Jeanette Symons, CTO, Ascend Communications
Our special guest today is Jeanette
Symons, chief technical officer of Ascend Communications.
Once responsible for all of her company's technology research
and development, Jeanette now oversees a large group of
engineers as CTO. As a founding member of the company,
she is responsible for continuing innovations in wide
area network technology. After receiving her degree in
systems engineering at UCLA, Jeanette worked as a software
engineer and later at Hayes Microcomputer developing and
managing research for modem technology. She is an accomplished
pilot, often flying her Lear jet around the country to
conferences and speaking engagements.
Moderator: We are so glad to have you with us
Jeanette: Thanks a
lot. I'm glad to be here.
Moderator: To start off please
tell us how did you and your co-founders come up with
the idea for Ascend Communications?
Jeanette: About 10
years ago, four of us were working for another company.
We decided that we wanted to see what it was like to build
a company of our own. We really had no idea what it would
be like to grow a company, and had no idea what we were
in for. Even though everyone wanted it to be successful,
we didn't know what it would grow to. Over time, the company
grew one phase at a time. We more or less just grew with
it. Sounds overly simple, but believe it or not, that
was really how it happened.
Moderator: Did you encounter
any hurdles at the start or was it pretty much smooth
sailing (for all our young entrepreneurs out there)?
Jeanette: I don't
think building a company is ever smooth sailing... At
the time, everything seems like a major hurdle... However,
over time, the history changes itself and in hindsight,
it was all smooth sailing.
Moderator: I like that Jeanette, "history changes
guest-Debbie says: What prompted
you to get involved in the world of technology?
Jeanette: I started
in technology mostly by accident. My older brother was
a programmer (Computer Science), and he offered me a summer
job. It came pretty naturally, and it just ended up as
a career... I wish I could tell you that there was some
grand plan as a kid to get into technology, but it wasn't
Moderator: lol Jeanette I hear you ...I changed
from med school to Comps by accident too.
guest-GG-Sumi asks: When did
you learn to fly a learn jet?
Jeanette: I've been
flying my own planes for about five years now. But I wanted
to be able to fly myself around on business. I travel
for business about half of the time.
Moderator: Saves time of course.
Jeanette: So, I started
learning how to fly faster airplanes - it takes about
1,000 hours of flying time to get a license to fly a jet.
I actually have a cute little CitationJet now that gets
me all over the place. My plane is a little slower than
a typical commercial plane (around 0.65 mach if that means
anything). But, I get to fly it by myself without a co-pilot.
There is no better way to get around.
Moderator: Jeanette, frequent flyer miles don't
mean a thing to you.
Jeanette: Sorry, but
if you come as a passenger on my plane, I'll let you fly
the plane (co-pilot), but no frequent flyer mile programs!
guest-LisaRa asks: Jeanette,
What is the most exciting part of your job?
Jeanette: I used to
think the best part of my job was actually building products
in a lab... But, as time went on, I now believe that the
best part of the job is delivering something to customers
that solves their problems... The closer you get to customers
in a business, the better the feedback and the more you
feel like you are accomplishing things...
Moderator: True Jeanette the old techie vs.
guest-Solar says: What's the farthest place
you've had to fly to?
Jeanette: As far as
flying, I fly all over North America...Around twice a
month I do a coast-to-coast trip...I live in San Francisco,
and fly a lot to the Boston area... I can fly my plane
to Europe for meetings over there... But, flying to Asia
is too far. I have to take commercial there (yuck).
guest-Rice-er-Roni asks: What
advice would you give to a person who has a passion about
a sport, craft, or hobby, like you did with flying, and
how to get started on translating that into a business?...
and as a second question, is it still a fun hobby now
that it's a business for you?
Good question... My main business (building computer communications
equipment) isn't really a hobby at all... I definitely
enjoy doing it, but it has always been more of a career
than a hobby... I have thought a lot about how to turn
something I enjoy doing into a business, but have never
done it... For example, the flying is a great hobby, but
it is separate from the main line of my business... I've
been able to tie together the flying with my business
in that I can fly to where I go, but it isn't really the
business. So, I guess the best answer I can give you is...
Really ask yourself what the "business is" in the hobby...
Jeanette: If there
isn't a clear way that it can turn into a profitable business,
then maybe the best thing to do is to leave it as a hobby
and let your business support it!
guest-hyperdyper asks: Jeanette,
what is the most interesting invention Ascend Comm. has
made? And how might it help in the years to come....
Jeanette: The biggest
thing that Ascend did was, in some very fundamental ways,
tie the Telephone Network with the Internet.
Jeanette: It seems
really simple, but by tying the two together (initially
with dial-up access to the internet), all sorts of other
applications are going to come along.
Jeanette: If you dial
into the Internet today, the modem on the other end of
the line is almost guaranteed to be built by Ascend. We
do a lot of the pieces inside of the network.
guest-Jill5555 says: I heard that you were participating
in the Tahoe Death March?
you hear about the DeathRide? Yeah... Every year, we go
out and try to complete 5 passes... Gotta have fun, right?
guest-Jill5555 says: I saw it in the newspaper.
What's five passes?
Jeanette: The death
ride is a bicycle ride in the Sierras that goes up and
down five mountain passes, climbing about 16,000 feet
and covering about 130 miles. It is a killer bike ride
that is mid-July in the mountains!
guest-Jill5555 says: Wow! that's really amazing!
guest-Solar asks: Has
your career affected your family life?
Jeanette: Good question.
I have really had a career all along since I was just
out of school, so it isn't so much that it has effected
my family life as that is has always been a part of it.
guest-Solar says: Do you feel
that it is easier today for women to balance career/parenting?
Jeanette: I don't
have any kids at this point (much to my mother's disappointment),
so I can't speak first-handed in how to balance the two.
I don't think it is ever easy to balance everything you
want...but what else can we do but try!
Moderator: And I must say you try very well
and win too, Jeanette.
guest-TheKid asks: How did
you figure area networks were going to be "the thing"
everyone wanted/needed (i.e. companies, homes with multiple
Jeanette: I wish I
could say that we had a vision of what was going to be
needed and just did it... But, it didn't happen quite
that way... We were building other products (video conferencing
stuff and ISDN stuff), and ran into a guy that started
a company called PSI that was building the Internet...
He wanted to grow dial-up access because he thought he
could get to consumers, but didn't have a way to do it...
We tripped on him at the right time, and listened to what
he said... It made sense, so we took a risk and built
what was later called a "digital modem"... We pushed the
idea on other people after that. Groups that you probably
all know today: UUNET, Microsoft Network, AOL, and others.
It just took off one step at a time from there...
Moderator: Yes ...when you find a gap and have
an idea to fill in ...it always works.
guest-Solar says: What are
your future goals?
Jeanette: Goals are
a tough one, no matter where you are in life... It seemed
easier when I was starting out because I could make up
huge goals and not worry about what to do next... The
more we accomplish, the harder it becomes... My goals
right now are really all over the board... I'd like to
start a new company and grow it again... I think the best
part of a company is the large number of people that you
can make successful...I'd like to do that even more than
we did at Ascend... At Ascend, we ended up with more than
a couple hundred millionaires... And lots of people that
were able to put away a nest egg that they wouldn't otherwise
have... That feels really good to see... On the personal
side, I'm still figuring out what my goals are... I think
I'm as confused as the rest of you!
Moderator: Awww J, well you have a major part
of it figured out at least.
guest-LisaRa asks: What advice
would you give to women just starting out in the industry?
Jeanette: I get asked
quite a bit "why aren't more women successful?"... I think
it comes down to being willing to make your own decisions
and take some risk... Many of the women you start out
in a career do it very passively...
guest-LisaRa says: I wonder why that is?
Jeanette: They wait
to see "who is going to take care of them"...while the
men tend to be more aggressive and risk-taking... The
key is thinking for yourself... If you do that, then the
rest will all fall in place!
guest-GG-Sumi asks: Jeanette,
who are/have been your role models?
Jeanette: It's funny
you should ask about role models, it's something I was
talking with some friends about recently... It's tough
to find role models that really apply directly to me...
I'm sure a lot of people have the same problem...
guest-GG-Kristine says: Definitely.
Jeanette: When I look
at a lot of the people that I work with or run into in
business, there are just too many differences between
myself and them to consider them role models... Unfortunately
(or fortunately), I think we each have to set up for ourselves
in some way... Maybe that is actually better though...
we'll shoot for an ideal instead of someone else... right?
Moderator: True ...the most successful ones
listen to themselves first...have learned to follow their
needs and take risks...make choices and live with it too.
guest-Debbie says: I think of people more as
"mentors" than role models I think.
Jeanette: That's a
really good point, Debbie...I've definitely had people
in my life that have mentored me and helped me grow through
Moderator: That step up and support system really
guest-Liza740 asks: What is
the best business advice you ever received?
Jeanette: I think
the best business advice I ever received was probably
to LISTEN -Sounds stupid - but as we grow a company, it
is really easy to begin to believe that you know best...
The most important thing to remember is that all sorts
of people and other companies know more about what they
do than you do... Gotta listen to everyone....
guest-TheKid says: What's
going to happen to Ascend Comm. now that it's merging
with Lucent Technologies?
Jeanette: The merger
closed late last week...It is a really good thing for
all of the stockholders and the majority of the employees...Lucent
is very committed to keeping Ascend running as it has
for the last 10 years. As far as me personally, I will
be helping Lucent over the next few months ensure a smooth
guest-pecos asks: Did the
merger make you wealthy, Jeanette?
that, I'm sure that you'll find me along with a few others
starting a new company! Most people want to believe that
the merger made me a lot of money... However, in reality,
it didn't make any money for me beyond what I had already
earned as a part of Ascend... So, I have made quite a
bit through Ascend... the merger really affected the stockholders
over the long run more than it did me....
guest-Solar says: How do you
feel the education system needs to change in order to
promote young women's interests in technology?
Jeanette: I wish I
had answers to the big social questions like how education
can and should change... I really don't know how to address
the big picture problems.. At an individual level, all
we can do is work to expose girls to things, to let them
know one-on-one what they can accomplish....
Moderator: Parental involvement J...that's needed
...and to show girls that math is really cool and science
guest-Solar asks: What was
the extent of your tech education?
Jeanette: I have a
BS from UCLA.
guest-tinydancer says: Jeanette,
what would you suggest to younger women who want to get
into the technology field to do to start?
Jeanette: Just about
any strong high-tech company is a good starting place.
It comes down to how you take advantage of the situation
put in front of you. It won't happen overnight, but the
key is in not sitting back and waiting to see what happens
next. Make things happen. Wherever you are. I think it
is that simple!
guest-tinydancer says: Go out and get what you
Jeanette: You got
guest-GG-Sumi says: Jeanette,
what will your next venture look like? or are you keeping
that a secret?
really premature too speculate on what the next venture
will look like... About all I can ensure you of is that
it will be something different than what's been out there
so far... Gotta keep changing things, right?
Moderator: Oh that's great J. Yes, change is
guest-GG-Kristine says: We know whatever you
do will succeed!
It never gets easier! Stay tuned....
Moderator: Unfortunately we
are almost out of time. Jeanette do you have any closing
comments or parting advice for us today?
Jeanette: Thanks for
taking the time to ask questions...It seems that everyone
wants to make things happen... Just go for it... There's
always more to lose from not trying than from giving it
a shot. Good luck!
guest-GG-Sumi says: : Thanks for joining the
chat, Jeanette. . . YOU ROCK!
Moderator: A special Thank You to Jeanette Symons
for chatting with us!