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Tag Archives: electrical engineering
“I’ve spent my whole life measuring time”
The Global Positioning System (GPS), today one of the most versatile technologies on the planet, was still a highly experimental, underfunded military project when it first piqued Jim Sorden’s interest in the mid-1980s.
But its potential compelled Sorden to make a bold move, leaving his 24-year career with Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto to join a small startup called Trimble Navigation. Long before the technology started popping into everything from auto dashboards to golf bags, Charles Trimble had some early hunches on civilian GPS applications. “It was a gamble at the time,” says Sorden, a 1962 graduate and major supporter of electrical and computer engineering. “But I thought this one had a chance. So at the age of 50, I took a flier on it. It was terrific.”
Trimble became the first company to launch viable, effective products in the GPS arena, starting with applications in surveying, mining, offshore drilling and construction. Sorden says Trimble’s precision GPS surveying systems made a massive impact on the field, where heavy, slow and expensive were once the norm.
They transformed a process—which once required 100-pound GPS machines costing $250,000 and requiring a full day to produce a single, precision measurement—into a digital solution that provided real-time measurements in seconds, at an equipment cost of under $25,000. “The productivity of surveyors increased 10- to 100-fold,” he says.
Sorden began at Trimble in 1987 as VP of product development and had 10 staff engineers. By the late 1990s, Sorden had more than 1,500 engineering, marketing, manufacturing and financial staff working in his division. “When Trimble started, the military wasn’t even convinced GPS worked,” says Sorden. “But our founder had experience in the chip industry and figured if GPS is going to work, it will have to be all digital. That was the primary reason for our early success. We ended up playing a big role in getting GPS fully funded by the government, because at no cost to the government, we demonstrated practical military GPS and we found uses the military never thought about.”
The United States only had four good satellites in orbit when he first started, Sorden says. They could only retrieve measuring points when all satellites were ideally aligned, for a few hours each day. But they demonstrated during those windows they could survey to within one inch of accuracy. “The military was happy to get data with accuracy levels within 50 feet, until the Gulf War in the early ’90s, when the need for precise GPS became apparent,” he says.
One of Sorden’s favorite applications is in farming. “Farmers always plant and harvest their crops at the absolute peak time. They work all day and night until the planting or harvesting is done, and it may take 30 or more hours,” he says. “That first hour is all straight rows … but you’re not very good after three hours.”
Today, for about $3,000, a farmer can install a complete GPS system on his tractor that will guide absolutely straight rows every time. “This was a huge enhancement to farming productivity, with the side benefit in that it helps farmers precisely measure the per-bushel productivity of each small piece of their land,” says Sorden.
He describes his Hewlett Packard years as almost like home. “You were working for Mother HP,” he says. “They really took care of their employees, with high expectations for hard work.”
The company did not offer retirement plans, but instead offered inexpensive HP stock purchase plans and options, which proved to be infinitely more lucrative given the growth of the company from the 1950s to ‘90s.
Sorden started out his career simply wanting to be an engineer, yet kept receiving opportunities from HP to move into management and strategic planning. He rose to each challenge, often with help from additional courses at nearby Stanford University. “Some people are really good at being clever and productive engineers and when promoted, find out they’re not very good managers or leaders,” he says. “I think I was good because I was a boss in the army, Sergeant Sorden. I actually was awful, but I learned all the things not to do.”
He enlisted in the U.S. Army the day he graduated from Madison West High School in 1955. He spent five years in the military—three active duty; two in active reserves. Enrolling at UW-Madison after his military commitment, he received his bachelor’s in the minimum time. He then enrolled in the ECE graduate program and also was a research assistant. Sorden and his wife, Anne, support an endowed professorship, currently held by David Anderson, in the department.
His research expertise was in developing measurement instruments to analyze time and amplitude to achieve ever-increasing levels of accuracy. Sorden holds eight U.S. patents, primarily in the measurement field, and his expertise was tapped by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s during its exploration of “Star Wars,” the satellite-based missile defense system.
“I’ve spent my whole life measuring time,” he quips.
Some career trajectories follow a straight and narrow path; others take unexpected twists and turns. Craig Palmer’s career might be likened to a cross-country road trip—the kind where you leave the map at home and see where the road takes you.
Palmer, a 1983 graduate of electrical and computer engineering, is currently CEO of Wikia, a San Francisco-based online content network that builds user communities around thousands of topics, from popular culture to lifestyle. The company, which Palmer describes as “the biggest Internet company no one has heard of,” currently has more than 70 million unique visitors worldwide.
But let’s start with how he got there.
“One common theme for me is I would get bored doing the same thing, and I always like new challenges,” Palmer says. “I am unafraid to just sort of tackle something I’m ill-prepared for.”
With his freshly minted ECE degree, he landed his first job in technical marketing—a departure from pure engineering—with Hewlett Packard Corp. at its Fort Collins, Colorado, offices. He was part of the work group that brought the first UNIX workstations to market. One of his more notable memories is carrying the first UNIX tapes to Bell Laboratories to validate their implementation.
After several years with HP, Palmer’s intellectual curiosity began to take a sharp turn from hardware to software—from the powerful black boxes to the stuff that made them come to life. He moved to Silicon Valley and got a job with software company Cadence, which launched in 1988 and became a world leader in electronic design automation software for chip and circuit board design.
Cadence grew quickly, went public and began regularly acquiring new companies. And Palmer got the IPO and startup bug—along with a desire to get in on the ground floor. “I saw the power of how quickly software could grow and the value it could create,” he says.
Palmer left Cadence in 1994 to join Aspect Development, a new business-to-business software company, as VP of marketing. Over five years and a successful IPO, revenues grew from $5 million to more than $100 million. On March 10, 2000, Aspect Management would make history: Acquired by fellow B2B company i2 for $9.3 billion, it became the biggest-money merger in software history at the time.
That day represented the single-day peak of the dot-com-era NASDAQ Composite, and only about a month before its tailspin.
Tackling a new challenge—this time with a consumer Internet company—Palmer moved to a eWanted, kind of the conceptual inverse of eBay. This company allowed consumers to post offers to buy a particular product, and the sellers to post bids. The more bids received, the lower the price fell.
eWanted acquired an auction company called Fleetwood-Owen, co-founded by Mick Fleetwood of rock band Fleetwood Mac, and morphed into a vertical marketplace for auctions, reverse auctions and sale of entertainment memorabilia. Memorable sales included the piano that John Lennon used to write “Imagine,” the moon buggy from James Bond’s Moonraker, and the largest collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia outside of Graceland.
In 2001, eWanted planned an auction around artistic works of original Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon’s best friend and an accomplished artist. Sutcliffe’s sister kept a large cache of Sutcliffe’s works after his untimely death in 1962, and eWanted engineered an estate sale that drew international media attention. “We were supposed to sell this on September 11, 2001, in New York,” Palmer says.
The 9-11 tragedy changed the world in many ways, including a lost interest in luxury items. The company decided to liquidate its assets. “You can only control how well you do,” he says. “You can’t control the market or the world at large.”
Palmer remains positive about the venture. “I have a huge passion for music, and it allowed me to merge business and personal for the first time,” he says. “It was also the first time I was able to explain to my mom in Oshkosh what I did for a living.”
Where’s the next destination?
In 2002, Palmer became CEO of Gracenote, another fascinating (and now well-known) Silicon Valley start-up. Gracenote is a great “tinkering engineer” story—in this case, engineer Steve Scherf wanted to know what songs were on his computer without checking the jewel box. So he created CD recognition technology that digitally displays the artist and individual tracks—a feature now ubiquitous in media players and home and car stereos. “Anything that you put a battery in, plug into a wall, or put gasoline in will at some point do something with digital media,” Palmer says. “We wanted a home for Gracenote everywhere. We kept scaling, scaling, scaling.”
The Gracenote story reached its zenith in 2008 with a sale to Sony. It was a gratifying experience for Palmer, helping some of his team experience the same startup success that he reaped with Aspect Development.
Which brings us back to Wikia, Palmer’s latest digital venture. Palmer was hired in 2011 to lead the company, billed as Wikipedia’s commercial sibling, also founded by Jimmy Wales. While Wikipedia draws vast online information into a distilled set of concise encyclopedic facts, Wikia invites online users to use its collaborative publishing platform to create vast amounts of multimedia content. “Wikipedia is like the encyclopedia in the library, and we’re the rest of the books in the building,” he says.
Wikia has more than 300,000 communities today, spanning video games, entertainment, food, fashion, travel, education and politics. Each community has a range of users with different skills who manage the site, write, edit, design graphics used in the site, and generally create and share content around their passion. Wikia is the No. 1 global site for video gaming communities and is the fastest growing entertainment site in the world. While Wikia unsurprisingly has communities on popular topics such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Call of Duty, it also has surprising communities built around topics such as bacon and My Little Pony.
Every day, 500 new Wika communities launch. “What makes Wikia so unique in social media today, is that most social networks—Facebook, Twitter and others—are all about individual expression and are often short-attention-span theater, where the thing you say today is forgotten tomorrow,” he says. “In our collaborative world, you band together with the most knowledgeable and educated set of people around a particular subject and create a lasting body of work.”
Looking back, Palmer says there is some common ground in his diverse professional road trip. One is a deep understanding of technology he learned at UW-Madison, a technical map that allowed him to understand how things worked and why they were important to his companies’ success.
Being able to relate to the technical innovators offers a huge marketplace advantage. Coupled with some risk-taking and hunger to learn, Palmer found himself doing things he never imagined.“I would never have been able to plan or foresee the path I took,” Palmer says. “From hardcore engineering to Wikia is a really long journey, actually, but has also been an extremely fun and satisfying one.”
Madison is very memorable to my wife Miriam and I since both our children, John and Lucy, were born there. When I earned my PhD in 1969 in bioengineering, one possibility was to do research and/or teaching.
However, my first job was in business development at Electronic Associates in New Jersey. This company supplied real-time simulation computer systems similar to those I used for my PhD research in cardiovascular blood pressures and flows—a state-of-the-art computer at that time for all real-time simulations. My advisor, (the late) Electrical Engineering Professor Vincent Rideout, was the driving force to secure NSF funding for this real-time computer lab, the largest such lab at any U.S. university.