My Leadership Journey

Terry Gray

01 Mar 2008 (rev 26 Apr 08)

I have been extremely fortunate; blessed to have had a great career, working with a lot of terrific people on interesting projects. Of the dozen or so personal highlights cited below, spanning the last 50 years, there are only four noted as having negative emotional impact --and even those all helped me grow. (You know, "that which doesn't kill you makes you stronger...") Even during my Navy days, when I often wished to be elsewhere, the lessons were enormous (and besides, I would never otherwise have had that Italian pizza at Eddie's Mexican Kitchen in Sasebo Japan, nor held real Koalas in Australia.)

I've also noted a couple of historical events that held important leadership lessons for me. However, I neglected to list my discovery of the BBC's "Yes, Minister" series, which contains countless leadership lessons, and is an essential training guide for anyone who works in a bureacracy.



1958: 7th Grade

Banner at the front of Mr. Frost's classroom:

"We learn in moments of enjoyment"

Emotional Impact: Neutral

  • We do indeed "learn in moments of enjoyment".

  • We also learn in moments of pain...

    • something I figured out much later.



1959-1963: Summer job

Worked for a demanding Argentine immigrant in a machine-tool repair shop.

Emotional Impact: Neutral

  • Importance of observation and attention to detail.

  • Importance of having the right tools.



1960-1964: San Gabriel High School

As a Sophomore, I once asked my algebra teacher what he thought constituted "a good student". He said "By and large one who is interested in many things, and if you'd like to discuss further, come back after school"... thus beginning many years of amazing mentoring, growth, and friendship. This was my first exposure to a true renaissance man.

Later, at this Southern California high school, I ran for "Senior Class Treasurer" on the following platform, written in Spanish: "If elected, I will waste no time in taking the money and running to Mexico." Had a blast doing it.

Emotional Impact: Positive

  • One extraordinary person (in this case, Don Sickler) can make an extraordinary difference.

  • Sometimes the journey is much more fun than the destination.



1964-1967: Northrop Institute of Technology

In 1966 I got my roommate elected Senior Class Treasurer. That would be unremarkable, except that he didn't go to my college, and the only time he was ever on our campus was the day we brought him over to vote for himself. A great success!

Also in my senior year, I built a Meyers Manx street-legal dune buggy, which prompted the Dean of Engineering to once say to me: "I see you've taken time out from building your Manx to come visit us."

Emotional Impact: Positive

  • Trust is essential for getting things done.

    • (And if you abuse it... you can have a lot of fun :)

  • Keep your priorities straight (important vs. immediate!)

    • --and I still claim building that car was more important than some of my classes.



1967-1970: US Navy

My first introduction to real personnel problems came as an Electronics Officer on a Guided Missile Destroyer. Examples:

One of my men got drunk and either drove or threw a motorcycle into the Subic river in Olongapo, Phillipines (where, as far as I know, it dissolved.)

My very best technician *hated* the Navy, and his attitude had a really bad effect on the whole division.

As a junior naval officer at age 21, I was totally unprepared for people management problems --especially with people you can't fire and are responsible for 24x7.

Emotional Impact: Negative

  • One (negative) person can make a big (negative) difference (Compare with earlier High School experience.)

  • It is very hard to understand the Big Picture from "inside" (a meta-lesson from Vietnam applicable to IT.)

  • One can be "courageous" without knowing it. (I'm thinking about driving my Meyers Manx dune buggy --which my closest friends had given a "hippy" paint job-- onto Naval Station San Diego everyday for a year during the Vietnam era. The Marines at the guard shacks still saluted...)

  • Knowing when something has been OBE: "Overtaken By Events".

  • Delegation: "I'll do it or have it done." (Stacy Holmes)

  • "It's not your fault, but you're responsible." (Stacy Holmes)

  • "There's still no substitute for knowing what you're doing." (Cmdr Lee Beedle, XO of DDG8)

  • "UNODIR: UNless Otherwise DIRected" --perhaps the most important thing I learned: the key to making progress in both hierarchical and "diffuse authority" environments such as universities, or when you're not sure you have authority or permission.



1970-1973: Bell Labs

While part of Bell Labs' Business Information Systems group, I went on a two-week training visit to Pacific NW Bell in Portland, and ended up staying two years as BTL's technical liaison to the customer. I wrote weekly reports on what had gone right and wrong with the previous week's processing. When a senior executive questioned whether I was sharing too much dirty laundry, I replied (with total political naivete) that as long as I was reporting the truth, there shouldn't be a problem, should there?

When our project needed a way to store large numbers efficiently, we called on BTL's Murray Hill folks for help. After providing a good solution, I asked the researcher --who I knew never showed up in the office before noon-- how he came up with it. "Oh, I worked in my garden a lot..."

Emotional Impact: Positive

  • Importance of credibility; trust; fairness.

  • Importance of political considerations.

  • Research and Development are two very different cultures.



1973-1978: UCLA Computer Science Department

As a PhD student in Computer Science in 1975, I worked on a DOE project to determine whether this "ARPANET" thing had any relevance to energy research. 18 DOE labs across the country collaborated. One day a colleague at LLNL moved all the files from our MIT Multics repository to a BBN TENEX system for spell-checking. He moved them back a few days later, thereby obliterating all the work that had been done in between. We discovered this at 2am, and my normally mild-mannered advisor (Jerry Estrin) called him on the phone right then. I do believe those particular phone lines are still charred to this day.

Emotional Impact: Positive

  • Accountability.

  • The power and perils of network-based collaboration tools.

  • You can be tough, with super-high standards, and still have great humanity. (I'm referring to Jerry Estrin.)



1976: Movie: All the President's Men

The character known as "Deep Throat" tells the reporters to "Follow the money".

Emotional Impact: Neutral

  • "Follow the money" is essential advice for understanding any organization, especially its political structure.



1976: JVC introduces VHS to compete with Betamax

Everyone knew that Sony's Betamax was "better"... except the majority of customers. Beta had better image quality; VHS won with longer recording time.

Emotional Impact: Neutral

  • Customers may have different priorities than engineers

  • You can lose a lot of money while being "right".

    • (cf. recent HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray fight.)



1979-1981: Ampex Business Computers

I was recruited by friend (and renowned computer architect) Ted Glaser to help get Ampex into the computer business. After busting our tails for two years, we had the first product ready to announce when the Execs said "Remind us how much getting into this computer business will cost?" --at which point they pulled the plug.

Emotional Impact: Negative

  • Even great teams can fail, given the wrong context. (cf. Bucky Fuller lectures pointing out that there is no law of nature that guarantees mankind will be a success.)

  • Ted Glaser was blind from age 8. I learned much from his amazing ability to overcome that adversity.

  • A manager's job includes protecting staff from unreasonable demands/expectations from above. (Thanks to Chuck Muhle)



1982-1987: UCLA Computer Science Department

After the Ampex debacle, I returned to UCLA to run the Center for Experimental Computer Science (and also teach.) I had a front-row seat for the central/decentral and mainframe/mini/PC games --at an institution known to be "militantly decentralized", at least by west-coast standards.

I also got to rub elbows with leading LA luminaries e.g. John Whitney (early computer artist), Charles & Ray Eames (arch/design), Bucky Fuller, Barry Boehm (father of Software Engineering), Len Kleinrock (ARPAnet), etc.

Emotional Impact: Positive

  • Times change; agility matters.

  • There are cycles; the pendulum swings both ways...

    • (Timesharing was Dead --but it came back in the "cloud")

  • It's easy to be excited when around exciting innovators.



1987: Ronald Reagen signs INF treaty

And in so doing, immortalized the phrase "Trust but verify"

Emotional Impact: Neutral

  • "Trust but verify" is an essential leadership practice!



1987-1988: Bridge/3COM

After deciding it was time to leave UCLA, I joined Bridge Communications just before their merger with 3COM, then became VP of Engineering for the Bridge Division.

At one point, the CEO wanted me to ensure Cisco never got out of the blocks, but our VP of Sales didn't believe routers mattered and that we should stay focused on bridges or switches (citing IDG or Gartner or somebody). Of course Cisco (and I) believed in the importance of routers... and the rest is history.

I decided to leave 3COM soon after (but not before 3 of the 4 original Bridge founders had already bailed out.)

Emotional Impact: Negative

  • Mergers "made in heaven" rarely are.

  • Never underestimate differences in culture.

  • First impressions matter, and sometimes corporations have no sense of humor. (My irreverent self once introduced a new HR person as "from corporate and here to help us" --thinking that was an innocuous throw-away humor line. It wasn't.)

  • Watch out for being stuck between conflicting visions, e.g. the importance of bridges vs. routers.

  • Figure out what question is really being asked. Once my boss asked me how MS Windows would do against the Mac interface. I said Windows (1.0) was garbage in comparison. I did not understand that she wanted a business analysis, not a technical analysis. (I also didn't understand when technology is irrelevant, nor that Microsoft is a relentless competitor.)

  • The CEOs of Bridge and 3Com operated as an "Office of the President" in the merged organization. Bad idea.



1988-2004: University of Washington

As Director of Networks & Distributed Computing, I felt the joy of building an effective team with successes in networking as well as our Pine and IMAP email efforts and the world's first "Hi-Def TV over IP" project. Working for a super-smart visionary leader (with a great sense of humor) and terrific colleagues has been a fantastic experience.

Emotional Impact: Positive

  • Success may not be impossible without good people, but having them sure helps! (cf. Ampex: good people are necessary but not sufficient).

  • Understand the difference between tactical & strategic leaders.

  • Understand the difference between inductive & deductive leaders.

  • "Failures are sometimes better than successes because you can walk away from failures." --Ron Johnson



2004-2007: University of Washington

After a "minor realignment", I had a new and more expansive role as Associate VP, IT Infrastructure. This should have been an emotional high, and was initially, but there were complications due to a rather "unconventional" asymmetric org structure, role ambiguity, misunderstandings, and differences of opinion and personality. The result was conflict and the worst period of my UW career.

In retrospect, I see three parallels with my earlier 3Com experience: a) culture clash (this time at a unit level), b) conflicting visions that created a "no win" situation, and c) an "office of" organization construct with two people sharing authority --which can be very tough to make work.

Emotional Impact: Negative

  • Structure, personality, and philosophy all matter.

  • Having a common view of roles/responsibilities is essential.

  • Having similar, or at least compatible, views of management with those around you is highly desirable.

  • The line between mentoring and meddling is very fine and very subjective.

  • Never underestimate human capacity for feeling left out.

  • Getting caught between conflicting visions doesn't get any more fun, no matter how many times you do it.



2008-2014: University of Washington

Another reorg; another new role: Associate VP, University Technology Strategy, and Chief Technology Architect.

The challenge is to re-invent central IT for "the Nick Carr future" of cloud-sourcing and empowered constituencies.

Emotional Impact: Neutral

  • Having only "influence" but no authority can be very frustrating... even for a non-authoritarian like me.