Chandrakant Patel is a storied inventor with 151 patents to his name, a pioneer in thermal and energy management, and a visionary when it comes to the application of IT for sustainable growth. He is also HP’s Chief Engineer, a legendary mentor, and an HP Senior Fellow, an IEEE Fellow (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), an ASME Fellow (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) and an inductee of the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame. We spoke recently to the 30-year veteran of HP about the current state of innovation in Silicon Valley and how his office is helping support HP product development.
There was a lot to talk about, so we’ve broken the conversation into two parts. This first post explores the role of Chief Engineer and how it impacts both HP Inc. as a whole and HP Labs, where Patel is based. Next time, we’ll look at a project that’s a big focus for the Chief Engineer’s office right now: growing technical communities within the company to speed multi-disciplinary innovation.
HP: Let’s begin with the context you are working within. How have you seen Silicon Valley change over the years – and what are the major trends that you are keeping an eye on?
I’ve been in the valley for 34 years now, and I’ve seen it change from a place where we had a sequential product development life cycle to one where continuous integration / continuous development is king. That really came out of the software side, but as a mechanical engineer I always wondered, could this be done in hardware? And then came Tesla, which I see as a prime example of a modern, cyber-physical, continuous integration/continuous development company. That’s one major trend that is here and not going away.
At the same time, the Valley is buffeted by the same social, economic, and ecological forces that impact the rest of the planet. Among the things to watch are an increasing global population undergoing rapid urbanization, climate change, and conflicts that are moving people in very large numbers across national boundaries, often as refugees. Together, these suggest that as a company we need to be working on systemic innovations that operate at the crossroads of people and planet while also earning us a profit. To put that in terms of products, you can’t just sell a sensor anymore, for example. You have to sell an end-to-end solution that features that sensor and solves a significant problem that people have. And the sale to the customer has to be based on the value that that customer finds in your solution.
HP: So how does that impact your role as Chief Engineer?
I like to use a maritime analogy. Imagine a ship with the bridge on top looking out to sea and a large engine room below. On the bridge, we are constantly looking at the trends: social, technical, political, economic, ecological. And in light of the trends we see, we set our course, which for us means working on systemic innovations that make life better for everyone, everywhere, and make money as we do it. Just take healthcare as an example. With aging populations in many regions of the world, we need to build out infrastructures that allow us to scale the supply of healthcare far beyond where it is now.
So how do we create technologies that offer an amplification effect and improve human productivity? These technologies, to continue the analogy, get developed in the engine room. And crucially, given the world we live in, the teams that create them will inevitably be multi-disciplinary. So we need to find ways to harness the power of our multi-disciplinary engine room – our chemists, material scientists, chemical and electrical engineers and so on – to create the multi-disciplinary solutions that we have identified on the bridge. The Chief Engineer’s role, then, is to link the two spaces. So I’m connecting the needs that we identify to the solutions we develop and constantly working on figuring out how we can do that better.
HP: Does that mean you are working mostly with HP Labs experts?
Not at all. This is across all of HP. When you look under the roof of HP Inc., we probably have enough technical experts to staff a world-class science and engineering faculty. It starts with the fundamentals of physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, and so on, goes on to technologies like chip design and interconnects, thermal management and firmware, and then to knowledge discovery, data mining, and machine learning. But one of our biggest challenges is making sure these people are not hidden from each other in silos, and instead are available to each other to help out when needed.
HP: How are you doing that?
We’re finding engineers with particular kinds of expertise, wherever they are in the company, and bringing them together in virtual communities. We’re then encouraging them to work together in more formal affinity groups where they learn from each other, share their knowledge, and are available to offer guidance to anyone else in the company who needs it. Think of them as a global pool of engineers that we can drop in like commandos to address an issue quickly and then go back to their day jobs, helping us create systemic solutions faster and improving our chances of making life better for everyone everywhere.
HP: We’ll talk more about these communities in the second half of our conversation. But for now, what else does the role of Chief Engineer encompass?
In my pan-HP capacity, my office is responsible for security strategy. If you think of our areas of competence as having horizontal and vertical aspects, security is a rare issue that is both horizontal – in that it’s essential to all fundamental technologies, for example – and vertical, where it features all the way from chips and software to the end services our customers will consume. So we need someone with a pan-HP view to help steer that strategy and make sure we aren’t missing anything crucial when it comes to addressing the security side of any product or service we sell.
I also work “hand-in-glove” with HR in outlining the technical capabilities we will need in light of current trends, unearthing technical talent, guiding our colleagues on their technical career paths – and, above all, in career development as a mentor to many across the company.
In the spirit of career development, and since we think of ourselves as the valley’s new start-up, we have made roles in my office very fluid. I call my assistant “Chief Engineer Too”, and in that role, she helps with many technical matters and coordinates our HP-wide affinity groups and virtual communities in partnership with a colleague in global technology programs. She is the registrar for our hackathons and for our engineering courses. Expect her to be faculty soon as well.
HP: Are you still involved in HP Labs, too?
Yes, very much. My office is still based in HP Labs and I have a pan-HP Labs purview as well. I help establish the research topics that we pursue in HP Labs and I connect HP Labs researchers with people in other areas of the company who can help them. We also brought a supply chain director into HP Labs and that position reports to me. That goes back to the notion of how innovation happens today and to the kinds of innovation we need to encourage.
HP: Can you expand on that a little more?
Sure. We need to embrace a model of what I call “idea to value.” It used to be that a researcher would come up with an idea and then it was someone else’s job to figure out how to deliver that concept in a form and at a scale that made it feasible for the company to make a profit. Today, researchers themselves need to be asking: “What are the channels I’m going to use to build and sell this? What is the business model?” That’s what the VCs are asking of technical entrepreneurs, and it’s what we need to be doing. Today’s researcher, then, must be thinking from idea to value. And it works at a broader scale, too. As a technical community, we need to be thinking end-to-end if we’re to make the best use of our multi-disciplinary workforce to deliver the innovation we need. That’s where supply chain expertise comes in: as a central part of the modern innovation story. It’s no longer a function that we bring in to deliver a product once it has been invented. Instead it’s another part of the overall effort that we make to build real solutions for real problems that are going to make a genuine, positive impact on the world.
Stay tuned for part two of our conversation with Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel, where we learn more about the technical communities he is building across HP and how they are helping seed and deliver innovation on an unprecedented scale.