Bob Metcalfe talks innovation, creativity at Digital Entrepreneurship speaker series

Photo by Dale Blasingame

Photo by Dale Blasingame

by Cheyenne Meyer:

Robert “Bob” Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet and Professor of Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, visited Texas State University’s Digital Entrepreneurship class on Weds, Feb. 11. Metcalfe was the second speaker in the series sponsored by the School of Journalism Mass Communication, designed to bring distinguished entrepreneurs to the school to discuss communication and business with mass media students.

The question and answer session, moderated by associate professor Cindy Royal, began with a discussion on Metcalfe’s most memorable experiences in business. He explained that the most stand-out events were inventing Ethernet, starting 3Com, the manufacturing company, and growing that company into something much larger.

From Xerox to 3Com

Metcalfe began working at the Xerox Research Center in 1972. There, he was able to apply what he had been learning at Harvard University about packet switching and ARPANet. He served as Xerox’s “networking guy,” pegged with the task of interconnecting the personal computers within the office.

Living in Silicon Valley and rubbing elbows with the likes of Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard and Steve Jobs, Metcalfe decided to write his resignation letter to Xerox and open his own company.

“Everyone was doing it,” he said. “And if my new company failed, I could always go back to Xerox. I’ve [since] learned that it is easy to start a company, but much harder to grow it.”

Metcalfe’s new prototype for Ethernet was not immediately recognized as the standard for packet “plumbing” at its initial release; Metcalfe explained that he was involved in a ten-year, dirty local access network (LAN) war.

Secrets for Successful Selling
Metcalfe explained to the aspiring digital entrepreneurs in the audience that selling is “every bit as complicated as electrical engineering”; entrepreneurs must know how to sell, communicate effectively, and tell their company’s story.

“And the secrets to selling are these: learn to listen,” he explained, “and make promises, then keep them.”

And much like the professors within the SJMC, Metcalfe stressed the importance of knowing how to code.

“How can people think without knowing how to code?” he asked. “Coding is like calculus; one of the fruits of civilization,” he said. “It equips you for life.”

Photo by @i_amscarymonsta

Photo by @i_amscarymonsta

Learning to code, he explained, teaches two important lessons that can be applied in a multitude of areas, especially inventing and innovating. For one, when something goes wrong, you learn to look back at the last thing you changed. For another, when you’re trying to experiment, you change one small thing at a time.

“You don’t have to be a programmer to benefit from these skills,” said Metcalfe.

Net Neutrality
When asked about the controversial topic of net neutrality, Metcalfe had a very strong opinion.

“There are people in Washington who want to re-regulate the internet,” he said, “and I am against it. Net neutrality is deeply ideological, and as we all know, those problems never get solved. The solution to net neutrality is competition – not regulation.”

Though Metcalfe thinks differently on this topic than many in the audience, that didn’t bother him.

“Very few people agree with my opinion on net neutrality,” he said, “but I’m used to being the only one right.”

Invention vs. Innovation
From studying at Harvard and MIT to working at Xerox in Silicon Valley, to eventually inventing Ethernet and starting his own tech manufacturing company 3Com, Metcalfe has had plenty of experience in both inventing and in innovating. He explained, however, that the terms are not synonymous, and that innovating takes much more focus, business skills and patience.

“Invention is a flower; innovation is a weed,” he said. “Everyone loves innovation until they’re innovated upon.”

When asked how to protect an idea in its early stages, Metcalfe explained that ideas must have the resources adequate behind them in order to be put into action.

“An idea is just an idea until you execute it,” he said.

The True Meaning of Entrepreneurship
While many describe entrepreneurship as simply “business”, Metcalfe explained that it is much more than that. It’s about taking risks.

“Entrepreneurship is all about ambition, creativity, and selling,” he said. “And all of those skills can be taught.”

Finally, Metcalfe shared that, while entrepreneurs may face many unforeseen obstacles and challenges in growing their businesses, there is a secret to getting past them.

“It’s like tennis: when you make an error, you can get upset and make a worse error,” he explained, “or you can calm down, learn from your error, and recover.”

The School of Journalism and Mass Communication would like to thank Bob Metcalfe for visiting the speaker series. The next speaker in the series is Evan Smith, the co-founder, CEO and editor-in-chief at the Texas Tribune. The Q&A will begin at 5:30 p.m. in Old Main 320 on Weds, Feb. 25, with a short discussion about net neutrality starting at 5:00 p.m.

A video of the Q&A session with Metcalfe is available on the Digital Entrepreneurship Speaker Series YouTube channel.

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One Response to Bob Metcalfe talks innovation, creativity at Digital Entrepreneurship speaker series

  1. Pingback: Origins of the Metcalfe Mystery | Online Media Design

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