Thursday, March 14, 2013

Life lessons in entrepreneurship from a 100-year-old man

Today I had the great fortune and privilege to meet Bob Teichner, age 100.

Bob took an "early" retirement package from HP in 2000, when he was 87.  I happened to meet his daughter, Andrea, while we were walking our dogs, and struck up a conversation.  When I found out about her dad's history, I immediately asked to meet him.

Bob graduated from college in 1937 which means he could have attended a 75th reunion last year.  He was recruited to Silicon Valley by Nobel Prizewinner William Shockley, the legendary inventor of the transistor.

Hale and hearty all his life (Andrea noted that Bob was running the track at Stanford well into his 90s), Bob calls himself "decrepit" now, but met me in his Palo Alto home with firm gaze and handshake, and a face that looked much younger than his 100 years.  He's hard of hearing now, and needs a little extra time to gather his thoughts, but he remains an active and animated conversationalist.  Here are a few of the highlights:

On why Shockley hired him: "He was looking for somebody he thought would be loyal, after Bob Noyce and his group [AKA the "Traitorous Eight"] left him.  So he hired me, along with a bunch of Germans.  He heard that Germans were loyal if you offered them a job for life." (I guess that's one approach to startup hiring!)

On getting along with the notoriously difficult Shockley: "We got along fine.  One time, I was visiting Bell Labs, and they asked how I managed to get along with him. 'Well, I'm not a physicist,' I told them, and they just laughed." (Teichner had a Masters in Chemistry, though most of his professional work was in semiconductors)

On developing new technologies: "I used a Xenon lamp, which provided the best resolution [for photolithography].  The only problem was that dust would get on the glass, so we eventually figured out that people needed to keep their hair covered."  In other words, he was there for the invention of the clean room!

On his other legendary boss, David Packard: "He would walk around checking on everything, and wherever he went, people were happy and excited to see him."

When I asked him what advice he'd give to young people, he answered quickly, "Luck. I got recruited out to Silicon Valley, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Back East, things were slow and based on tradition. Here, everything was new, and we were open to whatever got the job done."

Folks often predict the death of Silicon Valley. It's inspiring to hear that the same principles that built the Valley are still going strong today!

Bob continues to live by these principles; every day, he checks Gmail, and reads the New York Times, Washington Post, and Huffington Post. He even follows new trends like the Quantified Self, though he laughs and says he's not implementing those technologies in his daily life.

I asked him what he looks forward to in his daily life, and he answered with a chuckle, "Another day." May we all be so lucky and wise!

UPDATE:
I almost forgot one of Bob's best lines.  I asked him, looking back, what things had made him happiest.  He replied, "The birth of my children.   Having children is even better than sex!"  He then fixed with me with a wide grin.

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