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How God and übergeek Ron Crane saved 3Com's bacon

History lesson: Persistent perfectionism trumps marketing every time

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Ethernet Summit Over 30 years ago, the company formed by Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe, 3Com Corporation, was teetering on bankruptcy. What saved it was the monomaniacal perfectionism of one engineer, and his refusal to ship the company's most important product until he was damn well good and ready.

At the Ethernet Innovation Summit last week in Mountain View, California, Metcalfe told the story of how 3Com engineer Ron Crane – with a little help from The Deity of Your Choice – saved 3Com from going belly-up.

It was 1982, 3Com was bleeding money, and Crane was reponsible for designing the EtherLink, which Metcalfe claimed was "the first network interface controller for the IBM PC." That card eventually "took us from hundreds of units to millions of units," he explained – but the road to its development wasn't a smooth one.

The problem was that Crane was getting distracted by such non-EtherLink matters as testing the sound-dampening ability of the ceiling tiles above his cubicle. "He wasn't actually working on the EtherLink as our cash was dwindling towards zero," Metcalfe said.

After being assured that all the ceiling tiles in the entire 3Com building would be replaced, Crane went back to work – but he still didn't get the EtherLink specs to manufacturing.

Managment was getting worried – quite worried – but Metcalfe was convinced that Crane was the right engineer for the job. "My principal contribution to 3Com Corporation was to keep the company from firing Ron," Metcalfe said. "We had adult supervision in our company who dressed well and showed up at meetings on time," and he needed to shield brainpower such as Crane from the suits.

"After we got him back on the EtherLink – he'll deny all of this, by the way – but after we got him back on the EtherLink, still the card wasn't being handed over to manufacturing," Metcalfe recalled.

Management ordered Metcalfe – who at that time was 3Com's head of sales and marketing – to light a fire under Crane. "So they sent me in again to find out what was going on. And Ron was finishing off the circuit that would protect the EtherLink from lightning strikes."

One problem: lightning-strike protecting, Metcalfe reminded Crane, was not part of the manufacturing or marketing specs for EtherLink. No customer had ever mentioned that capability as a requirement. Those facts didn't influence Crane, however.

"Ron wanted to have lightning protection," Metcalfe said, "and Ron gets what he wants. So he delayed release to manufacturing even more, and everyone was pulling their hair out."

Finally, Crane finished adding the unrequested lightning-strike protection to the EtherLink's manufacturing spec, 3Com manufactured the card, and Metcalfe began to sell it, with one of the first customers being what he identified as "a huge bank in New York City with a tall skyscraper," which bought a thousand EtherLink cards for their IBM PCs.

"But they were shrewd," Metcalf said. "They also bought a thousand of our competitor's cards." That bank then installed both cards in their PCs.

"And I'll bet you know now what happened next," Metcalfe said. "Lightning struck the building and fried all of our competitor's cards, and ours kept working. Whereupon we received an order for another thousand cards."

Stubborn engineer proved prescient. Company saved. ®

Bootnote

3Com was acquired by HP in a $2.7bn cash deal in November 2009. Metcalfe couldn't resist boasting a bit about how that acquisition has worked out for HP. "We just heard about the HP financial results," he told his Ethernet Summit audience, "and the stock took a big jump up, and it was entirely because of the fourteenth straight quarter of robust growth in the networking division, which contains what company that's part of HP Networking? That would be 3Com, yes. I actually cornered [HP senior vice president and general manager for HP Networking] Bethany Mayer and got her to actually say to me – and I asked permission to tell you – that 3Com is the most successful acquisition that HP has ever made."

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