Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Luck

I miss my late grandfather Sody. He passed away six years ago. Sody lived a full, rich but simple life. The son of Swedish immigrants, he matured through the Depression, a few world wars, and the birth and emergence of the Silicon Valley. He bought his first and only primary residence in San Carlos (1805 Cedar Street, if memory serves) in 1946: Half down, the balance ($6k) amortized via a 30-year, 4.25% FHA mortgage. Times changed and the Peninsula blossomed, but over 50 years the house remained the same. Just the way he liked it.

Sody was a fisherman, the Salmon Egg, bobber-floating, rainbow trout hooking variety. He summered in Miwok Village where – upon entering his cabin – you were greeted by a proclamation: Old fishermen never die. They just smell that way. Sody was also an engineer, a damn good one. This is where today’s story begins.

Sody began his career in the 1930s at Varian Associates in San Carlos. The company’s pioneering products included vacuum electron tubes, an embryonic accelerator, and various geophysical instruments. He also night-schooled at Stanford with two friends: Bill and Dave.

Sody’s friends invited him to dinner one night in the late 1930s. Gathered in Bill’s dining room, Bill and Dave shared with Sody their ambition to start a company. “And, we’d like you to be our first employee,” they pitched. An audio oscillator – right up Sody’s alley – was slated to be the company’s first product.

Sody mumbled and grumbled. Sounds kinda risky (my words). He was comfortably enjoying work at Varian, an established Valley engineering firm. Sody balked; Bill and Dave started their company.

Two relevant quotes come to mind: Luck is where opportunity meets preparation (Denzel Washington); and, Chance favors the prepared mind (Pasteur). Sody had prepared (school, professional experience, differential and desirable skill set) and an opportunity emerged (the chance to join Bill and Dave in their company launch).

Sody spent the next few decades at Varian Associates. The company excelled, and so too did he. A few years before he passed, my wife and I sat down with Sody. PowerBook powered up, Internet connection established, we toured Varian’s site (including a photo of Sody and his comrades, circa mid-40s) and then HP’s. How’d you do that? That machine generates audio signals! Where’d you get Dave’s picture? Wait, there’s the radio oscillator! That Dave Packard, he was a great man.

At the time, my wife worked at HP. She was employee number 500-thousand-and-something in the company’s history. As we started to talk about the ramifications of Sody’s prospective employment with HP – given his personality and the times, he probably would have spent three-plus decades at HP – Sody injected, Did I ever tell you about the time I had dinner with Bill and Dave at Dave’s house?

Garrison Keillor: “Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.”

Sody could not have said it better. And, I could not have been luckier to have him as a grandfather.

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Post-script (8/15/07): The Great Marc Andreessen presents a roadmap for entrepreneurs to "getting luck on our side" (Luck and the entrepreneur, part 1: The four kinds of luck) ... yet another gem from Andreessen, and you've gotta marvel at his endurance/ability to generate excellent content.

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Post-script (3 Feb 08): My friend Andy checks in with a Sody, Bill and Dave-relevant post about the value of scientists (vis-a-vis businessman). A taste:

I am putting my money (or at least a lot of my time) on what I think is one of the few crucial levers we have: increasing the ability of scientists to make their research make a difference.

Frederick Terman, grandfather the Silicon Valley, once remarked (before transforming Stanford's School of Engineering into the powerhouse it is today) that the field of radio was dominated by businessmen who knew a little about science. He asked what would happen to the field if it was led by scientists who knew a little bit about business. Hewlett-Packard, Varian, and many others were businesses that emerged from the School of Engineering were examples of the impact that scientists can have when they assume the mantle of leadership in business.

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Post-script (25 Feb 08): Quick post from CreativityRulz about the virtue of making your own luck:

There are studies that show that some people really are luckier than others. But, the catch is that we make our own luck. You have to put yourself in a position where you have the chance to be lucky. For example, you aren't going to meet interesting friends if you spend all your time hanging out alone; you aren't going to win a Pulitzer Prize unless you begin writing; and you aren't going to start a cool new company unless you take the risk of starting one. As my wise father always said, "the harder you work, the luckier you get."

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