Many years ago I came across an electronic hobbiest magazine called Radio and Electronics. I first recall subscribing to it in college and I continued on for many years and enjoyed until it went out of print. One of my favorite authors in the magazine was Don Lancaster. There was something about his writing style that just set him apart from everyone else. It was refreshingly honest, and just a little irreverent. I’ve found that it’s rare that someone gets to write that way because most people who write magazine articles usually have an ulterior motive. Most often it’s to sell you something, either a product, and idea, or a point of view. Sometimes people write simply just to keep their jobs. But when you don’t really have a job, and Don Lancaster never had a real ‘job’ as long as I’ve known about him, then you can write and say whatever you want. When you spend time in the company of people who can say whatever they think, things are very different.
While reading Radio and Electronics I noticed that Don was making favorable comments about a new magazine called ‘Midnight Engineering’ which had been started by William E. Gates from Fort Collins, CO, not to be confused with the other Bill Gates of Redmond, WA. The concept of the magazine sounded intriguing to me. The magazine was all about entrepreneurial engineers who were working on their own companies. The thought of people who loved engineering so much that they could be found working on technical issues at all hours really appealed to me. If they were successful, perhaps they could even start their own companies and break free from the shackles of corporate servitude. Many of the people writing articles in ME were surviving on their wits, providing useful products and services without a large corporate safety net to protect them. Now that the corporate safety nets have been shredded, possessing the skills of an entrepreneurial engineer has taken on a whole new level of importance.
Midnight Engineering magazine spawned an annual conference in Colorado called ME Ski and later renamed EntCon. It was billed as a ‘real time version of the magazine’. I was living in Pennsylvania at the time, but dreamed about coming to the conference to rub shoulders with this unusual breed of engineer, one who wasn’t afraid to strike out on his (or her) own and make things happen. I attended my first conference in 1996. You can imagine my trepidation, here I was a corporate guy, hanging out with real entrepreneurial engineers! It was both intimidating and inspiring. They took me in as one of their own. Many of them had been cubicle dwellers in a previous life and some still were, but were working toward their own escape from the corporate world so that they could pursue work that they truly loved. Some of them related amazing stories of making millions, and then losing it all, and then getting it back again! As a cubicle dweller, I could hardly believe some of the stories, but here they were, highly skilled engineers, daring to make a difference by striking out on their own and more than willing to share their stories and knowledge.
Even though I fantasized about the life of an entrepreneurial engineer, I stayed with HP for another 10 years. Each time I would attend the conference, I’d be inspired by more entrepreneurial stories. As a result of hanging out with these folks, I got to learn a lot of things that I had no exposure to in the corporate world. Yet I wasn’t ready to be on my own yet. HP had made it difficult to leave. HP was an American icon, founded by Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett, the original entrepreneurial engineers and the company had a unique culture and was filled with talented people. But witnessing the fearlessness of other engineers at Entcon motivated me to take a lot more ‘interpreneurial’ chances. It helped me to decide that I wanted to work on cutting edge products. It’s largely why I went on to help create products like HP’s Digital Entertainment Center, the HP DVD Movie Writer, and HP Media Vault. These products were risky and ahead of their time, a combination that in corporate America will quickly get you a pink slip if you’re not successful. But I’d rather have suffered that fate than work on products that didn’t inspire me. Working on projects that are so exciting that you’d do it for free makes life worth living. And many entrepreneurs do sometimes work essentially for free for years before becoming proverbial ‘overnight successes’.
The conference is taking place this year from March 26th through the 29th in Denver. It is not a large conference and generally attracts between 25 to 40 people that represent some very cool companies. Everyone has a chance to contribute. It’s hard to say how the economy will affect attendance this year but we’ve got people flying in from both coasts and there will be a lot of Colorado folks like myself, and we always have a great time. If you are interested in visiting Colorado and maybe even getting in a day of skiing or snowboarding and some other fun activities, why not join us? You can find the conference details at EntConnect.org. By signing up within the next week, you can still get the early bird pricing of only $149 which is half price for the conference. You’ll also have a chance at winning an HP Media Vault and some of you will also get your own Picture Keepers!