J.Harding, B.Fuller, M.Santarini ...

NFYB, Miss Manners, and The Basket of Fruit

by Peggy Aycinena

Went to a funeral on Monday for an elderly friend of the family. The deceased was a remarkable woman, not the least because 3 of her 4 children became medical doctors. Her son-in-law is a doctor, as well, and we fell into conversation during the reception after the service.

When he heard that I was a journalist covering technology, he was interested in two subjects: how does FLASH memory work, and what did I think about the demise of manufacturing in the U.S.? Are we about to be taken over by the Chinese?

It was somewhat easy to offer a simple answer to his first question. His second subject, unfortunately, was not such a walk in the park. I asked him why he thought a severe reduction in the manufacturing base in the U.S. lead to his conclusion that the Chinese will soon be taking over.

He said: None of our children or grandchildren are working in manufacturing. What hope does a country have if it can’t make anything?

So, I asked him, what do your children do? Are they in manufacturing, or have their jobs perhaps been sent off-shore?

He said: Oh no. One’s a psychiatrist and the other one’s a dance therapist.

But, I said, your own children haven’t pursued careers in manufacturing, so if they’re not involved in rebuilding the manufacturing base in this country, exactly who‘s job is it?

Oh my! Where was Miss Manners when I needed her? Here this man’s wife had just lost her mother, and I’m being cunning and combative? I excused myself, picked up an avocado and turkey lavosh from a nearby table, and walked away.

Great, I thought. Didn’t that Basket of Fruit teach me anything???


One plus one equals three ...

In August 2007, Brian Fuller moderated a lunch-time panel during an FSA [now GSA] event at the Santa Clara Convention Center. The panel included, among others, eSilicon CEO Jack Harding.

In the weeks prior to the August FSA panel, Harding’s PR people had contacted me, along with other members of the press I‘m sure, to see if I would like to have a brief interview with Harding, right there in the room immediately after the event. I accepted.

Harding and I had never really met up to that point, although I once did have an interview with him at the old CMP offices in San Mateo in 1999 when I was on the staff of ISD Magazine. I knew he wouldn’t remember that – I barely did.

So, there I was in the audience during Fuller’s panel, taking notes, and paying close attention to each panelist. And, because I knew I would be talking with Harding immediately afterwards, I paid particular attention to his remarks. To my distress, Harding mentioned from the podium that the youth of America are no longer studying engineering.

Please understand this was not, and is not, an idea unique to Jack Harding. In fact, I have heard this woeful lament from many a conference keynoter or panel participant.

Why doesn’t America realize that we’re losing it? Our innovation, our technical leadership, and our entire economic well-being are all slipping away because American youth are no longer pursuing careers in engineering.

As I listened to Harding that fateful August day, I was struck anew by my own bitter response to this oft-repeated sentiment.

When accomplished leaders in technology – CEOs, CTOs, EVPs, SVPs – stand up at these podiums and decry the end of the American engineer, they frequently throw this out as well: Of course, I tried to convince my own kids to go into engineering, but they just wouldn’t have it.

I’ve heard more variations on this statement than I care can count. Perhaps you have too.

So, the panel ended. The very nice PR person found me amidst the milling-about audience, ushered me up to the front of the room, near to the milling-about panelists, got Harding’s attention and drew him off to the side. She introduced me, and reminded him that I had an appointment at that moment for a brief interview.

He accepted the obligation, acknowledged he had no memory of ever having met me, and so we began our conversation – on dangerously unchartered ground as it turns out. Something to which I attribute the disaster that then unfolded.

In my usual charming way (read, “Oh no! Where is Miss Manners??"), I asked Jack Harding why he was among so many who harped on the end of technical expertise in America. He said (and I paraphrase), it’s in the hands of our youth, but they’re not going into engineering. What are we going to do?

I asked him (it seemed rational at the time) what his own kids had studied in college. Were any of them engineers? Jack Harding being Jack Harding, did not take kindly to this line of questioning. Remember, we had never really met and were not starting from a position of acquaintanceship.

His response was sharp and pointed. His kids had gone to very fine schools, thank you, and were accomplished scholars. But, no they had never expressed interest in engineering.

Forging ahead blindly, I asked Jack Harding why it is that virtually every CEO, CTO, EVP, and SVP in Silicon Valley felt free to get up in front of audiences and talk about the demise of engineering in America, yet their own children aren’t being asked to attend to this somewhat challenging task.

Jack Harding being Jack Harding, was really mad now. Well, he said, it’s not about the engineering. Today, companies like IBM are not hiring engineers here in the U.S., he told me. They’re hiring liberal arts majors, people who can explore markets and demographics, people who can help guide product development initiatives attuned to global demand. That’s why eSilicon is involved in integrating the global semiconductor supply chain. Get it?

Hmm. Me being me, and clearly having ordered a full day’s ration of Stupid Powder along with my morning mocha – I said, Listen! My kids have all labored through technical educations. So really, what’s the problem with you and every other CEO, CTO, EVP, and SVP here in the Valley. Don’t you guys have an obligation to add to the ranks of American born-and-bred engineers? Why does it just fall to my kids to carry the burden?

By this time, as you may imagine, the very nice PR person had stepped far, far away from our conversational group of 3. We were now just a conversational group of 2. Or so I thought.

Somewhere around the point where the interview had devolved into a brawl – somewhere around the point where Harding asked me if I was actually suggesting that his children were stupid, but mine were smart – Brian Fuller apparently joined us.

Now in all fairness, Fuller had moderated the panel, he was acquainted with me, and certainly knew Jack Harding. Why shouldn’t he have stepped into our little circle?

Whatever. The end of the encounter could have been predicted. Harding became furious and stormed off, the PR woman a few steps away looked like she was going to faint, and Brian Fuller spent the next few minutes inquiring about my kids – plus explaining about his new online bog.

That exchange took about 3 minutes, and then I myself was out of there. Walking quickly back to my car and wondering why I continuously get myself into these scrapes and dust-ups.

After all, Harding is rich. I am not. His kids will inherit boatloads of money based on his aggressive leadership and innovation. My kids? Well, they’re on their own to struggle away in an America that apparently honors liberal arts majors over scientists and engineers.


Journalists & Junk Food ...

Fast forward a week or two. I’m at the Four Seasons Hotel in Palo Alto, attending a special Press Event where then-Xilinx CEO Wim Roelandts was introducing the latest/greatest product out of his company. The room was full of journalist. Of course, these things always are, because when breakfast is included journalists are never far behind.

After Roelandts’ speech, and additional remarks from other Xilinx execs, the event ended and we all got up to go.

As I milled around with everyone else in a random walk aimed at the Exit, Mike Santarini came up and greeted me cheerfully with these somewhat fateful words: So I hear you had a big argument with Jack Harding last week. I wrote a blog about it.

I stopped dead in my tracks: What??? You heard what??? You did what??? That was a private discussion!!! How in hell did you hear about it???

Mike, a long time friend, shrank back: Well, um, I read about it in Brian Fuller’s blog.

I leaned forward as Mike shrank even farther back. WHAT??????, I yelled quietly amidst the milling-and-munching journalists.

Mike said: Yeah, you criticized Harding because his kids hadn’t studying engineering, and he got really mad. And Brian wrote about it, and also said that he wasn’t sure it was such a good idea to force kids to major in any particular topic. And, I kind of agreed with him, so I wrote a blog about how much we can or cannot force our kids to ...

Before he could finish, I stepped on his lines: WHAT?????? BRIAN FULLER WROTE WHAT?????? WHAT??????

Mike by now, could see that something had gone terribly wrong.

Well, he said sheepishly: I didn’t actually mention you by name in my blog. I just referred to you as 'an editor' involved in an argument with Harding.

Too late. I stormed out of the room, out of the hotel, jumped into my car, slammed the door HARD and sped off down 101. I’d been pissed before, but at that moment I may have taken being PO’d to a new high.

Luckily, I made it safely back to the office and didn’t kill anybody in some sort of Road Rage incident.


Don’t ask any questions ...

Several weeks passed. I calmed down. I made plans to attend the Embedded Systems Conference in September 2007, and registered for the conference before traveling to Boston. Being on the Press List, I received various invitations to attend events at ESC, including a panel moderated by Erach Desai. That panel was going to include Jack Harding.

I suggested to the PR people extending the invitation, that perhaps I best talk with Erach directly before accepting that particular opportunity. Erach and I exchanged emails. He said it was okay to attend the panel, but would I kindly agree NOT to ask any questions.

Hmmm, I thought. It looks like it’s not just Mike Santarini who’s been reading Brian Fuller’s blog.

More weeks passed. I attended the Erach's ESC panel in Boston. I obediently sat at the back of the room, and didn't ask any questions. After it was over, I calmly made my way to the front. I walked up to Jack Harding and said something like: Jack. Sorry about the argument last month in California. It kind of got out of hand.

His response, and I’m paraphrasing, was something like this: I accept your apology for being so stupid.

Yeah, well. What did I expect?

I said goodbye, walked away, put on my Good Mental Health cap, and decided not think about it again.


The Basket of Fruit ...

But we were not done, Jack Harding and I. In the following month, I foolishly accepted an invitation from the eSilicon PR folks to do a phone interview with Harding to discuss some upcoming announcement. I was pretty amazed that they had contacted me at all, but in the spirit of let-bygones-be-bygones, I accepted.

Which brings us up to November 2007. I’m sitting on a conference call with Mike Sottak, shooting the breeze, and waiting for Jack Harding to come on the line. Thirty awkward minutes later, Mike offered that Harding’s people had just let him know in an email that there had been a mix-up with Harding’s calendar. He thought the phone call was for the following day.

We rescheduled for the following week.

Again I’m on a conference call, with Mike Sottak on the other end, shooting the breeze, and waiting for Jack Harding to come on the line. This time it was only an awkward 15 minutes before Mike said he was looking at yet another email from eSilicon. Another unbelievable mix-up. Harding’s people had gotten the wrong day and time penciled into his Day Planner.

Mike and I said goodbye. I prayed to Miss Manners, picked up my shattered ego, and went on with my life.

The next day, I received the most profound apology in email from Harding’s staff, and Harding himself. I didn’t actually read the text of either message to the end. For the sake of efficiency, I just hit Delete.

Then The Basket of Fruit arrived.

I kid you not, it weighed about 50 pounds. It had apples, pears, nuts, oranges, more apples, cheeses, sausages, more pears, you name it. Everything but the kitchen sink. The card said it had been sent by a staff person at eSilicon, and read something like this ...

Again, my apologies.


Thanking the staff ...

My mother-in-law is in her 90’s. She lives in a nearby assisted living home. We love the staff at this place. They are so kind to the residents, and they certainly know how grateful we are.

So much so, that they were not surprised one sunny afternoon in November 2007 to see me walk in, struggling under the weight of yet another token of our appreciation for their many years of care. Even today, they’re still talking about it.

How could one basket contain so much fruit??


Epilogue: The NFYB! Command ...

It was not Miss Manners in the fall of 2007 who taught me the meaning of NFYB! It took the combined efforts, instead, of Jack Harding, Brian Fuller, Mike Santarini, and perhaps even Erach Desai. And, they taught me well. Now I can invoke the NFYB! command with the simple flick of a wrist or the bat of an eye (baseball bat).

And you? Are you familiar with the NFYB! command? If you‘re not, maybe you should get somebody to explain it to you. Quickly.

Or not.

After all, ignorance is bliss, and sometimes worth a Basket of Fruit.

A BIG Basket of Fruit!

May 19, 2010


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