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TechStar Interview: Dr. Peter Cochrane

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I first met Peter Cochrane in London circa 1999. He got my attention immediately because, like me, he was a "tech expert" according to any number of media outlets and he had an obvious love for extreme gadgetry.

Another magnetic fact about Cochrane which drew me in: he had lifted himself up from digging ditches, and I don't say that metaphorically, but Peter was literally digging ditches for Britain's post office. After getting himself educated and pulling himself up through the corporate structure, Peter became the CTO of BT (British Telecom) the oldest phone company in the world.

Cochrane now has one of the most impressive sets of 'alphabet soup' after his name of anyone I've met: OBE, BSc, MSc, PhD, DSc, CGIA, FREng, FRSA, FIEE, FIEEE.

When I wrote an article on Peter for the UK's Register, I focused on his meteoric rise through business and the admirable drive he had to move that far in both his career and life.

Peter is renowned for his great, high-tech presentations. In watching a recent one called "When Machines Design Machines," he talked about how as a young man he'd seen Sir Arthur C. Clarke's iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. He said he was "really impressed" with the film's computer-controller, "Hal 9000." Now I don't know how much you know about the English, but if an Englishman says he's "really impressed" with something or the other, it's tantamount to an American gushing with glee about something being "so awesome."

I recently caught up with Peter to see what was currently making him tick.

"The economy is all over the page," Peter began, sounding worried. "There's lots of noise and ballyhoo in the business world," he said, "everybody's talking about they 'have lots of live projects' but there's no warm-up period; nobody's taking the time to think things through."

"What we need to do is determine where we are now, then where we have to go and, finally, we need to get going." Cochrane was making clear the uncertainty of our times that I and many others have been feeling.

He continued, "Nobody's around for more than two and a half years," he said referring to the parade of ousted executives lasting shorter and shorter periods. His comment made me think of Leo Apotheker's brief reign at HP. "Cut costs, fire people, get your bonuses and run from damaged companies seems to be the plan," Cochrane raged.

He had a point: when will this corporate insanity stop? He sealed the deal by saying, "There's a level of change now that I don't think people can deal with."

Cochrane shifted gears on the same subject, "If you think about what HP was 30 years ago, they were the absolute best at whatever they did: instrumentation, they were tops; medical devices; education tools; optical/electrical devices; signal processors; and foundry. Their reputation was on par with IBM's today for patents."

"When I was a young engineer,' Cochrane recalled warmly, "I used to take apart and admire HP's products like oscilloscopes. I also used HP equipment when I was developing test equipment for the early BT digital network. There's been a tragic decline for HP; it's now the Japanese who make all the instrumentation which was HP's real specialty. HP has now migrated into a 'badging company' buying printers and laptops made in Southeast Asia and slapping their HP logo on them."

HP has changed significantly, anybody would agree. We then briefly touched on Dr. Mike Lynch's stunning sale of his UK software firm to HP for $11.7 billion. "I know Mike, "Cochrane offered, "he lives a couple of miles down the road from my house. Mike's one of the real starts of the 'Cambridge Triangle.'"

Shifting gears yet again, "Part of the problem lies in the catastrophic decline of education in the West," Cochrane observed, "we've put these 'stovepipes' into education. While young people are studying the arts in the West, their counterparts are studying the sciences in the East. In the East, they're studying the 'trans-dimensional tasking' subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics."

Where would Cochrane go to study right now if he were a student? He didn't hesitate for an instant, "I'd go right to the crossroads of nanotech and IC (integrated circuitry)."

What does Cochrane see as the big, future opportunities in technology? "What's in the cards for cards," he said. "I've got this huge wallet (pulling out what was indeed a huge appendage bursting with cards of all descriptions) and so many cards I could scream. How do we solve that? Well, I'm working with a small startup whose goal is to manage all our cards, credit, bank, loyalty cards... all of them seamlessly."

Knowing Cochrane's intense regard and wonderment with all things devices, I wanted to ask him what his gear currently included. "I've used Macs all my life," Cochrane stated firmly, "Apple computers, an iPhone," but interestingly, he says he doesn't use an iPad.

What's the dumbest thing Cochrane's harping on? He says the headlong rush toward "DSL instead of fiber is a clear case of Telecoms executives refusing to use NPV (net present value) or future value and instead wanting 'upfront value.'"

And Cochrane is not shy about criticizing his former telco industry chums. See his Silicon.com blog post entitled, "Our Bungling Telecoms Leaders" for a sense of how he dissects the industry's demons.

Peter closed by sharing a story about how one time, "MacGyver-like" resourcefulness saved him (well sort of, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to get his email or send a blog post). He was on a boat offshore and couldn't get a signal to his smartphone; he wasn't getting a strong enough signal to his laptop for a data connection on his network or nearby wi-fi. (We've all been there, I thought.) So using a baking tray as an antenna, Cochrane was able to get the requisite '3 bars,' download the all-important email and send his blog post. Problem solved ingeniously.

I left the interview feeling I'd been with a 'futurologist;' someone who'd been in high tech since monitors were called 'peripherals.' I knew, then, here was a man who played a major part in the industry we all embrace. And I wondered how many people would recognize who he was and the many contributions he'd made.

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