Bob Metcalfe, going with the flow

But he executes the needed maneuvers with disciplined skill, backing slowly among the obstructing timbers and finally out into the snow-blown sunlight -- all without once reversing direction. It becomes an interesting accomplishment. In the climate of natural directness at Kelmscott Farm, surrounded everywhere by animals whose survival as species is threatened, Metcalfe can appreciate the simple problem of getting the damn car out of the garage.

He readily cites automobiles as belonging among the technologies he does not understand. "I don't even open the hood anymore. For a while, like most males, I would open the hood and look at it as if I could possibly fix something under there. But now if it's not functioning properly, I get on the phone and call a pro. I do not know how to fix cars. I can change a tire."

Last summer, out in his lobster boat on Penobscot Bay, he "mixed up port and starboard," as he puts it. "I was running out of the empty tank instead of the full tank. I had fuel. All I had to do was switch tanks. But when you run out of fuel with a diesel, you have to bleed the air out.

"For somebody who does not open the hood of a car, this is a major problem. Here I am, moored to a buoy at dark, in the middle of the Penobscot Bay, on a cell phone whose battery is running down, finding a diesel expert who taught me over the phone -- in two minutes flat -- how to bleed [the fuel lines]. That is, take the injectors off each of the eight cylinders, crank the engine to start pumping the fuel, wait until the air gets out and [the injector] sprays diesel fuel. My kids were with me, watching -- they had diesel fuel all over their faces. Then tightening down the things. This is a major accomplishment. I am so proud of it! I am now the kind of guy who knows how to bleed a diesel engine!"

This last, newest attribute is asserted with a degree of pride perhaps equal to that he might take in being the kind of guy who knows how to invent a technology or start up a company. Or how to write an incendiary column or be a pundit bold enough to predict -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- the complete and utter collapse of the Internet because of overwhelming traffic on an underdeveloped infrastructure.

But he's never lacked the courage of his strong convictions, nor the zeal required to deal with the consequences (he literally ate his words in public -- his column liquefied in a blender -- when the Net-collapse prediction didn't pan out). And he has a way of choosing pursuits that require more than a bit of a stretch.

When he left PARC in 1979 to start up 3Com, he had just met his future wife Robyn. She counseled him not to leave Xerox, not to do this madcap thing of starting up a company (back then, the launching of upstart ventures was not nearly the bland clich it is now). "If I had listened to her, I would still be working at Xerox, because there was no rational way to explain why I should start 3Com -- except that I wanted to."

He continues to admire various forms of irrational gumption. He once sold Ethernet to a banker who had decided to invest in the bleeding-edge technology well ahead of any obvious need the bank had. "He decided on his own, and then I fed his enthusiasm," says Metcalfe. The banker had concluded that his career fortunes would "do better at the bank if he was aggressive on technology adoption. Years later he got in touch with me. He was now the head of the bank, [and] he remembered the meeting we had where he decided to take this risk.

"But then there are other examples where people decided to go too soon, got their faces eaten and lost their jobs. These are not obvious decisions. They are complicated. I have seen all the cases. I have sold people stuff they should not have bought. I didn't do it knowingly, but then I watched them crash and burn. And it was not really a risk they should have been taking, in retrospect."

In the life of every company there arise these critical moments of choice. In the early days of 3Com, when a newly hired senior manager invested in an advanced manufacturing planning system, Metcalfe plainly thought the guy was nuts. "I opposed the decision, I want you to know."

The system, he says, had "capabilities that were several orders of magnitude beyond what our little company needed to manage its manufacturing. But the company was growing at 300 percent a year, and [eventually] we reached a stretch where we could not have operated without this system. Our competitors had not made that forward investment. So our products were cheaper, reliable, delivered on time, at a cost we could make a profit at. And having that little systtem -- and we were experienced using it by the time we actually needed it -- we knocked out three or four competitors."

It's almost never easy to identify situations when too soon is just right. "Companies that make the right decisions flourish, and the ones that make the wrong decisions die."

Which is an increasingly harsh reality. And, unfortunately, there's no biodiversity farm dedicated to preserving the hapless victims of errant business decisions -- though Metcalfe would likely regard Cotswold sheep as more deserving of such protection.

This story, "Bob Metcalfe, going with the flow" was originally published by CIO.

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