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Oral-History:Robert E. Larson

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About Robert E. Larson

Robert E. Larson was born in California but grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee after his physicist father was transferred there. Involved in the Manhattan Project, Larson’s father originally wanted him to become a medical doctor, but Larson’s interest in computers from an early age led him to electrical engineering. After high school, he worked at IBM on the Stretch Program, later graduating from MIT in 1960. Larson attended Stanford for graduate school, completing his PhD thesis in dynamic programming after being inspired by a lecture given by Richard Bellman. After graduate school, Larson worked at the Stanford Research Institute for four years, then co-founded Systems Control Incorporated in 1968. After selling the company in 1981, Larson went into venture capital to share company startup expertise with others, working at Woodside Fund in California. Larson is also an active member of the IEEE, joining as a student member in the then IRE in 1956.  He wasinvolved in many societies and committees including the Credentials Committee, Audit Committee and Board of Directors, culminating in a term as  IEEE President in 1982.

This interview covers Larson’s education and early career, but is primarily about his IEEE work. Describing the IEEE as a ladder to climb, Larson outlines the many steps he took within the organization that eventually led to his term as president. He discusses major issues from his years on the Board and year as President, such as Computer Society problems, IEEE’s international role and IEEE finances. Larson also talks about his experiences while President, including his many travels to and dealings with China. Topics like IEEE-USA, the concerns of young engineers and the current push to join IEEE are also covered.

About the Interview

ROBERT E. LARSON: An Interview Conducted by John Vardalas, IEEE History Center, 2 February 2009

Interview #485 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, Rutgers - the State University, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Robert E. Larson, Electrical Engineer, an oral history conducted in 2009 by John Vardalas, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Dr. Robert E. Larson

Interviewer: John Vardalas

Date: 2 February 2009

Location: Offices of Woodside Fund, Redwood Shores, California

Education and Background

Vardalas:

Dr. Larson, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview.

Larson:

My pleasure.

Vardalas:

To provide some context before we get into the meat of the interview, which is your involvement in IEEE, would you give us a little background about yourself, particularly your family background, education and how you started into electrical engineering?

Larson:

Okay. My father was on the Manhattan Project and made some major contributions to that project. I was born in California. My father was a professor at University of the Pacific, but when World War II started they took all the Ph.D. physicists in the country and basically sent them down to Oak Ridge to work on the uranium isotope separation process. My father was picked up in that and sent to Oak Ridge, so I moved there at the age of four and basically grew up there. Oak Ridge was a very scientifically oriented community, as you might expect – especially during the war of course, but even after it maintained a strong scientific bias. Therefore I was sort of slated to go into science in some respect. My father's preference was that I would become a medical doctor, but I got interested in computers at an early age. I actually built computers when I was in high school using telephone relays and things of that sort. I won several science fairs in the Tennessee area.

Vardalas:

Just as an aside before we continue on, why would a physicist want his son to be a medical doctor?

Larson:

That's a good question. I think in the '50s the most glamorous profession in the scientific communities was being a medical doctor.

Vardalas:

Okay. As you were saying, you won some science fair prizes in high school.

Larson:

Right. And I actually built computers. They seemed pretty sophisticated to me at the time. They were maybe two lines of code on a PC today. However as a result of that I got a job at IBM straight out of high school.

I worked on the logic design in the Stretch computer, which was a fascinating project. That was the Stretch project at IBM. In the late '50s transistors were beginning to replace vacuum tubes, and that made a tremendous impact on what could be done with computers in terms of reliability, throughput and a lot of various considerations. IBM did an interesting thing. They projected where the technology would be in three or four years and committed to building a computer that would meet specs based on the projected technology. It was a commitment based on technology that was nowhere near existing. I managed to get involved with that project straight out of high school.

Vardalas:

Where was this?

Larson:

That was in Poughkeepsie, New York. I wound up going to MIT then to get my bachelor's degree. I went to MIT heavily influenced by my father and the Oak Ridge scientific community that if I wanted to go into computers that was the place to go. I wound up working at IBM Poughkeepsie every summer for four summers while I went through MIT.

Vardalas:

Wow. What year did you go to MIT?

Larson:

I went there in 1956 and graduated in '60.

Vardalas:

Okay. After that how did your education continue?

Larson:

Having been born in California and having suffered through difficult winters in Boston, I was very interested in continuing my education in a warmer climate. That induced me to apply to Stanford for my graduate studies. I was a National Merit Scholar going through MIT and I got a Hughes Doctoral Fellowship to go through Stanford to get my Ph.D. I was fortunate to get that kind of support.

After MIT I headed out to California to go to Graduate School at Stanford. In those days Stanford did recruiting of people from MIT. I remember one recruiting meeting they had. They picked one of the coldest, windiest, most miserable days. They came and showed a slide show of green grass, blue skies and beautiful girls walking around. They could have pulled buses up in front of MIT and loaded in the entire male senior class to go off to Stanford at that time.

Sputnik came up in 1958 and it got a lot of attention. People who graduated around that time were getting into space and that kind of thing. Therefore Hughes Aircraft was a very attractive place for me to go at that time. The emphasis was on, "We've got to catch up with the Russians now," and computer technology looked to be a good way to do it. I was in a good position to design computers for space-borne applications after my experience at IBM and seeing how the whole Stretch Project came together. They actually built what was the largest and fastest computer in the world for some number of years, based on the transistor technology. Based on that experience I was able to design computers for space applications.

Vardalas:

What was the subject of your thesis for your Ph.D.?

Larson:

It was in dynamic programming, which is an optimization technique for designing control systems. I think my father is my biggest motivation for my career, but probably in second place is Richard Bellman, the inventor of dynamic programming. When I was first at Stanford he came up from Los Angeles and gave a really inspiring lecture on dynamic programming. At that time most control systems were analog feedback networks, and he was talking about using computers to actually calculate control signals in real time. Having spent a lot of time on computers going through MIT, I thought that was a real breakthrough and something in which I'd like to be involved. Thus, I wrote my thesis on dynamic programming and how to implement it in relatively small computers that would be put on an aircraft, a missile or spacecraft.

Stanford Research Institute

Vardalas:

Was Hughes Aircraft your first employer after you got your Ph.D.?

Larson:

As it turned out, I never worked for Hughes full time. I worked there for four summers and did consulting at various times, but my first full-time job was at Stanford Research Institute (SRI).

Vardalas:

SRI? Okay. How long did that last?

Larson:

That lasted for four years. It seems like at that time I was going everywhere for four years.

Vardalas:

What was your next point after SRI?

Larson:

Just to give you another side to that, at that same time the university was starting a new department called Engineering Economic Systems. I got very interested in that. It was a very good area for applying dynamic programming. One of the things that made me really fascinated with dynamic programming was that it could be applied to almost anything. It could be a missile, an aircraft; it could be a chemical process, but it could also be an economic system or a transportation system. I kind of felt that with dynamic programming I could solve any problem. I just needed to figure out the criteria, the dynamic equations and then at least I had an answer to the problem in principle using dynamic programming.

Vardalas:

You were doing economic systems?

Larson:

At SRI, I was basically working in two areas. One was kind of related to my Hughes experience, and that was in ballistic missile defense systems. I did a lot of pioneering work in tracking of reentry vehicles and control of the missile to shoot the other missile down. The other area that I worked in was electric power systems. That is kind of relevant to what I am doing today, and we will eventually get to that. I did a lot of work on how to schedule power in an electric power system, taking into account the dynamics of the transmission and the generation and distribution networks. It is a very large and complicated problem. I did a lot of work in that area. Of course all the interest in energy efficiency and green energy today is reviving my interest in that area.

Vardalas:

You are coming back to that then?

Larson:

Right.

Vardalas:

What years were you involved with SRI?

Larson:

That was '64 to '68.

Systems Control Incorporated

Vardalas:

Okay. Then what came next in your career?

Larson:

Then I started a company with a couple of my colleagues at SRI. We started a company called Systems Control Incorporated. We basically started out with those two areas on which I had been concentrating at SRI, which were ballistic missile defense and electric power systems. Those were the first two areas in which we got started. My goal was to make Systems Control the premiere company for developing algorithms and implementing computer control systems for large complicated systems of which the missile defense system and the electric power grid were two good examples.

I actually never became a full-time professor at Stanford but starting around '65, I was a Consulting Professor. I taught a course every year at Stanford. Once I started Systems Control I used that as a great recruiting device. I would always hire the top couple students in my class into the company. It was a great technique. Over a thirteen-year period I built the company up from three guys and a PowerPoint. In those days to get funding you needed three guys for the slide show.

Vardalas:

It was from '68 to '81 then essentially.

Larson:

Right.

Vardalas:

How large did the firm grow to be?

Larson:

Over 500 people, including 100 Ph.D.s.

Vardalas:

That's a five to one ratio.

Larson:

Right. I think when we had as few as 250 people we had 100 Ph.D.s at that time.

Vardalas:

Was the company bought?

Larson:

It was bought by British Petroleum.

Vardalas:

What did you do with your life after British Petroleum bought you out?

Larson:

I wanted to give something back to the engineering community, so I spent 1982 as IEEE President.

Vardalas:

Then after you were IEEE President you went back to your professional life?

Larson:

I had always enjoyed being a professor and teaching and I had been through thirteen years of a startup and had learned a lot of lessons, many the hard way. I learned a great deal about how to build a company in a high-tech area. Therefore I decided that rather than doing it again and repeating that whole experience, venture capital provided a way for me to pass on my expertise to other people.

Basically in 1983 after being IEEE President I went to work for Woodside Fund, which was a startup of a venture fund. I was one of the founders, and I have been doing venture capital since then.

Vardalas:

Oh, I see. That overlaps then with the early part with running the company while you were actively involved as a volunteer in IEEE.

Larson:

Yes.

Early IEEE Involement

Vardalas:

I am just summarizing. You were on the Board of Directors, the Strategic Planning Committee, the Audit Committee and the Executive Committee. Those are some of the committees on which you sat, at least the bigger ones.

Larson:

Right.

Vardalas:

Then of course you were on the Credentials Committee for a number of years. I would like to zero in on your activity on the IEEE Board of Directors, because it seems you were approximately seven years on the Board, give or take.

Larson:

Right.

Vardalas:

It also seems to be almost your earliest involvement. Why did you choose to become involved in the Board? How did it come about? Do you recall that?

Larson:

There is kind of a ladder within IEEE that one can climb step by step. I started right after I graduated. I wrote some papers on automatic control that were published in the Transactions on Automatic Control and I won the Best Paper Award in 1966.

In addition, around that time I was made the Outstanding Young Electrical Engineer in the country by Eta Kappa Nu around '68 or '69. I also won the Donald P. Eckman Award for being the Outstanding Young Electrical Engineer in the Control Systems area. The recognition and honors I received from that inspired me to get involved with IEEE in more depth. Under the advice of my father, who had given up on my having a medical career by that time, I joined the IEEE in 1956 as a student member.

Vardalas:

If he hadn't advised you then you would probably not have joined right away?

Larson:

Yes. I might have, but certainly as a freshman I could only barely read the Transactions. It's interesting though. Having been exposed to transistors at a very early stage I found out that I knew more than about half my professors about transistors at MIT because the transistor was so new at that time.

Vardalas:

What was your father's advice? Do you remember any of his words when he advised you to join the IEEE?

Larson:

Well, he said, "You know, if you are serious about being in the computer business you should join an organization that will give you information and people you can talk to and network with." He had some good sound reasons why it was a good idea. I said, "But Dad, I don't think I can understand the details of these technical papers." He said, "Don't worry. That will come. The exposure to the people and seeing what a technical paper is and that sort of thing will serve you well." And he was right.

Vardalas:

It was the IRE then.

Larson:

Yes. That's true.

Getting to the Board of Directors

Vardalas:

You joined IRE, and you say it was a kind of progression that led you up to the Board, a series of small steps that got you there. Do you remember when you first decided to run or were asked to run on the Board? How did that come about?

Larson:

After winning the Best Paper prize in '66 I was asked to join the Editorial Board of the Transactions on Automatic Control around '68 or '69. I was the Editor in charge of discrete systems, which basically meant digital systems. Digital control systems hadn't quite established an identity at that point. After being an Associate Editor for several years I was asked to join the Administration Committee of the Control Systems Society.

Vardalas:

Oh, I see.

Larson:

That was in something like '73 or '74.

Vardalas:

Right.

Larson:

My next step up from that was to be President of the Control Systems Society in '75 and '76.

Vardalas:

You moved up within the Society.

Larson:

Right.

Vardalas:

And then you were President. I guess the next step was then the Strategic Planning Committee. That was a year before you joined the Board.

Larson:

Well, that was kind of a parallel activity. The next step along the way, after taking 1977 off, was becoming the Division One Director in '78 and '79. In those days they had about thirty-two Societies and seven Directors in the Societies were assigned the Divisions more or less arbitrarily. Essentially I became the representative to the Board of the Control System Society and three or four other Societies.

That got me on the Board. Then I got very interested in the Technical Activities Board. As a Division Director I was on the IEEE big Board. I was also on the Technical Activities Board, which included representatives from all the Societies. Now that I think about it, I must have been on the Technical Activities Board as President of the Control Systems Society.

Board Issues: Computer Society

Vardalas:

It was seven years that you were on the Board. Do you recall what were the major issues or challenges it faced? What's fixed in your mind in those seven years? This would be from '77 to '84.

Larson:

Right. I can think of three or four. One of the ones in which I was most interested was balancing the representation of the Technical Societies with the Regional Activities Board. When I got there, there were ten Regional Directors and seven Division Directors for the Technical Societies. I thought it would be healthier if that were ten and ten. I strongly advocated changing the composition of the Board of Directors to include ten divisions as well as restructuring the divisions so that they were all compatible.

Vardalas:

What do you mean compatible?

Larson:

That they were complementary technologies.

Vardalas:

To keep from having overlap?

Larson:

Yes, but also to foster cooperation. For instance I thought the Control Systems Society should be close to the Signal Processing Society and the Systems, Man and Cybernetics Society. It made more sense to do different partitioning. A big issue that sort of related to that was how the Computer Society fit into IEEE.

That was a big issue at that time, because the Computer Society was ten times larger than many of the other Societies and yet they had the same amount of representation. One of the changes I advocated to the composition of the Board was that the Computer Society would have two divisions, so that the divisions were not only compatible technologically but all approximately the same size.

Vardalas:

Were your suggestions met with much resistance or was it straightforward?

Larson:

It took two or three years to get it all done. There was some resistance, but eventually I think everybody kind of recognized that it was logical. It finally went through halfway through my term as IEEE President. I was very pleased to accomplish that.

Vardalas:

Can you reflect back on the difficulties or challenges in having the Computer Society grow so rapidly and still be part of IEEE? Were there any specific challenges to the Computer Society itself in having it fit in to the rest of the IEEE?

Larson:

The Computer Society representative issues translated to the fact that they felt unappreciated and did not have as much say in what the IEEE did as a whole. They felt like they deserved more recognition because of their large membership. They were also in competition with the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM).

The ACM was growing about as fast as they were, and they felt they were a little handicapped if anything by the IEEE. The IEEE was quite a bit more hardware-oriented than the ACM, yet software was a very important and key part of the computer industry. Making sure that the software people got enough attention, appreciation and representation was an important thing.

Vardalas:

Did the Software Society members see themselves as engineers or did they see themselves as something else?

Larson:

That was part of the problem too. Software was not necessarily appreciated as an engineering discipline at that time. Believe it or not, there were relatively few departments in the country that were called Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Now it is hard to find an engineering school that does not have the two of them tied together, at least in some respect. The hardcore IEEE people felt that the software guys were not engineers and the software guys felt that they needed their own identity. Why did they want to get involved with this hardware group? I tried to kind of smooth that out and get everyone agreeing that the hardware and software were two really important ingredients that should be worked on together.

Vardalas:

Of course you had the perfect background for that.

Larson:

Yes. I had come up working on both hardware and software. In my four years at IBM, I started out working with the transistor circuits. The last year I was there was really fascinating. I had mentioned IBM had projected the technology improvements and committed to delivering a computer that would meet the specifications based on those projections. Essentially all their projections were correct. If anything they had underestimated the progress but for one exception, which was the ferrite core memories. They could not get things out of memory fast enough. Things had barely improved in that area, whereas the circuits were really much faster. I got involved with doing logic design to try to compensate for slow memories with fast circuits. I was doing things like parallel processing pipelining and look ahead and various things, though not by those names at that time. The interplay between hardware and software was really interesting. I kind of saw it doing that.

Board Issues: IEEE Internationally and Finances

Vardalas:

Going back to the Board again, are there any other things that stick in your mind as big issues the Board was wrestling with during that period of time? Not necessarily something in which you had an interest but was confronting the IEEE Board from '77 to 84?

Larson:

There are two or three others I can remember. One was the international role of the IEEE.

Vardalas:

Would you elaborate on that please?

Larson:

Basically there was a little bit of a conflict between the groups representing the American members and the groups representing international members. I guess we see the same issues today, with a lot of jobs going overseas to India and China and places like that. There were some people within IEEE who felt that the IEEE should be a, a U.S.-only Society. I was kind of on the other side of that. I felt we should really be the worldwide organization. There are brilliant technical people and important things being done with electrical engineering all over the world and I felt it should all be under the purview of IEEE. I made a point of working very diligently to make sure that our international members felt comfortable.

Vardalas:

Okay.

Larson:

I'm getting ahead of the story a little bit, but one thing I committed to when I became IEEE President was that I would set records for going to the most countries and visiting the most international chapters.

Vardalas:

We'll come back to that for sure.

Larson:

Right. Another big issue was the finances. There seemed to be a cycle within IEEE that things would get tight and the IEEE would not be able to do everything that it needed to do. We then either raised dues or cut some programs back. So I was always involved with some of the tradeoffs there. We had to figure out what kind of services we wanted to provide to our members, what sort of outside sources of revenue might we be able to find and how we could really grow the IEEE to be this international organization and get enough resources to do it. It was really interesting. We had a couple programs on the technical side. Subscriptions to our Transactions for how many libraries and other organizations were a significant source of revenue. In fact many of the subscribers were international. At one point we could have actually run the IEEE Societies without charging members for subscriptions to the Transactions because of the number of external subscribers. Similarly, with conferences we had a major positive cycle at that time. We could have also put on all the conferences without attendees paying the registration fees – due to subscription sales to the conference Proceedings.

Vardalas:

Was this question as to the balance of international memberships and U.S. membership a carryover from the merger of AIEE and IRE? Do you think there is any connection? I ask because IRE seemed to have been a more international body versus AIEE which was more American-based.

Larson:

That is an interesting question. That is probably the case, because it seems like the Societies that kind of grew out of the IRE were more open to international participation than those out of the AIEE. For instance the Power Society was AIEE-based and not quite as receptive to being international.

IEEE-USA and Young Engineers

Vardalas:

I guess this goes back to the original IEEE USA.

Larson:

Right.

Vardalas:

Were you involved in bringing that whole thing into being and seeing it through its early years, or was that before your involvement?

Larson:

I got involved with that. I was very internationally oriented. Initially I did not have much sympathy for USAB activities, but was forced to get involved with them by virtue of being on the Board. I found that they were doing a lot of very worthwhile things that made a lot of sense and that they really were not anti-international at all. In other words, USAB was trying to do things to benefit American engineers, but not particularly trying to do it at the expense of international members. In '77, I probably was not very knowledgeable or helpful to USAB, by the time I left the Board in '84 I had learned a lot and had a real appreciation for it.

Vardalas:

On which side of the fence did you sit in this discussion of how much IEEE should be involved in non-technical issues in regard to its members? I'm speaking particularly [about] IEEE-USA and the needs of its engineers. I'm sure that was hotly debated.

Larson:

Right.

Vardalas:

Do you recall your position in the debate and how you got involved in this?

Larson:

I came in open-minded but not really well informed. The more I learned the more I recognized the need for USAB activities. It's interesting. There is a committee I was on that you don't have listed there called the Committee on the Public Concerns of Young Engineers or something like that.

Vardalas:

Oh really?

Larson:

That was actually the first committee on which I sat.

Vardalas:

I didn't know that. On the concerns of young engineers.

Larson:

Right. That was a little bit of a funnel into USAB. This was in the '60s.

Vardalas:

Why was this committee formed? Do you remember its mandate or its goals?

Larson:

There were about seven or eight of us. We had all gotten our degrees in the '60s and I guess this committee was set up to try to look ahead. One topic was, "How are we going to get engineers who are graduating now interested in the concerns of the profession?" We convened as a group of young engineers in the right age group to get their ideas. I'd go back to New York every quarter, so I got in the habit of going to IEEE meetings once a quarter. I must have done that for at least fifteen years.

Vardalas:

What did this committee find were the possible solutions to getting young engineers interested in IEEE?

Larson:

I think there was a recommendation that there be a high-level committee composed not only of young engineers but of engineers of all ages and backgrounds, to look out for their concerns and try to raise consciousness among engineers. We weren't just using our slide rules as we did in the old days; rather, we were looking at the world as something that needs our services and talents and tying to find a way to harness that and really make the IEEE be a Society in the sense of societal concerns and not just engineering concerns.

Vardalas:

They are coming back to that today with a humanitarian focus for IEEE.

Larson:

Right.

IEEE as Labor Union?

Vardalas:

Going back again to this question of non-technical versus technical roles for IEEE engineers, do you recall any of the heated debates about whether or not to turn IEEE into a kind of labor union? Do you remember any of that?

Larson:

There were some people who really thought the IEEE ought to be a labor union. And there were other people who thought that was beneath our dignity and we should not think that way.

Vardalas:

Was it very polarized? Or was there more of a middle ground to all this dealing more simply with practical issues?

Larson:

There was kind of a middle ground. I did not particularly care for thinking of it as a union. Of course, there were a number of unemployed engineers who had legitimate concerns. They were impacted by the problem of seeing jobs going overseas. This is not a new problem. It was a problem even in those days. I was always kind of in the middle ground. As I found out more about it I probably drifted more towards being concerned about engineers in the profession – yet without coming anywhere [near] being a labor union.

Managing Board and Company Work

Vardalas:

During the seven years you were on the Board you were also running a company and it takes a lot of time to be a volunteer on the Board.

Larson:

Yes, right.

Vardalas:

What kind of feedback can you give about your experience with that? Maybe it is negative feedback in that it was deleterious to you or your company. Do you recall how you managed both?

Larson:

Yes. I think the interaction between my teaching at the university part time, my writing of technical papers based on my research activities and running a company all kind of played together. I won these awards and eventually wrote 6 textbooks and140 technical papers while at Systems Control. That got the company a lot of publicity. It also helped me hire some really fantastic people from the university. For instance Tony Tether, who has been head of DARPA for the past eight years is an alumnus of my course. He actually took my course the first time I gave it and came to work for me at Systems Control and worked there a dozen years before becoming head of DARPA. A more recent notable alumnus of my course is Min Zhu from China. He was the founder of WebEx and did extremely well there. He is now back in China doing venture capital and other things.

Vardalas:

The two positions obviously helped each other there, but what about your IEEE volunteer responsibilities? Did that feed back into your company in some way?

Larson:

Yes, absolutely. I met distinguished professors and industrialists in this area, particularly from the university side. I didn't only hire people from Stanford. I hired people from all over the country. By talking to my friends at IEEE meetings I would get to meet a lot of good students or get the opportunity to go to the universities [to] do recruiting. The fact that I had a position within IEEE gave me a lot of credibility as a potential employer. The university, the IEEE and my company had a three-way synergy that I think was very good for everyone.

Vardalas:

That's interesting.

Audit Committee

One of the many committees in which you participated was the Audit Committee. Was there anything special about that committee? Was it an innocuous committee or was it something filled with challenges regarding budgets and things?

Larson:

I served on that committee during a very prosperous time. As I mentioned, the IEEE did extremely well financially the year I was President. There really was not a lot of pressure on the Audit Committee. However I felt it was a positive thing to get some additional financial experience. I never got an MBA or any specific degree in business, so getting exposed to the Audit Committee and how that worked and functioned was actually helpful to me both in running my company and also in my venture capital career.

Vardalas:

Did anything surprise you about how things were done in the Audit Committee? Were there any surprises or anything unusual about how things worked?

Larson:

Nothing major. One of the difficult problems of IEEE is that it is a volunteer-dominated Society. I recall an exchange with Dan Evans, who was the Governor of the State of Washington at one time. At one point during a lecture he gave he said, "At one time, I was in the military, and when I gave an order to a subordinate that person immediately turned around and did exactly what I told him to do. Then I worked in industry for a few years and I found then when I gave an order people would at least acknowledge the order, but they didn't necessarily do exactly what I wanted. Then I went into politics. As the Governor of Washington I would give an order and have a hard time getting people to respond. Now, I am President of Evergreen State College, and I have almost leverage on getting my orders carried out.” My reply was, "I can go one better than that. I'm President of IEEE. I've got 200,000 members. When I give an order I can't get anybody to do anything unless they are already doing it."

Running for and Becoming President

Vardalas:

Let's go into the up and down sides of your being President of IEEE. What made you decide, "I think I want to run now for President"?

Larson:

The timing was right. I had been going up these stair steps. I had been Vice President of Technical Activities for two years. There were several parallel Vice Presidents, but the only role above that was President. I was the last IEEE President to not be a President Elect.

It was an interesting time. There was actually an election for two offices. One was for the President in 1982 and simultaneously the President Elect in 1982 who would then become President in 1983. There were sort of two options, and I thought, "Well, I'm pretty deep in this and I've been doing it for a long time. It makes sense to go ahead and continue it." Therefore I ran for President unopposed.

Vardalas:

There was no debating with opponents?

Larson: No, and that was good. I saw the elections later on and think I was fortunate not go through that.

Vardalas:

Did you have any specific ambitions when you said, "I'm going to run for President," albeit unopposed? Did you have a specific wish list of things you wanted to accomplish?

Larson:

I had a list of twelve things. I can't recall what was on that list unfortunately.

Vardalas:

What were the top items?

Larson:

One was the restructuring to give the technical people approximately the same voice that the regional people enjoyed. Another was to solidify the financial status and make sure the IEEE continued to do well financially. The international aspect was another. Some of the international directors complained that they were considered to be the backwater and that the IEEE did not really take into account the unique needs of their countries. I determined that I wanted to find out a lot more about that and try to spread IEEE into some of those places.

Travelling to China

Vardalas:

You said you set records. To how many places did you travel?

Larson:

I traveled to thirty-six countries, and some of them multiple times. I went to China three times and Korea six times.

Vardalas:

What was it like going to China in its time of communist rule? How did you find yourself interacting with your engineering colleagues and the political structure that surrounded it at the time?

Larson:

It was absolutely fascinating. I did not know a great deal about China. Through IEEE I had met a number of very hardworking and smart Chinese like Dr. Irving T. Ho, who served on the Board of Directors for the Asian Region when I was the President. He and I later did some things together in China. I had been to Europe a few times, but I never had been to Asia. Seeing the opportunities in China was just absolutely amazing. I had first gone there in 1980. That was when China was first opening up to the West. Deng Xiao Ping had just made his remarks, "It is good to be rich" and encouraging entrepreneurship and so on. I am certain that I was one of the first people invited there because of my IEEE ranking. On my first trip I spent a week giving lectures. Four hundred of the smartest people in China came to listen to my lecture and I could feel my brain cells being drained.

Vardalas:

They were soaking it in, were they?

Larson:

Yes. They were absorbing everything I said. I lectured for four hours in the morning and then had lunch. In those days there was virtually no private industry in China, but there were various ministries associated with electrical engineering. In the afternoons I went to different ministries, such as the Ministry of Communications, Ministry of Electronics, Ministry of Computers, Ministry of Electric Power and so on. One of the people I met at the Ministry of Electronics was Jiang Zemin who a few years later became President of the country.

Vardalas:

This is fascinating. I'm curious. Given that you cut your teeth in American enterprise, how did you find out about these ministries as IEEE President? Do you recall the nature of these interactions? What did they want from you and how did you get what you wanted from them?

Larson:

They were very interested in how to form companies. At the time about the only practical way to do it was to form a U.S.-China joint venture. I actually formed a few of those. By that time I had gone into venture capital.

It was before I left Systems Control, which was sold in 1981. My first trip was in 1980 and then went back in 1982 as IEEE President. Systems Control did very well out of the contacts I made. We brought four professors from Tsinghua University to Systems Control and trained them in our technology for controlling the electric power grids. They became evangelists within China for this technology and we wound up having some people in China as representatives of the company. We would hear about the opportunity and go talk to them about doing the work, and Systems Control eventually did projects in twenty of the twenty-nine provinces in China, based on my initial visit and the follow-up that we set up. I continued to do that for other companies that I was supporting on the venture side. I've now been to China about fifty times.

Vardalas:

Let me ask you, when you first started going to China as IEEE President was it a part of your mission there to talk about intellectual property protection? Did you get involved in any of that with the Chinese or was that something left out of IEEE's interaction with China?

Larson:

The main thing was trying to find a way that they could get the Transactions and the information into China. The IEEE had pretty strict rules. For example, a university could not join the IEEE. It had to be an individual. There were virtually no conferences or exchanges in China. It was very difficult for the Chinese to get into the U.S., and it was difficult for people in the U.S. to go to China. I worked through all those barriers, basically trying to open up the flow of information, but not to support the theft of intellectual property. There are ways that can be protected, but that still is a problem in China today. In most cases I have been able to work through that with the companies that I have worked with over there. What I tried to do within IEEE was get regional sections in Chinese cities and find ways for professors in China to get subscriptions to the Transactions and conference Proceedings and so on and then donate them to the libraries. Prior to my going to China I don't [think] there had ever been an IEEE conference there. By the time I left they were starting to happen and now of course today there are lots of them all the time.

IEEE Finances

Vardalas:

You mentioned three or four important things that you wanted to accomplish as President. The international dimension, financial health and then the balance of the technical with the regional activities. Regarding the financial health of IEEE, what did you do specifically? I gather you were trying to find a way to overcome the boom bust, the great cycles in financing in the association? Is that what you were aiming to do?

Larson:

Right. I was trying to see if there was some way, when times were good, to set money aside or provide more services that would lead to more income – as opposed to the kind of business cycle that IEEE had been going through most of the time.

Vardalas:

Did you think you found the solution? What was the outcome of that exercise? Did you find a way of doing that or ensuring a more stable financial base?

Larson:

I think I made some contribution to it, but I certainly didn't solve the problem conclusively.

Vardalas:

It's with us today.

Larson:

Exactly.

Working with Board as President

Vardalas:

Okay. How did you interact with the Board as President? In what role did you see yourself? Did you have to push the Board?

Larson:

I let everyone know my goals and tried to find people on the Board who were sympathetic to them. For instance the Computer Society representative was very sympathetic to the Computer Society getting more power within IEEE. It was a little bit like the way our government works. I had a program I wanted to achieve and I would find various people who would agree with me that it was worth doing and we'd work together to try to convince the whole Board to go that direction. It's probably fortunate that I had five years as either a Vice President of IEEE or some other executive capacity. I was the last Senior Past President. I think that was the best job in IEEE. It's too bad it got abolished, because you had all the glory and privileges but virtually none of the work.

Vardalas:

Who were your allies? Who were the people on the Board that you seemed best able to mobilize? Was there any group of people that you recall on the Board with whom you worked well to get your program through?

Larson:

A lot of the Computer Society people: Troy Nagle, Charlie Vick, Dick Merwin. I worked with Eric Herz on a number of issues. He was Vice President of Technical Activities when I first joined the Board. Dick Gowen shared many of my concerns.

Vardalas:

What was your interaction with the chief operating officers or whatever you want to call them on the staff side? Do you recall anything special about that? Was that a business as usual relationship?

Larson:

I think Eric was the General Manager at that time. I had worked with him previously where I was a Division Director and he was the Vice President.

Presidential Observations

Vardalas:

I want to ask about when you joined as a student member. The Past Presidents of IEEE that I have interviewed have all said that there was a lot push or good reason to join IEEE. They said that everyone in the industry wanted to join IEEE.

Larson:

Sure.

Vardalas:

And that somehow this imperative to join IEEE is declining. I am not sure if that is true. How did you see it? Were you expected to join IEEE if you were an electrical engineer or an engineer? Have you seen that imperative for young people to join IEEE declined from what you have observed?

Larson:

It's hard to say. I have not been very involved with the membership, recruiting and so on in recent years. Certainly at that time if you had an advanced degree and wanted to be on the R&D side in industry or go into an academic career it was a necessity to join the IEEE.

Vardalas:

Weren't engineers in your company members of IEEE?

Larson:

I think the vast majority were members.

Vardalas:

I don't mean to put you on the spot. I'm just curious. Did you encourage them to join?

Larson:

Oh yes – although I would say most of them had already joined by the time they joined the company. Probably almost everyone in the company who was a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering was a member.

Vardalas:

Do you recall any disappointments as President? Was there anything you wanted to get done and that you felt just didn't get accomplished?

Larson:

I wrote an editorial where I rated myself on my twelve objectives. If you have back copies of The Institute, this would be the December '82 issue of the publication.

Vardalas:

I'll have to look that up.

Larson:

I remember that I gave myself good grades in most of them, but there were two or three I felt I had not accomplished what I had hoped.

Vardalas:

Do you recall any of those two or three?

Larson:

No, I don't.

Vardalas:

All right. However they were not in the top four things you wanted to do. Those were the international issue, the health of the finances, the balancing of the divisions and the Computer Society issues. I gather the Computer Society was happy while you were President.

Larson:

Oh yes. They were very happy with the result. I think everyone came out of that feeling good about it. I think the restructuring of the divisions to be more technically compatible also worked out well. I was definitely pleased with how that worked out.

Vardalas:

Of course you didn't have a job while you were President because your company had just been sold. You had a "free," quote-unquote, year.

Larson:

Right.

Vardalas:

Therefore there is no point in asking what kind of strain it put on your job.

Larson:

The only thing I would say about that is that after I sold the company there probably was an option for me to stay on with the company. However because I had committed to becoming IEEE President I did not take that option. Not that I necessarily would have taken it, but that option was not compatible with being IEEE President.

Vardalas:

You seem to have put a lot of effort into your international travels. Reflecting back on the experiences with China as President and in terms of your relationship with IEEE's role in China, how do you recall the outcome of your efforts there? Did IEEE grow significantly in China then?

Larson:

Oh yes. They formed significant sections, got a lot more members and got libraries subscribing to journals. I kind of tracked the progress for a few years after being IEEE President. It definitely changed at a pretty rapid rate.

Vardalas:

Did the Chinese perceive the IEEE in any way that you thought was different than the way Europeans or other parts of the world perceived IEEE and what they wanted to get out of it?

Larson:

I think the professors who were pretty sophisticated technically – many of whom had spent some number of years in the U.S. and had degrees from U.S. universities – understood pretty well. Maybe the average engineer in China did not understand it that well. They did understand the value of education and being able to see the latest technical developments and build on those.

Vardalas:

I think we have pretty well covered most of the topics. Is there anything you would like to say or add about how you recall your Presidency that we have not discussed? Any other memories come to mind when you reflect back on your year as President or your involvement in IEEE? Any general impressions you retained?

Larson:

I remember it was a pretty exhausting year. I tallied up some statistics and I gave something like 200 speeches, traveled to thirty-six different countries, flew 300,000 miles and spent one month in either airplanes or airports. My average speed for the year was close to 70 miles an hour. It was an act of mercy that it was just a one-year term. It was really quite an experience, meeting people from all over the world and seeing how electrical engineering was carried out in different countries. Each country had its own unique way of working.

Vardalas:

Thank you so much, Dr. Larson, for this very fascinating interview.