Bob Metcalfe embarked on his fifth career a little more than a year ago as Professor of Innovation and Murchison Fellow of Free Enterprise at UT Austin in the Cockrell School of Engineering. Before coming to UT, Metcalfe had worked as a venture capitalist, a publisher, an executive and an entrepreneur. He is the inventor of the Ethernet and the founder of 3Com Corporation. As you might imagine, he had a lot to share with our sophomore students during their BHP Lyceum course last week.
Metcalfe describes his life as a “win-win-win-win,” and “the culmination of the American dream.” Despite naysayers and setbacks, he has had a lot of success in his myriad careers. He started his career with Xerox in 1973. On May 22nd of that year, he was given the job of installing the network in the first building full of personal computers, and it was on that day that he invented the Ethernet, which was made the industry standard in 1980. He was living in Silicon Valley at the time, where entrepreneurship was “in the water” and he felt that the time was right for him to start his own company. He started 3Com in 1979 and stayed with the company for 11 years. After leaving 3Com, he started a new career as publisher of the information technology website, InfoWorld, and internet columnist. Metcalfe then went on to work in venture capital for Polaris Venture Partners for nearly ten years before coming to UT.
Metcalfe has several specific goals in mind for this next phase of his life in Austin as a professor of innovation. One he feels strongly about is making Austin what he calls, “a better Silicon Valley.” He talked about the enormous potential that exists in Austin to connect UT students who are aspiring entrepreneurs with current entrepreneurs who can mentor them. He sees his role in innovation and free enterprise tying into this nicely. He will be working with the community of Austin and UT students to create technological innovation at scale and to learn to operate the machinery of free enterprise.
The BHP Lyceum course focuses on leadership and ethics and Metcalfe shared his thoughts on both. “My leadership philosophy focuses on communicating well,” he said. “The key is to listen. We were given two ears and one mouth for a reason.” He shared with the students that he had indeed been in situations where doing something that wasn’t right would have led to personal gain. He stressed that it is what you do when no one is looking that counts. He also talked about the gray area that exists in sales and said that exaggeration is frequently used when selling, but that one has to ask themselves if the person you are exaggerating to is damaged by what you are telling them. If the answer is yes, then that has crossed the line.
One of the best and most engaging stories of the day came from a student question regarding an incident where Metcalfe literally ate his words in the form of a column smoothie. One can reference Wikipedia for the full tale, but hearing the story first-person was quite a treat. It was yet another instance of how Metcalfe managed to turn things around and create another win out of a not-so-great situation, resulting in stellar publicity.