Kate, hated it. She had a room above my office, and I made this clack-clack-clack-clack-clack sound all the time, so we got rid of it, but it was a quality keyboard. It was designed for over a million keystrokes, the lettering never wore off the key surfaces, and you could clean it with a sponge. It had a lot of good features.
I also like my M37 military truck. It’s a real gas to work on, very tough and durable. It was designed to be driven by 18-year-olds in a heightened emotional state, so it’ll go over potholes and continue to work!
The old military truck works well around the ranch
(Snapped this photo on a day when it was running)
I like my Alembic bass guitar. Alembic is a boutique guitar company in Southern California that produced guitars for Grateful Dead and others. They made a beautiful 4-string bass called the Europa model. I got one of those a few years back. It has gold-plated tuner heads and a great big heavy bar at the bottom. It resonates really well, with cool electronics in it, and it’s worked flawlessly. At night, when you’re onstage in the dark, it’s fretless—so you can’t feel the frets—so you flip this tiny switch and LEDs light-up along the side to show you where the fret marks are. That’s a consumer product that I like a lot. It’s great.
Blake: Design fascinates me. I remember hearing the stories about Steve Jobs, and how a car and kitchen appliances influenced his early aesthetic. I love that we’re past beige desktop boxes. Today, we finally talk about design as much as the engineering within the device.
Howie: There are a lot of aspects to design. Eons ago, I worked with a guy named Benny Yamada. He taught me a great deal about design. Inspired me. He was at Rolm Corporation when I first got there, and they weren’t that big then. Maybe 500 to 1,000 employees. Anyway, Ben was an industrial designer, and he designed a telephone. Rolm was going to make their own telephone, things to accompany their central operating system or central phone system, which was their main product. Ben was an industrial designer, so he understood plastics and molding and all this stuff, and he shared a story about going to work earlier for a big company that asked him to make an electric knife. You may be too young to remember the commercials for electric knives but, well, they made people look really happy to be slicing Thanksgiving turkeys with their effortless electric knife! [Laughter] But the actual design of Ben’s knife, its aesthetics, were perfunctory. Soon thereafter, Oster released a competitive electric knife, and it was beautiful. It had a hole in the handle, it was rounded, it fit beautifully in your hand. You’d put one hand through that hole, and the small, lightweight motor would balance perfectly, hanging just below your fingertips. It didn’t make much noise, it didn’t vibrate much; only the blade moved—and it was stainless steel so it wouldn’t rust!
Blake: Superior in every way.
Howie: It was sharper, better shaped, and yes, superior in every way. So it occurred to Ben that some human being, at the center of this company—Oster—had devoted a portion of his life to making every single aspect of that knife as great as he could possibly make it. It was a fantastic product, and it dominated the electric knife market for years and years. “The hole in the handle” knife. Ben set off to become that very guy, the guy at the center of the company who thought long and hard about making every product beautiful as well as functional.
Blake: Form and function.
Howie: He made a beautiful phone, that’s for sure! People loved ‘em.
Blake: I remember standing in my office in 2005 telling a colleague, “I cannot wait for Apple to make a phone!” Those Motorolas and Blackberries were God-awful.
Howie: The iPhone has been very successful. It’s funny to me to see consumers put them in protective rubber cases in case they drop ‘em. The design guys worked themselves to death trying to make them as thin as possible, and we go and triple the thickness with this atrocious rubber.
Blake: To say nothing of the adhesive clear film we stick on top. I just have to ask, though, do you carry a cell phone?
Howie: I do not. I didn’t move hundreds of miles to the middle of nowhere to get tied to a phone. I like being disconnected when I want to be disconnected.
Blake: Sounds like David Cornwell [aka John le Carré]. I saw him on 60 Minutes in September, and wow, what an enviable life! Six hours outside London, in a lushly gated fortress along a privately-owned mile of coastline cliffs. The filming drone passed overhead, and you could practically smell the honeysuckle!
Howie: It depends on one’s orientation, sure, but for me it works out great. There are people here we’ve gotten to know really well over a long period of time. I enjoy being around them, and it’s not like I’m a hermit. We see people constantly; it’s just a smaller group of people that we’re able to have more in-depth conversations with, which I really like. That’s a nice benefit of being in a small town.
Blake: How many people do you interact with in the course of a month?
Howie: It depends. We run a Chamber Music Festival each summer, and for that we have probably fifty volunteers throughout the year who help with the Festival, plus twenty artists. So seventy people at most. Then there’s my bass playing. That’s another half-dozen people who I play music with on a regular basis, plus the people I meet at the shows. And there’s a local art gallery, so we get involved in that from time to time.
Blake: Sounds like a hundred. But tell me more about music. How did you get into it?
Howie: My mom was our 3rd grade choir teacher at First Baptist Church in Arlington, TX. Huge church. 1,500 people every Sunday. Anyway, I was in choir every year through high school. At some point I wanted to drop out, so the choir director handed me a bass guitar and said, “Here, play this.” So I came back the next week and was the bass player! I put it away for my entire career—didn’t touch music at all—but once things began slowing down career-wise, I was looking for things to do, and a suitable alternative for someone my age appeared to be an upright bass, so I play jazz now, swing era jazz, and joined a community orchestra for a while. I met lots of musicians, and that’s how we got involved with the Festival. At some point, the Festival needed a new venue, so I built a nice one for them—a nice place where they can put on their shows in the summer. That’s how I got involved.
Blake: If people are interested in coming, how do they find it?
Howie: Hit methowmusicfestival.org. It runs end of July thru early August, and on Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day we do small concerts.
Blake: I don’t mean to backtrack too much, but now I’m curious how you first got interested in the physical universe?
Howie: My dad was a physicist for LTV Aerospace [Ling-Temco-Vought], and he loved physical stuff. I grew up listening to him explain things, pointing to the stars and describing what’s what. One time, he got mad at me because I couldn’t remember that solids, liquids, and gases were the three components of matter, and I was four years old! He was always trying to pass on what he knew about how the world works. I remember another time he told me when you’re frying eggs and you put the butter in the pan, it functions similarly to putting an ice cube in there…keeping the pan at a constant temperature until finally the butter gets to the point where it boils, and all the water in it boils—and when you hear it stop bubbling, the temperature in the pan is going to skyrocket because there’s nothing to hold it back anymore! He was really right about that. [Laughter] If you wait very long after it stops sizzling, boy, all your butter is burned! So anyway, that’s just how he was: always tying together properties of the physical universe to things around the house. An array of lessons that began to make sense to me as a whole, a consistent whole. I began depositing things in my knowledge database that were consistent, and I was also very aware of those things that felt inconsistent. I would quarantine them until I could confirm or deny them in accordance to future data. I began to build up a mental database with lots and lots of facts I could count on.
Blake: So it was you and him together. He was a purposeful, intentional parent, but you were also a willing and able vessel.
Howie: I was sick a lot as a kid, and that’s a good way to learn. I don’t recommend it as a strategy to anyone, but people who have long childhood illnesses either come out of it bitter, or they read a lot! Good things can happen when you have a lot time by yourself, and I think good engineering requires that. It took someone like me—who had access to bright, curious parents—and combined it all with access to the tools and pieces necessary to tinker.
Blake: You tinkered a lot as a kid.
Howie: Constantly. I soldered together a walkie-talkie and made it work when I was ten. I had a soldering iron, I had some parts, I knew what the color-code was on resistors, and I knew how to stick them in the board and make it work. But I also knew that if I my mom found out that I burned myself with the soldering iron, she would take it away, so when the inevitable happened, I hid the blisters. [Laughter] If you have access to the parts, then you start doing stuff with them, and after a while you begin to think hey this is fun and I want to learn more, and it was really inspiring for me to have that sort of stuff around and available.
Blake: How old were you when you realized you wanted to be an engineer?
Howie: Great question. The other day I was talking to a young girl in our community who described wanting to be a lawyer. She’s a family friend, just finished her undergraduate degree, so she’s thinking about going to law school and asked me what I thought about that, and then she asked, “When did you know what career you were going to take?” I was ten. I knew when I was ten, hey, I wanna be in electronics. I originally thought I would be in ham radio, and do radio stuff because, well, I was into walkie-talkies, so I joined a ham radio club. I’d dealt with a transmitter, and started doing Morse code, and knew electronics was what I wanted to do. As I got older, I made some mistakes with my ham radio—all its parts weren’t working out—but it caused me to shift to analog electronics and digital electronics in high school. After that, it dawned on me how important computers were going to be: they’d get cheaper, smaller, everyone would be using ‘em, and they’d be able to do most anything.
Blake: What a gift to know so early on what you wanted to do and be.
Howie: You hit the nail on the head. What a huge head start to know, way before college, what you want to do. You can spend a lot of time reading and understanding your subject before you even get to class. [Laughter] I was not an A-student as an undergraduate, partly because I was also working, so that gobbled up a lot of time. But I was able to get through because I already knew so much about the subject ahead of time.
If I could give every hardware engineer a piece of advice, I’d tell them to hop in a time machine, go back twenty years, and work on motorcycle engines. It’ll make you a better engineer. I remember interviewing for one of my first big jobs and the interviewer looked at my fingernails and said, “Your fingernails are dirty. What have you been doing?” I replied, “I have an MG, and it doesn’t have spoke wheels, and I’ve always wanted spoke wheels, and my friend Bob has a car with spoke wheels—but a bolt came loose on the U-joint in his drive shaft and started making this horrible clunking sound and he didn’t know what it was—so I told him, ‘I’ll fix your car if you’ll swap me your wire wheels for the ones I have.’” I fixed Bob’s car and took his wire wheels—which is a horrible trade—because they are impossible to maintain, but I was young and wanted them anyway. [Laughter] I told the interviewer I had just finished that task, and he hired me on the spot. His logic was probably, here’s a guy who knows how to do stuff, even if it’s cars, and he’s got a degree in electrical engineering…so he can probably build computers, too. Intelligent hiring includes looking for experience, even if it’s in unrelated fields, because if the candidate is interested in building…whatever it is…then he or she is a good candidate for building other things, too.
Blake: So look for dirty fingernails.
Howie: Or its equivalent, whatever it is. An artifact…something…anything that indicates this person is curious. Scrappy. A doer. A problem-solver. If it’s a software person, look for evidence of hard work, of liking to tinker until they figure things out. I don’t know what it is. Maybe sometimes it’s a hunched neck, because their head is always low over the keyboard, staring at the screen.
Blake: We’re hunting for Quasimodo!
Howie: For poor posture, for hunchbacks!
Blake: That really resonates. The best hires I’ve ever made were fanatics. People with quirks. Clever, detailed radicals who chased the worm to the bottom of the tequila. [Laughter]
Howie: You’re in the midst of your own great project, Blake. It kinda reminds of Napoleon Hill, off to learn about great industrialists of his time, what made them great, and writing a book for the benefit of mankind. You’re involved in that sort of project yourself, and I really admire you for doing it. It’s a smart thing to do—seeking people from beyond your field and seeing what expertise they might have that informs your own. So, congratulations for that.
Blake: Napoleon Hill with scruples, though, because I believe he ultimately lost his way! But yes, I do understand. Thank you, Sir. Hey, I’m curious: as a parent of two amazing, brilliant young women, do you have any advice for schooling? Sometimes when I’m coaching folks, and we get to talking about children, they solicit advice about education, and their kiddos, and I just wondered what your own experience was? How did you seek to educate your two bright girls in Twisp? Were they homeschooled?
Howie: Half and half. By high school, they’d exhausted all the math and science courses offered here so, to our great delight, we discovered some awesome online resources, Brigham Young University and Stanford offering the best. They took physics, chemistry, biology, and math from those, and French from some other sources, so they were in school half the time and doing online coursework the other half. We found ways for teachers to supervise their studies, so they could get credit for it. I think in any rural area you’re going to have difficulty getting access to advanced level science, engineering, and programming, so you sorta have to make it up as you go along, groping the walls in the dark to find what works.
Blake: What are your girls doing now?
Howie: Kate is working with a NASA Fellow who analyzes pictures from remote missions. When NASA sends rocket ships up and takes pictures of other planets, moons, asteroids and stuff, they have to send all the pictures to somebody to analyze them, and Kate is one of the people who works with a gentleman who does that. Our older daughter, Alexandra, graduated near the top of her class in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon, completing internships with both Google and Facebook, and now works at a software startup specializing in computer-based optimization.
Blake: Are you encouraged or discouraged by education in America? Do you think it really sets people up for success?
Howie: I think successful engineers learn 99% of what they need to know outside the classroom, so my advice would be: go to school, apply yourself, and then learn 100x more than that somewhere else! Get obsessed, and really love what you do. Take a woodcarver, for example. These people love their craft, and if you talk to one who makes exquisite pieces, you know he really loves his tools. He knows the steel it’s made of, how it gets forged, how they mix the steel together at an appropriate rate, how it’s heat-treated, everything about the knife he’s holding and the handle it’s got. He’s probably even carved the handle himself so it fits perfectly in his hand. He’s got the piece of wood, he understands the grain in it, and he’s worked with that type of wood before and has known its grain pattern for years. He looks at the microstructure of how the grain is oriented, where the knots are, where he’s going to put his tool. He knows everything about how to sharpen his knife. I mean, just think about it, God, he knows a lot, and just to carve wood! And if you want to make nuclear missiles, you gotta know more than that, so yeah, education is a continuing process that happens mostly after you pass the requirements for high school and college and check all the boxes, then you gotta educate yourself or, like I did, start educating yourself even earlier. If you don’t have a process for educating yourself, and always learning more, you’ll get nowhere.
You can do this through reading, mentoring, watching how-to videos on YouTube, making mistakes, etc., but mentoring is the very best way. Great mentors will direct you in terms of what things you need to pay attention to. I remember this one time, oh, there’s this little circuit called a driver—and it’s used all over in computer equipment. Whenever you want to send a signal from me to you, I have a driver at my end that sends the signal down a wire and you have a receiver that receives it at your end. One day I was sitting with my mentor at Alexander’s Steakhouse in Silicon Valley. It was one of Martin Graham’s favorites. He had these big, bushy eyebrows. A professor at Berkeley. He’s been chairman of the computer society, was an important dignitary, and he loved to eat rich food, so half our meetings were at restaurants! We’re sitting there, I’m hearing the tinkling of ice cubes in a scotch glass, and he asks, “When is a driver not a driver?” It was one of these metaphysical questions, and when I understood his meaning, it opened up whole new worlds of engineering for me. A bunch of patents embedded now in products all over the planet. The principles he articulated were transformational, but they happened matter-of-factly over a meal, you know? Left to our own devices, we’re searching for random facts on Wikipedia or God knows where, wasting our time rattling around in the universe. A great mentor though, like Marty, can bring a simple question to a coherent dialogue that changes your world. Or everyone’s world.
Blake: I’m enjoying these interviews, Howie. Each person has something so unique to offer. Bob Pennington said the purpose of education is to get a job, and Gary Moreau said the purpose of education is to learn how to learn.
Howie: I think the purpose of education is to help identify, and hopefully encourage, those few people—the tiny little sliver of the population—that is actually going to do something to make it possible to support ten billion people on the planet. Otherwise, we’re all going to die! [Laughter] Unfortunately, for many people, school is just boring. It should be a place of inspiration and encouragement. When I think back on my own experience, it seems they just wanted to make all of us the same, and that’s not at all what we need. We need standouts, and ways to encourage standouts. It’s life or death. And it’s not going to happen by rote in some cube of sameness, so it’s got to happen outside the classroom.
Blake: You were clearly involved in your daughters’ educations, and I suspect that has made all the difference.
Howie: People are not learning the things they need to learn in contemporary societies to thrive. Kids don’t want to listen to their parents; that’s natural, but you have to play an active role in their development. Pay now or pay later. Roots and wings, or they’ll wind up right back where they began. We have to encourage them, give them good books to read. Too many schools today are focused on creating safe spaces, places of love, but kids need skills that equip them for a hard-knock life.
Blake: Howie, I’m gonna let you go now. I hear unruly weeds blowin’ in the wind.
Howie: It’s been fun talking to you, Blake, and I wish you good luck on your assignment. Weeds are done for now; I’m off next to train someone to operate the sound system for a performance we’re doing tomorrow. Be well.
And with that, Howie—“the good doctor,” as I’ve heard him called—is bounding out the door. “Tell your readers to look me up if they’re ever in Twisp, and I’ll buy ‘em a beer.”
You can find him at Signal Hill Ranch, weedwacker in hand.
E N D
Howie & Liz love dogs
For the Johnson family,
moving to the country was about
finding peace and clarity
Work never stops on a ranch
Professor Martin Graham was
a mentor to many young engineers
Howie stands next to a single 8-bit latch
built entirely from vacuum tubes
at Rice University in 1960
To read more about technology, its direction, the importance of early education, and the influence of mentors and parents (including Howie’s thoughts on his own father, Dr. Jim Johnson, 1932-2012), please click here.
To read more about aesthetics, duality, and the importance of working in layers, please click here.
To read Howie’s last blog, uploaded on the occasion of his retirement in 2012, please click here.