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The overachievers of high tech - and what lit their fires

Trailblazers find little to like in U.S. educational system

Published: Jan. 12, 1997


Special to the Mercury News

As a curious college student, Bill Hewlett blew up door knobs. Janese Swanson, who developed an online site for girls, took appliances apart. Suhas Patil, co-founder of Cirrus Logic Inc., followed his father in India around, asking questions all the time.

Silicon Valley's place as a hotbed of innovation is well-documented. But how did some of its trailblazers -- from the well-known to the more obscure -- turn nascent ideas into science and technology? What mistakes did they make? Who were their mentors? What should the young tinkerers of today learn to help them transform their inspirations into reality?

To find out, the Mercury News spent the past several months talking with some of technology's revolutionaries -- men and women who forge ground-breaking research, products or businesses, often in the face of long odds and seemingly insurmountable hurdles. As part of a joint project with the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, each hourlong conversation was joined by a high school student, who asked his or her own questions.

The results were an enlightening mix of personal experience, advice for young people and concern for the future.

And although a gulf of time and experience separates, for example, Hewlett, the 83-year-old founder of Hewlett Packard, from Swanson, 38, who founded and is CEO of Girl Tech technology, some common threads emerged.

Many of the men and women interviewed are deeply troubled by -- and highly critical of -- the U.S. educational system, particularly when it comes to technology.

''Teachers have very low knowledge about computers,'' said Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple Computer who now runs classes for children and helps schools formulate curricula. ''They're very computer phobic, and even when they want to, they don't know how to use it in their classrooms.''

Nolan Bushnell, who has eight children, built the first computer game in his daughter's bedroom and went on to found Atari and create Pong, is more harsh:

''Schools are doing horribly. I mean, not just horribly, but criminally horribly. We are graduating kids out of high school who not only can't type, but really don't see the computer as part of the tools.''

These revolutionaries stress the importance of education because, for many of them, teachers were an early inspiration.

''My high school electronics teacher was very much a hero,'' Wozniak says. ''He didn't just use a course out of a book. He wrote his own assignments. I wouldn't have continued to be so inspired, I don't think, without him.''

But heroes and mentors did not always come out of a classroom. Inspiration was all around.

''My mother,'' says Al Shugart, founder and CEO of Seagate Technology, the disk-drive maker.

''My grandmother,'' says Bob Metcalfe, creator of the ethernet networking system. A tough Norwegian woman, she worked to clean up corruption in unions on New York City's waterfront.

''My friend who was significantly ahead of the rest of us in chemistry,'' says Alejandro Zaffaroni, a native of Uruguay who founded the Alza pharmaceutical company.

Others endured despite difficult childhood times.

After too many days and nights hiding under the bed to escape bombs and bullets, David Lam's parents sent him out of Vietnam to live in Hong Kong with relatives.

When Bushnell was 15, his father died, leaving him to take over the family cement business.

Everyone talked not only about the past, but of the future. When a student interviewer asked Intel co-founder Gordon Moore about where technology is headed in the next century, Moore laughed and threw up his hands: ''Century? Gee, I'm still worried about the rest of this century.''

In the medical field, Zaffaroni says that the biggest revolution will be not in new drugs or cures, but in lifestyle changes: ''We basically create disease by the way in which we live -- the great stress, the smoking, the drinking, bad foods, the accumulation of negative things. This is the reconstruction that we will be seeing in this coming century.''

Lam, who founded Lam Research, a leader in semiconductor manufacturing equipment, hopes the future will bring a higher degree of social responsibility from Silicon Valley's technology community. He wants to see every company designate a fixed percentage of profits for the homeless and other charities.

Many of those interviewed also had common advice to youngsters thinking about getting involved in technology: Persevere in the face of naysayers.

A school counselor told John Warnock, co-founder and CEO of Adobe Systems, a software company, not to go to college and that he had zero possibility of success in engineering-related fields.

''My message for children is that they may not think they have the aptitude for something like technology,'' Warnock said. ''Or they may have predisposed notions about what they could do in life. I would tell them that there is always more hope than they can imagine.''

''My suggestion,'' says Wozniak, ''is to work at what you are good at in life, even if it seems like just a pastime or just a hobby or just the sort of thing you do on your own when there is no reason to do it, when there is no grade or salary. Eventually, if you are good at it, it will have value.''

Hewlett is a big advocate of trade schools and advises youngsters who are interested in working with their hands to find a good one and ignore anyone who thinks apprenticeship isn't worthwhile.

Swanson thinks taking liberal arts courses initially is the best way to prepare for life. Swanson, who left a company for which she worked when it wouldn't listen to her ideas for creating games geared to girls, says young people also need to remember: ''When people let you down, keep going and don't give up. Follow your dreams. Treat yourself well. Know who your friends are.''

Zaffaroni echoes that emotion: ''Don't join the majority. Be true to the principles that you believe in and really push for that through life.''

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