Whiting: Ladder-climbing tips from Starfleet captains
- January 12, 2013
By David Whiting
The first generation of geeks took over the universe. Now they mentor.
And that's pretty cool.
Tony Wong, who played varsity tennis in high school but was teased because the sport wasn't considered "manly," leaps over a row of chairs at a CHOC Follies rehearsal for charity.
After a successful digital career, Wong retired in his 40s. During a breather, Wong explains he's spending his time exploring. His favorite adventure so far?
Wong, raised in Silicon Valley, tells me he's thinking about writing a book revealing his secrets to climbing the corporate ladder.
That was two years ago. Flash forward. I examine an email. Wong has sent a draft of his book. Of course, there are versions for mobile, Kindle, you name it.
The book offers secrets about secrets – including the thorny issue of culture clash.
• • •
Wong was born in Macau, a tiny island a bridge away from China's mainland. When Wong was a boy, Macau wasn't the gambling mecca it is today. His father was a laborer.
In the mid-1960s, the family immigrated to San Francisco's Chinatown with nothing but a few suitcases and $200. Dad had three jobs. Wong, his mother and his twin brothers helped at night scrubbing floors.
Little by little, the family saved enough to move and start a chrysanthemum-growing business in what was farm country. But the land was changing. Instead of flowers, buildings were sprouting with such names as National Semiconductor, Epson, Apple.
For a kid who would grow up to quote Star Trek episodes, it was heaven – geek heaven.
Leaning forward in the kitchen of his Santa Ana home, Wong reels off a list of things he could find in local shops, things available almost nowhere else.
Things I haven't a clue about.
Saving money from working at the local Foster's Freeze, Wong bought computer parts such as breadboards so he could design solderless circuits.
With the enthusiasm of someone who worked in a chocolate factory, Wong lists his series of jobs during and after high school. He was a "fab worker" – which I learn is someone who fabricates computer chips.
His next job?
Wong spreads out his arms and exclaims, "I made wiring for Boogie amps!"
"You know, Santana used them."
Ah yes, I know the music. But I never paid attention to the intricacies of electrical gear – dumb.
• • •
Wong's book is called "Mooove Ahead! of the Corporate Herd" and is scattered with cow analogies.
Geeky? Perhaps. But his points are useful. Consider this anecdote from his days at San Jose City College:
"Every morning I saw this young man practicing when I walked to class and four hours later when I walked back to my car. Every day, this person would throw javelins, run sprints, toss discus, high jump, pole vault.
"I remember thinking, 'What is that guy working so hard for? Can he make a living in track and field? Maybe he should get a degree in electronics (like me) so he has a chance to make a living?'
"A couple of years later, 1976 to be precise, I learned that person I had seen practicing was Bruce Jenner."
• • •
Earning his bachelor's degree from Cal State East Bay and then his master's in business administration from San Jose State, Wong focused first on engineering then on marketing.
In 1985, Wong was hired by Hewlett-Packard. Two years later, he was wooed by Apple. By the time Apple hit bottom in the mid-1990s, he'd joined Sun Microsystems.
But with a wife and two daughters, Wong realized there was more to life than computers. He left the digital world to spend his savings on something he couldn't buy – time.
Wong elaborates, "How do you put a price on freedom?" Answering his question, he says, "Time is more valuable than the extra dollar."
He decided to give back by sharing what he learned climbing the corporate ladder. He also decided to donate proceeds from the book to charity. Then he decided to test his theories.
He applied to three companies in the midst of the recession. And he received three job offers.
One position was so cool, he couldn't turn it down. Today, Wong sheepishly admits he's back in the working world, this time helping 3M with innovation.
But Wong isn't sheepish talking about two of his role models for effective management – Star Trek captains Jean-Luc Picard and Katherine Janeway.
Wong explains the characters embodied the new style of management that emerged in the 1980s. It was less top-down, more collaborative, more encouraging.
In his book Wong also writes about the importance of confidence and perseverance: "It didn't matter if Jean-Luc and the crew of the USS Enterprise were in peril or not, Jean-Luc was calm, cool, and positive. He never got too excited nor was he negative. He kept an even keel. He never stopped searching for a solution to a problem."
Yes, positive energy is a powerful force. And Wong also tackles the corporate world's negative aspects.
• • •
Wong admits in his book, "I seriously thought about using a pen name that was more 'American.' ... If you're not a minority, you probably don't truly understand how powerful perception and stereotype is."
I debate his statement in what becomes a lengthy and nuanced conversation. Wong tells the story in his book of an HR manager who "did not want to forward my résumé to the hiring VP because the HR manager did not believe an Asian person could have the interpersonal skills necessary to interact effectively with the mostly Caucasian customer base."
Point taken. Wong advises to keep your culture, but also to work to fit in. "Make the stereotypes work for you, not against you."
Wong shares a joke. "How do you know an Asian has burglarized your house?"
"Your shoes are straight. Your computer's fixed. And your homework is done."
We share a laugh. And I add: Sounds like a geek heist.