I was asked to say a few words at Fred’s retirement party. Without more than a moment’s thought, I knew just how to approach the task.
So, when I got up in front of a packed room a few weeks later, I began with the quote that had immediately sprung to mind earlier…
“All progress depends on unreasonable men,” I said, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw. “Fred Heiman is one of those men. When I plan a vacation, thoughts run immediately to poolside Margarita’s in Maui. That’s reasonable. Fred? He heads straight to the western shores of Australia to scuba dive with giant whale sharks. Not so reasonable.” That reference was apt both with respect to Fred’s then growing (now full fledged) passion for underwater exploration and videography (see his web site), and the evening’s venue: the Monterey Aquarium.
But it was also an apt quote to describe Fred’s accomplishments and nature.
Fred could drive you crazy. Opinions? Fred’s got em. Compromise? Not in his vocabulary. Gray area, perhaps? Nope, that’s 100% white. I mean to tell you, the man is totally unreasonable.
But he’s also the reason Symbol Technologies entered and emerged as a leader in wireless networking and related enterprise mobility products. Fred saw that the world was going wireless earlier than just about anyone else I know. I can still picture the slide he presented to that effect at a product strategy meeting sometime around 1988. (Remember, this is what a cell phone looked like that year, and that it cost $4382 in inflation-adjusted dollars.) His was not an obvious or reasonable position to assert.
Also not reasonable: to base our design on an RF technology previously only used by the military (spread spectrum), and to propose that the project be tackled by an engineering team that largely didn’t yet exist, and had no prior experience in wireless product development. But that’s just what Fred insisted we do.
Well, the wireless and mobility technology we developed became the basis for what is now a billion dollar plus business within Motorola (who acquired Symbol), and our ideas are woven deeply into what we all now know as WiFi (we were one of six companies who drove the first round standardization efforts behind the now ubiquitous wireless LAN technology).
Fred has a habit of doing things like that. Earlier in his career, he was one of the principal inventors of the MOSFET IC, one of the key founding innovations that has led to our digital world.
I tell this story not just to tip my hat (again) to Fred, but to remind us all that we had better do our best to attract and keep around “unreasonable” men and women. They’re the ones that don’t recognize and accept present conventions and realities, they invent new ones. Yes, they can drive you crazy, but they are your future. Look around your team. See any? If not, better find a couple.