Talks about projects, innovation and leadership – a lightly edited transcript of John O’Sullivan’s interview by Mike Carey and Louis Taborda, with the University of Sydney’s Project Management student Leo Lisu Chen.
John O’Sullivan is an Australian electrical engineer best known for leading the CSIRO team that invented the technology that led to modern Wi-Fi – the IEEE 802.11 standard commonly used by computing devices. This breakthrough was recognized when John was awarded the Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for Science (pictured) in 2009.
John’s story of Wi-Fi highlights the fact that innovation can come from unexpected sources. In the case of Wi-Fi, research on radio astronomy combined with the need to solve the real-world problem of networking speeds, give rise to a technology that has completely changed the way we all work and live.
Project Management vs Leadership
Louis: Thank you John for agreeing to be interviewed. I’m curious about the project management side of things, to begin with … could you please describe a couple of interesting projects you might have worked on and your views on project management.
John: Thanks, Louis. Yeah, I’m not sure I regard myself as an expert project manager, but I have led and managed quite a few projects in my career. And I guess I came to the conclusion that they’re quite different, quite different tasks actually. And the preferred operating mode I found was to find somebody who likes doing the project management side of that and work side by side with them. What I’ve noticed about good project managers is they spend a lot of time walking around and talking to the people doing – executing the project. I think it’s one of the most important things. I guess other issues that I’ve, and I think everybody finds really hard, in anything, probably even quite straightforward projects – they’re always the unexpected. We always, all of us, tend to overestimate our abilities. And we think we’ll do something in a shorter time than we will. And so, calibrating some of that sort of thing, I think is really an important part of the art. I’m not sure I ever solved that, though.
Louis: Any interesting stories about projects and project management in particular?
John: Well, I don’t know about amusing anecdotes or things like that. But some of the projects where the rubber really hits the road occurred when we were building Wi-Fi chips. The problem with building chips is when it comes to what we call tape out, referring to computer tapes – the way it used to be, long, long past. You send the digital database off to the mask maker to make the mask for the chips – maybe 10 or 15 layers. But those masks are something like … a cool US$1.5 million. So, you really, really needed to be sure you had it right. Because if the chip didn’t work, that was probably the end of your company. So, there were various mantras, anything that’s not tested will fail. Anything that a human is involved in will fail. So, you spent a lot of effort doing scripts to do everything and testing and testing and testing and managing that sort of project. I guess I was the manager of at least one of those major chips … I found that a big challenge, a lot of sleepless nights on that. Because the other aspect of course, if [the chip] is not cheap enough, it doesn’t sell either.
Louis: Do you have any examples from your experience of what to avoid – potholes that the newbie project manager might not be aware of and should avoid? Any gotchas?
John: That’s difficult, I’m not sure I can identify consistent potholes. The one thing that does tend to happen is the things that get you the things that you never expected. And that’s the Black Swan events. If you could think of them, you’d already have contingency plans in place, but the things that get you, are the things where something doesn’t work, and it throws up some basic shortcoming and you need a major workaround.
Louis: So, expect the unexpected?
John: Expect the unexpected. But I don’t know what on earth you can do about the unexpected except try and build some contingency. And the trouble is you have to keep the contingency somewhat secret because if anybody knows the deadline is soft, we’re all human, we’ll push the boundaries.
Louis: Right. So, keep some secrets as a project manager.
John: Yeah, I think so.
Louis: Keep something up your sleeve? Do you have anything else you want to add, John?
John: Yeah. I think the project leadership is – certainly in technology projects – a somewhat different task. That’s where you’re looking to somebody [the leader] to provide the technologies, [be the] ideas sounding board … sometimes it’s coming up with ideas. But in my experience, you’ve got to realize if you’ve got a smart team around you, the ideas are going to come from everywhere. There’s lots of smart people around.
Louis: So, you have in your mind quite a differentiation between a project manager and project leader?
John: Yes, I do. And I think the project manager is the one … the person who has to do a lot of walking around talking to the individual members of the project, ascertaining how things are going and being able to read, read their body language and the responses, and get a feeling for how things are really going. And as I said at the outset, my personal taste was to find somebody who really is good at that sort of thing and work side by side with them, because I never really regarded that as my strong point.
Louis: And in your roles, would you call yourself the project leader?
John: I’ve managed projects ranging from small one and two-person projects to 50-person chip developments … Many of the smaller projects, you inevitably operate in both modes. But as the project gets bigger, I think you need to start separating out that mode. At least one company I had some work with … they made set-top boxes for digital television … actually had an interesting structure where they had a project leader, they had a project manager, and off to the side, they had a project scientist. And the project scientist was not burdened with day to day management responsibilities, but they were really the ones that were looked at … to take us to the next stage. To really get the cutting-edge product.
Louis: The subject matter expert?
John: Yeah, but with enough time to go away and stare at the ceiling and cogitate, which is important, because if you don’t get time to do that, then the one thing you know is you will go backward.
Mike: John, could you give us a brief introduction to the highlights of your career?
John: I studied at Sydney University. Interestingly, I got into electrical engineering because of a school excursion I made the building just across the way where they showed an experiment that intrigued me, with the physics I knew at the time … I thought, hey, this looks interesting. I think I’d like to do this. It’s not what you’re doing in electrical engineering, ultimately, but I sort of had a lot of fun along the way. I studied in Physics, Science and Electrical Engineering.
I did a PhD in radio astronomy or technology for radio astronomy. Then went off overseas and spent a … the next nine years in the Netherlands, working on radio astronomy, working on all sorts of big projects, but also some Skunk Works – small projects that … One of them was looking for something that Stephen Hawking had suggested might exist, these microscopic black holes that were created at the beginning of the Big Bang and may just be hanging around. And Stephen Hawking was suggesting that they evaporate and might go bang. And we set out to see if [there was] a nuclear electromagnetic pulse from those. We didn’t find it.
But radio astronomy was, I think, a fantastic area for exposing young minds to challenging problems … looking for the best possible instrumentation. And management who are prepared to let us … I think a lot of good people, including some of the people who were ultimately involved in the Wi-Fi technology invention, came out of that.
These are all people that I think had the view that you … identify people with skills, good people. And don’t micro-manage them, let them have a go at it.
Mike: Do you see enough of that around today?
John: Absolutely not. In this in this age of metrics and KPIs, I think … the mantra that you can only manage what you can measure has, to my mind, stifled some of the things that might potentially make a big impact. It hasn’t completely stopped, there are still good things happening. But I think Wi-Fi technology work, the wireless network work, might not have got started if people were looking at that sort of index back then.
Mike: Well, can you explain your experience with innovation, particularly Wi-Fi? How did that all happen?
John: Yeah, well, I’ve been increasingly interested in the idea of what’s behind innovation? I spent some five years working at News Corp. and got to meet some of the creative minds, and they really are innovative. They really are lateral thinkers in ways that we technologists, we can be innovative, but we tend not to be that way out. But then you look at some of the experiences, say in World War Two, and you look at the innovation all around, all sides, all countries involved in it, it’s staggering what came out of that. And some of that is people being different people with different skills and backgrounds being thrown together. And … there was an incredible deadline on that one if you didn’t innovate then you might not be there.
Mike: You mentioned the need to bring a lot of people together in times of war? Can you just flesh that out a little bit more?
John: Well, just take examples like radar … there were all the people that were involved in radar at the end of the war who said, hey, we’ve got all these neat skills and technology, what could we turn it to? And they basically started radio astronomy. But radar, how do you remotely detect things, led to things like the magnetron, led to huge efforts in the US – the MIT radiation labs. Extraordinary things. For example, I read about the development of the atom bomb and the thing that surprised me there is that the hardest problem was nothing to do with atomic energy. It was, how to do an explosive lens that would compress something sufficiently, uniformly.
Richard Feynman was the young scientist to actually solve that. So, I took some messages from that, that innovation, trying to do something big, bring people together with different views and different backgrounds … set yourself a stretch goal.
I had come back to CSIRO at the invitation of Bob Prater, who was a professor at Electrical Engineering here at Sydney University. I originally came back thinking I would work on radio astronomy, but when I got back, he sat me down and said, the world is changing on us, we need to get more commercially relevant. Would you like to be involved in turning your skills, built up in radio astronomy, to more commercially relevant tasks? So, we set out to do that and had some mixed success. But one of the things I was pushing hard, Bob Prater was pushing hard, was [that] we need to do something bigger. We need to do something that draws people with the various skills around CSRIO together, to work on it, it needs to be something big enough to be commercially interesting. And it needs to have a nice, difficult goal there, and we came up with this idea of wireless networking.
Wireless networks have been around, but we argued that if you could do it at the same speed as the best, wired network at the time – fiber optic network. And that one choice, to try and do it 100 times faster than people were doing it before, meant we had to come up with something quite new. I think that was perhaps one of the most important things. But the other aspect was, we managed to bring together a team, some of whom would work on radio astronomy, one was a physicist, one was a mathematician, one was an engineer, a software engineer, so a bit of a diverse team.
Mike: How was the team chosen?
John: How do you herd cats? By trying to attract people who are good, trying to attract them into the project. And having an exciting project meant that that was not that hard. Some of the good people want to join in the project.
Mike: When did you realize that you had something special?
John: I’ve often been asked was there a eureka moment? My memory about this and this might be different for the other four inventors. and other people around the project, but my memory was a series of small eureka moments. We were trying to solve the problem basically of radio waves reverberate. Say you’re in a meeting room or lecture room, office – they reverberate and so if I try and send bits one after another, the echoes from preceding bits will scramble what you’re trying to listen. So, you have to solve that right up front if you were to get 100 megabits per second.
And so, we thought of why not turn the problem around? And this is very often what happens, you have to turn the problem around and look at it from a different angle. And so we turned the problem around, looked at in the Fourier domain, and thought, what if we send the bits in parallel on different tones, and then realized we could use a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) – we’d already built a chip to do that for a different task.
But that merely opened up the next layer of the onion. They’ll be missing tones and how do you fix those tones up? Each step of the way, I remember that there’d be, yeah, we could do it this way – which opened up the next layer. So, after we’ve got four or five layers deep in the onion, I certainly started to feel, hey, I think we might have this. We might know how to do this.
Mike: And that must have been very, very satisfying to be part of a process like that.
John: Yes. We were going around trying to interest computer companies, and one computer company IBM, IBM Research, was very interested. They had their own internal research effort trying to crack this very high-speed wireless network problem. But two weeks before a major visit we made there, they laid off 60,000 people in the White Plains area. They cut IBM Research by more than the entire CSRIO budget. So, much as they wanted to do something, that was not on, and the interest sort of died down.
Leo: Did you ever anticipate Wi-Fi could make such a large impact on the world?
John: Yes, interesting question. We were certainly arguing that this had huge potential. Let’s just sort of step back to late 1980s, early 90s. We had networks in research environments … Joe Public didn’t really use a network for anything. I had dial-up modems. But in a research environment, we’re really starting to see how email, on the one hand, and access to data – sort of instantaneous access to data – was really starting to change the way we did things. The other thing that was happening was portable computing. Laptops. Yeah, maybe they were “luggables”, but it wasn’t hard to see that if you could combine the networking with the portability that had the potential.
So, we thought it would be big, but I think most of what we were thinking about, most of what I was thinking about anyway, were still business type applications, education type applications. And like in so many things, what’s happened is its entertainment and personal communication and so forth, that ends up completely dominating.
Leo: So, I wanted to know so what roles have you played in your teams?
John: I came back to Australia and ended up heading up a signal and image processing programme that was looking at things like medical imaging, geophysical imaging for surveying underground ore bodies, mine safety, through-the-rock communication – a whole range of things. So, we were quite diverse, and I found I like learning about different things. I love going and finding an area that I had nothing, no knowledge about, and going and learning about it. So, I think in many ways, the role I played was, one, spotting the possibility here. But two, sort of what we sometimes called the generalist, the person that knew enough about the different areas of expertise, to be able to communicate and pull them together. The boundaries in the way we work weren’t all that cut and dry. We tended to operate … you could stand in front of a whiteboard or have arguments and we’d listen to what each other said. And so, I don’t know, I guess I was technical leader. But in that not necessarily the first to have the ideas or anything like that.
Leo: Do you believe science and technology should just be led by the market? Or should the government intervene?
John: Whether governments have a role in innovation. It’s fashionable nowadays to say not. But you look at things that have happened in the past, and some important things have been inspired by government. I don’t see why government can’t have a role. I don’t see why government has to operate all that different to a private enterprise.
What makes some things difficult is scale? If you’re a small company, you can’t set out to do very, very large-scale, long-term things you’ll be, you’ll have run out of money long before we succeeded in that. So, I don’t know. I think there should be horses for courses. I think there’s a role for longer-term science and technology that really has to be government. Or, if it’s not government [then something] like some of the famed Bell Labs and IBM Research, and so forth, in the US and other countries – where these big companies had the luxury of being able to take a long-term view. But nearly all of those have died out now – they’re essentially gone – in which case I think government has a role.
Leo: What would you look for in a new project?
John: What would I look for in a new project? I’m intrigued by things that are questioning the current dogma [but] … if it’s your money you’re investing I guess you’re torn between betting on something that is a sure thing and a speculator.
So, I have to qualify that answer. My instinct is to be attracted to something that is looking off over there. The rational part of me, if it’s my money, I’d be looking at – show me the money. I think it’s important to know … whose wallet is finally going to open. You may not be talking to them initially, but you need to know who they are.
Leo: What’s your expectation for young generations, someone young like me?
John: What’s my expectation for young students? I think one of the things is that areas where innovation happens tend to move. And where the hotspots are, tend to move. What I think is interesting is that … people are flexible. And if you were prepared to move and move to a new area where there is a challenge, then I think that’s a good way for things to happen. That’s not for everybody, I guess, but certainly those with an innovative bent, I’d encourage that.
It does worry me, that particularly in the academic environments where we’ve moved to publish or perish as a means of evaluating things, it makes it pretty hard to move. I got a lot out of moving from the science world to the business world, and then moving back, and moving out again. And I see that’s not so easy to do. But having said that, I think more and more people are realizing that there are many measures of impact and not just academic publications.
I’m sorry, that’s probably a bit peripheral to your question ….
Mike: What do you see as some of the new frontiers of innovation?
John: I’m often asked this. I usually respond hey, why don’t you ask a 14-year-old, they’re probably better able to see it. I do get a little concerned when I see technology seems to be equated with an iPhone app at the moment because there’s a lot more to it than that.
I think the merger of areas is one of the fertile areas. So, I think BioTech and IT and Information Systems inspired by BioTech – I think that’s one of the areas.
We want to thank, John O’Sullivan, for taking the time to explain how the invention of Wi-Fi came about and share his insights into management and innovation.
This interview was a part of a Capstone Project sponsored by Mike Carey and Louis Taborda for Projectize.Me and conducted at the University of Sydney by Project Management Masters students Leo Lisu Chen, Jingwen Ma, Melody Mingming Li, Tianqi Sun, and Vahid Motavasselian.