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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A helluva engineer

I saw this note recently about the death of Glen Robinson. Outside of Atlanta, few have heard of him, but he was a brilliant engineer and business leader -- with whom I had a brief but memorable encounter.

A graduate of Georgia Tech, Robinson co-founded and led Scientific-Atlanta, the mother of high-tech businesses in Atlanta. S-A was the world's largest supplier of satellite earth stations and provided about half of the set top boxes for cable TV operators over the last 30 years. Cisco acquired it in 2006. Robinson had left in 1979 and started more successful technology companies. Many S-A alumni followed his example and went on to found additional companies that brought innovation to the market and created jobs.

Just before receiving my undergrad degree from Georgia Tech, I was honored with an invitation to its annual "Student Faculty Industry" conference, held at Callaway Gardens over a three-day weekend. The conferences had begun in 1956 and, at last report, were still taking place in a different format. One student, one professor, and one business executive were placed into each cabin. Robinson was assigned to mine. After the Friday night program, everyone went back to their cabins. I didn't know Robinson or the introverted (naturally) civil engineering professor who was our roommate. Sensing awkwardness, Robinson executed his plan. He reached into his bag, pulled out a bottle of expensive whiskey, and said "Let's talk." The three of us did, until sunrise. The bottle did not survive. Indeed the whole weekend was a fascinating epiphany for me and great fun -- especially our skit about Ten Sins Inn, a parody of Days Inn whose deeply religious founder and Tech alum Cecil Day was also at the conference.

So, Glen, here's one for you.