“Why don’t you tell me what you know about placement in EDA?”
The questions started easily enough. My interviewer, Brent Gregory was this lanky gentleman with a very easy air about him. His soft voice and pleasant manner belied the incisiveness with which the questions came. Within five minutes, maybe sooner, he’d established the limits of my knowledge on the subject of electronic design automation. More importantly, he’d made me truly aware of what things I had clarity on and what I merely knew of.
The next fifty-five minutes were spent in educating me, on what it is his team was attempting to build and answering questions that I had. Here I was, having worked for over twelve years at that time in two countries – in a billion-dollar tech firm and in two startups – selling to other tech businesses across Europe, Israel, Japan and the US. Yet Brent Gregory in under five minutes had established the limits of what I knew – certainly as it pertained to his company’s business and focused on getting me to understand the problem they were trying to solve and why their approach was likely the better one.
Measure first before you cut This old tailor’s maxim can’t be stated too often. Brent Gregory taught me this lesson that first day I met him. He seemed to come into the interview with few assumptions – took the time to get to know what I did know (about EDA that day) rather than spending a lot of time asking me either needless form questions or trying to show me how much smarter he was than me (he still is!) As entrepreneurs we like to think we are action-oriented but how often do we plan (measure) before we act (cut)? By no means have I mastered this lesson, but I’m getting better at it.
Value your team Brent was unique as a leader – while he led a research group – practically every member of the group or so it seemed, was in a different country. He did have a couple of other folks in the same building, but he had an engineer in Goa, India – one in Spain (or maybe the south of France). While distributed teams were not unheard of, a single team with its members scattered around the globe had its share of challenges. However, Brent always made sure that the appropriate member of his team got the credit and recognition they deserved and held himself accountable even while protecting his team’s freedom to work from wherever they were. This in a company that would have preferred everyone being in the same building. Unlike many other scientists and researchers, Brent was also immensely appreciative of the marketing team and the value they brought and always prepared to listen and learn why we proposed some of what we did – even while his boss, our CTO, many times voiced his opinion that “our innovative products would sell themselves.”
Simplify The sign of good engineer for me is one who can explain what he does in simple words that mere mortals can understand. Brent in that regard has few peers to take a complex matter – such as our placement algorithm – and explain not just what it did, but why it did it that way and how it was not just different but better than other methods. This allowed not only the applications engineering team but the marketing team to better communicate, position and support customers with conviction. Simplifying without trivializing – is not an easy thing to do – as folks trying to explain the reasons to stay within the EU (against the Brexit) have recently discovered.
Seventeen years after I first met Brent Gregory, I continue to admire him for his understated and measured manner of working. Thank you, Brent, for teaching me a whole lot and being such a good listener.
A variety of people — colleagues, friends, managers and mentors have taught me many lessons that have helped me grow. This article is one in a series sharing what I’ve learned and my gratitude for the lessons they’ve taught me. You can jump to any of the specific posts in my gratitude series below.