PART FOUR: GORDON BELL BUYS A PORSCHE 911

April 21, 2021

By Peter Zaballos

TALES FROM THE EARLY-ISH DAYS OF SILICON VALLEY

When I was at LSI Logic in the mid and late 1980s I had a chance to meet with and work with some of the titans of computing. In a lot of cases not the publicly recognizable titans, but people who profoundly changed and influenced the nature of computing, laying the foundation for the types of devices and experiences we take for granted today.

One of those people is Gordon Bell, and I met him when he was the head of engineering at Ardent Computer. Yes, that Gordon Bell. The architect of the Digital Equipment VAX. The recipient of the National Medal of Technology and the IEEE John von Neumann Medal.

[I wrote about the role LSI Logic played in enabling Ardent and later, Stardent when they merged with Stellar Computer]

I met with Gordon to understand how complete their system architecture was and what he felt the remaining challenges and risks would be. I loved hanging out with him – he was as brilliant as he was affable – comfortable in his own skin.

Along the way we talked about all sorts of stuff, and discovered we both liked sports cars. A lot. Back then, when Silicon Valley seemed to be driven more by a collective desire to simply push the state of computing forward, and less so about making a ton of money, sports cars were just more affordable. On an engineer’s salary you could own a Porsche, even a Ferrari. And lots of folks I worked with did.

An ad from 1985 for a 911 cabriolet

In fact, Palo Alto High School would have a car show – where people would bring their cars and park them on the football field and then folks like me (and presumably Gordon) could wander around and slobber all over the range of cars. And this car show was primarily Porsches, Ferraris, and Shelby Cobras. The cars that were casually displayed on that football field are worth millions today. Back then, tens of thousands. 

And it turns out that Silicon Valley had some real racing expertise in its back yard. I discovered this by accident, when I was looking to buy a house and found one I liked in Los Gatos. The yard was literally strewn with Porsche 911s in various states of repair. When I asked the real estate agent who the seller was she said Jerry Woods. It would be years later that I realized that Jerry Woods is the technical genius and chief mechanic of the Porsche 935 Paul Newman helped take to second place in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I should have bought that house — and the cars!

But I digress. Actually, this is a great example of the nature of the conversations Gordon and I would have about cars. Going deep down these tangents, then remembering to bring the conversation back to engineering and semiconductors.

My favorite memory was him telling me how he had just purchased a Porsche 911.

He went on to say how much he hated going to car dealers. He just hated the whole process of being somewhere unfamiliar like that, and being at the mercy of a salesperson who had the upper hand on information.

So he said he called the local Porsche dealer in Palo Alto, and asked to speak with a salesperson. When he got that person on the phone he asked “Do you have this month’s edition of Road and Track? Go find it and call me back.”

When the salesperson called him back he said “Turn to page 7. Do you see that 911 in that ad? I want that car. And I want it in this specific color. And I want you to deliver it to me here at the office. I will have my bank make payment on my behalf. You just need to show up with the car and paperwork. We can sign it all here.”

There was silence.

The salesperson tried in vain to talk Gordon out of this. 

As Gordon told me this story he was almost giddy with delight. I think he got as much pleasure from how he bought that car as he did from driving it.

And talk about a forward thinker. People buy cars like this all the time now. Back in 1985? He must have been the first.

PART THREE: WHERE’S MY DAMN PÂTÉ?

April 13, 2021

By Peter Zaballos

TALES FROM THE EARLY-ISH DAYS OF SILICON VALLEY

As the visibly angry man stormed across the break room holding an empty plastic container, I heard him bellow “where’s my damn pâté? Who the hell ate my pâté?”

It was the summer of 1985. I had arrived at this potential LSI Logic customer, Ardent Computer, minutes earlier and was walking with their head of engineering to a conference room to discuss the custom semiconductors they were interested in building.

What Al Michaels so desperately craved

And that man in search of his pâté? It was none other than Al Michaels: a silicon valley legend who had founded Convergent Technologies, a pioneer of multiprocessor computers. 

And his ego — I realized just then — was as large as his reputation.

The head of engineering and I went to the conference room and he described the basic system architecture of the multiprocessor supercomputer and high performance graphics subsystem they wanted to build. They needed custom semiconductors to build the vector processors needed for the graphics subsystem. And there was a sense of urgency here.

You see, Al and his founders had this idea at almost the same time Bill Poduska decided to build a similar supercomputer in Boston. Bill was also a legend in computing, having founded Prime Computer and Apollo Computer. Al and Bill were effectively racing to market, believing the first one to deliver on their promised performance would get the majority of the huge potential.

But that was pretty much 10am on any random Tuesday back in the mid-to-late 80s in silicon valley. 

The advent of rapidly customizable semiconductors had unleashed a tidal wave of innovation and startups, all rushing to market. With everyone predicting their product would be the big winner and they’d deliver thousands and thousands of products, even millions, to their customers.

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post, all these companies forecasting huge volume were a blessing and a curse for a semiconductor company. There is a finite amount of capacity in a semiconductor fab, and more than one chip company went under by making poor choices about who to allocate that fixed capacity to. Allocate it to a company that failed in the market and your fab would be empty and your company would have no revenue. Allocate it to a company that succeeded and you’d have that fab running 24/7 shipping crates of completed product.

The ’90s would not be kind to Stardent

So while the head of engineering was explaining the nature of the chips they needed built, the sales rep and I had been trained to ask a lot of questions to understand their readiness – where were they on staffing, how complete was the system design, what other dependencies did they have on getting to production, who their investors were.

Our sales reps were bringing multi-million dollar deals to us almost every day. Or rather, “potential” multi-million dollar deals. Part of my job running marketing for Northern California was trying to assess these deals and then sorting out which ones looked the most likely to succeed.

But in reality, it was like I was floating in a fast moving stream and all I was doing was trying not to drown. Too often I would follow the path of a deal rather than affect the path. I was young. I was still finding my voice and experience base. So more often than not I would let momentum dictate the path of a deal

Eventually all deals would flow into a review with all the other marketing managers, the head of sales, the Bill O’Meara (CMO) and at times our Wilf Corrigan (CEO). Frequently my counterpart in sales would make the case for the opportunities in my region – these were their customers, and their literal paychecks on the line.

Ultimately it would fall to Bill and Wilf to make the harder calls. A lot of the less difficult ones my peers and I would work through with Brian Connors and Perry Constantine who headed up sales.

But when I look at my role honestly, I did not do a lot of the advocating, and instead worked furiously to help support the path the deals were already flowing in.

Just as Al Michaels and Bill Poduska were competing to get to market first, I was competing with my colleague, Rick Rasmussen who was responsible for product marketing for the east coast at LSI. Stellar Computer was his potential customer. And we both were likely to need the same allocation of fab capacity. 

One of the many reasons I loved the culture at LSI Logic was that we were fierce competitors – in the market. But inside the company there was none of that fierce competitiveness across departments or within departments. We all knew what we were trying to do, and it was to create a blockbuster category and the company that dominated it. 

So while Rick and I were competing fiercely for this fab capacity, there was zero animosity between us. In fact, Rick and I were good friends, Rick was the guy I worked with at Fairchild who got recruited to LSI Logic, and it was Rick who recommended they bring me over from Fairchild. [Rick and I would work together at C-Cube Microsystems later in the the 1990s]

But make no mistake, we each knew fab capacity would be tight and we wanted our respective customer to be first in line.

Once I had enough information, I put together a proposed set of pricing for the chips Ardent needed. Our proposals had two components

  • The fee to produce the prototypes. This included time in our design center, support from our applications engineers to help with any design issues, the time to run the simulations on our IBM mainframe, the cost of developing the metalization layer mask set for production, and finally, a small wafer set run through production.
  • The per-unit price of the completed chips in volume production. We would ask the prospective customer what their forecasted volume ranges would be – and these typically spanned 2-3 years, and then price the chips accordingly.

We pioneered the category of these custom semiconductors and were acknowledged as the market leader, and we had competitors who were nipping at our heels quite aggressively. I had surmised from my conversations with the folks at Ardent that we were the favored supplier.

But LSI had this weird pricing schizophrenia. We tended to come in with a proposal that presumed that as the pioneer and leader, we could charge a premium. And we would generally submit pricing proposals with a pretty hefty premium. The customer would get the proposal and be shocked at how expensive it was. So they would head straight to our competitors and come back with a set of pricing from them that was 50% of what we had proposed.

And what would we do? We’d drop our prices 50% to take the deal. I was in my mid 20s and I just didn’t know any better to question this. Knowing what I know now, this was a stupid self-inflicted wound and the today “me” would have stopped the process and asked a lot of questions about whether we really thought this was a fair price, did this price represent our brand and values? But 26 year-old me was all wrapped up in the headiness of crafting deals like this and working with everyone to bring them home.. 

I think the origin of our approach to pricing was\ simply hubris. We invented the category. We absolutely knew we were hands-down the best. So I think our corporate ego demanded that we price with a hefty premium. But that same corporate ego was a ruthless competitor and we hated losing business.

It was a stupid move because those customers would react to our suddenly cheaper proposal with a wary eye. “What was that first proposal then? If I had gone with that I would have been paying twice what I am now, and you wouldn’t have told me?”

And that’s what happened at Ardent. My followup meeting with the head of engineering was awkward. He said that Al Michaels was incensed at how we had dropped the price and had no intention of giving us the order. The head of engineering was super frustrated and upset. He and I had gotten to know each other well and spent a lot of time together. He really didn’t want this order to go to our competitor, but our whole pricing process had created a huge mess for him.

And remember, Ardent was competing with Stellar to get to market first. Changing to the competitor chip supplier was going to cost Ardent time. And it was going to make the life of this head of engineering miserable.

He and I both wanted this deal to go to LSI. So I asked if it would help if Bill O’Meara came over and met with Al Michaels. At a minimum this would let Al tell Bill exactly what he thought of our pricing practices. And maybe it would help salvage the deal.

So the meeting got set. I drove over there with Bill and our sales rep along with the rep’s manager. We went into Ardent’s board room and got as settled as we could given the awkwardness of the circumstances. The Ardent team trickled in. About ten minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, Al Michaels came in.

I can’t remember who spoke first, but the head of engineering and I each took turns explaining how hard we all had worked to get this proposal together, how much we respected the other’s time and attention.

Al cut in and said – in the same tone and volume he had expressed astonishment his pâté was missing – “These platitudes are nauseating. We’re here because you’ve wasted our time, which we don’t have a lot of. We worked with you for the past few months on this deal, and you show up with pricing that was so high it was insulting. And then you have the nerve to come back and cut your price in half – only because we got a competitor to give us a reasonable price. How can we possibly trust you? I’ve checked around and we’re not the only company you’ve pulled this on. But the real crime here is our wasted time.”

The room went silent.

Then Bill spoke up. 

A bit about Bill. He was one of the four co-founders of LSI Logic and he was not a silicon valley wunderkind. He got started late in his technology career. Bill was a graduate of West Point. The license plate on his car was USMA59. He had learned to lead, he had learned how to earn the respect of his troops. How to motivate and inspire. He was whip-smart and had an equally sharp sense of humor. If you looked up “inspirational leader” in the dictionary, there would be Bill’s photo.

And as you might expect from someone who had been responsible for other people’s lives, he had a disarming ability to connect with people. When you were speaking with Bill it felt like you were the most important person in the world to him right then. Well, because it was true. He was a phenomenal leader.

And as I shared with my Gucci Luggage experience, he had an unshakable sense of ethics. He took full responsibility for his mistakes, and in this case, the mistakes of someone in his organization – me.

He began with “you are right to be outraged and to question whether you can trust us. It was wrong for us to give you such a high priced first proposal and I take full responsibility for how we got here. We were full of ourselves, overconfident and we clearly have to clean up our act. You have my commitment that whether we win this business back or not, we will do the work we need to in order to not repeat this with you or anyone.”

“But I can tell you one reason we priced the way we did is because we also know that we are the best at building custom semiconductors. We invented this category. We have the most reliable technology and process. And we realize your time is precious. What you can count on with us is that once you commit that design to silicon, it will work. And we can scale your production. You can count on that. I’m sorry we broke your trust, but I can assure you we can get you to market faster than anyone.”

Acknowledging our mistake and owning it created an aperture that enabled another twenty minutes of conversation between Bill and Al. The meeting ended and Al said they would have a decision within the next 24 hours.

I believe this meeting was a turning point for LSI Logic. We did examine our proposal process and amended our pricing – not to meet our competitors – to be more competitive with our first proposal.

What Bill didn’t say? What role I had had in the proposal or the role the sales rep and sales manager had had in the proposal. He took complete responsibility. And I believe he did this for a simple reason. If we won this business the salesperson and I were going to have to show up at Ardent frequently. He preserved our relationships.

The story of Silicon Valley

And while the semiconductor project moved forward, Ardent’s overall product development struggled for reasons not related to our semiconductors. They battled getting the cost of the system down, and as a reset their system design ran into some serious delays.

It turns out so did Stellar’s. In their race to market both companies ran into similar system design challenges. And they were burning cash at a furious rate.

The companies combined forces and changed their name to Stardent (a horribly clunky name, but one that could be logically explained). And they, like so many other promising startups went out of business in the 1990s, a victim of being too expensive for the performance they delivered.

I learned a lot from this experience. I learned about leadership and personal relationships that would eventually show up when I was an executive.

Bill O’Meara’s owning up to when he or the company was wrong, owning when he screwed up made a deep impression on me. In a lot of respects he passed along to me his definition of “ accountability” he learned as an Army commander – something that I would never personally know. And as important he imprinted on me his ability to accept personal responsibility for a mistake someone in his organization might have made. 

More than once as an executive I have had to say “I screwed up” or “I made a mistake” – whether I personally made the mistake or someone in my organization did. As the leader of that organization it doesn’t matter who made the mistake. Ultimately the mistake is mine.

Years and years after hearing “Where’s my damn pâté” the Ardent fiasco informed my behavior when I was CMO of SPS Commerce. One of the super, super talented product managers on my team was about to introduce a fundamental redesign of our core product – a product tied to 80% of our revenue. The stakes were incredibly high. We were a public company and this product launch had to go very smoothly.

The week of the launch, I pulled the product manager aside and told her “This is your product, you’ve put 18 months into leading and orchestrating the redesign and have done a fabulous job. This week as you’re on stage launching this to the company and all our customers, I’m not going be anywhere visible. This is your product and your time in the limelight. But if anything happens, if anything goes wrong for whatever reason, I will be out front and be very visible. So go out there and soak it all in, and do that knowing I have your back the whole time.”

And because she was so damn good at her job, that whole week no one saw me.

PART TWO: DID WE JUST HEAR THAT?

April 7, 2021

By Peter Zaballos

TALES FROM THE EARLY-ISH DAYS OF SILICON VALLEY

Managing the product marketing at LSI Logic for silicon valley and the greater Bay Area in the 1980s was equal parts daunting and thrilling. I wrote earlier about how groundbreaking LSI’s custom semiconductor technology was and how it helped unleash a massive wave of innovation across the landscape of computing.

LSI made it possible for a startup to come up with a product, and build it in just a few months. We helped lower the cost of starting a company, and shortened the feedback loop to that company finding out of their product hit the mark. And at this point in the computing industry, Apple had proven the merits of a personal computer with the Apple II (launched in 1977), and IBM validated Apple’s direction by introducing the IBM PC (launched in 1981).

But the world (and users) needed so much more to make these tools really productive. Bigger disk drives. Better graphics cards. Support for printers. So these Apple and IBM – along a host of other IBM PC clone makers (Texas Instruments, AT&T, Radio Shack, HP, Commodore,..and literally 100+ others) – stormed into the market to get their share, and add their value.

And the rapidly customized semiconductors we invented at LSI Logic fueled and enabled them all. It seemed like every new customer we met with was planning for a big future – either with a truly novel new product or a quick copy of someone else’s – they all had production volume forecasts in that classic “hockey stick” growth curve

I was a year or two out of college, and my days were spent meeting with customers or prospects, spending time with our salespeople, and crafting six and seven figure revenue deals those hockey stick volume curves promised.

It wasn’t exactly a bubble forming, it was more that entirely new categories of computing appeared on the scene, and there was a scramble to fill the voids this innovation created. The two big areas we saw our customers furiously attacking were the markets for graphics cards and disk drives. I was literally in meetings from 8am to 6pm every day with companies bringing products to those markets.

[And I learned that this would be my “normal” for most of my career. In meetings all day accumulating work to follow up on, then spending most of the night and early morning getting all that work done. This really never changed. In my last two roles as CMO of two tech companies it was the same. All that changed was the nature of the work I was doing, but the pattern remained the same throughout.]

And unlike today’s elastic cloud computing world of software where supply is never an issue, in the semiconductor industry, supply is always the issue – just ask anyone in the auto industry, like General Motors, right now. There’s a finite number of chips on a wafer. A finite number of wafers that can be processed each day. And capacity increases are generally measured in “buildings” – so ramping capacity takes lots of time and lots of money.

So while we were furiously meeting with all these companies storming into the graphics card and disk drive markets, we were also having to assess their likelihoods of succeeding, and try to figure out who would get what allocation of our finite supply of wafers. This was a real issue, 98% of these graphics card companies went bankrupt or were sold for scrap eventually. The same for disk drive companies.

Consolidation in the disk drive industry at a high level

Allocating capacity to a company who failed in the market meant we would not ship those wafers/chips and collect OUR revenue – and as a public company, our revenue forecasts mattered a lot. So every new piece of business of any significance was something we all scrutinized, frequently meeting with the CMO (Bill O’Meara) or the CEO (Wilf Corrigan) before closing a deal.

The flip side of that was every company we met with was convinced (as they should be) that THEIR revenue plan was rock solid. And since it was a competitive market (generally we competed against smaller firms like VLSI Technology, or the custom chip divisions of larger semiconductor companies, like National Semiconductor) we had to fight hard to get orders.

This all created a wild environment, and whenever there’s loads of demand coupled with a constraint on supply, weird behavior starts to show up.

DID WE JUST HEAR THAT?

I remember going to meet with a customer in Berkeley who made popular graphics cards. I went with our sales rep who happened to have recently come to the US from Ireland and I think part of his enjoyment was experiencing this industry in the context of American culture. He was super smart and had an awesome sense of humor. He picked me up and off we went up the freeway to the customer.

The salesperson, Fra Drumm, had been meeting with this customer for weeks, and had been told they were ready to place a $1M+ order for a new graphics chip they wanted us to make for them. And they were also speaking to our main rival, VLSI Technology. It was going to be super competitive. This was an important piece of business we wanted, and we’d had a meeting with Bill O’Meara reviewing the terms we were going to propose and what room we had to negotiate. 

Bill wanted me to call him as soon as we left the meeting to let him know how the negotiation went.

Vintage Gucci Luggage Set

We got to the company and were seated in the Purchasing Manager’s office, made introductions, and quickly reviewed the outlines of the potential order. When we pressed for an indication of how competitive we were the Purchasing Manager waited a bit, and then said that they liked Gucci luggage. And I thought, “not my style, but lots of people like it” and I said something like “that’s interesting, a lot of people love that.”

Silence

The Purchasing Manager again said that they liked Gucci luggage.

I glanced over at Fra real quickly and he gave me a look that said “WTF? Did we just hear that?”

It dawned on us both, at that very moment, that we were being asked to buy this person some Gucci luggage to get the order. 

And we both had the same reaction. We quickly apologized for having to leave, but we had another meeting to get to and would be in touch.

And we left.

I was pretty bewildered. There was no way I was going to bribe this person, but I also wondered if I had blown up a big piece of business over the cost of some luggage, and immediately got worried about the reaction Bill and the other sales leaders would have to this.

This was right about the time that “car phones” were a thing, and when we got into Fra’s car I dialed Bill and told him about the Gucci luggage “hint.”

He asked what I did, and I told him we got out of there as fast as we could.

He had a quick and curt reply: “Good” followed by “that’s not how we work.”

At the time I was relieved. It is only with hindsight that I can see that something I had taken for granted was the integrity of Bill and the other leaders at LSI Logic. I’d only known Bill for months, and never really had an issue like this crop up. It was reassuring at the time, to say the least. BTW, that graphics card company was out of business within the next year. We dodged an allocation bullet there.

But as I progressed in my career I came to realize just how unique the culture at LSI Logic was. How important it was that we built that business with integrity.

At some point in the next year one of the sales reps at a distribution partner got ahold of the price list for VLSI Techology’s products and brought it to our office. For a nanosecond we were thrilled. When Wilf Corrigan found out about he was livid (and he was unambiguous with his anger) and instructed us to get it out of the building. Now. Which we did. Unambiguously.

Going back to Bill O’Meara’s reaction, he provided me with an internal reference for how to behave under pressure, how to keep clarity on what really mattered. At various points in later in my career I worked in organizations where I witnessed salespeople lying to get orders. In some cases lying to me in my role as an executive to get an order. And in those organizations the CEOs did not have Wilf and Bill’s integrity, and reacted with “but we got the order.”

No surprise that I left those companies and wondered how I chose to work there in the first place because it is critically important that you work with people who have uncompromising integrity. Because every business runs into problems. And it’s when you’re facing those problems you want the people above and around you making decisions you can stand behind.

That was the best Gucci luggage I never bought.

PART ONE: EVERYONE GETS A JOB LIKE THIS OUT OF COLLEGE, RIGHT?

March 31, 2021

Tales from the early-ish days of Silicon Valley

By Peter Zaballos

For the first 2+ years of my tenure at LSI Logic I was the product marketing manager for Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t ask for this geography, it was the job they offered me. I took it without fully appreciating what I was about to get into, and accepted it largely on the basis of the quality of the people I knew there, and met during my interviews. 

All of them were super, super smart. Ambitious. Uncompromising. Kind and fair.

I had spent the past year (to the day) as a Product Marketing Engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor, responsible for their high performance ECL (emitter coupled logic) product line. And a colleague there got recruited to LSI. Within a month or so, I was also recruited to join the company. In 1983. I believe I was employee #87.

The co-founder and CEO of LSI Logic had been the CEO of Fairchild, hence there were lots of Fairchild folks jumping ship to join him.

[BTW, Fairchild Semiconductor was formed when the traitorous eight fled Schockley Semiconductor. Among those eight: Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore (founders of Intel) and Eugene Kleiner, co-founder of the legendary VC firm, Keliner Perkins). Fairchild is truly the foundation of what became Silicon Valley]

All I knew about LSI Logic was the reputation it had for creating a new category of semiconductors. Semiconductors that could be easily and rapidly customized. Back in the early 1980s it could take two years to create a custom semiconductor, because the entire chip had to be designed from top to bottom. And computer simulation tools were still in their infancy, so a fully custom chip pretty much had to be designed by hand.

Semiconductors are sort of like a pizza. There’s a silicon substrate, and on top of that different chemicals are added to different portions of the chip to affect the conductivity (or resistivity) of the silicon. And then layers of insulators are added, that are put down in such a way to keep openings for layers of metal to be added, connecting the spots needed for electricity to run.

So a fully custom semiconductor required that everything – all the way down to the substrate – had to be designed and built. And since ultimately the cost of a chip is proportional to the amount of silicon it takes up, a lot of work went into laying the chip out in such a way as to pack everything together as tightly as possible. Custom chips were incredibly expensive and time consuming to build. So they were really only used for highly specialized and valuable products – that could put up with a two year development timeline.

The founders of LSI Logic – Wilf Corrigan, Rob Walker, Bill O’Meara and Mick Bohn – saw a huge opportunity to disrupt this market. Making it possible to create a customized semiconductor in less than twelve weeks. Yes, twelve weeks.

The first innovation was in separating the semiconductor fabrication process into two parts – creating a standardized substrate and then a customized metalization layer on top of that. Rather than starting with raw silicon, LSI started with a large array of transistor “gates” – initially 1,000s of these, later millions. These base wafers could be mass produced by contracted semiconductor fabs and sent to LSI’s facility in Milpitas. And in the Milpitas facility we could connect those gates in the metalization process to create the specific functionality the customer designed.

Let’s pause for a bit to talk about how semiconductors chips are made. With a base layer of transistors laid down, those transistors can be connected to each other by laying down metal – in very thin lines – across the chip. Which means that you need a pattern of where the metal should go, as well as a pattern where you need to insulate transistors used for other parts of the design from the ones you want to connect.

The result is a series of masking steps that are performed. You might produce a masking pattern of insulation, followed by a different masking pattern of metal connections, and then add another insulation masking pattern on top of that protecting and exposing different connections, and add another layer of connections. The set of “masks” would be the recipe to create the functions of the chip you were fabricating.

So by separately creating the base layer of transistor gate arrays there was no need to as tightly pack the transistors together. You gave up some real estate for overall speed and flexibility of production. And the real value came in the process of connecting all those transistors together to perform the specific function the customer needed.

The second innovation was creating powerful semiconductor design and simulation software (running on IBM 370 mainframes) that would enable a customer to take a logical design of the custom product they wanted to build and simulate its performance. Up until this point companies had to build a physical prototype of a product using a collection of building block, general purpose chips to see if the product would work. And then begin the process of converting that into a custom chip. One of the factors driving the 2+ year custom chip timelines.

An IBM 370 Installation – about the size of our computer center at LSI

LSI’s third innovation was that the computer simulation could produce the connection pattern for those base wafers – to produce the design the customer wanted – and create all the “mask” information needed for a mask vendor to create all the fabrication templates needed to build that custom chip. 

Once the mask set was sent back to LSI, then our fab in Milpitas (which only needed to manufacture the connection pattern) could produce a set of prototypes in about 10-12 weeks.

If the customer had a well thought through design when they showed up at our simulation center, they could have that design simulated and validated in a few weeks. All told, from showing up at our facility to having prototype chips in hand could be as little as 3-4 months.

This was earth shattering for a number of reasons. First was simply shrinking that time to prototypes. From years to months. Second was the economics. Because we were typically taking designs that would have required tens or hundreds of discrete semiconductors and turning all of that into one chip, our products would pay for themselves in cost savings to the customer. And the resulting product could be dramatically smaller, physically. So entire new categories of products became possible. The IBM PC, the Macintosh, disk drives, network routers, Sun Microsystem workstations and servers. Eventually cell phones and digital audio and video.

But even more important than economics, what we did at LSI Logic was disrupt how rapidly a company could bring a product to market. And speed up the tempo of innovation in a market. Forget about cost savings. The value of dramatically speeding the pace of innovation is what transformed the market.

Going back to taking that offer to join LSI. My territory was Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. My customers – who were startups back then – were Sun Microsystems, Seagate, Silicon Graphics, Apple, Cisco. We put those companies in the positions they soon commanded, to transform their industries through the rapid pace of their own innovation.

And when these customers came to us with their new product designs, delivering the resulting prototypes became a treasured ritual. I remember walking into Silicon Graphics with the prototypes that would power their first workstation. And later seeing them boot up the system and load Flight Simulator – and the tens of people crowded around the engineer flying an airplane on a computer screen.

So, what LSI Logic made possible was taking the functions that would fill a computer the size of a refrigerator and shrinking that onto a single chip. And making it possible for that single chip to go from design to prototypes in ~12 weeks.

We fundamentally changed the economics of computing and the pace of innovation. 

You can listen to Wilf Corrigan tell the origin story of LSI Logic in this recording of his keynote from our 1986 Sales Conference, which was held in Sunnyvale. I was in the room for this, and it is just as thrilling today as it was back then. And Wilf does an excellent job highlighting the many talented folks who made our business and technology so successful.

And I thought that everybody got a job like this out of college. I mean I didn’t exactly look for this job. Someone I worked with at Fairchild called me and asked me to join him there. I came over for an afternoon of interviews and was offered the job. Responsible for perhaps the greatest single concentration of computing innovation in the world. 

It is only with hindsight that I can appreciate how fortunate I was. It’s also where I now see the pattern that fueled and informed my career in high growth technology companies: working with highly talented, highly ethical people. And those people tend to congregate with other good people.

Steve Jobs did a wonderful job explaining the impossibility of predicting career paths in his Stanford Commencement speech – that you can only connect the dots of your career path in hindsight. Joining LSI Logic fundamentally shaped the path of my career in a few ways.

First, it taught me how important it is that you work in a company where the definition of “good” is far, far greater than what other people experience. “Good” at LSI Logic was making it possible for Cisco to deliver its first router. For Seagate to ship its first hard drives. For Sun Microsystems to ship its first SPARC workstation.

“Good” meant that you delivered a product that was 10x what the customer was expecting or even imagined. LSI Logic was at the forefront of that “10x, not 10%” mentality that causes a business to create an entirely new category.

And to do that, the company needed embrace another Jobs-ian tenet: “A players hire A players, B players hire C players.” Bill O’Meara ended up taking over as CEO of C-Cube Microsystems and enabling digital film and digital TV (and brought a lot of us LSI folks along with him). My colleagues JenSen Huang founded Nvidia, Bill Tai became a world class venture capitalist, David Baillie became CEO of not one, but two technology companies, and John Daane became CEO of Altera.

We all left our tenure at LSI Logic clearly understanding what it took to build a business that invented an entirely new class of computing technologies, what it meant to disrupt a market, and how to fundamentally change what your customers thought was possible.

I left LSI Logic after nearly seven years there to go to business school, but shortly after graduating and right after getting married, I got a call from Bill O’Meara, telling me about a company he had just become the CEO of – C-Cube Microsystems – and asked me to join him there. And the next adventure unfolded.

Cookbooks as companions of life

January 4, 2021

By Peter Zaballos

The home I grew up in was somewhat of a cooking wasteland. My mother, in spite of her good intentions and efforts, was plainly speaking a horrible cook. Multitasking did not come easily to her, and neither of my parents had strong organizational skills. The concept of a pantry was new to me as an adult. In the home I grew up in we very much operated with a “just-in-time” food inventory approach. We had one of everything, and when we ran out of something, you went to the store to get another. And meals were simply functional. A time to eat. Not a whole lot of conversation: just focus on the food and be done. And we rarely went to restaurants, and when did it was generally for simple and quick meals.

I write this not to condemn my parents. They did the best they could with the tools they had at the time. But it did cause me to approach cooking differently. And things started to change when I got to college in Berkeley. My friends were from all over, mostly California, but from all sorts of backgrounds. I went with these friends to restaurants — all sorts, because well, it was Berkeley. It was there that I had — for the first time —- sushi, Chinese, Thai and Indian food, pizza not from national chains, French and Italian food, all sorts. We cooked a little bit but mostly this expanded horizon came through restaurants. Although I do remember going to Chinatown in San Francisco with my fraternity brothers, Eric and Chris, one weekend and buying 50 pounds of shark steaks and lugging this big plastic bag back to our fraternity house and grilling those up for a summer get together.

It was as I made my way through life working as a young adult in Silicon Valley after college that I was able to more intentionally follow my nose into the kitchen. Where the range and quality of food exploded. When I was at LSI Logic we would head over to an incredible burrito shop in Mountain View where they would grill the meat right in front of you, assemble the burrito and slather it with salsas so hot you’d be sweating for the next 20 minutes. This was the mid-80s, and the food trucks that are so abundant now just didn’t exist.

It was with my first roommate out of college, Bryan, a colleague at LSI Logic responsible for managing our European business, that I made my first serious kitchen commitment. Bryan would head off to Europe for three weeks or a month, and come back with stories about food he’d eaten and recipes and ingredient lists I had never heard of. He would make these incredible dishes and I would try to recreate them. As they say in the tech world, the bit flipped for me in that apartment we shared in Redwood City. 

The first cookbook I purchased, in 1984

That’s where I started to really learn to cook. The first book I bought was “The 60 Minute Gourmet” by Pierre Franey. I got it because other recently minted adults like me used it, and I liked the approachable context. It wasn’t until I met the woman who would later become my wife that my interest — and aptitude — in cooking really took off. When I met Kristine she was a manager at one of the more prominent restaurants in Boston; as she describes, she’s “had had every job in a restaurant.” Her cooking skills were incredibly solid. So for our first Christmas together, when we were friends and not yet dating, I pulled out that book and made us Steak au Poivre. It says a lot that by then I was feeling confident in my skills to take this on at such a pivotal juncture in our relationship. And it says a lot about Kristine that she clearly enjoyed me taking the lead on the meal without getting too involved in the production.

Throughout my cooking journey she has been kind and supportive, encouraging me to take a stronger and stronger role in the kitchen as we built our lives together. The first dish where I followed my nose in the kitchen was making pizza. Soon after we married, I started making pizza every week. I’ve continued to do so for almost three decades. At first I used store-bought pizza dough and made sauce from jars of marinara sauce I would embellish. I soon made the same realization many home cooks do — making something from scratch is simply better and not a whole lot of extra work. So I soon had a family recipe for pizza dough and pizza sauce that worked wonderfully.

Let’s follow this pizza thread a bit further. We had four kids in five years. The first night we brought our oldest home from the hospital, I made us a pizza. Pizza night became a big deal in our house. And as our children grew older, pizza night became a reason to invite their friends over. There were many, many evenings when there might be eight or ten kids in the basement, and I would go down there, take orders, and then turn the kitchen (which in the farmhouse we renovated, was properly huge) into a full-blown home pizzaria, with Kristine often serving as sous-chef preparing the toppings.

Along the way we collected cookbooks: to learn the basics, to explore new cuisines, and increasingly to inform where we travelled and what we did on those travels.

And it’s only with hindsight that you look up from one of those cookbooks and realize just how they have become these documents of life. They mark meaningful moments and become part of you. Cookbooks can be an incredibly emotional record.

Like Proust’s madeleine, when you open them up certain cookbooks can provoke a flood of warm memories — of the journey you took to master (or not) a particular recipe, of the meals it produced, of the people you shared those meals with. 

There are three cookbooks that quickly come to mind that have had a deep and meaningful impact on me, our family, and our friends.

Note the $20 price

The first is Volume Two of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” This is one of my favorite and most cherished cookbooks. I found it in the used bookstore at the Milwaukee airport. (The single most awesome aspect of Milwaukee is that they have a used book store in their airport! We have almost missed more flights than I can remember because we were lost in the shelves there.) I paid $20 for it (it still has that price tag on it).

I learned so much through this book. First and foremost is that Julia Child’s recipes are bulletproof. If you follow her clear and lucid instructions, the dish will turn out. Every. Time. She’s amazing. And through Volume Two I discovered her paté recipe, which I make to this day. I recently made two batches and gifted mini loaves as holiday presents to our friends. And then there’s the braised rabbit: oh my, that dish is so yummy, and it always makes a complete mess of the stove top. 

And finally Potatoes Anna, which is fairly labor-intensive: you have to slice a pound or more of potatoes into evenly sized slices, then dry each slice with paper towels, then layer the slices in a circular pattern in a cast iron skillet all the while drizzling them with clarified butter. It’s a lot of work, but when you bake them and turn that skillet over onto a platter, the resulting round loaf of golden-crusted potato goodness is wonderful.

When I read Julia Child’s autobiography, I learned that in the baking section of Volume Two – which her husband Paul did most of the recipe crafting as he was the baker in the family – it instructs you to use a slab of asbestos for a baking stone. The book was published just weeks before the FDA announced a ban on asbestos, and Julia was horrified. She had her publisher rush to pull the remaining copies of Volume 2 from the shelves and amended it to instruct you to use a terra cotta tile. I literally set her autobiography down and ran to the kitchen, pulled our copy and looked up the baguette recipe. And there it was, the instruction to use an asbestos tile. I bought a first edition. In a used bookstore. In the Milwaukee airport. For $20.

Instructions to “cut 1 inch shorter and narrower” – the hazard of asbestos is what happens when the fibers become airborne. Yikes!

Acquiring that cookbook coincided with us moving into the circa 1860s farmhouse we renovated in Wisconsin. Meals for us are social events that bring our family and friends together. Yes the food is important, but the real reason we share a meal is the conversation we share the meal over. It’s where we talk, catch up, check in. It’s where the puns fly, and laughter is abundant and overflowing. My parents would come and stay with us in that house for weeks and sometimes months, and it is the meals we shared that helped our children develop deep relationships with their grandparents, and vice versa.

The recipe is rock solid, notes to save some effort

Our copy of Volume Two is properly stained, dogeared, and annotated. Like all the cookbooks that became staples of our kitchen library.

Next, “The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris” by Patricia Wells, was given to us by my wife’s dear friend, Heidi, who lost a battle to cancer in 2007 and is dearly missed. That book is wonderful because Wells shares recipes for food that you’ll find in the restaurants in Paris that everyday Parisians frequent. That book informed many of our dinners at home and helped us discover a little bistro in Paris that Kristine and I went to more times than I can remember, and where we had my 60th birthday dinner with our four children and three of my closest friends — Erika, Amy, and Duane — a surprise I discovered as we made our way to the table.

The guide also pointed us to Balzar — a restaurant that is so damn Parisian. Small tables inches apart with starched white table cloths. It’s where I had two infamous escargot incidents. 

The first was in 2000 or so. Kristine and I were there together, elbow to elbow with the other diners. Across from and to the right of me was a gentleman wearing an exquisite white shirt with a bright green tie. I ordered escargots to start with, and the odd thing about that dish is that the tool you are given to hold the snail shell while you pry the meat out is counterintuitive. You squeeze the tool to open its jaws and then release the tool to clamp down on the shell.

As I struggled to get the meat out of the shell, I increased my pressure on the tool, causing the shell to slip right as I pried on the meat with the little fork they give you. A jet of hot butter, parsley and garlic shot out of the shell across our table and over to the next, creating a stream of green that left my plate and went all the way up the sleeve of that gentleman across from me.

My French was still a bit rough then. I was mortified and unsure of what to do. So I did nothing. I kept my gaze fixated on either my food or Kristine across from me. At one point in my peripheral vision I saw that gentleman glance at his sleeve, then follow the stream of green back over to me. I was mortified but did not meet his eye. He decided to not say anything. To this day I am as embarrassed as I am astounded that nothing came of this.

Fast-forward to my 60th birthday week in Paris in 2018 with our family and friends. Kristine and I went back to Balzar with our son Jameson and his friend Mitch, who was visiting from Barcelona, and as we were enjoying our meals at the table next to us was a mother with her adult daughter. The mother ordered escargots. And as she was prying the meat from the shell, a stream of green shot across the table and landed on my blazer. I burst out laughing. As she apologized profusely she puzzled over my reaction. My French had fairly improved, I was able to explain to her that I’d done the same thing to another diner in that very same restaurant almost 20 years earlier. I assured her it was karma coming home to roost. Eventually she seemed to enjoy the irony as much as I did.

Most recently, “Night+Market,” which Kristine got me a year or two ago, has become a staple. Like Volume Two, it has bulletproof recipes and is a delight to simply read to gain perspective on Thai food, ingredients and the role food and drink have in Thai culture. It has been responsible for many of us in the family making Pad Thai a mainstay of our cooking. 

Awesome pad thai, dangerous roasted chili pepper flakes

I love the care this book takes with recipes for the basic ingredients of Thai cooking. There’s an awesome appendix with recipes for stir-fry sauce, everyday curry paste, and roasted crushed thai chili peppers. That latter ingredient has also been responsible for near life-threatening levels of capsaicin fumes as I roasted Thai chili peppers in a hot wok. (Worth it.)

What sent me down this rabbit hole of cookbooks to write this? Well, the BBC naturally. 

In their series on cooking, “The Food Chain” there was a wonderful segment on the role cookbooks play in the lives of people, and they featured two women whose cookbook collections are legendary. In both cases these women describe how their cherished cookbooks are repositories and records of memories: the food splotches, the notes — all of that have meaning. And how simply buying a replacement book cannot replace those memories and records.

So the thoughts of the stories shared above all flooded me as I listened to these two women describe in their own way how their cookbooks had informed and enriched their lives, just like our cookbooks have done for us.

To bring this back to where I started, I may have grown up in a home where cooking lacked a central role, but it turns out, because of our own ethos on cooking, we passed on to our children a love of cooking and the role food plays in life, relationships, and being together. They all know how to make pizza from scratch — first one and then another took over the weekly pizza-making job when I worked remotely — and make it themselves with regularity today. 

In fact, one year when our middle son, Benjamin, was away at college in New York and a storm came through and knocked out power for the campus, he happened to be living in an on-campus apartment that had a gas stove. And weeks before while on a video call with him, he expressed a desire to make pizza there. So while on the phone we ordered the equipment and the ingredients and had it shipped to him. A case of San Marzano tomatoes, 50 pounds of flour: you know, a normal amount. Let’s just say Benjamin was well prepared, and quite popular, when he had the only functioning kitchen on campus and was making pizza after pizza when the power was out that weekend.

We never really sat our kids down and said “here’s how you make ____.” They have all become confident and comfortable in their kitchens mostly from being an observer and being a part of making the meals we shared when they were growing up. It is incredibly gratifying to hear, like I did yesterday, one of our children let me know he would be late to our online gaming and to hear his two siblings respond with “No worries! We need to make curry!”

And in this world of COVID, perhaps it’s the absence of these family meals that I miss the most. Our family loves to be together, and being together for us is often about sharing a meal. And while group Discord video calls bring us together to be seen and to talk, these do not replace the hours of casual conversations among us about what we should have at that meal, and the preparation of that meal together. And the sharing of that meal together.

With me mostly retired and Kristine still working full time I am the one making most of the meals, and the one benefit of this COVID landscape is that we are eating at home better than we ever have. Every week we’re trying something new as well as going back to an old standby. We’re eating more plants and beans, and making more things from scratch. It really helps that we live literally a block away from Seattle’s Pike Place Market, so pretty much any ingredient we need or want to try is at our fingertips.

Cookbooks indeed are a record of memories, and I am glad my COVID memories are being memorialized in the cookbooks and recipe binder we have here. I’m even more looking forward to the memories yet to be recorded — when we can all share meals together again. 

Black Lives Matter

June 23, 2020

A post from the DiamanteScholars.com blog

By Peter Zaballos

Seattle protest organized by Black Lives Matter, June 3, 2020

[This post originally appeared on the Diamante Scholars Blog and was published there on June 11, 2020]

When we founded the Diamante Scholars a year ago, one of the core tenets of the program is that it “helps high school students with overlooked and unseen potential find a path to higher education and career success.”

Overlooked. Unseen potential.

What has happened in this country over the past ten days is all about overlooked, unseen potential. It’s about systemic racial discrimination. It’s about the fact that the United States is a fundamentally racist nation that (hopefully) is about to admit that and do something about it.

Achieving equality begins and ends with understanding what life is like for someone other than yourself. My wife and I attended the George Floyd protest at Westlake Center in Seattle on Saturday, May 30. And we saw people of all colors there. Peaceful. Families. And we also saw agitators — like a white guy carrying a baseball bat. Who brings a baseball bat to a peaceful rally? We all know where that rally went. But those peaceful people of all colors were not the instigators of the violence or the looting.

We also attended a protest rally outside the Seattle Courthouse on Wednesday, June 3 that was put on by Seattle Black Lives Matter. Again, people of all colors were there. And one of the speakers, who I believe was Ebony Miranda, made a point of thanking all of us for being there. They also reminded us that when it comes to defining the issues that matter, Black people are the ones who define what matters to them. They are the ones living with racist oppression every day because of their skin color.

I cannot know what it feels like to be Black – I’m a white male and have lived my life with privilege. Every step of the way. For years my black friends have told me about what it is like to be them. To be highly educated and highly successful and to still endure the constant judgment and discrimination that comes just from the color of their skin. One of my friends years ago educated me about DWB traffic violations – Driving While Black. About how often he is pulled over in his car simply for being Black and driving a nice car.

But it’s not just this one friend. This past week a close friend, Dave Cotter, who is Black — and a successful technology executive — wrote a heart wrenching blog post about what it is like to be him. About being pulled over in his own neighborhood and in the surrounding neighborhoods and being asked “is this your car?” and “why are you here?” He’s even been pulled over driving his ski boat, and asked if that was his.

For those of us who aren’t Black this moment is all about listening. It’s all about empathy and understanding. And all about empowering, about hope, about opportunity for action.

And about how the direction we need to head is clear. 

Why am I writing this on the Diamante Scholars blog? Because we are committed to helping students find their paths and realize their potential. Regardless of race, ethnicity, religion and many of the many other factors that make us human and unique. Because we are committed to seeing our students for exactly who they are: people with dreams, people with futures ahead of them, people who deserve to be seen for their talents and actions.

While racial injustice and racial discrimination are not new, what does seem to be new is the broad acknowledgement that enough is enough, and it is time to do something about it. And what is getting done is messy. It is certainly unfortunate that violence and looting have happened, but it’s a fundamental tragedy that Blacks have been systematically oppressed for 400+ years. And we have to change this.

On August 28, 1963 Rep. John Lewis gave a searing speech at the “March on Washington” and his words are just as urgent and relevant today as they were then. Which is tragic in its own right, but this passage seems to be fit once again for what we are seeing across our nation:

“To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient.  We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”

We are committed to seeing our students for exactly who they are: people with dreams, people with futures ahead of them, people who deserve to be defined by their deeds and actions. And who deserve to be free. We strive to empower our scholars to use their voices, to be advocates of racial justice. And their voices are here for us to listen to them, and for us to learn from them as well.

Here is how Kristine and I are personally supporting change where we live, in Seattle. 

We support the brave protesters who are literally putting their lives on the line to stand up for justice by helping them with bail as they get arrested. 

We support the Black-owned businesses that are critical employers and fixtures in our community.

We support local politicians who can take on the structural change that is so urgently needed

Finally and most important, we are listening and learning:

  • And most importantly, we spend time with our Black and brown friends, to clearly understand how different the paths they take through are from ours.

We found some of the above resources from the 2020Protests.com website, which also lists protest resources for people in California.

Do what others doubt. Help end racial injustice.

Building mental health and resiliency amidst COVID-19

March 24, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

Given most of our energy and attention is focused on life during coronavirus, I thought I would outline a few actions we can all take to preserve our mental health, the relationships around us, and our career integrity.

Stay in tune with coronavirus updates, but sparingly. We all learned this with politics and the election cycle. With 24×7 news cycles, the same angst-enriching programming is served up, continuously. And there is ample research that shows you all this does is create anxiety for you, because you can do nothing about. So be informed, but not obsessed.

Make the most of your isolation time

Reinforce distanced relationships. We’re all bereft of socializing with friends and colleagues right now. A good friend whom I haven’t seen in a while texted me two days ago. Just to check in. He said he’s intentionally dropping short notes via text and WhatsApp to friends to let them know he’s thinking of them. We had an awesome ten-minute exchange. I am paying that forward. Contact your friends and colleagues, briefly but frequently.

Buy locally, tip generously. While we do rely on Amazon for a lot, we have shifted as much of our spending as possible to local merchants. Grocers, convenience stores, tiendas, restaurants doing take-out. These resources are going to be the backbone of a socially-distanced lifestyle that may last months. Support these folks. Tip generously. I mean 50%-100% generously.

Exercise – in your home, outside if you can, safely. There are awesome exercises you can do in your home, without equipment. Do this – it will given you a break from work and keep your mind and body healthy. If you can go outside, do it safely, if you are allowed to. Research shows that getting out – in a safe manner – can help you manage your mood and overall well being. It’s one of the reasons why victims of the Spanish Flu were often treated outdoors. Sunlight and fresh air truly are medicine.

Prepare for a lot of change, and a lot of friends’ change. And light touch reconnections is a good foundation to lay for helping you and your friends cope with a significant amount of change. The gig economy worked great in a boom market, but we are going into a profound recession, and those same jobs that are easily added are being easily shed. I have a lot of friends who are freelancers and consultants. Those fields are going to see significant employment reductions as well.

This last one is perhaps the most important. No matter where you work or what you do, people are going to be losing jobs or having hours reduced. I have checked in with my friends in the VC community and they are handling this environment the same way we did at FTV in 2008: freeze hiring, scrutinize budgets, eliminate unnecessary spending, and conserve cash.

And that’s just for the tech sector. The hospitality industry is being fundamentally gutted right now. Everywhere you look demand is drying up, which means business will either forcibly or voluntarily close, and people — friends, friends of friends, neighbors — will be out of work or at risk of losing their jobs.

In this time of need, your friends and neighbors will need you to help them cope, help them find their path, help them find their place of calm. This is when the best can show up in you and the people around you.

Be the catalyst, be the hope, be the inspiration.

Work for many companies

March 12, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

One perspective I’ve gained of having worked in lots of different places (the Bay Area, Boston, Seattle, the Midwest) is that you can see the variety of experiences you can take advantage of, and the impact that can have on your skillset and career path.

[And remember, a career path is drawn in hindsight]

Today, I would say that the Bay Area, Seattle and Boston (NYC as well) share a lot in common. Tremendous innovation, extensive ranks of startups — largely founded by experienced, successful entrepreneurs — and available capital. And those high-growth companies tend to share or are adjacent to categories with lots of competitors.

What does this mean to your career path, and most importantly, your personal experience base?

Well, you will have the opportunity to work for a lot of different companies in and around your field, exposing you to new challenges, company cultures, managers, partners and customers. This is going to help you get out of your comfort zone, learn unexpected things, and become more resilient in the face of change and uncertainty.


That last part is super important. Uncertainty and ambiguity are prevalent in high-growth technology companies. As much as we all crave stability and consistency, those conditions will be few and far between when you chart your course in the tech sector. In fact, your ability to learn and grow is diminished in stable, predictable environments.

I just finished reading “Range” by David Epstein, and much of his book is devoted to research-based evidence that the more varied our experiences, the better we become at our jobs. It’s not just about resiliency, but about decision making. In a rather counter-intuitive manner, Epstein shows how knowing a little about a lot of different areas of expertise enables you to make better decisions about any one area.

Seattle has an ecosystem chock full of companies breaking new ground, creating new categories, and changing the directions of computing. No surprise that the Bay Area does too. So when you have reached the limits of what you can learn from one role, you can move to another company (with effort) and expand your experience and fluency with a different set of business problems and technology solutions.

You can also learn what it is like to build a business across different company cultures, CEOs and executive teams, direct managers and co-workers. This matters a lot and is super valuable. The enlightened CEO is a very rare occurrence. Friction-free relationships between Product and Dev teams happen less frequently than you’d imagine. It’s the same with friction between sales and marketing teams. 

So you learn how to manage around or change with these fractured department relationships, or you move on to a more productive next role. Tenure in these three highly competitive geographies can be measured in months. Sometimes years. Rarely a decade.

I would argue the ecosystem dynamic is completely different in the Midwest — this region has a much thinner entrepreneurial ecosystem. There are high-growth tech companies there, but generally only one in a category and little-to-no competitively adjacent companies. This means that to expand your experience base in that geography, you need to change industries or change categories that are far apart within an industry. 

This is really hard to do. 

A recruiter I worked with years ago summed it up this way: “You can change categories or industries keeping the same role, or change roles within the same category, but you can’t do both at once. It’s too risky for the employer.”

What this means in these competitively thin geographies is that employees tend to stay at the companies they were hired into. For a long time. And because there tend to be few adjacent competitors in these regional hubs, if the job you got hired into doesn’t work out, you’re facing a transfer within the company to a different role — further insulating you from broader experience. 

Or you can relocate to another geography to stay within or adjacent to the category you’re already in. Or you can remain where you live, change career paths and start close to the beginning. Both of those options are hard. So you tend to stay put.

Most people are going to stay put. They will tolerate a poor culture, or poor manager. They will tolerate poor relationships across departments. But staying put is the safest of the options. This means the culture of the company you work is the only one you are likely to know. The experiences you bring to your role and threaded through this one company. Tenure matters more than broad experience or innovative thinking. Tenure gets measured in 5/10/15 year increments.

What does this all mean? It all depends on what you want for a career. If you really want to stay at the forefront of your field, it’s clear that getting broad exposure to a variety of roles and company cultures is critical. You’ll be exposed to more unknowns, personalities, and methods, which will help you shape your skillset and experience foundation.

And if you want that broad experience base but are living in a competitively thin geography, this also means you will need to be super international about embracing those new roles, and the sacrifices you may need to make in the short and medium term, to gain that broad experience foundation that could fuel your medium- and long-term ambitions.

It’s that intentionality that is the important part. What do you aspire to do and become? It may be more important to you to push at the forefront of your discipline and be the agent of change in your role and industry. It may be more important that you live in an area you love, and that giving up on career innovation is less important.

But know the landscape. And know yourself.

Gracefully forming connections

March 4, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

Gracefully. That one word caused me to pay much closer attention to the “how” of what I do when I introduce people. 

I was made aware of it by Ben Elowitz, when he was CEO of Wetpaint.com, a company we funded at Frazier Technology Ventures (FTV). I was an observer on the Wetpaint board for five years and saw first-hand Ben’s incredible intentionality about pretty much everything he did. The culture he fostered at Wetpaint, and especially the relationships he developed along the way.

At one point I connected Ben to someone I knew. I don’t remember the context or even the person I connected him to. But what I do remember that when Ben replied, he did so promptly, and moved me to the bcc line of the email. And at the bottom of his reply he wrote “Putting Peter on the bcc line so he can fall off the thread gracefully.”

That he was acknowledging the role I had played in this introduction, and the care he showed for how I would be treated as this introduction took its course was classic Ben. And it made a lasting impression on me.

There is art and science here.

That was more than 15 years ago. But it wholly changed how I looked at introductions. Up until that point I think I had viewed them as important but somewhat transactional. Getting one person in touch with another so something beneficial could possibly take place.

But there is so much more to the process of introducing people to each other. It’s about extending the relationship you have with two different people and handing it to each of them.

Purely logistically, I am referring to the “double opt-in” method of making an introduction. That means before the actual introduction is made, I check with each person separately to give them a clear sense of why I would like to make the introduction, who this other person is, and why I think the introduction is a good use of both people’s time.

In this manner, both parties can decide if they would like me to make the introduction. They each opt in.

And more holistically, there needs to be something worthwhile for both people. And to me that is the fun part.

Frequently these introductions originate as one person needing something that I suspect the other person might be able to help with or provide. But the truly rewarding aspect of crafting a productive introduction is understanding how each person could benefit from the introduction.

And one of the most critical benefits of connecting people is not what they can do for each other, but that you’re connecting people who will enjoy speaking with each other. Getting to know each other. 

By way of making the introduction, I can convey just how much I enjoy each of these people, to help set a tone for that first conversation. It could be sharing an anecdote or an unknown common interest. Or just how much I respect and adore each of these people, and why.

So, ever since Ben Elowitz enlightened me to the art of introductions, I’ve been making them this way ever since. 

At FTV we had this ethos that when we met with people we “gave more than we took.” So when I am making a connection, I am generally connecting two people who I have given something to — in some cases significantly, in other cases less so. And the two people I am connecting I believe have something to give the other. Everyone should win here.

I recently made an introduction like this, After checking with both parties — who agreed to the introduction — the resulting email was this:

There is something innately satisfying and rewarding connecting two people together who don’t know each other, and don’t yet know they may find some commonality or even synergy between them. And it wasn’t until way, way after I had been fostering connections between people that I realized just how productive it can be, and how intentionally it depends on forming true, trusted relationships.

Read “Whistleblower” Right Now

February 25, 2020

By Peter Zaballos

In the space of a few hours I devoured Susan Fowler’s incredible story of strength — “Whistleblower” — and you should too. Right now.

The bravery this woman demonstrated, telling a story of harassment and mistreatment that is sadly prevalent, is as important. The strength it must have taken her to press “publish” on her blog post, not knowing the impact or the consequences, is simply staggering.

Her story shines a light on what women confront every day. And men may either see it happening or are perhaps a party to, and in any case most certainly are not doing enough about ending the behavior.

MEN DON’T SEE OR FEEL WHAT WOMEN EXPERIENCE

That’s right. Women put up with significant – for lack of a better term – abuse – that men simply don’t. And worse, that men don’t even see it or are aware of it. They may not be aware of it for benign reasons – perhaps you can’t see what you haven’t yet experienced yourself. And they may not be aware of it because they are the perpetrator of the abuse. But the difference between the paths men and women traverse each day is real, and significant.

There’s the sexual abuse of being cat-called when walking down the street. Being touched inappropriately and the unwanted and unwelcome hugging. Or being told something offensive – a joke or a reference to their body – and then being admonished for not going alond with “the joke.”

Put another way, men simply don’t worry about the following:

  • Walk down a street at night, by themselves
  • Go for a run or bike ride, by themselves
  • Walk past a group of the opposite sex
  • Meet a member of the opposite sex in a business context without worrying about a sexual advance

I have lost count of the women who have told me this is their DAILY life. This list is as sobering as it is horrifying. And men never worry about having any of these circumstances happen to them. And what they don’t see, they often don’t feel or believe.

WHAT SUSAN DESCRIBES IS REAL

Being a woman is hard enough, but what’s worse is not even being able to do your job – the one place which should be a safe place to be yourself and do your best work. And in the last ten years of my career, the more I took the time to speak with the women on my teams and in the companies I have worked for, I can say that Susan’s treatment is not uncommon.

I have spoken to tens of women who have described major and minor acts of abuse. There’s the daily intellectual abuse of being talked over, having ideas appropriated, or being simply ignored or dismissed because they are women. And then there’s sexual abuse or even assualt. And as Susan so bravely points out, there can be shocklingly little in terms of protecting women, with limited or no options to respond.

Susan Fowler is courageous because she wrote about what she experienced not knowing what the consequences would be for her. And the consequences in the short term were huge — (did she lose her job? Spell out the consequence for those who don’t remember the details of the story). And, we learn in the book, this was not her first experience speaking out and paying dearly for her bravery and honesty. What she endured at Penn pursuing her degree (or rather, degrees) was horrifying.

READ WHISTLEBLOWER, NOW

Please buy and read Whistleblower. It will show you in searing detail what it is like to be a woman in a male-dominated culture. It is extreme. Uber was much worse than many companies, but what she experiences there is a reflection of what women experience in general as they make their way through careers, and life.

Thank you, Susan for being brave enough to share your story. We all now have the obligation to make sure this doesn’t happen again.