I recently received the Golden Mousetrap Lifetime Achievement award from Design News.
The first time I heard about the Golden Mousetrap Award, I had to wonder about the name… a mousetrap does not sound very appealing, depending from the position you are looking at it. Is it from the position of the first mouse, who got trapped, the second mouse, who walked away with the cheese, or is it about great engineering ingenuity and simplicity? Fortunately, it is about the latter!
Putting that all aside, it is was a great honor to be recognized this way. It may sound obligatory, but I was really stunned. Of course I knew that I had had the opportunity to make a difference with Wi-Fi, but it is important to emphasize that I was part of a great team. Additionally, the timing was right to build an eco-system and a standard. I remember my first presentation in November 1988 at a conference in Columbia, South Carolina. We have built a lot since then! Today, when my 15-year-old son has a friend over, the first question is: “what is the Wi-Fi password?” And when I reply with, “Do you know there was life before Wi-Fi” – I only get stares back.
In my acceptance speech at the award ceremony in Anaheim, I shared a story about my ultimate engineering experience. It illustrates why I love engineering, why I think engineers are the luckiest people in the world, why they have the most fortunate jobs, and what gives me a thrill going to work every day.
Somewhere around 1975 (so pre-Internet!), I got my hands on an electrical engineering magazine that featured a design, a bill of material that was maybe 30 components, and a schematic. So I went to a local Radio Shack and bought the 30 components (some resistors, capacitors, probably a coil, a crystal, and some other stuff). I came home and turned the little bag with the components upside down on my desk. I got my soldering gun and carefully followed the schematics on putting the components together. Eventually I needed to connect an earplug, and then the battery….
Then there was some fiddling—also known as “tuning.” All of a sudden, the crystal clear sound of music came through the ear bud. I was breathless. It was like magic, and I remember the feeling as if it happened yesterday. The amazement at the transformation of the 30 dead components, spread out on my desk, now changed into something making music.
That is when and how I became an engineer. And this is what defines an engineer for me—this thrill that comes from making something that is more than the sum of its components.
That is what engineers do. We use our positive powers and energy to make something out of nothing. The hours and days of thinking about what needs to be done, what can be done and how to bridge the gap. The endless slogging and software debugging, because something just does not work the way it is supposed to. We try to find out why one thing works, and the other thing just does not work. And then we fix it. We resist the “90% done syndrome,” because we are idealists and perfectionists, and we want it right, and we don’t want to listen to the marketers who just want to ship “as-is.”
I believe that engineers have the creativity and the mind power to make a difference. We can make this world a better place. A connected world is a better world.
My first thoughts on Wi-Fi were not much more than, “Wouldn’t it be great if…” I remember sitting at the gate in an airport, thinking: “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could read my own newspaper on my computer now.” This was in the days when every free wall space in an airport was filled with telephone booths. And when portables were called “luggables,” and nobody knew what a tablet, or a phablet was. Look at how much things have changed. All the phone booths have gone, I can make free video calls with whomever I want, and read my own newspaper wherever I am.
So to all the engineers I say, “Making a difference is within reach for everyone.” And on behalf of all the engineers I say, “Thank you for the recognition!”