Neil Hendin, a graduate of Harvard, has a diverse career history, including being an undergrad, grad student, teaching assistant, teaching fellow, and staff member. Neil has worked in various engineering departments, including physics, electronics, and computer systems. He has also been involved in campus radio and radio engineering. Neil also completed his master’s degree at Harvard. His first job as an engineer was at Maxim Integrated Products, a semiconductor company headquartered in Portland, Oregon. He moved to Hewlett Packard, where he worked in radio engineering. He has been in Silicon Valley since working at Maxim and has also worked at HP, Nvidia, Palm, and Google. Neil currently leads the ChromeOS hardware team at Google and has moved up the engineering management ladder over the past 12 years. Neil started his career at WHRB after helping a woman set up a stereo for her college. He joined the radio station as a technical staff member and later became chief engineer. He was responsible for maintaining the hardware, including transmitter repair and maintenance. Neil’s interest in radio engineering was sparked by the analog nature of circuit building and the ability to analyze and simulate the engineering tools available today. He believes that the field of radio engineering is considered one of the “black magic” fields in electronics, as it requires a lot of skill and experimentation.
Radio Engineering Explained
Radio engineering is the process of transmitting signals over long distances using electromagnetic radiation, such as electromagnetic waves or Morse code. It involves modulation, which involves sending data that is decoded to transmit multiple messages. Radio engineers deal with high frequency circuits, typically ranging from 100 megahertz to 70 gigahertz. The frequency range of these signals depends on the language and technology evolution, with the term “micro” being higher than UHF. Antenna engineering is another subspecialty, involving the antennas that launch signals into free space. Modern smartphones have at least six or eight antennas, which can be divided into lower, mid-range, and high bands. Some phones combine these bands, while others have a pair of antennas for each set of bands. Bluetooth is often combined with Wi-Fi, as they are in the same frequency range and are often done by the same chip in the phone. Radio engineers often gravitate towards the cell phone business due to the challenges of fitting all of this in their pocket and the challenges of running the phone off of batteries. They also worry about the potential interference with aircraft sensors and the plane’s avionics. While there were initial fears of interference, radio engineers do not turn off their phones during takeoff or landing to ensure aircraft safety..
From Palm OS Architecture to Chromebooks
Neil talks about the birth of the modern smartphone as a significant milestone in the history of technology. Palm and handspring invented the Palm OS, which was popular among 30 million people. They spun off from Palm and started cellular phones, adding cellular modems into the Palm Pilot type architecture. The Palm Pilot was the first modern smartphone with an app store, replacing paper calendars and address books. Neil talks about the evolution of the Palm Free and how it led to the accelerated development of the iPhone. Neil left Palm and joined the Chrome team, where they piloted a test of Chromebooks.
Managing a Group of Engineers at Google
Neil transitioned from being an individual contributor to managing a group of engineers. He realized that team dynamics, collaboration, communication quality, and trust were crucial for everyone’s individual abilities. He realized that having a diverse mix of backgrounds and experience levels made teams more productive.
At Google he noticed how well-run teams were, even if not everyone was equally experienced. He decided to manage a small team of engineers, allowing him to have more impact. He asked people if they wanted to try new roles and gave them organizational flexibility. He managed a group of 75 engineers, which is currently in the low 40s due to a recent layoff. Managing a group of engineers is different depending on the type of roles they have in their organization. His current team size is around 44 engineers. Neil shares stories of engineering challenges that may bubble up to managers, such as the down economy and the decline in the personal computer market.
The Process of Designing and Interacting with Manufacturers
Neil discusses the process of designing and interacting with manufacturers, such as OEMs like Dells, HP, Lenovo, Acer, Samsung, and LG. These OEMs, often based in Taiwan, have access to China’s resources for high-volume manufacturing and have factories in various parts of China. Neil has a team of around 28 to 22 people, based in the Taipei office and two engineers in Sydney, Australia. They work with manufacturing companies (ODMs) to design a reference design and tweak it to ensure it stays agile and cost-effective in the current landscape. The team works closely with OEMs to build prototypes, and a lead OEM, such as Dell or HP or Lenovo, implements a lead product on one at the same ODM. The learnings from this build are then shared with another OEM.
Influential Courses and Professors at Harvard
Neil shares his experiences at Harvard, mentioning two professors who have influenced his career, his electrical engineering professor, Al Pandiscio, was a mentor, friend, and instructor, while Victor Jones, a professor of electromagnetics, taught the electromagnetics class and cellular communications.
07:57 How Neil got into radio engineering
25:16 Leaving Palm and joining ChromeBook
27:30 Testing ChromeBook
27:52 Transition from individual contributor to managing a small team
35:10 Managing as an engineer
39:28 Managing a team of new managers
45:51 How Neil works with manufacturers?
92-71. Neil Hendin
Will Bachman, Neil Hendin
Will Bachman 00:01
Hello, and welcome to the 92 report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman. And I’m here today with Neil Hendon. Neil, welcome to the show.
Neil Hendin 00:14
Hi, thank you for having me.
Will Bachman 00:16
So Neil, tell me about your journey since graduating from Harvard.
Neil Hendin 00:21
So I have class in 92, as you know, and I studied electrical engineering. So technically, given the quirks of Harvard engineering program, my undergraduate degree is a bachelor of arts and engineering sciences, which is an unusual degree. And right after undergrad, I proceeded to start grad school at Harvard, part time while working for Harvard. So I’ve actually had the pleasure of being an undergrad, a grad student, a teaching assistant, and a teaching fellow, and a staff member. All associated with the same Harvard ID number. The only thing I haven’t yet been as faculty, but you know, there’s always possibilities. The stayed around Cambridge for a couple of three years, and worked for the University in the engineering department helping the undergraduate with their electronics projects, and then maintaining the undergraduate electronics
Will Bachman 01:19
lab was that 23?
Neil Hendin 01:22
A No, that’s a physics class, although I know, I took that class. And I’m actually quite good friends with Paul Horowitz the professor for me actually ran into him a few years back when we were visiting, but this would be the engineering sciences classes like es 50. As you know, es 153, the analog Allah char, landlocked electronics class, or that might have been 151. And any of the undergraduate es 96, or I think they now call it Yes. 100 project based classes. Back when we were there, it was the division of Applied Sciences and the junior web students did a group project and the seniors did individual projects. And I acted as sort of a electronics resource for them to help debug their designs help help them understand how to use the lab equipment, and you know how to use a soldering iron without hurting themselves. Protip don’t grab the hot end, the and stuff like that. So, and maintaining computer systems, I learned a lot of Unix systems administration and other useful skills that have helped in my career just by that and my officemate did the same thing for the mechanical engineering labs. And he was just a staff member for the university. I was a, I was a grad student, as well as a part time staff member. And he would do the machine shop and I would do the electronics, the computer electronics labs, and occasionally, I would help him with stuff but he would teach me how to use a machine shop, and a kid to help me fix my bike. When I got an A bike accident. Yeah, he wants to bend to the frame or the fork back, square by hand at his desk care. Big strong guy. Like don’t believe he’s still working for Harvard. I lost track with him. But after you know, after I graduated, I did my master’s degree that way over three years, half time for one year and quarter time for two more years. And as a full time staff member, a little known benefit is Harvard offers you tuition discounts for staff members of 90%. Okay, so the back half of my master’s degree was 90% discounted, including cross registering at MIT, which was helpful because being an undergrad and a grad student in the same university, I kind of run out of Electronics and Communications with your communications classes to take and radio engineering was a specialty of mine or something I was interested in. As an undergraduate I was also heavily involved with who OB FM, the campus radio, the college radio station that serves campus in the Boston in the greater Boston area. And when I applied for my first job, you know, my parents would always say you’re spending too much time to radio station, you should do more classwork. Like for my first job as an engineer in the professional world after grad school, to a semiconductor company called Maxim Integrated products. They’re still around. They’re headquartered actually knew where I live now in Silicon Valley. But they had an office in Portland, Oregon, Portland, Oregon, excuse me area, the town called Beaverton. I sent them a resume cold and got an email back a week later from my first boss. fellow by the name of wink Gross, who was Harvard class of 69. Saying he was chief engineer of the same radio station back in the 60s in the late 60s and The fact that I had that on my resume got me an interview. So I did have an adult use of mobile with my parents at the time and I, I regret you know, I must admit to thoroughly enjoying it. The book that got me an interview and my first job and I moved out to the West Coast, in the Portland, Oregon area. BEAVERTON is a suburb a little bit west of Portland. We were located diagonally across the intersection from the Nike world headquarters. And company has moved since then. And after a couple of years there, they transferred me to headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, which is in here in Silicon Valley, where I live in Mountain View, which is the next town over. And I’ve been in Silicon Valley ever since working at Maxim and then after a little while, Hewlett Packard as doing similar sort of work as radio engineering and moved on to a couple other jobs and think it would have been nine 2000 Yes. 2000. At a multi school alumni event, started at a for an organization started by a classmate of mine in Andy Cohen met a woman I became we became friends and a few years, four years later, in 2004, got married, we’re about to have our 90th anniversary coming up in a week or so. So, you know, that was a that was a major event of my life, obviously. And she and I owned a house and we own a house in Mountain View, where we live with our dogs and cats. No children, and I’ve worked at after Maxim HP than Nvidia. And then I left the semiconductor business and worked at palm on the Palm Pre smartphones. This was a company to do the Palm Pilot, and the Palm OS phones, and I worked on a couple of those, and then they kind of reboot phones, until they got bought by HP on the back of HP for a little while, then HP shut it down. And I wound up looking around and wound up at Google in 2011 as an engineer working on Chrome OS, so if you’ve heard of Chromebooks, they’re popular in the education space and could consumer in some, some enterprise markets. I currently lead the criminalist hardware team at Google, starting as an engineer on the team and over the last 12 years, moved up into engineering management, which is an interesting, probably the most interesting career transition to go from an individual contributor role to a manager role. And I am still here doing that.
Will Bachman 07:57
Amazing what a career. Okay, I have so many questions. First, I want to hear what were you doing at wh RB? Were you the chief engineer there? What does that person do it? Who?
Neil Hendin 08:08
So yeah, so. So the funny people asked me, how did you get into radio engineering and the if I am sort of connecting the dots in a slightly cheeky manner? The answer is actually because of a woman but not because of how you think a freshman dorm mate of mine a fellow classmate, obviously didn’t Lucy Deakins was needed some help setting up a stereo she bought with her summer, her job income, I think she had an he used to be an actress actually, in some kids movies and had some residuals and bought herself a stereo for college. And I helped her set it up. And our parents were colleagues, my mom and her dad were our were in the same department of they’re both English professors, NYU in New York, and so we don’t I’ve heard about her I’ve never met her blended in the same price, but I helped her set up her stereo. And then she’s like, oh, you should go check out the radio station. Her boyfriend worked there, or was in the sports department. So the following semester I input that sounds interesting. I walked in to the engineering shop and there’s a someone who looks vaguely like me, at the time in the Tech Shop, fixing something and he was the then Chief Engineer, class of 90, I believe, Mark, me and Mark Peters. And he gave me the three hour rundown on everything you need to know about being chief engineer of a college radio station. And I spent the rest of that semester in the comp, you know, the membership training process or competition, although for the text fields, it wasn’t there weren’t. You know, if you were interested in that and wanting to help you are gonna get in. There wasn’t a competitive process in that Respect. But I joined that as a as an engineer as a member of the technical staff and then became chief engineer when Mark moved on to become station manager. And once you’re chief engineer of the radio station, there’s only, there’s only certain there’s very few ways to leave that job. Be the, I mean, falling off the building with the transmitter is is probably the hardest one. But leaving the area is the usual one because people always call you to come fix stuff. And even in grad school, when I was not an undergrad anymore, I was still nominally the chief engineer emeritus and a state during and the chief engineer is responsible for maintaining the hardware. So if there’s a headset or a pair of headphones that’s broken, you’re fixing and replacing the connector on if the tape player because we use reel to reel tape back then, in the studios isn’t working, you’re responsible for, for fixing if the transmitter stops working, you’re responsible for fixing it, or getting help from some alumni who have more experience. And this could be everything from transmitter repair, and, and maintenance, because they require back then they required weekly tuning and adjustments. So once a week, I would go up to the roof of Holyoke center, I had access to the steam tunnels and to the roof, and go up there into the transmitter shack, up the ladder to the roof hack into the transmitter rack and adjust everything, take some notes, and do that, you know, pretty much all year Winter, summer. And keep that running. And when we would do some capital improvement, we built a new radio studio in the old location in the Los Angeles theater and Memorial Hall on Quincy at 45. Quincy street. A couple of years, about three years later, the university decided to move us to the first floor below Pennypacker. That gets on 3d on Oxford Street, maybe I’d have to check the current address. But it’s so I helped relocate. All the studios in spec got what we needed for infrastructure for audio, cabling data, cabling power for all the studios and helped build those studios while I was in grad school. So we had to take apart one of the studios we’d rebuilt previously to move it because we just put it in in 92. And then I think 94 We were moving in again. That’s pretty much what the chief engineer does.
Will Bachman 12:33
What amazing training for an engineer real world training. Now, did you have an existing interest in radio engineering? Or did you have an interest
Neil Hendin 12:41
in electronics, but I’d always liked communications. And I hadn’t really done radio, if you know, if I’d been a few, you know, born 10 years or 15 years earlier, ham radio was the popular hobby for people of that, you know, people who liked electronics back then, when I was growing up, it was the beginning of the personal computer age, you know, with the Apple two, and the original PC, both of which I’d used or had one or the other other various times. So I was more into that. But communications and you know, back then the internet was using a modem to call a bulletin board and exchanged messages with other users of that one bulletin board. The Internet wasn’t a thing yet, at least not to a consumer. Or to an end user. The first time I saw a network of computers was probably Khalid you know, other than, like, dialing into a particular machine with a modem, you know, like you see in the old movies, or older movies, I don’t think of them as old movies. But the so it was a you know, it was something I was interested in, but never had done much about. But I always liked the analog nature of some of that engineering, where there’s still a little bit of craft and how you build the circuits. It’s not just something you can formally analyze, or even simulate at the time now the engineering tools we have access to today are far better than we did then, thanks to computers being much faster than they weren’t back then. But so that that is a natural fit for radio engineering. And it’s, it is considered sort of one of the quote black magic, if you will, fields in electronics, because there’s a lot of stuff you also just have to know that isn’t really it comes from experience. It comes from trying something and building it works not quite the same as you predicted it would work on your computer and figuring out why and how you make adjustments. So there’s still a little bit of craft to it. And that appealed.
Will Bachman 14:41
Okay, so I want to proceed in a couple stages. I want to get to your experience with the Chromebook, which I’ve owned them in the past and want to hear about that. Thank you before we appreciate
Neil Hendin 14:52
on behalf of me and our stockholders
Will Bachman 14:55
if we bought them for my team. Before we get to the Chromebook talk First of all, what is radio engineering? Exactly? I mean, I have a vague idea has something to do with, like, radio signals. But yeah,
Neil Hendin 15:08
so if you know, radio engineering it basically, anytime you’re dealing with signals, you want to transmit over a long, long distances, anything that you, you know, out of basically shouting range where you yell out a window going, hey, well look out, you know, or whatever the, you need to send that signal on top of a, you know, in a way that can propagate over long distance. So, electromagnetic radiation is the, you know, is the logical choice. I mean, it could be as simple as, you know, turning the flashlight on and off, it’s sending Morse code that is a form of wireless communication, it’s a fairly straightforward one, and it does work quite well in some applications. But when you want to have multiple people sending multiple messages to different people, you need the, you start talking about a concept called modulation. And you’d be familiar with this with am or FM on your, on your car radio. And then there’s a whole host of digital modulations, where instead of setting analog music, like you would with, say, an FM radio station, you send data that is then decoded. And this is used for pretty much everything, but a radio engineer will deal with these high frequency circuits. And you’re typically dealing with stuff ranging from a couple 100 megahertz to I have friends who work in what is called the millimeter wave is, you know, 70 gigahertz or 80 or 100 gigahertz. 60 gigahertz is actually not, you know, is even a consumer product right now for for some wireless applications. And how you work with the signals depends on the frequency range, you know, and unfortunately, this is where the language and the evolution of technology has gotten us into a bit of a pickle, that you’ve heard of VHF from your TV, your VHF channel to UHF and then micro exactly higher than UHF, but millimeter wave is higher than microwave. And the language got, you know, didn’t evolve at the same rate as the technology. So the, the nomenclature is a little upside down sometimes. But a radio engineer deals with these things and how you how you send the signals around a circuit board. And then also a subspecialty. That is the antenna engineering, which is actually not my field, how you take those signals from a circuit board, and launch them into free space with an antenna. And this can be the old style TV antenna you might have had on their roof, or the embedded antennas that are in your cell phone, which probably has at least six or eight antennas now for a modern smartphone.
Will Bachman 17:38
No kidding. Six,
Neil Hendin 17:40
wow, easily Yeah, what, three or so they divide them up. They’re the model, a modern smartphone, whether you have a Google Pixel, or an iPhone, the number of cellular radio bands, different frequency ranges that the industry consortium have agreed worldwide on what bands are used in what countries and what you know what parts of the world, there’s probably upwards of 48 to 50 bands of operation, ranging from as low as 600 megahertz to as high in some cases as six gigahertz for most cell phones. And it’s very hard to do one antenna that can do all of those, it just as a practical matter that’s difficult. So they grouped them into the lower bands and mid range bands, high bands. So some phones will combine the mid and high and one antenna and the low bands and a separate antenna. And typically you have a pair of antennas for each set of bands. So there might be two low band, two high band plus one is for Wi Fi, maybe a separate one for GPS, and probably two for Wi Fi. And that gets you to six. We’re actually seven or eight right there. What about Bluetooth sounds like a separate one, Bluetooth is often combined with Wi Fi, because they’re in the same frequency range. And they’re often done by the same chip in the phone. So that’s that overlaps with a 2.4 gigahertz Wi Fi. So there’s a there’s a if you’re as a radio engineer, if you’re doing if you want an advanced radio design, the radio portion of a cell phone is probably one of the most challenging Wow, right now outside of say some military or defense or the performance issues that are not my field that I’m not well aware of. But in terms of consumer wireless, like the RF engineers who really like an RF engineering challenge, tend to gravitate towards the cell phone business because of the challenges there and fitting all of this in your pocket. Yeah, and you know, making it run off of batteries and what happens when you hold the phone if you remember the iPhone, how you hold your phone scandal from the iPhone for days. That was popular in the news. So back then,
Will Bachman 19:48
well I have an expert. The whole thing about you need to turn off your phone when the phone is when the plane is about to take off because it could interfere with the sensors and the plane or something What’s, what’s the story with that? Is that like, actually,
Neil Hendin 20:05
you know, as a radio engineer, I actually, I would be concerned if the avionics of the aircraft were that poorly designed that they were susceptible to interference from consumer devices. So I actually think, you know, while I think there was some initial fears of it, and it’s better to err on the side of caution for aircraft safety and the safety of the passengers, I actually don’t, I do it because they asked me to and, you know, usually don’t mind to break from constant emails or pings on my phone for a little while anyway. But I actually think they probably the better reason is, if you know, more likely there’s going to be if there’s an aircraft safety issue, which is extremely rare, it’s more likely to happen during takeoff or landing. So you want everyone paying attention, and not staring at their phone. But I’ve seen people nearly walk off a curb into traffic while staring at their phone. Having them follow instructions to put the life vests on. You know, they’re waiting to post their video on Tik Tok. Probably not a good idea. Okay. You know, or, or whatever other video sharing site, I don’t mean to same tick tock here.
Will Bachman 21:18
Alright, so before we get to the Chromebook, talk to me about just sort of, you know, adventures changes that you saw in the cell phone industry while you’re working for HP and for palm. And, and what was that like when? I mean, is there just the birth of the cell phone industry? And you were you were part of it? Tell us tell us a little bit about that.
Neil Hendin 21:40
I mean, cell phones have been around. I mean, the cellular phone was first invented in the late 70s, by AT and T and somebody nine,
Will Bachman 21:48
right, but but it really took off, right? I mean, it’s when it really took off as a smartphone,
Neil Hendin 21:51
the birth of the modern smartphone, we were working on palm and handspring actually had invent pretty much invented what we would think of as a smartphone today, and got very popular Palm OS with the graffiti taught, you know, 30 million people in new alphabet. You know, if you remember that that little stylus and you’d write, to write notes, you ever had one of those, I had a Palm Pilot handspring spun off from palm and started doing cellular phone, cellular adding cellular modems into the Palm Pilot type architecture. And then palm, bought it back and created the trio product line, which is a palm pilot with a cell phone integrated. And that is I think, what you’d call it the first modern smartphone, there were apps, there was an app store you could download apps from and yeah, it replaced my calculator calendar. And, you know, and like address book was one thing and I stopped carrying those things on paper, I used to have a paper calendar with a paper address, insert in the back, and each year, I would print the new and the ticket in with the new numbers I’ve added. Now that was synced to my computer, it was kind of magic with the little dots and you press the button, then that became you know, entirely wireless. And we’ve done that for years, the LS was starting to look a little long in the tooth compared to what you could do with, you know, better uses of modern color screens and higher resolution. And we probably gotten an influx of capital and rebooted their phone business to the Web OS product line with the palm free. And I worked on the radio not bored so that the the versions of the palm tree sold on Sprint or Verizon, I had a colleague working on the other cellular standard use for AT and T and T Mobile. There are two different cellular standards back then. And we supported both of them and had just two different engineering teams on the radio board on the CPU board was common to both and a different team working on that. And we were actively working on it. They were 3g modems. So we had megabit class data rates back then, not not, you know, slow by today’s standards. But better than the hundreds of kilobits you were getting on the 2g standards. And we were there and working through it, and the phones were looking really nice. And we had a decent shot at it. And then the iPhone came out. And we were there. I was at the office. And we saw the I saw at launch. Um, you know, even as add a competitor, you know, we were impressed. We were you know, we were wondering why they use an older technology cellular standard in the first generation. So they can probably and I’m not an Apple employee, I haven’t been probably so they can focus on the other innovative aspects of the product rather than the cellular. So they were using a 2g modem and we had 3g but, you know, that might have been the right call for them because it got them you know, they didn’t have to We’re about that part of it, they could focus on all the other stuff in their, their app store, their UI, their touch screen, and so on. And, you know, that really spearheaded the, you know, the accelerated art development because we had to get something out. And we didn’t, it was a great phone. The market moved towards more Android and iOS where it is today. And eventually HP went after they bought palm, had a change in CEO. And the new CEO really was not a fan of consumer businesses. And decided to shut down the investment they’ve made in buying palm two years earlier. And that caused expect a billion plus dollars for palm and then shut it down. The OS is net has been sold or licensed to LG, which they use in their smart TVs. And someone bought the brand. But I don’t know if they’re usually bought the brand trademark, I don’t know if it’s I don’t think it’s being used at the moment. And you know, when, when that happened, they started, my project got cancelled about four months before all the other ones. And I wound up leaving palm and joint and looking around with a four month Headstart, which worked out to be a good thing, because there was one opening for part time radio part time digital, written kids general purpose hardware engineer on the criminalist team. And earlier in my career, I had the ability to go back and forth once to do not wireless for a little while. At Nvidia, a previous employer. So that gave me a little bit of exposure there. And that helped me get into the criminalist team because they needed, you know, 65 70% of someone’s time doing radio, but a little bit of time helping with other things, too. They couldn’t justify 100% RF engineer at the time, because they’d hired an antenna engineer who didn’t do the RF circuitry. He was purely an antenna engineer, or didn’t want to do as much of the RF circuitry. So I worked with him quite closely. And we we joined, you know, that was in 2011, we had, we were just we had just finished piloting a test of Chromebooks where we gave out, I think, 20, or 30,000, of the first generation of Chromebook called the CR 48, named after an unstable isotope of chromium element. And the goal would be the thought at the time would be with each progressive generation, we pick a slightly more stable isotope. I don’t think we followed it, we didn’t do it cfg. You know, we use the R 50. internally for something else. But we didn’t follow that as a public branding. But I was there for the first time. So like a lot of our so like, my first computer hostname, I picked, you know, you need to pick something that was identifiable to you. So my initials are, if you look at the first two letters of my first and last name, they’re both chemical elements and bolts aren’t used those by coincidence. And so this is what happens when you let engineers and computer geeks beneath you. And you know, it’s fun. And we have you know, it’s we still have some legacy for this day, but internally v. So I was there for the first launch of the launch of the first two commercial Chromebooks, one from Samsung, and one from Acer. And that set us on this path to doing this to kind of realizing what many industry people have been wanting to do, which is the thought of it, they call it a thin client computing model, where most of your resources are in the cloud. And we’re on the network because the sun came up with an idea similar to this called Sunrise many years prior, but I don’t think the network was quite the Internet and Internet network. Even corporate networking wasn’t quite up to the challenge. But the idea being that you can log into a Chromebook. And I got a new Chromebook for testing internally. Just the other day, 15 minutes before my staff, my all team meeting, or maybe half an hour, I logged in, set up my some internal account security stuff we have to do for being at Google, got all that done, and presented the slides to the meeting, you know, less than half an hour later, without having to copy everything from my old laptop to my new one. It’s all in Google Drive or Google Docs, you’re getting this sort of
Will Bachman 29:38
effort for listeners that that haven’t used one yet when we also have some on our team. As members of our team use these. It’s, it’s basically like having kind of Google Chrome and everything you can do on Google Chrome or your Google, Google Sheets, Google Docs.
Neil Hendin 29:52
That and that was exactly like the product T shirts that were launched were given out before I joined how The word knee, the word nothing. And the word web with the implication being, we put nothing between you in the web, which is kind of the philosophy. Since then we’ve added things like Android apps, and Linux apps, and even gaming and other stuff. And this is, so it’s become a little more feature set. Rich since then. But it’s been a, you know, the thing for me is, I believe in the product have since we joined, and over that period, I kind of changed what I do from being an individual contributor to managing a small team, and eventually a relatively large team. At one point, it was highest 75. Now it’s about 43, after some reorg, and our layoffs we had in January. But I now I now lead the hardware org within criminalists game. And, you know, it’s been, it’s been nice to have been here since almost the beginning of it.
Will Bachman 30:59
Tell me about that transition from being a individual contributor, engineer to managing engineers and then managing a group of engineers.
Neil Hendin 31:09
What so that is not something if you’d asked me, if you’ve done this podcast in 95, or, you know, 2002, maybe I would have said, No, I would never do that. But, you know, somewhere along the way, I remember a couple of things were, like, I was on a team at HP, and the team was working well together. And we were, you know, collaborative in our small team. And I really enjoyed that I really enjoyed being on that team. And, you know, I didn’t realize what it took to make that sort of Team happen. But I, you know, I was enjoying being on that team, and started realizing that the team dynamics and the collaboration between the communication quality between the members of the team and the trust, really, you know, was a sort of a force multiplier, if you will, for everyone’s individual abilities. And engineers are not interchangeable. We’re not, you know, making, you know, making sandwiches on a production line, the so having the ability so that everybody knows, like, oh, you know, I will talk to Jessica, she’s really good with power electronics, or I’ll talk to Eric, he’s really good with high speed, signaling around a circuit board or stuff like that, knowing having the team know and trust each other’s abilities, was important, and, you know, helped make the team far more productive than any one person could be by themselves. Because nothing we do is of a small enough scale that it’s done by one person. So having, you know, I realized how important that was. And as you know, we hired more younger engineers who are, you know, faster and more up to speed on current technology and tools. The thing they needed to, to be able to excel was that kind of a team. And recognizing the value of it was meant I could help it, you know, to the best of my ability, create that from the team. So I started managing a small team of engineers. At the time, I was sort of set I was headed, I was reorge, temporarily back into the film business at Google. So I started managing there for a year or two, and then I came back to criminalise the, but it was really about seeing how well run teams, even if not everyone was equally experienced. And in fact, especially if there’s a diverse mix of backgrounds and experience levels, setting the proper environment for them, made them all more productive. And that was something that I really wanted to help do. And it made it easier. Once I realized that was a challenge. It made it easier to give up my schematic drawing and, you know, a soldering iron and oscilloscope probes in the lab to help to help the team be more effective. Yeah. So I sort of it sort of added a layer of indirection to my engineering impact, if you will.
Will Bachman 34:17
So I imagine, you know, be being an engineer yourself, obviously helps just having some technical understanding. Yeah, but I’m guessing that as the manager, there are fundamentally just different activities and ways you’re spending your time and different types of problems that you’re solving that you weren’t necessarily really trained for. It’s like they pick the best manager, best engineer in the group say, Okay, you’re the manager now, but they train for that
Neil Hendin 34:44
you have. I’ve been I’ve been as an engineer on those teams where they just pick the most senior person and they don’t want to be a manager, but because of they don’t want to give the appearance of giving it to the number two most experienced person on the team, even if that person is that has better people organizational skills. So this is something that I consciously decided I wanted to do, because it helped me have more impact. And like I actually say, I actually requested it rather than having it kind of pushed upon me, and I don’t push management upon anyone else in my team, I asked people if something they want to try. And then we sort of give them a small we have the organizational flexibility. And sometimes we do and unfortunately, sometimes we don’t give them a small number of people. So it’s not overwhelming. And see how it goes and see how they lead the team. And we have a couple of different types of roles in my org, some are more specialized, some are more generalist. And managing groups of those people is different depending on which ones
Will Bachman 35:50
Yeah, you manage the group of 75 engineers, and
Neil Hendin 35:55
as high as 75. Currently, it’s in the, it’s in the low 40s. Because we we lost one whole project team under me to do a recent layoffs in early 2023. And the remaining ones were already reorg into another sister team. So it’s about 44. Now,
Will Bachman 36:10
so let’s say that you, you know, a year ago, it’s you know, at some point, you are talking to a frontline engineer that you’re talking about potentially, you know, promoting them to promote, quote, unquote, make them a manager of a group, what are some of the things that you’re telling them about the pros and the cons about how their role is going to change? About how it’s no longer how great you are with the schematics. But here’s the different things you’re going to be spending your time on, like, what’s that? What’s that mentor leader speech that you get?
Neil Hendin 36:45
Understood. So first of all, just you know, to back up if it’s just because they want to get promoted to get recognized for their abilities. I am fortunate that at Google, we have the ability to promote people as a senior individual contributor, or they can come over to our manager role. So this would imply that they actually want to make the manager transition. Without just being I want a promotion. And the only way to get it is to become a manager. We have people who are up to almost VP level who are principle fellow engineers who do not actually have to manage people. But the just so if someone needed recognition, you was deserving of recognition, we have ways of getting them, assuming they do want to go into to managing in AI, I would talk to them and give them kind of the flavor of what it’s like. So your role, you know that your role is now more indirect. You, I don’t want you doing the work of someone on your team. But you should have an appreciation for it or understand it to really some level, and understand when you know how to how to encourage and motivate them and how to unblock them if they’re stuck. And how to recognize when they are stuck even if they don’t, even if they don’t know it yet, because one problem you often see with more junior engineers, is they don’t raise their hand to ask for help. If they’re stuck on something because they figure they’re supposed to figure it out on their own. Because it’s that they treat these problems like exam problems, and you’re not allowed to ask for help, but in the workplace you are and how to recognize. So I teach new men, I try to encourage new managers to recognize when you know what the needs of their team are, because that can be very diverse. If they have a more junior person or a more senior person, the more senior person may just need to help set direction and help and have help with someone who has a little bit higher scope of visibility around the org as to what challenges are coming up. Where’s the more junior person may need more data that may or may need more week to week or month to month mentoring? And how do you help them find those resources, which probably should not be their immediate manager to be appear with a little more experience. So they have more freedom to talk. But you I give them the flavor of the type of work to make sure it resonates well. Because the last thing I want to do is put the career, you know the career feature of three other engineers under someone who’s not sure they want to do it and is not motivated to do it. And I was doing it for the right. The right reasons. Because I want the entire team to be effective. So we talked through it, I routinely would have one on ones with the new manager. And you’ll make sure it’s going well and we start people with a small team, say three is a good minimum here at Google because with three in our systems, you’ll get a manager feedback survey as part of your part of your annual performance review. And with two employees. You don’t you don’t get that to three is a good minimum number. To start with. You can do less if you have a plan to grow For the team to three in the near term future, but that’s what we like to do. So we’d basically extra mentoring support. And kind of going over things. When we have like performance reviews, for a new manager, I’ll have a more senior manager, either their manager, or if they report to me often have and have them go over what their, what the process is, there’s a lot of logistics, you have to learn. And fortunately, Google has, you know, internal training on a lot of this stuff. For new managers that kicks off automatically, once you get a report. But people have questions about how to use the tools. And, you know, when when things like annual compensation reviews come up, people have a lot of questions. And because that’s not something many people have ever done before. So basically, provide extra support. And also check in with the employees and how’s it going, you know, have separate one on ones with the new, the new reports of a new manager to make sure that they are getting the support they need and what I can do to help make it work out pretty well. And, you know, I’ve been successful in doing this on a few occasions where we’ve had people who want to step into that role, and have done it well. And then we start giving them a larger chain. And the bigger your team, the kind of faster you develop your management skill set. And I noticed this when I became a manager of other managers, is the problems that bubbled up to you are ones that a first line manager couldn’t solve on their own, even with all the training and support they get from Google. And you know, their manager peers. So things happen, you know, you only get the harder problems. And then when you add another layer, the problems that bubbled up to you are only the ones that two layers or managers couldn’t, couldn’t address directly. So you, you get your reps faster, the higher up you go, as it turns out, and that was not something I’d expected. But it makes sense when you think about it.
Will Bachman 42:01
Can you share with us any stories, obviously, that are not confidential to Google about? I mean, examples of the kind of engineering challenges that would, you know, bubble up to you and kind of how you help the team address them.
Neil Hendin 42:18
So I’m wondering, yeah, give me a moment to think that I can think of I can think of one that came up recently, as you might have seen, the economy is not, I mean, doing great right now. So the general PC market is down. personal computer market, people are not buying, as many of it and part of it actually is, you know, we’re a victim of our own previous success. At the beginning of COVID, you could barely find a Chromebook in stock.
Will Bachman 42:52
I remember that. Yes. Yeah, we were trying to buy one for our team couldn’t get one anyway,
Neil Hendin 42:58
you know, everyone needed one for their each of their kids. So they could do remote school, or work needed, you know, so they couldn’t share one for just occasional use they, they needed a full time. So it was hard to buy them. So you know, our numbers for that, that quarter were amazing. But that doesn’t mean when you get this sort of hockey stick and growth, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to continue at that growth rate. Once the once the market demand has been satisfied. As a transitory I’m not an economist, I’m sure they have a more specific term for this. But that was a transitory factor, and people’s purchasing. But that doesn’t mean they’re gonna go back to buying another another laptop the following year, they’re like, Well, I just bought one. So you borrowed, you borrowed, you borrowed market from, say, 2022 and pulled it into 2021. To some extent, so there’s a natural dip following it. Because you know that that’s true across the industry. So things are a little bit thinner now. So some of my more senior engineers are like, well, what is our next challenging project? Because we’re ever, you know, things are in we’re in kind of a slow, we, we’ve been in a, you know, a year long kind of slowing down period. And I personally, I’m starting to see some, my personal opinion is, in six months, things are gonna look a lot different, maybe nine at the most, but 2024 I think looks better. The that’s my personal opinion, you know, no Guggulu turtle information for that, or, and I’m not an economist, so. But so what I’ve been doing is trying to, you know, is focusing on what we can do to innovate, what are projects we can do internally, that help move the bar forward, once we pull out of this, and helping come up with ideas, or finding other ideas within Google that I can have people help with to have impact for you know, if there’s a low and making sure people have challenging work, that is motivating, so they stay on the team, stay engaged, and keep keep working. moving forward. And that’s something that, you know, I can do, because I have a little bit who haven’t been here a while, I have more contacts around the company, as colleagues of mine have moved around the organization and spread out. So that’s something I can do to help them. So that’s one of the things we’re facing right now. And I think that’s short term. But keeping everyone engaged and motivated this year, I mean, you know, obviously, Google has done layoffs. And that has, you know, not something we’ve done regularly before. So that is, you know, affected people’s sense of job security. Now, and so
Will Bachman 45:42
it’s kind of an interesting product that you work on, because Google, I guess, designs it, but you don’t actually manufacture and sell them yourself. Right? So just how does that work of inter interacting with the manufacturers when you’re doing the design?
Neil Hendin 45:58
So that is another that’s a very astute observation that many people don’t, don’t, don’t pick up on, well done the. So in our case, we’re, we have a couple of different interactive models, we work with our partners. So we work with the OEMs. These are the companies you’ve heard of the Dells, HP, Lenovo, Acer, a su Samsung, and a few and LG and a few others as well. And their manufacturing partners, these are called OEMs, who do the manufacturing, most of the laptop OEMs, with one or two exceptions, do not own their own factories, they contract out that some of the design and manufacture the detailed design and manufacturing work to these third parties. So and these are big companies, often based in Taiwan, with factories in China. And that, you know, without getting into the geopolitics of it, that gives a Taiwan gives easy access to us engineering teams, but they also have access to, you know, China’s resources for factory high volume manufacturing, and they have factories in various parts of China, with the end their engineering offices, typically in Taiwan. And I have a team of about 28 people to 22 people on my team are actually based in the Taipei office. That’s our single biggest non US site, although we have people in multiple us locations, and to engineers in Sydney, Australia. So it’s we work with the oh, these OEMs these manufacturing companies to we will design what we call a reference design. And we are tweaking this model to make sure it stays agile and cost effective in the current landscape. But that’s a whole other our discussion, the and we will work with these OEMs to build that as a prototype, and a lead OEM let’s say it’s Dell or HP or Lenovo, or Acer to implement a lead lead product on one of those at that same ODM and we will then take the learnings from that build and with the right you know, with the approvals in the right business negotiation, we, we take our references and we can share it with another OEM. So you can have a Dell product and or Lenovo or Acer product and an HP that all stemmed from the same reference design. But each has their own special sauce to make the HP product and cuppies and the Dell product Dells and the Acer product, Acers and so on. So it’s um, but all the design, the core design, and all of the software comes from the criminalist team at Google, such that it’s secure. And we have hardware security to validate that every Chromebook is running Google official software when you turn it on. And it’s checked at every boot up to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with as part of our security and virus protection, and so on. So we it’s this partnership where we really need to go very closely with work with our OEM partners and our manufacturing partners, as a three way partnership to help make sure that they’re designing what they need. And as it happens, my personally, my my manager is based in Taiwan actually has, his name is Jason. He has excellent relationships, all of the partners in the entire PC ecosystem, which is largely largely centered around Taiwan, because of the engineering and manufacturing kind of confluence that happens there. So that helps a lot in knowing where the market is going. So it helps us to, I believe the expression to skate where the puck is going. Yeah. So that has been helpful and He and I have a great working relationship. I actually just rescheduled an upcoming trip or made sure that I’d be here when he was coming to visit later this month or later in August.
Will Bachman 50:14
So let’s turn back the clock to your days at Harvard is question we asked it to close of every episode. Tell me about any courses or professors that you had at Harvard that still resonate that are either personally or professionally, you know, you continue to think about
Neil Hendin 50:33
that. That is? That’s a good question. And fortunately, I can. I think one that’s pretty, pretty easy for me to answer the, you know, as a as an electrical engineer. I’ve often been asked, usually job interviews, why did you go to Harvard. So I’m one of the few Harvard graduates had to defend going to Harvard. This is true, someone actually challenged me in a job interview. Many years ago, the but the engineering department was relatively small. There were about 33 of us, studying electrical engineering or engineering sciences, either in the Bachelors of Science in Electrical Engineering Program, or in the one I went with the Bachelor of Arts, in engineering sciences, but it meant that by sophomore year, most of the faculty knew who I was by first name, and I knew who they were and what they taught, and so on. So that really encouraged a good relationship. And I would say, quite, there were two professors in particular, the first being Alfred Fantasio, or Alpena co lead, the was a instructor in the electrical engineering field. He did not he was not a research professor. So his, his job was to run the undergraduate labs for electronics and mechanical engineering, for electrical, mechanical engineering, and all of the undergraduate instructional facilities for the other faculty members who may have had their own research labs as well. And he wound up being my supervisor when I worked for the University. And I was a teaching assistant or Teaching Fellow for his basic digital electronics class is analog electronics class, as well as the junior and senior project base classes, which are actually run by other faculty members. So I would say him, he was a mentor, a friend, an instructor, and a really, really, really genuinely nice person. And I have nothing but fond memories of him, he’s, uh, he’s retired. I believe he’s still around the, and that was, that was probably one of the standards. The other one was a professor of electromagnetics. And which is a field that is directly relevant to my radio engineering, by the name of Victor Jones, or RV Jones. He goes by his middle name. And he taught the electromagnetics class a class in optical communication as well, which I took largely because that was I like his teaching style. And he also was my master’s thesis advisor, which was on the subject of cellular communications. So I basically taught him cellular communications by writing a seminar for my master’s thesis in personal communication systems, as it was called back then, the, and he had the interesting history of working out here in Silicon Valley, for Shockley, semiconductor. And Shockley was the one of the inventors of the bipolar transistor, the silicon transistor, that helped transition us out of the vacuum tube era. And their headquarters were actually in my current hometown of Mountain View, California. And he, I mean, he was I think he could have used some of Google’s management training from what I’ve read later, he had some interesting politics and management processes. But Vic, Vic Jones would tell stories about his time out here, and I was, you know, I didn’t I knew was in California, but didn’t know. And so I didn’t know exactly where until I happened to drive past and see the historical plaque, literally, in the town, you know, down the road from where there’s now a movie right across the street, and it’s now a movie maker movie theater in the area. And they have a little exhibit outside. But I would say those two, and that would not have had that had the engineering department been, you know, 10x larger, I would not have had that multi year relationship with some of the same faculty members, if the department was much bigger. So for that, you know, that was a good mix for doing engineering at Harvard. And, you know, as opposed to say, another school with more traditional No engineering focus.
Will Bachman 55:01
Kneel for listeners who would like to follow up with you or track what you’re doing. Where’s the best place to find you online?
Neil Hendin 55:11
Either LinkedIn, or my email address is my first name dot last name at Gmail. Fair enough. I keep in touch with several of my classmates. So one of them my friend Andy Cohen yesterday and and I saw two others on Wednesday, but I had to buy tickets because I saw Pink Martini in concert in the NAM winery here in Saratoga. So I don’t know if they’re on your interview list, but they I will definitely be keeping an eye out for for the Thomas Lauderdale or China, Forbes one.
Will Bachman 55:47
Friends of China and Thomas Lauderdale. Let them know, invitation is open to be on the show. Neil, this was a great discussion. So cool. Bernie was fun. And it was great speaking with you and listeners if you go to 92 report.com you can find the entire transcript of this episode and sign up for a newsletter. I’ll let you know about each episode as it comes out. Thanks for listening