“I want to join your company Brett, but I have conditions,” Greg, one of top ten engineers on the planet in my industry said to me.
I smiled. Then I said, “Okay, what are your conditions?”
“Well, there’s really only one condition I have,” Greg said. “I want to take three to six months off every year to travel. Will that work for you?”
I didn’t hesitate. I immediately said, “Yes, we can make that work. When can you start?”
“I need to wrap up the design I’m working on at Maxim (our larger competitor). Then I can join you.”
“Great. I can’t wait,” I said.
Great engineers are like fine wine; they get better with age.
Greg and I shook hands, and Greg left the office. I raced over to Jeroen’s office, and I opened the door.
“How did it go?” My co-founder and VP Engineering, Jeroen, asked me.
“It’s a done deal!” I said excitedly. “The only thing he wants is the ability to take extended time off.
“That was a no-brainer. Any time we get from Greg is going to be good for us.”
“I agree,” Jeroen said.
One month later, 71 year old Greg joined our fledgling startup as a Senior Scientist.
If I had a worry about Greg, from the work we had done together years earlier at Maxim, was that Greg’s designs sometimes were too complicated. However, it was clear from day one working with us that Greg had evolved.
Greg had always had an abundance of creativity. The new wrinkle in Greg’s approach was the economy in each of his designs.
They were so simple and elegant, and, which is always something you look for in analog IC design, full of broad patentable circuit blocks. Best of all, the products Greg came up were groundbreaking and sold like crazy.
Engineers don’t need to be managers to influence your engineering community.
Greg was the classic individual contributor. He just wasn’t wired to manage people. He would have failed miserably if we asked him to be a manager.
Just because Greg couldn’t manage people and had no desire to manage people, doesn’t mean that he didn’t contribute to the engineering community. There were several ways Greg contributed.
First, we had a bi-weekly meeting for the design community where the engineers taught and shared knowledge. The biggest contributor to that meeting was Greg.
Second, we had a very rigorous peer design review process. It was critical to our success because it cost us a lot of money and time each time we “taped out” a chip.
Greg led by example with his preparation for these meetings. Because he took them seriously, it made it easier to get the other engineers to take our design review meetings seriously too.
Third, great engineers are a limited commodity. And great engineers want to work with other great engineers. It would have been easy for Greg to say he was too busy to interview candidates. However, he never once did that.
The idea of having a team of young engineers that you pay very little looks great on a spreadsheet. However, the reality can be a lot different.
There’s an apprenticeship in the analog semiconductor business that I know doesn’t exist in other technology business. An engineer with a masters degree and no experience might not be able to design a chip for several years.
So the 40-something engineer with 20 years of chip design is going to be a lot more productive in an early stage startup than the young graduate. You’ll pay top dollar to hire excellent senior engineers (We certainly did).
The ROI for senior engineers is greater than junior engineers in the analog chip business.
I was being interviewed by someone at EETimes. He was an older fellow in his 70’s, and he asked me about the age of our engineering team.
I told him the team was comprised mostly of people in their 40’s. He said to me, “God bless you.”
It was not altruism, as the EETimes reporter suggested, that caused us to hire more senior engineers. It was a matter of survival.
We would have never been able to accomplish what set out to do if we hired junior engineers. We would have failed.
When Greg joined the company, I called Bob Dobkin, our only angel investor, to let him know.
Dobkin, affectionately know as “Dobby” in our industry, was the co-founder and CTO of Linear Technology. Linear was considered the gold standard in terms of design talent in our industry.
“I tried to get Greg to join us,” Dobby said to me. “It’s a coup for you to have him as part of your team.”
“I know, Bob. I know,” I said.