An Interview with Bob

Gemperlein :   Did you have a hero or mentor?
Metcalfe :   All along the way. My grandmother was the first. She was Norwegian through and through. . .When she came here, she married an old Norwegian .The entire New York waterfront was run by Norwegians in those days. All the ships captains and all the crew, all Norwegians. Her husband, my grandfather, was a ship's pilot in New York City harbor. (After he died) she married another pilot in New York City named Berg. And she worked for the Tri-Borough Waterfront Commission in New York , which had been set up to undermine organized crime in the area. So this woman was constantly surrounded by really tough people, mafioso. And she was as tough as nails. Whenever some mafioso got killed, she'd be invited to his funeral. Not that she went, but she was invited because they were still trying to subvert the waterfront commission.

" I would say I have navigated my life to this point through mentors. I had some notion that you hooked your wagon to someone's star who you wanted to be like"

She was the leader of the family. She came out to the island most every weekend. We would pick her up on the Long Island Railroad and she would be carrying a cheesecake from the bakery. She was my first role model. Just tough. TOUGH lady. Nothing stopped her. Every Christmas, we'd go into Radio City Music Hall. . .She was walking through the subways, the city. She was in charge of that city. No one got in her way. Nothing frightened her. She was great. . . . She passed away in the late 1970s when she was about 73.

There (also) were my father and mother. In retrospect, their whole life was about sending me to college. They had never gone to college. So I never considered the possibility that I wouldn't go to college. . . .I had a younger sister, but my parents were focused on MY going to college, not my sister going. She did ultimately get there, but I went straight to college. They didn't focus on her the same way they focused on me.

My eighth grade science teacher, who put me up to building that computer.. .he was a mentor. And then when I got to MIT, MIT is just full of mentors. I could go on for hours. And then there were all the mentors in Silicon Valley when I got here. I would say I have navigated my life to this point through mentors. I had some notion that you hooked your wagon to someone's star who you wanted to be like, . ..

Getsla :   Have you, yourself, been a mentor?
Metcalfe :   I hope so. I don't know how you'd know. I guess if they come over to your house a lot and take your advice. I don't think you're allowed to claim you're anybody's mentor. It's a little bit condescending.
Gemperlein :   Were you often told that you could not do what you were trying to do? Were you surrounded by naysayers?
Metcalfe :   At 3Com Corporation, right here in Santa Clara, there's a plaque out front with my picture on it and this motto which apparently I said a lot, though I don't remember saying it -- is right there on the plaque. But it answers your question. It says, "The only difference between being visionary and being stubborn is whether you're right." I think the answer to your question is I've been told a lot that what I wanted to do was stupid, and it was often stupid. But I was just stubborn. Just kept after it.

" Everything that's going to happen in 25 years, it's already happening, somewhere. It already exists. "

So, like starting 3Com was something I did against all advice. The only advice I got was I should stay at Xerox Corporation. I should not start this company, and I should not do this. And I just decided to do it.

'Course, I had so many mentors around. People who had started companies, just ... as an example, and I knew them. And I knew that if they could do it, I could do it.

Gemperlein: Were they the ones telling you not to do it?

Metcalfe: No. The one thing about mentors you have to learn about is, I think, they're not gods; they're just normal people. And once you learn that about your mentors, then you realize you can do what they did because you're a normal person, too. But if you elevate your mentors to godly status, then that can suppress your ambitions because you think you're not like them if they're gods, and, therefore, you can't accomplish what they accomplish. But I never had that problem. I always managed to learn what my mentors ... human and they could be emulated, and I could achieve the kind of things that they achieved.

" This web stuff is probably a bigger opportunity than any I've ever seen. Bigger than the personal computer. Bigger than local area networks. And it's happening now. "

So, for example, I knew Steve Jobs. The same day I founded 3Com, Steve Jobs called me -- you know I'm older than him by more than a decade, but he was one of my mentors because he had started out the computer just a few years ahead of me. So he was a mentor. But I could see very quickly that he wasn't a god; he was just a normal obnoxious person like me. So if he could start a company, I could start a company.

Getsla :   Do you think now that it's possible for someone to take the initiative, start their own company, and run with it?
Metcalfe :   That's a recurring problem in people's thoughts. They keep thinking each year, as if this year everything's been done, everything's been invented ... And that's exactly how it felt when I was starting 3Com.

Getsla: So, in a way, it always feels there's not any doors, but they just seem to appear?

Metcalfe: Nothing just seems to appear. But you make them appear. People with ideas and help. ... You need help. A little luck. You need a little luck, too. Things are happening all the time. This web stuff is probably a bigger opportunity than any I've ever seen. Bigger than the personal computer. Bigger than local area networks. And it's happening now. There's thousands of companies being created. That's this year's wave. But then even after the web gets figured out, there'll be something else after that.

Gemperlein :   Talk about the future.
Metcalfe :   Let's take 25 years. Everything that's going to happen in 25 years, it's already happening, somewhere. It already exists. I'm reflecting on the last 25 years. And there is nothing going on today, with the possible exception of the Web, but you can even rationalize the Web, was going on 25 years ago. In a small, screwy, little way. Or in a lab. Or Doug Engelbart at SRI had thought it up. Whattever it is in 25 years, it's probably around if you were just aware of it.

Remember, there was the agricultural age and then the industrial age, and then they sort of talk about the Information age. No one really had any idea what it was going to be like, but now, I do. And it's the Internet and the Web. It's the Information Age, and it's happening and it's going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.

Gemperlein :   How do you think it will change education?
Metcalfe :   Education is broken. I don't think the Web will fix it. This basic system that we've got, gets bulldozed and we start over. I'm going to get philsophical here for a minute. I'm talking K-12. The university system works really well..

Getsla: At our school, we got this grant for the computer lab, and ... you go over there and there's maybe 8% of the school knows how to use the lab.

Metcalfe: 8%?

Getsla: Maybe.

Metcalfe: You go to a school in Silicon Valley, and 8% of your students know anything about the Internet?

Getsla: They know what it is. They know it exists. They don't know how to use it

Metcalfe: Well, I think, 30% or maybe only 25% of American homes have a personal computer. in the home. The way kids can learn about computers is not at school, it's at home. The schools are so bad. You are just confirming a depressing. . .

Not so long ago, people said personal computers wouldn't go anywhere because people wouldn't type, especially executives in business, professionals in business. Therefore, personal computers would only be used by their secretaries at best. This was the conventional wisdom not so long ago. I know it sounds unbelievable, but I'm telling you, this was a respectable point of view. And that was proven to be hogwash. Now everyone uses keyboards. They prefer to not, but they do. By the millions, by the hundreds of millions, they do.

So now you say to universities and high schools, with the Net we could get the best physics professor in the world, to teach all the freshman physics students in the world. The best physics course in the world. And the professors all say, never happen, no, it's not enough interaction, won't work. I'm saying one of the impacts of the net is that people will, students will be able to have access to a much higher quality of education than they're now getting because they'll have more -- not complete -- but more access to the world's best learning resources.

Rather than just what's able to be assembled in their home town. And right now the teachers fight this tooth and nail. They don't want it to happen. It's union activity. . . It's a normal reaction of people who are afraid of losing their jobs . They get their unions to stop things and its counterproductive.

But I don't think their jobs are in danger at all. . . .their jobs can be improved by it. But right now it is unclear how that will happen, so there's a lot of fear about it. One of the ways in which the net will effect education is that in degrees it will give everyone access to much better learning tools.

In the future the best physics professors will be able to have their ideas and pedagogy and approach and even personalities conveyed electronically and that will be cool.