Oral-History:David Leeson

About David Leeson

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1937, David B. Leeson, an IEEE Life Fellow, received his Ph.D. from Stanford University (Hughes Fellow) in 1962, M.S. from MIT (NSF Fellow), and B.S. from Caltech. He is consulting professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, serves as a director for wireless companies, and is executive officer of Leeson Foundation. Leeson has written a book on Yagi antennas and published seminal IEEE papers on nonlinear frequency multipliers, radar, and oscillator stability (“Leeson’s Model of Oscillator Noise”). In 2001, he received the IEEE UFFC W. G. Cady Award "for clear physical insight and model of the effects of noise on oscillators" and was a member of IEEE Standards committees for wireless networking and frequency stability. He is a member of Tau Beta Pi, Eta Kappa Nu, and Sigma Xi.

In 1962, Leeson earned his doctorate and took a job at Hughes Aircraft Co. where he spent two years working on Doppler radar and space satellites. He was a known commodity at Hughes Aircraft Co. because at the age of eighteen he started working at the defense contractor during summers and vacations throughout his college years. He returned to Silicon Valley and worked for a startup, Applied Technology, but he left to start his own company. Leeson was founding chair and CEO of California Microwave, Inc. from 1968 to 1993. Then he joined the Stanford University faculty in 1994. Currently, his research interests include microwave communications, entrepreneurship, and history. He is also an avid radio amateur (W6NL) and passionate about sports car racing and design.

About the Interview

DAVID B. LEESON: An Interview Conducted by John Vardalas, IEEE History Center, 21 June 2016.

Interview # 767 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA or ieee-history@ieee.org. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

David B. Leeson, an oral history conducted in 2016 by John Vardalas, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEWEE: David B. Leeson

INTERVIEWER: John Vardalas

DATE: 21 June 2016

PLACE: Los Gatos, CA

Vardalas:

It is June 21st. I’m sitting in the home of David Leeson in Los Gatos, California. Is that pronounced correctly?

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

I am here to do an oral history. Let’s start first with some basics. When and where were you born?

Leeson:

I was born in 1937 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I was born in a place called Cuyahoga County Hospital. That’s all I know.

Vardalas:

Cuyahoga County, yes.

Leeson:

I don’t remember anything else.

Vardalas:

Let’s start with your parents. Tell me something about your parents.

Leeson:

My dad, Herman Leeson, was an accountant, a CPA. He had a reputation for being the sweetest guy ever, and was. In contrast to my mom, Silva Leeson, was a very motivated, well-educated person in the 1930s at a time when women didn’t work as much [outside the home]. She divided her time between making sure that my sister and I got a good education and the idea that we should do something, and being an officer of various national organizations for social and political issues.

Vardalas:

Would you say then that she drove most of your educational experience?

Leeson:

Very subtly, yes.

Vardalas:

What do you mean by subtly?

Leeson:

She would say, “we do this.”

Vardalas:

Oh.

Leeson:

“We do this” meant we get good grades, we study hard, and we do this. We had something to think about.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Every evening at dinner we had a combination lecture and discussion about politics and the world. It was very interesting.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

This practice was very helpful. I was a little kid, so I don’t remember anymore.

Vardalas:

Yes, of course. Do you recall as you were growing up when you first encountered an interest in science, in mathematics, and technical matters? Do you recall that first time?

Leeson:

Yes, I recall the first time very clearly.

Vardalas:

Very clearly? Tell me.

Leeson:

It was in the summer of 1941.

Vardalas:

Wow. That's clear.

Leeson:

Before Pearl Harbor my parents had brought a family, a refugee family from Germany, named Blumenthal. The woman was a maid and the son repaired my electric train when I ran it too fast and broke it. Finally, at the age of four, I was old enough to meet this genius, who was about fourteen years old. He said, "Do you want to see my radio stuff?" I said, "Yes, sure, what's that?" We went up to his room, and I still remember looking out the window. He had an antenna that went out to the top of the garage. He turned it on and I heard Morse code for the first time. I said, "What is that?" He said, "That's people talking." I said, "Where are they?" He said, "Well, they're all over the world." I got the shivers. I still get the shivers. So, radio was it for me.

Vardalas:

You were how old?

Leeson:

I would have been four years old.

Vardalas:

At four, you remember that event so clearly?

Leeson:

Oh yes. Interestingly, within the last few years, I was able to locate John Blumenthal, who of course is ten years older than I. His response to my making contact after all these years was an email titled "I was astounded." He had a very interesting career as well; he was chief engineer of a company in Cleveland. We had quite an interesting discussion.

Vardalas:

All right, so how did you, a four-year-old, move on with these interests?

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

How did you translate that experience into other interests? How did that move you forward into your interest in science, math, and engineering?

Leeson:

I had an inclination toward wanting to know how things worked. When I was an older young kid I took apart radios and never got them back together again. I was drawn to that sort of activities. I don’t recall a whole lot during World War II except an interest in radio and airplanes. My mom had a picture she game me (we’ve got it tucked away somewhere) showing how an airplane shooting at another airplane had to lead it because of the time delay of the bullets getting to their target. Mom thought that represented some marvelous skill or aptitude and it boded well for me. She kept it and I’ve still got it. We moved from Cleveland to San Francisco in 1944 because of my dad’s health.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It turned out San Francisco’s climate was not that much better than Cleveland’s, so the next year we moved to Los Angeles. Los Angeles was a wonderful place for a radio kid to grow up. There were radio stores for hams.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

You could bicycle there and try out the equipment and so forth. By the time I was in high school, I already had a job in a store fixing radios. A wonderful fellow named Bill Hughes hired me at the age of fourteen to fix radios. I made house calls with Hughes’ older son. He was sixteen years old and had a drivers’ license, so he would drive to the house of people whose television needed repair. Two teenaged kids showed up at the door, announcing “We’re here to the fix the television.” They said “Where’s your dad?” We responded: “No, he’s not coming, we’re here to fix the television,” and we’d fix it. We’d get our cookies and milk, get paid, and go on to the next place. It was a terrific experience.

Vardalas:

You’re just studying manuals?

Leeson:

I did a lot of studying of how to fix stuff. It was very interesting to learn diagnostics, and that’s something that’s stuck with me my entire life. That is helpful in engineering. When you design something it doesn’t work of course. Then you have the question, is it the design or the implementation?

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

You have to determine what went wrong. One of the things that I’ve had the pleasure of using all my life and teaching is the diagnostics that came from that period of fixing radios. After three summers of fixing radios and televisions, I decided that it wasn’t the right career for me because you never met a happy person. They were unhappy when their radio or television did not work, and they thought you cheated them and charged them too much when they got it back. They also claimed it never worked as well as it did before the trouble, and so on.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

You didn’t meet happy people, so I wanted to deal with new stuff.

Vardalas:

Did your mother and father encourage your passion to take things apart, to fix things, and to work in a television and radio repair shop?

Leeson:

Oh yes. My dad bought me a receiver at a time when that was a big reach for them. It was a ham radio receiver made by an outfit called the National Company that I think still exists. That allowed me to listen and learn Morse code and get a license. I got my ham license when I was just fifteen years old in 1952.

Vardalas:

Wow.

Leeson:

That led to meeting a group of like-minded high school kids all around the Los Angeles area, including three others from my own high school. We formed a high school radio club. We didn’t have anybody to tell us what to do. We just wanted to have a radio club and thought that was the thing to do. One of the others passed away, but the other three of us still maintain contact.

Vardalas:

Really?

Leeson:

Then I came in touch with a group of high school radio amateurs from all around the LA area. We talked to each other on the radio, Morse code of course, but we’d also call each other on the telephone so we could have a bigger discussion They were an outfit, that was a marvelous management and project management experience. It was called the Pacifico Radio Club. Mount Pacifico was a place up in the Angeles National Forest where we would go to operate.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

We went largely for these Field Day activities, a [national amateur-radio] contest where you go and operate with emergency power and so forth. We ended up winning the contest, which irritated everybody that was our senior.


We won the contest twice. We didn’t know that everybody else had to work while we spent all year planning what we had to do in order to make this work right. I was president for one year, probably 1954, one of the years that we won.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

So it was a bunch of high-school kids, but it was an opportunity to do things on your own and to be in charge of something.

Vardalas:

Can you recall the passion and the excitement you felt about radio? When you were in junior high school and high school what was it that got you up in the morning? Did you have a sense of I’ve got to do this?

Leeson:

Actually, it kept me awake at night.

Vardalas:

Oh, all right.

Leeson:

The interesting thing—

Vardalas:

What was the thrill about radio?

Leeson:

The thrill about radio was the idea that you could use some form of technology to interact with people all over the world.

Vardalas:

It also was technology that you controlled.

Leeson:

Yes, it was a technology that you had some connection with and you were in charge of it.

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

In those days, the technology was nothing like what I would be able to do now [far more developed and complex today], but it was a lot of fun. I’ve still got a certificate on the wall I earned for finishing second place in a world-wide contest. I had three thousand points and the winner had 3 million. Even so, I discovered competition and I had always felt I was a competitive kid.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I played baseball and football. In high school I got interested in wrestling and was the captain of the team. The father of one of the other radio hams in our club was an athletic coach and he got me interested in wrestling.

Vardalas:

Do you think part of this excitement was a feeling of empowerment because you were controlling this radio? You were also communicating to the world and you felt the radio was your thing. Is there any of that in it?

Leeson:

Yes, the thing I liked about wrestling is the same thing I liked about radio contesting, and that is, it’s you.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It isn’t a big organization that you have to coordinate and worry about the politics or so on. It’s just you and I always enjoyed that. I guess I recognized that I liked to be in charge of what was important to me. This meant some things were not available to me, but other things were. I preferred wrestling, for example, where it was just me, rather than a team sport like football, which I enjoyed, but not as much.

Vardalas:

What high school did you attend?

Leeson:

I went to Beverly Hills.

Vardalas:

Beverly Hills High School.

Leeson:

It was a very interesting place.

Vardalas:

Yes, well, tell us why.

Leeson:

I was the poor kid that bicycled five miles from where we lived on my eight-dollar bicycle.

Vardalas:

How did you feel? Did you fit in at Beverly Hills High School?

Leeson:

Oh yes, I didn’t ever have a feeling that I wasn’t rich enough or anything like that. But it was a very interesting place. There were the movie stars’ sons and daughters. My mom had somebody picked out that I should marry, whose father ran a big department store.

Vardalas:

No kidding.

Leeson:

Nothing ever happened. The two people I remember from high school are my chemistry instructor, a fascinating guy named Doc Morrison, and my physics instructor, a fellow named Norman Fjeldsted, whose son I later worked for as a consultant.

Vardalas:

Would you say these people were important influences for you?

Leeson:

Oh yes, very important.

Vardalas:

In what way?

Leeson:

They challenged me to really dig in and learn the next level of what was being offered. I did very well in high school. I was the valedictorian.

Vardalas:

That’s what I was going to say. You were quite the ambitious young man?

Leeson:

I was.

Vardalas:

You were dedicated to sports, academics, and the radio.

Leeson:

Oh yes. It harkens back to the story I told you about that when I was three years old and the painters weren’t painting down to the ground.

Vardalas:

No, tell us.

Leeson:

My mom told me that when I was three years old I came running into the house. She hired painters to paint the garage and I was there to complain that they weren’t painting all the way down to the dirt. They came in to say, “Get that kid out of here or we’re leaving.” I think that is probably a good indication of my personality.

Vardalas:

Do you know what drove you to be so competitive? Did your competitive nature come naturally?

Leeson:

Well, my mom was very competitive.

Vardalas:

So, your mom was behind a lot of this?

Leeson:

I think so.

Vardalas:

Implicitly or explicitly?

Leeson:

Both. [Both laugh]

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I think it was genetic; it was environmental. She was determined that we were going to have something that we were interested in and that we were good at. Now back to the high school business and the radio club business. While I was getting started in ham radio, in those days you built all your own equipment, so I designed and built an entire station. Sadly, the station got lost somewhere along the way in a move my mom later made while I was off at college. The station worked quite well and I was very proud of it. It benefited from the supportive personal infrastructure that ham radio has (had then too). For example, there was a radio club in West Los Angeles and another in downtown Los Angeles, that had people who where interested in talking long distances. In ham radio this is called DX. This DX club had a guy who was the chief engineer of a TV station, and he brought us used tubes to make high-power amplifiers.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

We all had these dangerous 6,000-volt power supplies, tubes, and other equipment. The Field Day group (the Pacifico Radio Club) was more aligned to competitiveness. We were really determined, understood the rules, and confident we could run the project. We were ready and we always had backup. We were just a bunch of kids from high school, but we were pretty good at figuring it out.

Vardalas:

You must have been a much disciplined young man.

Leeson:

I don’t know if I would call myself disciplined, but I got a lot done.

Vardalas:

Yes, you got a lot done.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I really enjoyed reading. When I became interested in ham radio I discovered that the local library had all of the issues of the ham radio magazine called QST going back to 1927. The library was going to throw them out, so I got my dad to come with the car. We put them in the trunk, I took them home, and I read them all.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I read about what happened in the 1930s, including how condensers became capacitors. I read about all that happened in ham radio during World War II, which was set aside, but they continued to publish. I spent a lot of time reading the Radio Amateur’s Handbook.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I didn’t understand it all, but it really was fascinating.

Vardalas:

What were your ambitions at this stage in your life?

Leeson:

I wanted to be an engineer.

Vardalas:

You wanted to be an engineer and that was clear to you?

Leeson:

Yes. All the guys in the radio club used to kid me because I always said “I want to go to college, I am going to go to college.”

Vardalas:

College?

Leeson:

Yes, college, that was my determination. I was going to do well in high school and I was going to be an engineer. What do kids know?

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I loved designing equipment and I loved using it.

Vardalas:

It was electrical, not air. You’re already going to do that.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

It was electrical; not civil, not any other kind of engineering.

Leeson:

I got into Caltech. I applied to Caltech, MIT, and Stanford as a high school senior and got into all three. I went to Caltech because it was local. No way was I going to go all the way across the country. MIT was too far, and Stanford struck me as more of an athletic school than an educational institution, from what I’d heard. But again, what do kids know?

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It always interested me how kids make a decision based on essentially no information.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Just input from some uncle might influence a decision.

Vardalas:

In your case it was Caltech because it was local.

Leeson:

My mom had a friend who was a cousin of Richard Feynman, the physicist.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Somehow my mom was very favorable about the idea, and she always had a way of making sure I understood that that was a good idea.

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

Later I developed the same management technique, where I would ask people, “What do you think we should do to solve this problem?” I’d keep asking, and they’d keep suggesting. When they came to the idea I wanted, I’d say, “Do you think that would work?” They would say, “Yes,” and of course, then it would be their idea.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It may have happened to me without my even knowing it.

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

Caltech was fascinating.

Vardalas:

Describe your arrival at Caltech. What were your expectations? What did you encounter and experience at Caltech?

Leeson:

Well, I expected to do okay, but then I attended freshman camp. At camp they delivered the standard script, explaining that two out of three students would be gone, only a few people were going to make it through, and it was going to be really hard. I got nervous, studied very hard, and did okay. I had some marvelous professors; Linus Pauling was the professor of freshman chemistry. Later I took a course in physics from Feynman.

Vardalas:

You took Richard Feynman’s physics course?

Leeson:

Yes, he had a course where he gave a weekly lecture on subjects that were sort of tossed out by the audience. He’d pick one subject and deliver a one-hour lecture. I didn’t understand them all, but it just fascinated me.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I was really interested. Sometimes I’d get to daydreaming about chemistry, but one time I spilled my unknown in chemistry lab and was told by the instructor, “You’ll never be a chemist.” I always came back to engineering and electrical engineering was my choice.

By the time I was a college senior I was taking on consulting jobs, and I was working as a technician in the physics lab, building equipment for cloud chambers, and things of that sort.

Vardalas:

Did you have mentors? Did anybody at Caltech play a determining or important role in your life?

Leeson:

No, I did not have a particular mentor at Caltech. The whole institution more than an individual, significantly impacted my life. It was fun meeting Feynman, in fact, we had him over for Thanksgiving dinner at a time when he was single and lonely. We all felt we should carve a turkey with him. Caltech had a way of asking questions that implied you already knew what you had to know to get to that point, and now you had to figure out how to use it for something you hadn’t done yet. Tests were all done that way. It was a marvelous way to learn and I’ve never been able to duplicate that [as a professor]. Caltech also had a terrific honor system. You were completely free to leave the test room and take your test with you. I used to take my tests on the pool table in the newspaper office. I was one of the editors of the newspaper, the California Tech.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I probably spent an inordinate amount of time on the newspaper. It threw my schedule off the entire week because we worked all Monday night to get the newspaper ready for the printer. I learned a lot about printing and I learned a lot about writing. I love to write, and as an editor, I practically rewrote everybody’s stuff.

Vardalas:

Did you learn to write in high school, too? Did you write earlier in your life or did you pick it up at Caltech?

Leeson:

I wrote in high school, but I didn’t have the passion for it that I developed later. I really loved those white key L.C. Smith typewriters that you clonked away on. I just thought that was terrific. I remember winning an essay contest because I was the only entry. [Laughs] It had some advantages. When I graduated from Caltech, I felt that I wanted something different; that Caltech was too theoretical and not sufficiently practical or experimental.

Vardalas:

Oh, really?

Leeson:

I’m really an experimentalist. I enjoy theory, but to me, the proof of the pudding is having something work.

Vardalas:

That’s surprising. You’re saying Caltech wasn’t experimental enough.

Leeson:

Yes, I didn’t find it that experimental, at least at the undergraduate level. I didn’t want to be a physicist, so at that point I wanted to try MIT. I applied to MIT and went there for a year. It was so different that I didn’t enjoy it very much.

Vardalas:

What did you find so different about MIT?

Leeson:

MIT was Eastern. People talked funny. You couldn’t park your car in front of your apartment unless you paid the police. There were a lot of different things for a California kid to get used to. It snowed in the winter. I had a little TR3, a Triumph, that you had to pull the cover up, and the snow came in through the sides. Most significantly, MIT had an entirely different approach. When you graduated as an undergraduate, you were ready to go to work as an engineer, whereas when you graduated from Caltech as an undergraduate, you knew how to read a book about almost any subject.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

The difference was dramatic. In addition, at the master’s level, I went with an acceptance for the Ph.D. However, when I got to campus, they said, “Oh, we made a mistake. You’re just a master’s student.” That irritated me a lot, so MIT got off on the wrong foot. I learned that if you had a thesis and wanted to publish it, you had to have their permission. Luckily, I was able to publish it first, so for my thesis I submitted my paper from the IEEE Proceedings (or IRE Proceedings in those days). I told MIT “here’s my thesis and by the way, I’ve been accepted at Stanford, so you can give me the degree or not.” It was not a great relationship.

Vardalas:

Yes, I can see that it was not a great relationship.

Leeson:

The MIT experience was educational, and I met some very interesting people, especially colleagues, other grad students, who later had a role in my life.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

Then—

Vardalas:

Tell me about Stanford University.

Leeson:

Stanford was an entirely different experience. I discovered Stanford had people who were very interested in amateur radio for professional reasons, ionospheric science, backscatter experiments, and things of that sort. In particular, Stanford had a professor named Villard [Oswald Garrison Villard, Jr.], who was a ham, who wrote a lot of articles that I really admired in ham radio magazines. As the result of those, that was where I wanted to go for a Ph.D.

Vardalas:

You combined your passion for ham radio with your engineering.

Leeson:

The thesis I wrote at MIT was a published paper about nonlinear circuits for harmonic generation. I wanted to do more, so that was my intent for my Ph.D. thesis as well. And it ended up that way, although I had a couple of sidetracks. At that time, 1959 through 1962, semiconductor physics was just coming to the fore. This was after Shockley [William Bradford Shockley, Jr.] came, and many people already arrived at Stanford from Bell Labs.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

People were getting interested in semiconductors. Well, I tried, but it wasn’t my thing, so I never got to be a semiconductor guy.

Vardalas:

When you say not your thing what do you mean?

Leeson:

It just didn’t click with me.

Vardalas:

It didn’t?

Leeson:

Circuits were something I could really have a sense for and there was a lot of circuit activity parametric, amplifiers, frequency multipliers, and things of that sort. It was a new and rich territory.

Vardalas:

I notice that you’re still always interested in propagation and things to do with the electromagnetic spectrum.

Leeson:

At that time, it was more a hobby interest than a professional interest, but I did take some marvelous courses.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

The one thing I learned at Stanford that stuck with me forever was in a course from a fellow named Gordon Kino. He said, “By the way, the one thing I want you to remember is that the model is not the thing.”

Vardalas:

How would you interpret that statement?

Leeson:

If you have a model of something, a mathematical model, you can do all the things you want, but always remember that the thing is more complicated or different, and there may be multiple models of the thing.

Vardalas:

Yes, okay.

Leeson:

If you just keep in mind that when you start talking about the model showing this or that, never slip over into stating the thing works this way because it’s the model you’re talking about.

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

It is the model, not the thing.

Vardalas:

That stuck with you?

Leeson:

Yes, especially linear models of course don’t work on nonlinear circuits.

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

Or they don’t show the nonlinear behavior. I thought that was very interesting.

Vardalas:

What was the environment like at Stanford? How would you compare it to Caltech and MIT? You already categorized Caltech and MIT. How would you characterize Stanford?

Leeson:

Let us go back to MIT for a second. MIT was studious and focused on creating an engineer who could go to work. One of the things I loved about MIT, but I didn’t learn enough about, was the history of World War II and the Radiation Lab [the Rad Lab was housed in Building 20, 18 Vassar St., Cambridge, Massachusetts].

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

In the buildings that were still there; the famous Building 20 was there, it still had waveguide that came out of the transom of one lab, down the hall and in the transom of another lab; all sort of a mystery, all sort of a mystery. Who knows what was happening there? That’s the building that Stewart Brand wrote a marvelous paper about called “Nobody Cares What You Do In There.” [Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, Viking, 1994] Building 20 was an old wooden building that was supposed to be torn down at the end of World War II, but it was so flexible MIT kept it for decades. Many of the most important things ever conceived at MIT came out of that building.

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

You could cut it with a chainsaw.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

You could adapt it. That had a big impact on my thinking about facilities for a business. Stanford was a place on the way up. It was sort of us against the world. “We wanted to be the Harvard of the West, but we’re not there yet.” Fred Terman was active, and I was very impressed with him. At the time I was at Stanford I didn’t have any contact with the local companies. I didn’t even know about them. When you’re a student the only companies you know about are when you bought a dishwasher that said, “General Electric” or you had a television that said “Sylvania.” You had no idea about what’s big, what’s small, who’s coming, who’s not, at least I didn’t in those days. However, I did a lot of consulting for Professor Mike Villard.

His name was Oswald Garrison Villard, Jr., but his college roommate at Yale said, “I’ll call you Mike.” He was from the Garrison family and the Villard family, very well-to-do, and a very cultured and polished guy. I remember the worst thing he would ever say by way of swearing was “Oh bird.”

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

He was a terrific guy, a marvelous guy, and he was a key mentor.

Vardalas:

Okay, in what way?

Leeson:

We will come back to the story.

Vardalas:

Good, we’ll come back to him.

Leeson:

When I leave Stanford he comes back to the story.

Vardalas:

Before you leave Stanford what was your relationship to your Ph.D. thesis supervisor?

Leeson:

Awkward. Let me come back to that because I wanted to talk about when I got tired of fixing radios. I was going to work at an antenna company; however, it went broke. Since I needed a job, I worked as a bank clerk for a summer. I handled all the paychecks from Hughes Aircraft Company and I saw these guys were making a lot of money. Some of them made $180 every two weeks.

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

I wanted that. I knew all the guys at Hughes Aircraft because they were also radio amateurs; all the senior management. I approached them and they said, “When you’re eighteen we can insure you, but until then we can’t hire you.” The day I turned eighteen, boom, I went in and I got a job there as a technician. My job was sorting incoming transistors; each came in a little bag. I took it out and polished it.

Vardalas:

This is before you went to MIT.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I polished it with alcohol, wrote a serial number on it, tested it, and put it in a bin for what it was good for. None of the transistors were good for anything in those days, but that was my first job at Hughes. I worked in the division that made radar and radar-controlled missiles. I stayed in that division. I worked there summers and vacations, all the way through school, all the way through Stanford. When I graduated from Stanford I took six months off and then went back to Hughes. I worked there for a couple years because I felt I owed them because they provided a scholarship or fellowship for me at the graduate level.

Vardalas:

I have two questions, so let’s return to Hughes.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

What did you feel you learned at Hughes? How did the work at Hughes contribute to your becoming an engineer?

Leeson:

Well, I—

Vardalas:

Consider the environment at Hughes. Hughes was a big corporation.

Leeson:

I learned it was a big corporation, but it wasn’t very economically motivated. It was more academic. People did what they did because they thought it was interesting. Norm Fjeldsted Jr. Had come to the high school and mentioned when you work on a project at Hughes, they leave you alone. Schedules were flexible, You could come in during the night or morning, whenever you want, because as long as you get it done, everybody’s happy. I thought that sounded good. It worked out that way. The projects I worked on at Hughes included three formative projects: radar, Doppler radar, the predecessor to GPS and the first synchronous satellite. I did not realize Doppler radar was so new. Doppler radar was invented in 1943 by W.W. Hansen [William W. Hansen], the subject of a biography I’m writing.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Among his other inventions. I learned all about the requirements for Doppler radar, kind of by osmosis. Here were all these people working on it, and there were all these things the company knew how to do. It was one of three companies in the radar business for airborne Doppler; Hughes, Raytheon, and Westinghouse. It was extremely competitive and it provided a marvelous graduate education in radar. At the time, two key issues in radar were how to make solid-state microwave sources, which required frequency multipliers that I knew about. The other was that Doppler radar has unique phase noise, spectral characteristic requirements. I learned about that kind of firsthand because it was nothing you’d learned in school. Nobody knew about that, nobody cared. The second project that I worked on was called the flying clock experiment or the orbiting clock experiment, which was a predecessor to GPS.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

The clock experiment was out of a different part of Hughes, so I used to get on the bus and travel from Culver City to El Segundo. I spent a lot of time on the bus because it went slow. Nobody had cellphones, so I could think while I was traveling. [laughs]

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

The third project I thought was really a marvelous experience for multiple reasons. I was an engineer on Syncom, the first synchronous satellite, communications satellite.

Vardalas:

You did this while you were a graduate or an undergraduate student?

Leeson:

This was after I had finished Stanford and come back to work, so this was from about 1962 to 1964.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I felt I was going to make a career at Hughes because I liked it.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I liked working at Hughes and the company had been good to me.

Vardalas:

Before we continue with Hughes tell me about your awkward relationship with your thesis [dissertation] supervisor.

Leeson:

Oh, that was an interesting thing.

Vardalas:

How did you select your dissertation topic?

Leeson:

Well, I picked my dissertation topic.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I wanted to do the next stage of what I had already published from my work at MIT. I wanted to go beyond the master’s thesis and provide a better analysis of the nonlinear circuit. In regard to the nonlinear stuff, you can just keep digging and digging and digging.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

You can make it better and better and better. It’s a huge part of the world. I also was interested in what else could be done to make it more useful and more accurate. That was my interest. It always was my interest and I had a supervisor who worked in that technical area.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

His name was Hubert Hefner, Jr., not the Hugh Hefner of Playboy. Hu Hefner was my thesis advisor, and one summer I came back from Hughes and tried to make an appointment with him. I was told, “Oh, he’s no longer with us.” I thought “oh my God, he died, but he was a young guy.” But he wasn’t there and nobody would say much about it, so I picked another advisor. Years later I got to wondering whatever happened to Hubert Hefner, Jr. I was in the Stanford University archives studying Hansen’s archives, and I thought, hey, I can find out what happened to Hefner. I always told my students, “Be nice to your advisor, mine died. It wasn’t my fault, but he just disappeared.” Well, it turned out he didn’t die at all. He formed a competing department with the electrical engineering department and became persona non grata. Nobody would even talk about him. He started an Applied Physics Department.

Vardalas:

At Stanford?

Leeson:

Yes, at Stanford, in the Physics Department, and he took with him many of the key professors in nonlinear microwave physics.

Vardalas:

You did not know he was right on the Stanford campus.

Leeson:

Well, he took a year-long sabbatical.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

He was not on campus because he was on sabbatical. I’ve always wondered why he didn’t approach me and let me know because I would have followed him. I ended up with a professor who was an expert in an entirely unrelated area. He tried to get me interested in his area, solid-state physics, and I tried, but it just wasn’t my thing. Besides, I already had my heart in this other thesis and it was mostly done. Eventually I finished it and he approved it, but he said, “I don’t know why I would bother with anything like this, it really has no meaning.” I never got encouragement to publish it, which I regret, and I left.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I got my degree and asked about taking the solid-state physics lab, which was introduced the year I was leaving. They said, “Nope, you’re done, we got to make room for the next guy.”

Vardalas:

Did you have anybody well-known as your external examiner?

Leeson:

No.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I was really absorbed in getting my degree.

Vardalas:

Yes, but in terms of your thesis defense, usually there’s an external member of the committee

Leeson:

Oh, there were two that I remember. One was a fellow named Tony Seigman who asked me how a refrigerator worked. This was a great question. I mean he asked it in a different way and he found out that I understood the physics. If the energy’s going into a closed room and you open the door of the refrigerator, eventually the room gets warmer, not colder. He was satisfied with my response and we maintained a relationship for many years. He passed away just recently. The other examiner was a fellow named Dave Tuttle, who asked me about a missile ring around Phoenix and what I thought about it. It was a political question and I wasn’t very good at politics. But, I was done and got out.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I went back to work at Hughes.

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

First, I went to Europe for six months. A friend, a grad student, invited me to Denmark where he was a well-known person and I could have a job there when I got there. I got there, called him up, and he found me a job. I was working for an outfit making walkie-talkies. What did they want? They wanted me to teach them how Motorola did it, so I taught them how to make a walkie-talkie. It was a very interesting job, but Denmark was the coldest place I’ve ever been.

Vardalas:

[Laughs] I forgot, you are the Southern California boy.

Leeson:

Yes, it was winter, the coldest winter in 140 years and the Baltic froze all the way to Finland.

Vardalas:

Oh.

Leeson:

Pretty soon I decided it was time to go home. I went back to work for Hughes and lived in LA for a few years.

Vardalas:

This is Syncom now. That’s when you get into Syncom.

Leeson:

Yes. The thing about Syncom that I thought was terrific was that the chief engineer and the program manager both owned it, it was theirs, and you did it their way or the highway. At the time, I thought I could teach them something about - -

Vardalas:

Do you remember their names?

Leeson:

Yes, Hal Rosen and Tom Hudspeth.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I later met Hal Rosen’s brother in the investment business.

Vardalas:

Oh, you should check, I interviewed Hal Rosen at Boeing.

Leeson:

Okay. Hal’s a great guy.

Vardalas:

I spent a whole two hours with him.

Leeson:

Oh, I’ll look at that interview. I didn’t interact with Hal very much except for hearing his lecture warning nobody leaves here until the job is done, and whatever my pal Hudspeth tells you to do, you either do it or we won’t use it. I designed a circuit that I thought was a great improvement on what they requested. I still remember him saying, “Did you do it the way I want it? It looks kind of small.” I said, “Yes, it’s more modern.” He said, “Thank you,” and he put it aside. Then he said, “Now, go back and do it the way I told you.” I was really irritated and upset; however, in later years I did the same thing to people who worked for me. Some of my people told me, “I’ll never work on a project for you again.” If you’re in charge of something and it’s your job to make it come out right, then it’s your mistake, and sure, somebody can argue, but it was a marvelous lesson. Hughes later bragged about it as a triumph of the Hughes method, but it was totally different from any other project inside of Hughes.

Vardalas:

Really?

Leeson:

Yes, all of us in one room. It was more like what I later was; the way you make a race car. You put the race car in the middle of the room, all the offices are little cubbyholes around it, and people look out and say, “Oh my God, my wheels aren’t on that car yet.”

Vardalas:

[Laughs] Really?

Leeson:

We looked at the satellite, and I would say, “Oh my God, my antennas aren’t on that satellite yet,” and that motivated me. Besides, there was no place to escape. You couldn’t hide in an office and say, “I’m not here or I’m busy.” It was just a terrific project. But then I came to a point where I was interested in knowing what my future was at Hughes. I asked around and spoke with Greg D’Nelly, a terrific guy who had been my mentor in radar.

D’Nelly and I had a very social relationship besides an intellectual relationship. We used to go to lunch every day, the whole group, and except for Greg we all got fat. He had a P-51 that he shared with the race car driver, Phil Hill, and he was a race car driver.

Vardalas:

Oh really?

Leeson:

I had gotten interested in racing when I was at Stanford. We’ll come back to racing.

Vardalas:

Yes, please do.

Leeson:

Because that [racing] formed a big part of my understanding of strategic life and project life, and I was then able to apply it to a business. I inquired about when I was going to get to manage a group at Hughes. The answer was, “Look, a lot of us have been here a lot longer than you, and maybe in ten years you could manage a group of three or four engineers. Maybe in twenty years you could be a section manager and have two or three groups.” I said, “No, I’m not interested in that, I’m not going to be here that long. I’ve got things I want to do.”

I decided it was time to leave, so I applied to various places that I had had contact with at Stanford. There were a number of people at Stanford who’d come from Bell Labs. Bell Labs was very interested in hiring people from Stanford, especially in the nonlinear circuit area. Hewlett-Packard was another company I considered. I heard all kinds of wonderful things about it, but without really knowing it personally. Neither of those worked out. I wish I still had the nice letter Bell Labs sent me stating, “If you had a proper education, we could hire you, but you weren’t educated in our program at Northeastern, so you’ll never amount to a hill of beans.”

Vardalas:

Really?

Leeson:

I don’t know why they sent such a letter and the guy who wanted to hire me was just beside himself. I said, “no, I don’t trust an outfit that would do that.” Whether he could fix it or not, it wouldn’t help. After that, I didn’t want to go to New Jersey because I thought that was somehow connected with New Jersey, too.

Vardalas:

Did you apply to RCA Labs, too?

Leeson:

No, I didn’t. When I was growing up, the story was, don’t bother applying to either RCA or Westinghouse. They won’t hire a kid like you, so that was it.

Vardalas:

What do you think that statement meant?

Leeson:

Well, we were a Jewish family, and they had quotas.

Vardalas:

Oh.

Leeson:

It was well-known that those companies had quotas as did many universities. The West was different.

Vardalas:

Oh, I didn’t realize this situation.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Did you encounter anti-Semitism at Caltech, MIT, or Stanford?

Leeson:

No, I never did. I never exposed myself to the outfits that were reputed to be problematic.

Vardalas:

You were sensitive to this issue?

Leeson:

Oh yes, and that’s why I wanted to run my own business.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Among other things, I left Hughes and had a terrific interview at HP. I interviewed with Dave Packard, who I admire greatly.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I interviewed with Dave Packard, Bill Hewlett, and their chief VP of engineering, Barney Oliver, who did a wonderful interview. At the end they said, “We’d love to have you come here and be a scientist in our frequency control division.” I would work for people that I already knew because I’d been getting into that field. I’ll come back to that topic later. I said, “Well, I really would like to manage something; I’d like to control the assets.” They responded, “Nope, we need you as a scientist, not a manager; you’ll be a great scientist.” So it just didn’t work out. I interviewed at two or three other places. The typical answer from each company was, “We already have managers, if you don’t want to be an engineer, forget it,” or “We’re here and there’s already too many of us, so we’re not even going to recommend you.”

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

Eventually, I talked to Mike Villard, and he said, “Well, let me introduce you to some people who started a company called Applied Technology. I’m a director and an investor, and I think that you could fit in there very well.” I met the president Bill Ayer and the engineering VP John Grigsby and we hit it off like crazy. I was employee number forty, fifty or something like that. It was a terrific outfit; a Silicon Valley type of company. It was a spinoff of the electromagnetic warfare labs that Fred Terman started at Stanford in response to his government plan at the end of World War II, and people were spinning off. Bill Perry, whom I knew, was also a spinoff. It was great, it was marvelous, and it grew like crazy because this was just at the time of the Vietnam War. I got a lot of business in building microwave signal sources, the area I was interested and the work I had done at Hughes. In thinking back, I can see a lot of interest arose because now I wasn’t part of Hughes, everybody thought I knew what Hughes knew. Probably I knew more in some ways and less in others.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I was a specialist. Let me back up though. In 1963 or 1964, when I was working at Hughes, a gentleman visited us by the name of Bill Saunders.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Bill Saunders was a high-level scientist at Harry Diamond Labs in Washington, D.C. Bill was on the lookout for somebody that he could sponsor who would respond to him in radar, who knew Doppler radar enough to want to know more. Saunders got me interested in being on the program committee of a new symposium, the 1964 IEEE NASA Symposium on Short-term Frequency Stability, which was the first and last of its kind.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

The paper that I’ve written explains the background of this [D.B. Leeson, “Oscillator Phase Noise: A 50-Year Review,” IEEE Trans UFFC, Vol. 63, Issue 8, August 2016, pp. 1208-1225;

Oscillator_Phase_Noise_Retrospective_IFCS_4-16-15.pdf

https://doi.org/10.1109/TUFFC.2016.2562663

Phase Noise (first hand history).

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Basically, Bill was the direct sponsor. When I left Hughes he also became a sponsor also of finding things that somebody ought to buy from me. Ultimately, when I left Applied Technology he became our first customer at California Microwave, in a big way. So, he played a huge role in my life.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

He was a Ph.D. engineer, a wonderful guy, a marvelous guy.

Vardalas:

Let’s go back to Applied Technology. How long were you employed at Applied Technology?

Leeson:

I was there for four years. The company grew from 2 to 5 to 10 and then to $30 million, so in four years it grew hugely.

Vardalas:

What positions did you hold at Applied Technology? Did you get the management role you wanted?

Leeson:

Eventually. First, I got fired, then I got the management role I wanted.

Vardalas:

You got fired?

Leeson:

The company was staffed by a half-dozen young guys like me, each running an engineering section with a product. At one point, the company discovered that we didn’t know much about either management or finance. They thought we should hire somebody from one of our former employers. In this case the guy came from Lockheed (I can’t remember his name). He told me I was now working for him. He was very militaristic, and expected to say “Jump” to which I was supposed to say “How high?” I said, “Gee, I don’t really think I can work under that kind of situation.” He said, “Well, in that case, you’re fired.” I said, “Well, you can’t fire me, you didn’t hire me. The board hired me and it would be up to them to decide.” I guess I was pretty cheeky. [Laughs]

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

For a while I was set aside in a staff position essentially helping a fellow I had brought in as a number two.


We were getting some results and eventually a big production contract came along from Westinghouse. Dan Healey, a guy I knew through ham radio among other things, told Applied Technology “Well, we’ll only place the contract if Dave’s in charge. So if you want it, put him in charge. If you don’t, let us know.” So, I ended up being in charge of a lab and I got a huge salary. It was $20,000 or something like that, a lot of money in those days. I got my own building. When my team wanted its own machine tools we were told “No, there’s a machine shop.” I realized at this point that a standard organizational arrangement fosters priority conflicts. If you have a project that has to get done, it’s more effective, even though it may not seem as economical, to have your own assets such as machine tools.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It was best to have your own assets and to have them under your direct control. We wanted a mill and were told “No, the building won’t take it.” So ten of us stood in a circle and jumped up and down. We wrote a report about a 2,000-pound oscillating load that didn’t break the floor. The next thing you know equipment came through the window with a forklift, and we had our own mill and machinist, so we could get our job done. It was really a marvelous experience to learn that you needed to have some control of the assets if you’re going to have a project.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Otherwise, if you’re waiting in line, you never know when you’re going to get your ice cream cone.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Applied Technology was sold to a corporation called Itek, a Massachusetts outfit, whose major claim to fame was its Rockefeller money.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

We didn’t hit it off with them, they didn’t hit it off with me, and very quickly it came to a head. I was traveling with my marketing manager, Al Kenrick, on an airplane to visit customers in Washington, D.C. Mike Villard was on the same airplane. We were up front, the two young guys in first class, and Villard headed to his seat in the back with his old beat-up briefcase. Villard was on the President’s scientific advisory board and we were just on a marketing trip. He had agreed to accept the post on the scientific advisory board with two provisos. Up front he submitted his resignation letter, stapled to the back of his acceptance letter. If they didn’t like his work, they already had his resignation, so they didn’t have to ask for it. Of course, nobody would accept the resignation. They would say “Oh, wait a minute, no, no, no, don’t leave yet.” The second proviso was he could go home every weekend, so he spent a lot of time on airplanes.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

These were the DC-7 days.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

The flight took seven or eight hours of going, “Rum, rum, rum,” all the way across the country. When Villard boarded the airplane I mentioned I was very unhappy with Itek and was thinking of starting my own outfit. He said, “Well, I’m no longer a director of anything, I’ve cashed in my shares, and it’s a long trip. You two guys talk about it and then come and talk about what you have in mind.” So, Al and I spent two or three hours; and Kenrick, a marvelous guy with a business background, taught me about how cash flow works. He said, “It’s simple. You spend the money now and three months later you get paid back. You got to have that money during that period, otherwise you go through zero and you’re out of business.” I said, “Oh, is that how it works?” He said, “Yes. It’s called turnover.” You do it three times a year with a four-month turnover, then you need $1 million to do $3 million worth of business. I learned all about cash flow. Then we figured out who would place an order with us? We had this big list of people.

Vardalas:

What were the things you wanted to do? What were the products you wanted to get out?

Leeson:

I wanted to build signal sources that had become secondary for Applied Technology. Applied Technology’s big business was radar homing and warning receivers, a huge success during the Vietnam era. They could spot the radar associated with a missile launch and the pilot would know to take avoidance.

Vardalas:

You wanted to build this component?

Leeson:

I wanted to build the radar products.

Vardalas:

Did you know who your customers were going to be for these radar products?

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

Yes, we knew everybody in the business. By that time, I had already been on this committee that had put on the 1964 symposium where I gave a paper. We were asked to be the editors of the 1966 IEEE Proceedings issue on the same subject, frequency stability. So, I was an editor of the proceedings and I had two papers in it. I ended up writing a two-page paper that’s the most cited paper in the business.

Vardalas:

What made you think that you had the technical know-how? You seem confident you could build this radar equipment and make money doing so?

Leeson:

I didn’t care. I just wanted to be in charge of all the assets, including the financial part, so I figured, okay, that’s a way to start.

Vardalas:

Did you fear this would not succeed financially?

Leeson:

I could always get a job.

Vardalas:

Oh, okay.

Leeson:

I figured I was going to learn something. It’s the Silicon Valley idea. In this area, if somebody’s not working, the idea is not that he got fired, but he’s starting a company but won’t tell us. It was in the air even then. Halfway through the flight we walked back in the airplane and talked to Villard about what I had in mind. Villard reached into his briefcase, pulled out a checkbook, and wrote me a blank check. He said “Don’t put in more than a quarter-million dollars,” which was the equivalent of several million dollars today. He also said, “When we get back to the West Coast, I will introduce you to other people who want to invest, and we’ll do it.” So, with that as the starting point (we figured we needed $300,000, but we doubled it) we raised the money in no time and had a company.

Vardalas:

Villard had a lot of confidence in you.

Leeson:

I had worked for him a lot, he’d seen me at Applied Technology, and he also saw I was a little fussy some days. [Laughs]

Vardalas:

Where did you set up shop?

Leeson:

We rented a building, part of a building in Sunnyvale, 1188 Elko Drive. Right away, the first day, a woman showed up named Barbara Carson, who had worked for us at Applied Technology and had been let go. She said, “You guys will need me, and I don’t need to be paid for a while.” Five people started the new company, three from Applied Technology, one from another local outfit, and one from Fairchild Microwaves. We started with a good group of people.

Vardalas:

How did you find the other four individuals? Were you in contact with each other before this?

Leeson:

We knew each other.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Yes, we knew each other professionally, attending shows, seeing each other give technical papers, etc.

Vardalas:

Did you put out feelers, asking “are you interested?

Leeson:

Yes, I said, “We’re starting a company this weekend. Come and interview.” I had guys coming every hour to my garage in Los Altos and at the end of the weekend I made my choice. I said, “Okay, here we go. Nobody gets a free ride. Everybody puts in whatever money they can afford. We’ll take a third and the professors will take a third.” Fred Terman was an investor. Villard got Terman and about six other professors interested and he introduced me to individual venture investors. My theory was that each group took a third, so it would take two groups to mess up the third. This game plan was never tested, but we got our money and set to work. Previously, HP would not sell us equipment on our personal credit cards, but now it sold equipment to my company. I still remember that when the business started it was hot in the daytime. Our shop had an unconditioned backroom like a warehouse, so it was extremely hot. All of the instruments had thermal clickers that turned them off if it was too hot, so we had to work at night. It was so hot we worked barefoot. Right away we got a contract through Bill Saunders [William R. Saunders] with the army for radar test instruments for Doppler radar that used our know-how. Essentially, the idea was to capitalize the skills, the unique skills that we had because we were published in frequency multipliers, frequency stability, and radar. Instead of having to produce a product, we could say, “Look, here’s our papers. You know we can do it. We did it at Hughes. We did it at Applied Technology, and now we’re available to you.” The one thing that a new company has that’s just amazing; it doesn’t have any overhang in priorities. If somebody says, “When can you get to it?” “Well, how about now?”

[Laughs] “We can fix it this afternoon.”

That’s an amazing power that I think is not widely recognized.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Indeed, a new company doesn’t have any of this old stuff where you’ve got a customer beating on you asking, “Where’s my thing?” Or politics. I have a theory of organizations, it’s called the jerk theory of organizations. Nobody likes working with jerks, so the people who don’t like working with jerks leave. This leaves large, mature organizations at the risk of having an awful lot of jerks in charge. A new company doesn’t have that problem. Everybody’s honest. When you break something, you tell everybody, “Look guys, I broke our thing. We got to—how are we going to recover?” Instead of saying, “Oh, it broke itself.” Or, “it fell of the table,” or whatever. It was a wonderful experience to start a new company.

Vardalas:

Describe the first year as you tried to sell products and get the company off the ground?

Leeson:

Well, the first year—

Vardalas:

The first year you had to sell products, make and meet payments, meet payroll and tackle many tasks.

Leeson:

The first year was getting to cash turnaround. We started with $600,000, flew awfully low, and then managed to turn it around and get it back up. The government is a very good customer. For some reason, the government, then and still today, doesn’t recognize the time value of money. They have no idea that if they don’t pay you today, and instead they pay you tomorrow, you have to borrow money and pay interest.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Instead, they pay you early and they make sure you are okay. The first time we had a government inspection for this first contract, which ended up being $1 million contract.

Vardalas:

When you speak of the government, do you mean the defense government, the defense contracts awarded by the U.S. government?

Leeson:

Yes, the defense government. We had a sponsor. When they came we had relatives and friends creating sort of a Potemkin village. We had a group of people who looked like they were making something and another group of people in a conference room who looked like they were discussing something. I think they saw through us, but they said, “Okay, you guys can do the job, you’ve got a sponsor. We’ll help you out, and here’s what you need to know about quality. Here’s what you need to know about this.” They were really helpful. We were told, “Look, if you need an advance payment, let us know, we’ll send some money.” It was great and so as a result we became a government contractor long before we became a supplier to commercial industry.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Besides radar we also were interested in all the other uses that involve short-term frequency stability.

Vardalas:

Please, provide some examples.

Leeson:

Examples at the time included frequency division, multiplex, point-to-point microwave radio for telephony. AT&T had this cross-country system.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

We ended up displacing Bell Labs, which was satisfying to me, and Western Electric, as their supplier of radio equipment for a long time. AT&T was a great customer even though they never paid on time. The scheme for delaying payments went like this: “Well, the paperwork has to go to St. Louis and then it has to go to New York.” And, “Oh Yes, I’m sorry, we can’t pay this month, but maybe next month.” Due to delayed payments, we always had to have a little money set aside. Then we got into the international business, particularly satellite earth stations.

Vardalas:

Oh, satellites.

Leeson:

When I was at Hughes I worked on several projects with NASA and decided, no I don’t like to work with NASA. They’re too fussy and they only made one. I wanted to work in the razor blade business not the razor business.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Cal Microwave’s management idea was like sitting at a table in a Western saloon and play poker until we won. Then we’d have a trusted associate who knew the game, so we’d leave him there to play the game while we moved on to start another game. We had divisions built on the idea that they all had to have the assets they needed. Each one had its own manufacturing and marketing. We had central coordination, but we probably didn’t do enough central stuff. Eventually, when we got into investing in new startups and incorporating them as divisions, they weren’t incentivized to do much research because they were more incentivized to have higher earnings.

Vardalas:

Okay, so describe the growth of the company in the first two years.

Leeson:

Well, by four years, we were ready to go public.

Vardalas:

Oh, you were going public after four years?

Leeson:

We were profitable.

Vardalas:

How big did you get after four years?

Leeson:

After four years, we reached $5 million in sales.

Vardalas:

How many employees did you have?

Leeson:

We had somewhere around fifty, sixty or seventy employees or maybe even one hundred employees.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

We had a good stream of contracts and we had a good stream of products. We had commercial customers like Collins Radio Company [purchased by Rockwell International in 1973].

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

Intelsat and AT&T were beginning to buy from us and the government business continued to grow.

Vardalas:

Did things change when you went public?

Leeson:

Things did not change right away, but I guess they did change. The first quarter we said, well, it isn’t going to be the biggest quarter of the year, and right away the stock dropped. We thought, oh my God, this is horrifying why do they want to know that? It’s always variable from quarter to quarter, and we learned that the stock market operates on the slimmest of rumors and suppositions. We had to get used to that.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Okay. We learned to enjoy it, but I never liked it. We went public, in part, because it was the thing to do and because our investors, our original investors, deserved liquidity.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

While we never needed the money, going public gave us enough financing so that we could capitalize the big projects that we got with AT&T.

Vardalas:

Right, because you’re the gentleman who just told me earlier, “I was interested in just doing my stuff,” and I was not worried about the startup succeeding financially. You said, “I really didn’t care. I can get a job.” However, didn’t going public change the game a bit?

Leeson:

Yes, the game changes. One of the things that changes is you could no longer invest for the long-term future. Our investment strategy was somewhat unique in that I insisted that if we were going to invest in something we had to have somebody who was so well thought of by a customer that they could identify the customer’s needs, and the customer would know they would be the one to do it.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Then the customer would be willing to put some money into it.

Vardalas:

Let me just pause for a second.

Leeson:

Ready to go? Okay. Our general investment strategy was that we were good at a combination of things that uniquely fitted us for three or four industries.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

We pursued that strategy. Eventually, we expanded and I’ll talk about the expansion. In the first decade, most of the products we designed. I had a big role in designing all the products, which I loved. My first idea at starting a company was five of us in a room with a spectrum analyzer, going to just have some fun. Then eventually it turned out, if you’ve got people’s money, including our own, you got to at least make it somehow successful. It ended up being much bigger than we ever imagined. Along the way, we had to learn and I had to learn about business strategy. I became very interested in business strategy and I used the lessons I learned from racing that I’ll describe in a minute. I discovered that managing a larger business is primarily strategic, not tactical.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

You have to be in the right thing and you have to be good at it. You have to predict what the future holds. We missed a few times and had some major blunders.

Vardalas:

Like what? Give me an example of your misses or blunders.

Leeson:

Years later, because we had done so much work for AT&T, they asked us if we wanted to help with the cellular system. Along with a fellow who I still feel very wonderful about, who had started a company for us in Rochester and had a Motorola background, we met with people from AT&T. They said, “Well, you guys do great work. We’d like to have you make these units that are going to go in cars.” We talked about it and we said, “Well, we think that’s going to be a consumer product and we’re really an infrastructure company. We build Greyhound buses that last fifty years and you keep putting new motors under them. We’re not really knowledgeable in the consumer business.” At that time, the Japanese were doing very well in consumer business, so we said, “We think that would be an area where we would be subject to really effective competition by somebody who knew how to deal with consumers.” (It turned out our assessment was correct.) We asked, “Well, what about the cell sites?” They said, “Oh, well, we think maybe at most there will be twenty or thirty of them in the whole country.” We said, “Oh, that’s not enough to interest us.” We never really analyzed it. If we go through the numbers, it turns out there are thousands of cell sites. It would have been a great business.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It didn’t use enough of what we were exceptional at.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I consider it to be one of my great blunders. I learned a lot from never say no until you really think about it. In 1962, I got interested in racing.

Vardalas:

Yes, please expand on this topic.

Leeson:

It was the same kind of thing I previously described to you; sort of an eye-opener. I went to a race. Now I look back on racing as something I enjoyed. I went to a race, saw a guy I knew in high school who was racing and doing very well, and I thought, hey, look what he’s doing. He’s having a great time. It looked dramatic. It’s more than a spectator sport. I thought I could do that, so with my scholarship money I bought a very inexpensive Porsche Speedster.

Vardalas:

You purchased the car with your scholarship money?

Leeson:

Yes, I had two Porsches as a graduate student.

Vardalas:

Wow.

Leeson:

One Porsche for driving to school

Vardalas:

This must have been a great scholarship.

Leeson:

It was a good scholarship and I was also working as a consultant. On a scale of a graduate student, cars weren’t that expensive. I must have paid $800 or $1,000 for it. Nobody wanted it, but I wanted it. So, I got a racing license.

Vardalas:

How does one get a racing license?

Leeson:

You have to go through a racing school. The Sports Car Club of America is an example of an outfit that licenses racing. After going through school, you’re a novice for three races. If you don’t mess up, you get to be a regional driver for a year and then you get to be a national driver.

Leeson:

If you’re really good, you get to go qualify for the national championship. It is a one-week, winner take all contest with thirty-three cars. Either you win the national championship or you don’t. It was really very interesting as well as a lot of work. Racing was entertaining and thrilling and I did okay, but I never won any races. One of my vice presidents, a very insightful fellow named Drew Lance, said, “I’d like to help with your race car. I enjoy that sort of thing.” He and his son were national champions in model aircraft combat, another specialty. They were good at it. They even knew about five-minute epoxy to repair a broken airplane and that sort of stuff. I said, “great, that would be wonderful Drew, come on and help me.” After about three or four races, he said, “Well, I guess I’m done, you’re not going to win.” I said, “Look, I’m trying to win; I’m driving as best I can.” He said, “Look, I’ve analyzed this situation. You’ve got it all wrong.” As far as I knew this guy did not have a strategic bone in his body. Yet, he said, “There are twenty-one racing classes. Some of the racing classes have professional series that are in parallel with them. When those professional drivers show up at a race course, you go down one and you don’t win. There are enough professional classes and you shouldn’t be in one of them. And, as to a car like the Porsche, the dealers and the companies who make them will spend infinite money to have a winner. Way more than you could possibly ever put in. They also have a staff of one hundred, working on the car, and extra ones in case something happens. You don’t have that. So you shouldn’t race in that class.” He said, “I’ve noticed there are two classes that emphasize the private design of the car and project management. The people don’t have a lot of money. I would suggest the lowest class because there you’ll have the most and you’ll stick out the most.” What he meant was the most differentiation, but he didn’t use that phrase. I bought a car that had done well four or five years ago.

Vardalas:

What is that class called?

Leeson:

They were called sports racing classes. Their rules were four wheels on the ground, a certain engine size, and have fun. You want to learn about magnesium castings, go for it. You want to learn about carbon fiber, which didn’t exist in those days, you can do whatever you want. You want to learn about aerodynamics, fly a kite and see what you learn. I bought a car that had won a national championship, but was no longer competitive. The first race I sat in I won. It’s like, wow, this strategy stuff has some pretty interesting implications, you pick the right area, the right segment, and if you’re differentiated enough, you’ll win. If you win, then you’re strategically advantaged as a business. I really began to see how that worked. Then I went to the next class and I won several races in that car, but it really wasn’t a great car. Then I saw a car racing that I thought, gee, that’s really a neat car.

One time I was on a trip to England and I stopped at the Lotus factory and interviewed an engineer about them building a car for me. I sort of knew what I wanted and the engineer had some great ideas. When I came back to the States I found the very car that he described was already being made by a guy in Los Angeles named Red LeGrand. I saw his prototype race and I bought it. From that point on, I won all those checkered flags that are in the garage. The car won every race that it finished healthy, and over time we learned how to make it last so it finished more races healthy. Eventually I qualified for the national championships and went two or three times and saw how that worked. As my wife Barb mentioned, we changed to an experimental engine that had much more power, and we learned how to use it. Those two years I won the national championship and retired from the victory stand. I enjoyed racing and said goodbye.

In racing I learned don’t go into something if you don’t have the qualification to win. If you can’t identify what the segment is; if you can’t identify what your differentiation is; and if you don’t have it, you really have to work hard to get it, and maybe you can’t get it, so you shouldn’t try it.

I also saw the psychology of a winner take-all last minute championship thing.

A lot of people ruined their car in the half-hour before the race started because they were trying too hard to make it better, and you can’t do that. You can’t change plugs at the last minute. Our rule was no changing between practice and the race. I learned a lot about project management and a lot about strategy, all in this non-business environment.

Vardalas:

This is quite interesting.

Leeson:

My racing experience was like a laboratory.

Vardalas:

Yes, you said you carried these experiences into other aspects of your life.

Leeson:

Oh yes, absolutely. You have to know when to say yes and when to say no to a business investment, which is really the big thing that a CEO has to worry about. If you answer one good question a year correctly, you’re a genius. If you answer two correctly, you’re really a genius. If you answer zero correctly, you’re out. Your investors are unhappy. Eventually, and as I mentioned, I got to marry my pit crew who built the engines that won.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

And Barbara - -

Vardalas:

Barbara, your wife, was part of the pit crew?

Leeson:

Yes, absolutely. We met in 1977.

Vardalas:

Did she actually build it and work on the engine? What did she do?

Leeson:

Oh yes, she took the parts and put them together. The engines were built by the Kohler Company, the plumbing manufacturer in Wisconsin.

Vardalas:

Oh, yes?

Leeson:

Kohler had a side business in pumps. The pumps had engines, motors. People had adapted those motors to snowmobiles, and they were very competitive. A fellow who was a race driver and the Kohler corporate pilot, flew the executives around and sweet-talked them into letting him build a combination of two of these motors on a single crankcase. This work involved different tapes for the mills and a great crankshaft operator to put it all together. He was very competitive and won a couple of times, so when he moved out of the class, I bought two motors from him and won. It was very speculative; I knew nothing about two-stroke engines. It took a week to start it the first time. You keep at it and eventually it works. I still own the car because I do not have the heart to sell it. Barb raced later. She raced in a Mazda and found that she really enjoyed the work more than the driving.

Vardalas:

Yes, I see.

Leeson:

I just did what I wanted to do.

Vardalas:

Can you give me some examples of where you applied some of this experience? Please provide an example of some of the strategic things you learned?

Leeson:

I stayed out of consumer businesses.

Vardalas:

Oh, yes.

Leeson:

That’s like competing with the car companies.

Vardalas:

Yes, there’s no differentiation.

Leeson:

It’s not our segment.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

We were expert at providing spare parts for seventeen years, upgrading things over time, and making something that was so reliable it never quit. The opportunities that came to us generally came because we made very reliable, extremely reliable stuff. I still hear this from a friend who worked for the telephone industry.

Vardalas:

So you’re saying the engineering mindset wouldn’t work well on the consumer product?

Leeson:

No. When you see a consumer product, it’s always a compromise to make it meet a certain price category or whatever. They’re very good products, but they’re not meant to last twenty years.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Our expertise was in phase noise, in frequency multipliers, and signal sources, all of which went to people who built systems for radar and satellite. Then we realized that we had a limitation to how big we would grow as a component supplier. We were always competing with our customers’ own people. They would always say, “Look, our guys say they can do it cheaper and better, and we’re getting tired of paying you all this profit we see in your public information. You’re a profitable company. We could do it for less.” I went to talk by a fellow named Tom Turlington called the admiration/scorn matrix. He described in a nutshell that there is a hierarchy of companies. At the bottom is materials, devices, components, subsystems, systems. Only the systems guys have real customers. Everybody else is going up and down. Admiration goes up, and scorn goes down. That is the admiration/scorn matrix.

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

Boy, that was just an eye-opener, and I had one of those, see, look what they’re doing moments. I said there are new areas, particularly in satellite where we could be a systems supplier. We could also be a systems supplier in radio and microwave radio. We did that. Our customers told us, “We’ll never talk to you again because you’re not allowed to talk to our customers,” but these were new areas where we had a reason to make some headway.

Vardalas:

How many years after founding the company are you talking about? When did this epiphany come to you?

Leeson:

This idea came to me about fifteen years after founding the company.

Vardalas:

Fifteen years in.

Leeson:

Part of it was we were founding and then acquiring outfits that were specialized in system business. We saw we wanted to do that.

Vardalas:

How much of your growth was through acquisitions? How much was organic?

Leeson:

If you consider that we only once or twice acquired an outfit that already existed, almost all of our growth was internal.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

Then the internal growth leveled off as the product lifecycles came to a mature period. I learned you don’t invest in a mature product because you’re wasting your money because there’s not going to be enough sold. We invested in individuals who had a reputation in systems, who came from our former customers, and who had relationships with the people who really had problems.

Vardalas:

So you invested in startups; new startups?

Leeson:

Yes. How do you tell if you’re in a system business? When you go to a customer’s office, if they have a globe and they point to we’re here and they’re there and we want to do this or that, now you’re talking a system. If you have a guy who says, “Here’s the specification and you got to meet it and our engineers can do it cheaper than you, but if you price it real low and it is made good, maybe we’ll buy some,” that’s not the systems business. We really learned a lot about what we wanted to get into, and that allowed us to be one of the biggest microwave companies there was. We got past the little microwave component business in which we were hardly known. People called up stating, “You should advertise more because nobody knows about you.” We said, “Well, where did you read about us?” The caller continued: “Oh, I read about you in the Wall Street Journal.” Yes, okay, I guess we were doing okay.

Vardalas:

Why do you leave this business?

Leeson:

Twenty-five years and 2,000 people.

Vardalas:

You grew to 2,000 people?

Leeson:

Yes. I discovered that the bigger an organization got, the more its intellectual content decreased.

Vardalas:

Do you mean your work or the general organization’s intellectual content of everything?

Leeson:

There are just more dumb problems to solve. We learned, only too late, that one of the problems with the companies that we started that were quite successful, is you can’t teach a teenager manners, You have to teach manners when they are three years old. It almost universally came back to us with comments like: “I don’t know why we ever hooked up with jerks like you. We could have done it by ourselves and we regret it. We should be in charge of your company.”

Vardalas:

Yes, okay.

Leeson:

They referred to the company as “they,” as if they weren’t even part of it. That was very disappointing to me.

Vardalas:

Just like ingrate.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

We did okay, but at that point I thought, look, being public has turned into something that is more of a hassle. People would call us up and say, “Okay, tell me one secret you won’t tell anybody else.” Wall Street was pretty disgusting.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

When Barb and I were building this house we happened to sit next to a security analyst on an airplane. We mentioned we were building a house, so he whipped out a notebook and wrote, “Dave is building a house. Big overhang on the stock. Sell.” Look, we already had the money to build the house. It’s not an expensive house.

Vardalas:

Really?

Leeson:

Yes. What an insult, you know? In the end, there were a lot of things that led me to think that I had done what I wanted, and with the sole exception of my wonderful relationship with my sweetheart, I find that when I’ve done what I want and I’ve done what I came to do, then I’m done. I don’t want to make it last forever. I’m not interested in running a company from a wheelchair. Yes. There are other things I wanted to do and that caused me to say goodbye.

Vardalas:

Thinking back over those twenty-five years, did either the company or the business change in any way? Did you find yourself saying, especially as the CEO, “Oh, this is not me?

Leeson:

I never liked letting go of somebody that you like, that didn’t do the job.

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

That was painful, and eventually you find out that you don’t have friends if you’re a CEO. Other CEOs are not your friend because they don’t want to share their secrets. It’s an isolating responsibility. It’s not the only one of a kind.

Vardalas:

Yes, of course.

Leeson:

Secondly, I found that I wasn’t staying current enough in new technologies. Now, I did get involved. One of the interesting things I got involved with about twenty years in was IEEE 802.11. In 1990, Vic Hayes [popularly known as the “Father of Wi-Fi,”] put together that group to work on how to create the technology and the regulations that would allow unlicensed Wi-Fi. It’s been a huge success. Being engineers, we were disappointed because we couldn’t make it perfect, but it never occurred to us that if you could make it for fifty cents, it wasn’t going to matter. You could just make some more of them, and that’s how it has worked out. Bluetooth the same thing, it’s grown from Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi grew from —

Vardalas:

Did Wi-Fi grow from the ham?

Leeson:

Yes, 802.11 was based on a radio equivalent of Ethernet and Ethernet was based on amateur radio packet networks that preceded it. Amateurs who had these packet radio networks knew all about contention and how to delay, a random delay, so that if you had a collision you could fix it and so on. Then that translated into Xerox’s invention of Ethernet, where the guys knew from ham radio how it should work because they’ve already used it. They just had to make it go on wires and then Ethernet developed into the wireless.

Vardalas:

So you say contention or ham radio? Let me understand, it is a social process. In other words, you have to see that frequency’s occupied.

Leeson:

Yes, and you move on.

Vardalas:

You move on to something else.

Leeson:

Yes, or you wait.

Vardalas:

Or you wait?

Leeson:

Yes. Radio regulations over the first century of radio were aimed at preventing interference by assigning a frequency to a particular broadcast station or whatever that would be free of interference. With microwaves, the same thing. You had to plan a microwave link so that you would not be interfered with and you would not interfere. IEEE 802.11 was a totally new invention that applied to radio what had been put to work in Ethernet. Look, if the computer has a collision and it loses that packet, so what, it’s patient, it’ll do it again, and it’ll do it on a random delay. It’s the same thing as these lights that let people onto freeways. That’s a packet invention.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It was a marvelous experience, similar to the experience with the frequency control conference, the committee and editing the 1966 proceedings, and writing a summary paper in 1971 that formed the basis for a standard. You couldn’t ask for a better education. We all trained each other. Each of us knew our own specialty and we all respected that the other people had a different application.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

We traded a lot of information. I love going into this recent paper I wrote. I went through all my archives, and geez, I have letters from people who are no longer here. I think I’m the last surviving member of that group, so I feel compelled to write the history. I’ll talk about why I’m interested in history in a bit.

Vardalas:

Yes, for a second, let’s talk about standards. You mentioned standards.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

What did you get out of all this about the role of standards in the engineering process?

Leeson:

Oh, I think that I came to feel that proprietary standards were eventually a dead end and that public standards are imperative. In addition, standards include regulation, not just technology, and it also includes a lot of negotiation among companies. What I found toward then end of the IEEE 802.11 project was companies that could afford to would find their smelliest guy and fund him thoroughly to go there and make everybody else angry. Companies hoped they would eventually get their way because they would outlast everybody and it was more important to them than anybody else. I won’t name any names, but they’re all big companies and they all had plenty of money. We started a different organization called the Wireless Information Networks Forum, WINForum. Our objective was to get the FCC to let go of frequencies in which you could have contention.

Vardalas:

Go ahead.

Leeson:

It was another amazing educational experiences.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It was educational about the technology, how the different companies interacted, and what it took to be the person who made it move. Vic Hayes made it move. He did a wonderful job. Andy Chi, was the fellow who made 14.7 work in the phase noise days. I really appreciate somebody who knows how to manage. We have a ham friend who is the best manager I’ve ever met. When he gets you to do something, which he does often, he wins, you win, and he publishes it and everybody wins. It’s just marvelous. He’s now president of the Radio Club of America, and he’s revising it and making it a wonderful organization.

Vardalas:

You have a lot of experience with managers. What do you think of the two polar extremes? Do you see a spectrum between the two of them?

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

It’s his product or her product, and they’re going to be in charge of everything. They’re going to make sure that it’s all, like you said, done this way.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

You got a good idea, that’s okay, it’s just too bad now.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

As opposed to the other one who says, “I hire all good people. I give them the environment. I’ll let them go at it, and I don’t interfere.”

Leeson:

I don’t think you can get anywhere; they’re both limited. The person who hires good people but doesn’t understand the product ends up with everybody telling him, “I’m 85 percent done,” then it doesn’t work, and they can’t figure out why. They’re always being blindsided. The manager who micro-manages and can’t figure out how to get somebody that they trust to take a piece of it, that limits the size organization or project or whatever that you could ever have. For me, running a race car was something I could micro-manage. Running a ham station was something I could micro-manage. Our project in the Galapagos Islands for ham radio where we won these forty-six world championships was a partnership, and each of us had a specialty. We respected each other, and we would negotiate, “Okay, we are going to do it this way or this way?” One experience was this, and another experience was that. We’d choose, we’d do it. If it worked, we’d stay with it. If it looked like it wasn’t investment worthy, we’d go a different way.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

That’s a very limited project. We spent $8,000 for the land between four of us, so it’s not like a company. My sense of management is to understand the basic strategy, the strategic basics. In management, you decide what to do by knowing what’s coming, by seeing the future, by getting a picture of the future. Then you decide what part you could play and identify what you had to be good at to be successful. Some people can decide to be good at something and they can get good. Whereas other people can decide they’re going to get good at something, but they can’t.

Vardalas:

Yes, I see your point.

Leeson:

Maybe it isn’t their thing. We’ve seen that in racing. There was a famous guy who was going to be a national champion in a year. Well, he made a mess of it. He wrecked a whole bunch of cars, darn near killed a bunch of people that we knew, and in the end, he didn’t win anything.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

For this kind of example, I guess arrogance is the word I would use.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

Managers must have some willingness to admit, “Oh boy, was I wrong.”

Vardalas:

Sure.

Leeson:

A good manager also has to take in ideas from people that may not think like you.

A fellow named Joe Russell ran the part of California Microwave involved in government business. (Later that part of the company was sold to Northrup Grumman.) Joe was running that part of California Microwave for me and it turned out he was a right-brained guy and I’m a left-brained guy. As a left-brained guy I like to see the equation, what are you going to do, what’s the plan. Joe was more like a Michelangelo, producing a painting by kind of wiggling around and pretty soon it would be.

I got nervous about that because I thought, well, I can’t have somebody like that who can’t provide me with an estimate of what’s going to happen and how much it’s going to cost. I decided if I were either going to replace him or bring in somebody to help. I had to travel with him a lot and see how he dealt with customers; I was amazed. It was marvelous. It was a great lesson to me. It was the best lesson I ever had about how to deal with people, how to deal with customers.

Vardalas:

Exactly, what was this lesson?

Leeson:

Joe let the customers talk, picking up their clues and cues.

He taught me you are only doing one thing when selling to the government; there is only one customer. I said, what do you mean? Joe responded, “There’s only one customer, the US Congress.” His idea called for entertaining the staffers of the congressmen, making sure they knew the subject, and not bribing anybody.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Joe’s idea of a “bribe” entailed stopping in the airport, buying a little two-dollar teddy bear, and bringing it to some guy in the Pentagon. Joe said to the guy, “here, take this to your kids and let your wife see that you’re thinking about your kids.” This approach was great. Yes, who could say no to that?

Vardalas:

Yes,

Leeson:

In Joe’s arrangement, our direct customers became aware that their funding depended, in part, on our support of them in the funding process.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

Joe really understood the fundamentals. He had been Ronald Reagan’s finance chairman, during his run for governor in California. So, he know politics. He was a marvelous guy. However, if you asked him to explain what he was going to do, that just wasn’t his thing. I really learned to accommodate and respect that style. I also realized those skills were something I was missing.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I was expecting him to be just like me.

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

Joe wasn’t like me, so I was very disappointed. Then I had to take the time to see what made his approach so successful.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Joe had friends everywhere and everybody loved him. He was just a great guy.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Joe is retired now.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Joe ran a project group for us in Los Angeles. At the time, he was creating and flying unmanned aerial vehicles, in the days when that was not yet a big deal.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

This happened in the 1980s.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

In the 1980s, we had drones that would carry a camera, radar, or whatever you wanted. Joe’s idea was that rather than miniaturize the payload, we would use an air frame that you could get from Burt Rutan. It was an experimental air frame called a Long-EZ. There was no need to invent a new airplane. Joe understood instinctively the idea that you don’t take a compound risk.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

You don’t develop the product by developing the components.

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

During either of these two steps, you could blow it.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

They took an existing airframe and they hired retired SR-71 pilots who had immense cache with the Congress, to fly these things while we were developing them and to publicize it.

I ended up learning about it because of one of my guys, our treasurer Mike Foster. He was terrific and a real breath of fresh air who always told the truth, and he got a horrible look on his face, if he didn’t like what you said. He has become very successful. Mike said, “What’s this about these guy in LA needing insurance for our airplane?” I said, “What do I need an airplane for? It’s $10 to fly from there to here, from Burbank to San Jose, on PSA.” They said, “Okay, guess we got to read you into the program. We’re building a—it’s not an ordinary airplane, and we’re not using it to fly our guys from Los Angeles to San Francisco.”

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

“Come and have a look.” Well, I took a look, and I saw a lot of things wrong with the project. I knew this was a big thing for the company, so I ended up running the project. Barb and I went to Sierra Vista with two trucks full of equipment, the pilots flew the airplanes down, and we demonstrated them to the government. Sierra Vista’s a funny place in Arizona with a big billboard, “Where a visit lasts a lifetime.” That statement may be taken two ways.

Vardalas:

Yes, you may take it two ways.

Leeson:

Eventually, it was successful.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

This business and the government contract were very important. Building these one-time airplanes used a lot of what I knew about racing.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Tomorrow our grandson is taking his check flight for his pilot license.

Vardalas:

Oh, good for him.

Leeson:

At age eighteen.

Vardalas:

Good for him.

Leeson:

He’s really going. Earlier you asked what I learned about management. I learned there are many different management styles.

My own feeling about management for me was that in order to do what I wanted I had to be in charge. When I started the company, my mental picture was I was tired of being in a position where I wanted to build bronze doors for a cathedral, and somebody I worked for said, “No, that’s not what we have in mind.”

In many cases, they were right. Syncom was terrific; they got the job done, the thing flew, and it worked. However, I wanted to be in a position where I owned the cathedral, so I would say yes to myself. I still feel that way. We are self-publishing our other books on Bill Hansen, Professor W.W. Hansen of Stanford.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I had a contract with Cambridge University Press, and all they could say was no. They didn’t provide an editor, and in the end, our relationship didn’t. I was unhappy. It just didn’t fit me.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

My own picture of management is not a universal picture.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

However, it fits me.

Vardalas:

Yes. Let me ask you, so what did you do with your professional life after selling the company?

Leeson:

I woke up the next day and said, “Barb, we’re free. They can do anything they want with it [the company] and we don’t have to worry about it.” We sold all the stock.

Vardalas:

What did you do with your life then?

Leeson:

We already built this house as a retirement house, but it turned out we were not going to retire. We’re not interested in retiring. Barb was as a psychologist working at Stanford with learning-disabled students, and loved the students.

We both have gotten a little tired of the administrative side, which of course I don’t have any control over, so it would make sense for me to get frustrated.

Barb retired last year, and we’re having a lot more interesting things to do ourselves. I went back to Stanford. No sooner had I retired then one of our directors, who was one of the original investors, a professor, named Bob Helliwell, called and said, “Dave did you ever think about teaching?” I said, “Oh yes, I was interested in teaching when I left Stanford,” but they told me I’d been in the real world, and I couldn’t come back as a professor because I’d seen the real world.

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

If I won a Nobel Prize, I could go back to Stanford, maybe.

Vardalas:

Really.

Leeson:

Yes. It may be a funny statement, but they were right. They understood me. I probably would not have been a good professor, at that time. Now I saw a chance to teach something about what I’ve learned by way of mentoring other people. I wanted to be sure Stanford was still in the business of fostering entrepreneurs. I didn’t have to worry about that. In fact, there may have been too much talk of entrepreneurship. For example, in classes I taught, the standard question was, well, should I get a degree or should I start a company? Somehow the idea has grown that a startup is the be all and end all. Well, that’s just a seed.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It’s an acorn, not an oak tree. There is a little bit of over-eagerness to launch a company. After all, only 1 out of 10,000, or maybe it is 100 out of 10,000 companies, succeed around here [Silicon Valley]. The number of successful companies is very small and the rest of them go away. Someone might say, “Yes, I worked at XYZ,” but you never heard of it, and they move on to another place of employment. The ones who succeeded of course are famous, so that’s what people see.

I was interested in teaching microwave engineering. It turned out that during the period when computers were developing, nobody was interested in radio. Radio seemed to have no use whatsoever. Until IEEE 802.11, radio was a dead issue. Radio, what, you’re going to get on HF and send a message to Japan 1? No, it’s not useful for anything. Military, yes, but it’s all worked out. Nothing’s happening. But then people got interested in radio, and they said, “Wait a minute, there aren’t any professors of radio because nobody’s been interested in radio for twenty years. Where are we going to get somebody that knows about radio and microwaves? Well we’ll get somebody who has been interested in it a long time.” I put my hand up, and they said, “Yes, we need you to teach a lab that involves waves and fields and microwaves so that we can keep our accreditation.” I said, “Great, I’ll donate the equipment.” I had a lot of equipment left over from the company, old stuff, but it works, and the students learned a lot from it. You learn more from an old instrument that you have to figure out yourself.

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

You learn a lot from the one that tells you the wrong answer. [Laughs] I shared a course with a mentor, a professor named Umran Inan, who is now president of Koc University in Istanbul. He was a successful guy at Stanford, but he wanted to go back home and be in charge of something bigger.

Vardalas:

Inan went to Istanbul?

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

Inan, a marvelous guy, won the Appleton Prize for his interest in the ionosphere. He was teaching a course and he told me “I’d love to have you share, and after you share for a year, then you can take it over.” I didn’t know anything about teaching, except just try hard. I found teaching was a lot of work and often I stayed up until three o’clock in the morning trying to get a lecture just right, so I don’t make a fool of myself. The classroom could be chaotic with students coming in late and leaving early to get to their job. Dealing with these students do you start over or do you let them lose it? Wait, I didn’t tell you the most important thing.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It took a while to learn about teaching.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

It took a long time to learn about writing tests that didn’t trap people into a position where missing the first question meant you could not get the correct response to the second question. I loved teaching and I had a lot of very interesting students. You can imagine, particularly in a graduate school, the wide range of students with a variety of interests.

Vardalas:

It sounds like you found teaching gratifying.

Leeson:

Yes, I found it gratifying. Eventually, I concluded teaching did not provide a big enough audience, so I decided I would rather write. I wrote the materials for two courses, and each course was organized into a separate three-hundred-page book. I planned to publish them, but now I will publish them myself. Since I wrote the books ten years ago, a lot has happened, so I’ll put them online.

Vardalas:

Did you play any role in the UFFC-S [IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics, and Frequency Control Society]?

Leeson:

No.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I knew a lot of the people.

Vardalas:

I know, but you didn’t play any role yourself?

Leeson:

No, I was on the AdCom of the MTT Socieety.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I also was in charge of the lecturer program.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

I was president of the communications division of the Electronic Industries Association, so I learned a lot about how stuff is done such as black tie dinners in Washington, D.C. with “Here Comes the Chief.”

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I was on the board of the Applied Electronics Association, the local outfit that grew out of Western Electronic Manufacturers.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I never found that I could contribute very much.

Vardalas:

Why?

Leeson:

Mostly they didn’t like guys who were CEOs, who mouthed off about how they would do it, and so on.

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

They had plenty of us. The Stanford experience has been terrific. Along the way, I got interested in writing history. Stu Gilmore, a colleague, a classmate of mine, wrote the book about Fred Terman, who was at Stanford and a key person.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Gilmore is a ham; his call is W1FK. I experienced his experience with writing. At the end, he had a 2,000-page book, and he hated it when they made him cut it to 1,000 pages. He mentioned to me, “There’s an interesting book or monograph or something, a publication from World War II by Hansen, called “Hansen’s Notes on Microwave.” Did you ever see it?” I said, “I think I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never seen it.” I said, “I’d love to look at it.” He said, “Well, good luck, it hasn’t been seen since 1945.” I took it on myself to find it, and I found two copies at Stanford, one at MIT, and one at Rice. It turned out to be a 1,200-page book.

Vardalas:

Really?

Leeson:

It was not a monograph. It was beautifully written, done in that purple hectograph of the time, with handwritten equations and hand-drawn drawings. What was it? It was Hansen’s lectures. In 1940 and 1941, Hansen was funded by Sperry Gyroscope Company, and the company insisted that he and all his guys go to Long Island and work for them instead of staying at Stanford during the war.

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

At the same time, he had another opportunity. He had been requested to be on the staff at the MIT Radiation Lab (Rad Lab). A deal was worked out because the Sperry guy was on the committee, so Sperry got him for five days per week and the lab got him for one day per week.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

Hansen went one day a week to Boston to lecture. Two professors sitting in the front row, Jacob Millman, and I forget the other one, took down all the notes. They wrote the book, Hansen checked it, and then they reproduced it as a classified document for the staff who came to the Rad Lab. They were all physicists who were experts in cyclotrons because they were all hired by E. H. Lawrence.

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

They didn’t know anything about radar or microwaves, but they had this book, and at the end, they were experts. All of the things, like the whole Rad Lab Series, which I have a set of, were all based on Hansen’s notes.

Vardalas:

Really?

Leeson:

Yes. Everything in there is in Hansen’s notes in a very direct way. It was a marvelous book, all about microwaves, microwave circuits, klystrons, magnetrons, and radar.

Vardalas:

Now you’re pursuing this further and writing a biography of Hansen?

Leeson:

This is what got me started. I said, “Boy, I ought to publish this,” and then I thought, well, I should say a little more about it than just he wrote this thing. I began to look into his life and I was flabbergasted. What a life he had! What a contributor he was, and how nobody, including me, knew anything about it.

Then what really keyed it off was the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory buildings at Stanford were demolished. They put out a video showing a machine pecking away at it with banjo music in the background. The Hansen Labs were being replaced with a new donor’s building, kind of like what happened o Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I thought, man that really gets my goat, so I’m going to write a book about this guy and another about his book. I have two books pretty well finished. One, a biography of Hansen, and the other, “The History of Radar” that led up to his book and what happened with it.

Vardalas:

Let’s talk about the biography.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

“The History of Radar” is more of a technical history.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Right, and the biography is about him.

Leeson:

The biography’s about him. When I was at Stanford people I knew, knew him, but I never asked because I wasn’t curious. It is difficult to think about the lost opportunity.

Vardalas:

Yes, it’s too late now.

Leeson:

Now there are only three or four people that are still alive, that are in their nineties that either worked with him or knew him, and I’ve talked to them.

Vardalas:

Excuse me if I ask you this question, it may be difficult, why should people know about him?

Leeson:

I guess the more general question is what good is history?

Vardalas:

No, in particular, why should people know about him in particular? What is it about him?

Leeson:

Well, history is where you learn what’s going to happen to you. And why him? Because of all the people that have been involved in Stanford University and ultimately then Silicon Valley, he’s one of the fathers and nobody knows about him.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

To me, that seems interesting and at the same time it is a little bit of an injustice. Here’s this marvelous guy who made such significant contributions and he died so young. At the age of thirty-nine years he died from Beryllium poisoning from his Ph.D. research twenty years earlier. He has a twenty-year career.

Vardalas:

Oh, is that right?

Leeson:

He invented all this stuff, including the electron accelerator and nuclear magnetic resonance. His research partner was awarded a Nobel Prize, but Hansen was dead. Your dead, “Sorry, you don’t get one.” He was also one of the three inventors of the klystron.

Vardalas:

They diagnosed him as dying from the Beryllium?

Leeson:

Actually, they covered it up. Nobody said anything about it at the time, but Stu, bless him, interviewed the doctor. The doctor said, “Well, of course, it was Beryllium poisoning, but we were told to put cardiac arrest.” Yes, he had cardiac arrest because his oxygen mask failed, his lungs weren’t working, and he died. I don’t know why that happened. You can speculate a lot about why.

Vardalas:

Did he have any heirs? Did he have any family?

Leeson:

That’s another interesting story. Very briefly, he was married. His wife was Betsy Ross, daughter of a physics professor, A.P. Ross. Betsy Ross inherited all of his records rather than his family, his parents and his brother. Six months later, she committed suicide, so where did the material go? It went to her mother, Mrs. A.P. Ross, a physics professor’s wife, then a widow. She married David Webster, the former head of the physics department, who had had an argument with Hansen about whether experiment or theory was really the thing that was suitable for physicists. Eventually, they had a rather bitter relationship, even though Webster was a mentor in the beginning. All of Hansen’s material went to his mother-in-law and into this Webster’s attic. Webster, who’s an excellent guy, head of the department for many years, wrote all over it, “None of this is true.”

Vardalas:

Right.

Leeson:

“These guys asked us to lie about the patent.” That was after the war. There was a big contest between Sperry on behalf of Stanford University and Bell Labs and Westinghouse over who really owned the Klystron patent.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Sperry won. We just spent a week at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware.

Vardalas:

You saw the Sperry manuscript collection at the Hagley.

Leeson:

Yes, and all of the information I was looking for was in the collection. We copied three hundred pages. It’s great.

So why an interest in Hansen? During the twenty-five years that his archives were lost, nobody was interested and nobody had the data. By the time the archives surfaced in 1974 nobody was interested because things had moved on. Silicon Valley was burgeoning. SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) had been built and was successful. New particles and Nobel Prizes were being awarded. However, the SLAC people think of Hansen as the father of the electron accelerator.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

They were very kind about what they would say about him, but it didn’t get out of that community. That’s what interested me.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

The other thing is, being a radar guy I was fascinated to find out that radar was a very young business when I got into it.

Vardalas:

When they are young many people think they will live forever.

Leeson:

Who knows? I was taught how it worked, given some problems, and told we had to solve them. We got rid of Klystrons. During my career, I never worked with tubes except as a hobbyist, so my work was always solid-state. I was very fortunate to be at that cusp.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

In the 1950s, it never occurred to me that I was working on something invented in the 1940s. At the time, I wasn’t interested in history. Now, I think history has its place as a way of teaching people how to succeed.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Now I look at history. One of the marvelous books that I came in touch with as part of this process is “News in the Greek Polis” [Sian Lewis, News and Society in the Greek Polis, University of North Carolina Press, 1996]. This book examines the idea of how news was created in ancient Greece. The idea was that if it didn’t come from an eyewitness, it wasn’t worth anything. The ancient Greeks had all kinds of reasons why somebody had a conflict of interest. For example, you could never trust a slave because they only wanted to manipulate you for whatever they could, etc. Somebody holding the spear for Alexander, that was reliable news. I thought, that’s really interesting that history should emphasize the personal.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I ended up writing that big paper because I was there, so I was the eyewitness.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I’m the only person left who was there.

Vardalas:

I mean that’s an interesting difference between the two Greek historians, Thucydides and Herodotus. Thucydides believed you had to be there, you had to see the people, and then you were able to write an account of the event.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Talk to them; it’s an interesting ideal. This perspective reflects the polarization between two very famous Greek historians.

Leeson:

Yes, one is a newspaper reporter, and the other is an opinion writer, Yes. But anyhow, it was very interesting. I’ve been at Stanford University since 1994, so that’s twenty-two years. After about ten or eleven years, I decided that rather than continuing to teach, I would focus on historical research and writing. I found teaching very hard, it took a lot of time and I once got trapped into using two editions of a book. Since I was teaching from two editions of the textbook, I had to do all the problems twice. I wouldn’t assign a problem I couldn’t solve, so I really had to complete the problem sets in both textbooks. In addition, they were problems I could do much better when I was younger.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

[Laughs]

Vardalas:

You discovered that too, did you?

Leeson:

Yes. I got to thinking the real thing for me to do is spend my time on this history. I have access to the wonderful collections in the Stanford University Archives, and I’ve been through all 282 boxes of the Frederick Emmons Terman Papers.

Vardalas:

Wow, that is a rather large manuscript collection.

Leeson:

I’ve been through all fifteen feet of Hansen’s records, too. Hansen was Professor of Physics and Director of the Microwave Laboratory at Stanford University from 1929 to 1949. While researching this book project, I’ve also been through his colleague’s records, including the collections of Varian Associates and Varian Inc. as well as the Russell H. and Sigurd Varian Papers.

Vardalas:

When do you expect this book to be out?

Leeson:

It should come out in 2009, but I’m a little late. [Laughter] Barb got me this file cabinet to house our copies of the archival material.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I ended up with boxes and stacks of material, so Barb told me, “Look, I’m going to get you a desk. I’m going to get you a file cabinet. You’re going to finish this thing.”

Vardalas:

[Laughs]

Leeson:

I’m hoping to get it done this year.

Vardalas:

Okay, good luck.

Leeson:

We found a place in Palo Alto that will print a book from PDF for about ten dollars each. This option is marvelous.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

They produced this thing [holding up a book] and it looks professional. It really comes off a machine. The book is cranked out in one day as long as you select their size paper.

Vardalas:

Very nice.

Leeson:

I’m going to make a reader copy. If I find an editor, or rather, if I find a publisher who wants to provide some serious editing assistance and interaction, I’d be open to publishing through a commercial press. Otherwise, self-publishing and the book-on-demand option will be just fine. Curiously enough, when I approached Stanford University Press five or ten years ago, I was told, “Well, we don’t take technical stuff.” I said to myself, “That’s weird, but okay, there are other publishers, such as MIT.”

Vardalas:

There’s IEEE, too. By the way, the IEEE History Center publishes books, too. Most recently, we have used books on demand through Amazon.

Leeson:

Does it? Well, that might be interesting.

Vardalas:

Yes, we do it on-line through Amazon.

Leeson:

Well, that’s a great way of going.

Vardalas:

Yes, so you might want to speak to folks at the IEEE History Center. We’ve published several important biographies in this manner. You may want to take a look and consider this option, it is very viable.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Anyway.

Leeson:

Well, I love what you learn from biographies. There’s a marvelous book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light (2010), about the fellow who invented the white LED and the blue LED. [Leeson is probably referring to Shuki Nakahmura. The 2014 Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to a trio of scientists from the United States and Japan, including Shuki Nakahmura, Isamu Akasaki, and Hiroshi Amano.]

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Since I read Brilliant, I’ve followed Nakahmura’s career. He emigrated from Japan to the United States and holds a professorship at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Whenever he comes to Stanford, I’ll hear him speak. His work is well known and he won a Nobel Prize.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

His work is not well recognized in Japan. They said, “Well, he’s only a manufacturing engineer. He couldn’t have won a Nobel Prize. There’s some mistake here.” He is very bitter about it, and very outspoken.

Vardalas:

Oh.

Leeson:

Barb and I attended a talk where he was introduced by another Nobel Laureate. Just seeing these guys that are recognized for what they’ve done reinforces the value of history. It all comes back to that cartoon, “Say, look what they’re doing.”

Vardalas:

Now I will end this oral history interview on that note. If you see the value of history now in your life, do you see the role of history in the education of a young engineer?

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Do you see the usefulness of history and its role in teaching young engineers about anything?

Leeson:

Well, it’s mostly hopeless, but [laughs] I’ve always taught my students to go back to the original sources.

After I stopped teaching, I began mentoring young professors at Stanford. Many need a little direction in getting some funding and so on. I’ve really enjoyed mentoring.

I’ve told students, “Don’t read a book. By the time it’s in a book, it’s all cut and dried, it jumps from line to line, and you’ll never see the connections. Read the original papers.” In the original papers you find all the doubts. You find somebody saying, “it could be this,” and somebody else says, “no, it’s that.” They argue, and call each other idiots. If you read all the original papers, you uncover the complexities, the potential alternatives, and the context. You have the opportunity to reflect on the evidence and interpret it for yourself.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I’ve collected a big stack of original papers about the history of Silicon Valley. When Barb and I were in the Baltimore area we visited Bill Leslie, a historian of science and technology on the faculty at the Johns Hopkins University. Leslie conducted fifty or sixty interviews.

Vardalas:

Yes, I know [Stuart “Bill”] Leslie.

Leeson:

We had a wonderful visit. Barb and I both prepared by reading his papers and then reading his book. You can see how the book was impacted by somebody saying, “Look, we know this and we know that, so cut it out, make it shorter, make it briefer, and get to the point.” I’ve been reading all the technical books on noise, looking for the answer to a partly unresolved problem in phase noise. I can’t find the answer in these books and it doesn’t make any sense at all. However, when I read the original papers and manuscripts, ah, there it is.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Leeson:

Going back to the original papers somehow got overlook or maybe, its significance was either unrecognized or misunderstood.

Vardalas:

It is all very interesting. Have you read any of the work by the civil engineering professor and historian, Henry Petroski?

Leeson:

Oh sure. I love his stuff.

Vardalas:

Yes, I met Henry several times. He laments the fact that engineering education does not study failure enough.

Leeson:

That’s right.

Vardalas:

Failure is part of history.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Thank you for taking the time to sit down and record this Oral History. I want to thank you.

Leeson:

Oh, you’re very welcome.

Vardalas:

This concludes our discussion.

Leeson:

Let me see if I left anything out. [Laughs]

Vardalas:

When you review the transcript you may edit the text. If necessary, we can arrange another session. Now is a very convenient point to end this session.

Leeson:

Okay, well to summarize what I’ve tried to do in my life is to become who I could be, with the specialties that I could develop.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

I found that, if I’m in charge, I’m happier. It doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed. Your point about failure is very good, and in fact, one of the characteristic things about Silicon Valley is people feature failure.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

As a way that you now know what not to do, and you tried, but I never liked failure of the type where people are participants who—in racing there’s a class of racers who never finish. The car always blows up. They have a great time, but they’re not in the race.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

That’s not what I’m interested in.

Vardalas:

Yes, I know, but especially you can learn more from your failure than from a success.

Leeson:

You never learn anything from success.

Vardalas:

You don’t know why if you’re not quite sure, right?

Leeson:

Yes, exactly.

Vardalas:

So you know—

Leeson:

It’s probably luck, but you don’t want to admit it.

Vardalas:

Yes, so that’s, but failure requires studying history a lot more, going back. I was going to point that out to you.

Leeson:

That’s a good point.

Vardalas:

Physicists are a lot more interested in the history of the discipline than engineers.

Leeson:

Yes, you see pictures of the conferences and—

Vardalas:

But—because physicists are always talking about, well we—Newton thought it this way, but now we discovered the world is this way and now we just go with it.

Leeson:

Yes.

Vardalas:

Engineers never say, “Well, we thought it was, now, this is how we’re doing it now, and we’re going to go forward from here.”

Leeson:

Yes, this is right.

Vardalas:

This is the right way.

Leeson:

That may be a dangerous generalization, but in part, I think it’s so. One of the things I’ve always mentioned to my lab students is you learn nothing from success. The way I ran the lab was a ten-week course, five weeks to learn how to use the equipment I’d donated, take measurements and so on, and a five-week project that should take a year. The emphasis was on project management and what you have to do to get it done. How do you have to pare it? How do you get the stuff started? What do you do to control lead time? I ended up writing a paper as part of my notes on my view of project management, which is not the standard view, in which I pointed out the main thing is you have to head off the things that are show-stoppers.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

If you don’t head off the show-stoppers, then you waste the whole rest of the project, and you’re done.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

You can’t make last minute changes because you don’t have enough lead time to recover if they have a side effect.

Vardalas:

Quite true.

Leeson:

This is “don’t change plugs between practice and race.”

Vardalas:

Okay. [Laughs]

Leeson:

I gave that paper to the folks working on the Stanford automatic car that won the DARPA challenge.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

They had never been involved in racing. The other place that’s like that is a space shot; that one has to work.

Vardalas:

Yes.

Leeson:

Not statistically 99 percent are okay.

Vardalas:

Yes, exactly.

Leeson:

It was quite a revelation, and I think I was in some way maybe helpful to them. They were also helpful to us because they showed our grandson, who was then six, a project. They gave him the controls of a robot and turned him loose. He’s been hot for robots ever since.

Vardalas:

Okay. Well, thank you so much for this.

Leeson:

You’re welcome.