Thursday, April 28, 2005

Simple stuff. Fixing problems.

Professional Engineers (PEs) are not a notoriously funny bunch.

Oh, they'll drink a beer with you, but you wouldn't search them out if you were looking for the funniest thing you could do on a Saturday night. That's probably good, though. They are smart folk who are damn hard to fool with.

My day job company got picked for a nice award recently by the Wisconsin Society of PEs. Our outfit makes very rugged, very simple tools for a really nasty problem. Nothing high tech. You couldn't plug them in if you wanted to.

There's a good lesson in this for you, my start up friends.

It was sort of a beauty contest for innovation and new products. Entries were judged on design, engineering, innovation and economic impact. No bathing suits for this crowd.

They announced the winners from the bottom up. By the time they got to second place, I thought we were toast. Second place went to a very cool company that had figured out a new way to limit radiation needed for medical treatments. Right. Even I didn't think we should beat this company.

Then a most remarkable thing happened. The presenter started telling a story about his brother. He said the guy was a big deal. He'd owned a number of businesses with heavy numbers attached. Commercial experience all over the place. The presenter said he wanted his brother's opinion of the winners they'd picked and showed him the list, without telling him who'd won. The brother said every single one could win and how cool it was to have so much innovation around. But, his brother said, could you get me the telephone number of the guy with the oil recyclers? I've had that problem in every plant I've ever run.

The presenter quit his story there and said, "That's what we're here for. To fix problems, to make people's lives better." Then he announced us as first place, best of state.

Simple stuff. Fixing problems. Get it?

I was supposed to say a few words when they presented the award. I should have pretended I knew something profound about innovation and technology, but I only had one thing on my mind.

"Thanks very much", I said. "Could I get your brother's phone number?"

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