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Avoiding Pratfalls At Pratt

Bill Younger, a Pratt parent, member of Pratt's Board of Visitors and managing director of Sutter Hill Ventures in Palo Alto, Calif., kicked off Parents Weekend on Oct. 25 with the annual Engineering Seminar in Griffith Film Theater. He and his son Mark, who graduated from Pratt last May, delighted an audience of over 300 with verbal jousting over career advice for engineering students as they passed a basketball between them. Though often tongue-in- cheek, both Youngers provided sage advice.

Here is the text of their remarks:


BILL— My name is Bill Younger. I graduated in 1972 with a BSEE from the University of Michigan. For the last 22 years, I have been a partner at Sutter Hill Ventures, a venture capital investment firm located in Palo Alto, California. We invest in early stage, computer and medical technology firms.

MARK — My name is Mark Younger. I graduated in 2003 with a BSEE from the Pratt School of Engineering. Since May, I have been managing the DELTA Smart House here at Duke. We are building a live-in laboratory on central campus that will provide a venue for students to pursue real-world engineering interests outside the classroom.

Since we both come from the great state of California, where our new governor launched his campaign on the Jay Leno show, and our outgoing governor wrapped up his shortened term in office on the David Letterman show, we thought it only appropriate that we use the format from those shows to discuss our own list offering advice to you as students and parents at Pratt. So here goes our list, which we entitle “Avoiding Prattfalls at Pratt.”


BILL— THINK SMALL. After watching the entrepreneurial spirit, through 22 years of boom and bust, IPO markets and not, assaults from Japan, India, China, IBM, and Microsoft, I still believe there are untold opportunities awaiting the entrepreneurial engineer who wants to take on risk to develop a new idea into a remarkable new service or product. Success depends on laser-like focus and maneuverability. It means knowing more about your product and market than anyone else. It means walling off distractions, yet realizing when new information is telling you that you need to change your idea in a subtle or a bold way. It means joining or assembling a small team of crack performers who know how to get the most out of one another. If you are a student here, learn to develop your gut feel, make decisions, take risks, recognize talent, and work as a small team to accomplish tough objectives.

I love to read, and when I turned 50, I made a list of my 10 favorite books. Among those were Undaunted Courage, the story of Lewis and Clark’s epic voyage across the West and The Endurance, the story of Earnest Shakleton’s survival for nearly 2 years marooned in the Antarctic. These leaders knew how to think small, focus on survival, persevere against great odds, and adapt to opportunities.

MARK — THINK BIG. You’re emphasizing thinking small. But I would actually recommend the opposite: that engineers THINK BIG. What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say Duke? It may be academics, the med center, or obviouslyÂ…basketball. Decades of competitive teams, national championships, All-Americans, Olympians. So Duke imprints on us that recruiting and competition extend across the U.S. and the world.

So does the diverse student body. My roommate from freshmen year, and good friendÂ…his parents are from India. We spent many nights discussing culture, religion, family – the similarities and differences. You cannot help but be impressed by the different talent assembled in the Pratt School and the “bigness” of the place. Understand the diverse experience of the people you are up against.

Globalization is happening. Brands like Coke and Starbucks are everywhere. The rise of China, with its enormous markets and manufacturing capabilities is a fact of modern life. India churns out hundreds of thousands of highly qualified, English speaking engineers and is replacing software and services formerly supplied by the Western World.

You cannot practice your career in the cocoon of North Carolina or the U.S. I encourage you to study abroad as I did. I spent a semester in Australia. I remember feeling a little lost in the engineering labs upon my arrival, simply because Australians had been taught differently. But despite different equipment and different backgrounds, engineers must be adaptive globally. Engineering extends far beyond the confines of your textbook. That’s why studying abroad was an important part of my Pratt experience. It is a “big” world, and we need to understand, appreciate and use it.

BILL— Get really good at something. If you have the choice between a survey course or an in depth lab, take the lab. The biggest benefit of engineering school is confidence. Nothing you will do later in life is harder than 4 years of engineering school. It gives you the confidence to face unknown situations, knowing you can solve a problem. And what is the difference between studying engineering and studying liberal arts? There is a right answer to an engineering problem. While we engineers may not learn the creativity that comes from writing an essay on an open-ended question, we do know whether we go the right answer.

And don’t be afraid to take a risk, to make a mistake. A very successful CEO was asked why he had been extraordinarily successful. “Good decisions” he answered. Well how do I make good decisions the questioner asked. “Experience” said the CEO. And how do I get experience he was asked. “Bad decisions” said the CEO.

If you want to get really good at something, you will take risks and make bad decisions. But experience will lead to good decisions.

Silicon Valley expects risk taking and failure. And other entrepreneurial and venture capital communities, like Research Triangle, do as well. When I interview, I often ask what has been that person’s biggest failure and then listen for what he or she has learned.

If they cannot think of a failure, I conclude they haven’t set their goals high enough. If they describe a failure but don’t describe the learning, then I conclude they aren’t improving. But if they describe a failure and what they have learned and applied, then I get real interested in that person.

Some of the great investments we’ve had at Sutter Hill came out of the crucible of failure. nVIDIA failed twice before it launched a wildly successful graphics chip. Each time, the CEO and team learned from their mistakes, adjusted their plans, and drove to the next opportunity. That paid off big time. nVIDIA reached $1billion in revenues 7 years after founding.

So Mark, what’s your reaction to this notion of getting really good at something?

MARK— Stay broad and think outside the box.

I believe staying broad and thinking outside the box is more important to successful engineering. Perhaps I can better illustrate this point with a story:

A bunch of Trinity students were given an assignment to measure the height of a flagpole. So they went out to the flagpole with ladders and tape measures, trying to defy gravity and somehow measure it, falling off their ladders, dropping the tape measures–— the whole thing was just a mess!

A Pratt engineer comes along and sees what they’re trying to do, walks over, asks if he might help, pulls the flagpole out of the ground, lays it flat, measures it from end to end, gives the measurement to one of the Trinity students and walks away.

After the engineer had gone, one Trinity student turned to another and laughed. “Isn’t that just like an engineer!” he said. “We’re looking for the height, and he gives us the length!”

That begins to illustrate the point of thinking outside the box!

Real world problems are seldom isolated. They exist in a system, surrounded by other constraints. You change one parameter, and it ripples through, often having unintended consequences.

Let me tell you about my experience the last year as head of the Duke Smart House. To build this house, we have organized into 12 teams. Each one seems to draw on different disciplines of engineering — electrical, mechanical, biomedical, structural, and environmental. Some of the biggest advances we’ve made have occurred where the disciplines meet. I read recently that Cornell University calls these interactions “intellectual collisions.” It’s when two engineers in different disciplines are walking along with their heads down, focused on their own in-depth subject matter, and their two worlds collide. For me, even in an administrative role, I have learned a lot about the other engineering disciplines through these “intellectual collisions”. As an Electrical Engineer, I am learning considerations that Mechanical and Biomedical Engineers put into their design, which in turn influences my design of electrical components and gives me a more wholistic view of the DESIGN process.

And then there are disciplines outside engineering: architecture, human factors, physics — We have engaged with William McDonough, the former dean of the University of Virginia architecture school and author of a book entitled From Cradle to Cradle. His revolutionary concepts redefine the entire product cycle. In his book, he says, “The engineer has always taken — indeed, has been trained his or her entire life to take — a traditional, linear, cradle-to-grave approach focusing on one-size-fits-all tools and systems (a computer is a great example of a cradle-to-grave product. Because it costs more money to fix than it does to replace, we simply throw it away when the new product generation roles around), and “the engineer who expects to use materials and chemicals and energy as he or she has always done, discarding rather than repairingÂ…[will find] shift to new models and more diverse input unsettling.” McDonough suggests the idea of cradle-to-cradle products along with his goals of zero waste, zero emissions, and zero footprint ecologically and then he goes on to talk about the steps we would need to take, to make this happen in the business world.

McDonough, an architect by profession, is a great example of thinking outside the box into the realms of chemistry and the environment.

BILL—  95 percent of success in life is being a good salesman.

A very good friend, who is a successful entrepreneur, used to comfort me with this thought when my kids would bring home a disappointing grade or blow off my suggestions on some topic of interest. But it applies not only to children, but all of your endeavors as well.

Your ideas are only as good as your ability to communicate them clearly and convince others to act on them. While you are at Pratt, grab opportunities for leadership, for reasoning, for presentations. Many of those opportunities will occur outside the classroom — in sports, in social settings, in extracurricular activities.

And what is the basis of convincing communications? Preparation — yes. Humor — it helps. Facts — of course. But I was with a renown theologian several weeks ago who failed to persuade me of his ideas because he lacked the most important ingredient of communication — empathy: identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings and motives.

I remember as a boy going with my Dad to hear a famous motivational speaker address an auditorium full of people. He gave a fabulous speech, but right in the middle of the talk about empathy, he forgot his speech. The seconds ticked by, the audience began to squirm uncomfortably in our chairs. I was afraid to look at him after awhile because I felt so sorry for him. And then he broke into a big smile and said, “You now see my point, most of you in the audience were feeling empathy for me, you were identifying with my situation and feelings, although in this case I deliberately lost my place.”

You will not have learned what you could or should at Pratt unless you learn to sell yourself and your ideas. And you learn to be empathetic.

MARK — But Selling means you’re talking. I would say a more important skill is listening.

Cisco is one of the phenomenal growth stories in U.S. business history. While Microsoft grew 25x in 10 years to reach $19 billion in revenues, Cisco grew 270 times in 10 years to reach $19 billion in revenues. Kevin Kennedy, a senior VP for Cisco, said, “It was very simple. We would delight a customer, find another and do the same.” Listening to a customer’s needs and then meeting them, over and over, was part of the formula behind Cisco’s phenomenal growth.

Will Rogers once said, “You ain’t learning nothing when you’re talking.” You can only learn while listening. If bad decisions lead to experience and good decisions, then listening and learning from others is a shortcut to good decisions.

I’ve had several fantastic mentors at Duke. John Hawkins, who runs the Leadership Edge program here, has taught me the importance of leadership not only in the workplace but flowing into all aspects of your life. Dean Johnson encouraged me to push the DELTA Smart House idea through the Duke administration and continues to advise me in that process.

Especially for you seniors, as you go out to find a job, find someone you want to work for, from whom you can listen and learn. Get as much of their time as they will give you. There are some tremendous role models and teachers willing to invest in you both here and in the business community.

BILL—  Stick to your beliefs. My very first visit to Duke was with a small group of Silicon Valley executives who spoke to the Fuqua Business School on the subject of integrity. This was during the dot com bubble. We were peppered with questions about whether integrity and success were mutually exclusive. Our answer then, and my answer now, is that not only does integrity matter, but it is essential for successful leadership. We live in a world where people are way too talented and worldly to stick with a leader or organization which isn’t truthful. Nor should you. One of our criteria for backing a team is that they seek the truth and speak the truth. They don’t fool themselves, and they don’t hide the facts from one another or from us. Kevin Kennedy, in this book Going the Distance: Why some companies dominate and others fail, lists frank, open dialogue as the first vital sign in assessing an organization.

College is a time to test, explore, and solidify your values. And then stick to them. John Wooden is one of my heroes. He coached UCLA to a record number of NCAA basketball championships. He has lots of great quotes, but one of my favorites on the subject of integrity is this: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are; your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

One of the misconceptions about venture capital is that we spend all our time evaluating technology, markets and financial statements. Actually, people trump the other considerations. And starting with people of integrity is at the top of the checklist.

MARK — I do not have an opposing point of view on this point. Integrity does matter, but I believe just as important is taking risks. The reason I want to emphasize taking risks is that the basic character of the engineer is conservative. We are methodical. We like to know we can find a solution to a problem. We are often looking for certain types of answers.

There is a whole market though, looking for risk taking engineers. Pratt is moving towards a more entrepreneurial, risk-taking environment to prepare engineers to start their own businesses or to get involved with smaller companies that have a chance to make it big. Even with the economy recovering from a three-year downturn, small companies may be able to offer just as much job security as you will find in the larger corporations and consulting firms.

I have a close friend who started a laundry business here at Duke based on the DDS model. DDS is a Delivery Service that delivers off-campus food to students on campus through the FoodPoints System. He took a risk, and ended up funding his college education from the sale of that company. The Duke Start-Up Challenge is underway again this year. How many of you have thought of entering? or of offering your engineering skills to a team that has entered? Why not?

Even if you fail, taking risks can only make you stronger and more experienced.


BILL—  The venture capital world has changed enormously in the 22 years I’ve been in the business. One measure of change is the amount of money available to entrepreneurs. When I started at Sutter Hill in 1981, $4.7B was available to entrepreneurs from all the V.C. firms in the U.S. Today, the amount available for investment is $288B. That a 6200% increase. By way of illustration, if the amount available 22 years ago was a 3-foot high stack of money, the amount available today would be as high as the Duke Chapel, or 210 feet. One of the things you will not face if you choose to go the entrepreneurial route is a lack of money.

But more important than money are the qualities we talked about today. Sure some are contradictory. You will have to find the right balance in your life between thinking small and big, getting good at one thing and being broad, selling and listening, sticking to your beliefs and taking risks.

But the opportunities ahead of you as Pratt students are unbelievable. In the last month, my partners and I have met fascinating entrepreneurs who have credible business plans in wireless services, personal book publishing, magnetically cushioned replacement knees, compelling multiplayer games, and superior artificial lenses for the eye. The list goes on and on.

I hope we’ve given you a glimpse of the opportunities open to you and have made you think about the skills you can acquire here at Duke to pursue them.

Best of luck!