8 Lessons Learned for Tech Firm Leadership with Vint Cerf, Co-Creator of the Internet

Vint Cerf

In the Spring 2022 semester, the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology’s Technology Firm Leadership course taught by Carrie Requist had the distinct honor to host one of the fathers of the Internet, Dr. Vint Cerf for a guest lecture and interactive Q&A with the students. Along with Bob Kahn, Dr. Cerf co-created the Internet’s foundational communication protocols, the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP). Dr. Cerf has received prestigious awards such as the Turing Award, the National Medal of Technology, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics at Stanford University, and following graduation, he worked at IBM as a systems engineer for two years. He then left IBM to attend graduate school at UCLA where he earned his M.S. degree in 1970 and Ph.D. in 1972. 

At UCLA, Dr. Cerf met Bob Kahn, who was working on the ARPANet system architecture at the time. Cerf joined the Stanford Faculty in 1972 where he wrote the first detailed TCP protocol specification with Yogen Dalal and Carl Sunshine, called Specification of Internet Transmission Control Program published in 1974. Cerf worked as an assistant professor at Stanford University from 1972 to 1976 where he researched packet network interconnection protocols and co-designed the TCP/IP protocol suite with Kahn.

By whatever standard, Dr. Cerf’s journey has been monumental and impactful. All of these accomplishments could not have existed without his strong self-discipline and principles of life, which he kindly shared with students during his special lecture at Berkeley. Below is a summary of eight tips for tech firm leadership shared by Dr. Cerf in the lecture.

Tip 1: A big part of leadership is learning to sell your ideas

“Leadership often is about learning to sell ideas, objectives, convincing people that they want to do what you want to do.”

When Dr. Cerf was working on research projects for the defense department in the Defense Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), he had a lot of power to guide projects as the person who was principally in charge of writing checks to fund projects and programs. It was surprising to him, that even with the power of the checkbook, he still had to do a lot of explaining as to why he wanted to get certain work done and why it was important. For Dr. Cerf, great leaders are also great salespeople – both know how to use persuasion for influence.

Tip 2: To do the impossible, first you have to convince other people that it isn’t

In 1983, Dr. Cerf was asked to build a commercial electronic mailing service. The first thing his boss said was: “to do the impossible, first, you have to believe it isn’t.” In this project, for example, Dr. Cerf had to justify the timeline, set reachable targets, and show confidence that the team could succeed.

Insurmountable Opportunity

Dr. Cerf also remarked that one kind of issue that startups often encounter is called “insurmountable opportunity.” In a startup, there are numerous opportunities and possible pathways, so it is essential to not get distracted and focus on the thing you wanted to do at first, until that direction proves to be non-viable, then switch to a different opportunity until you find the right fit.

Impossible Problems

Another kind of issue startups encounter is seemingly insurmountable or impossible problems. The first way to deal with an impossible problem is to believe it isn’t and think it through until you find a solution. Another way to approach an impossible problem involves changing the rules of the game or changing the battlefield. Is there a way you can keep your current direction but approach your problem or product development in a new way?

Another possibility is that the problem is impossible because of certain situational reasons. For example, maybe there is a policy that is making the problem occur that can be changed. 

Sometimes, if you just cannot find a way to make the impossible possible, you might just have to “blast through the damn wall.” Dr. Cerf gives an example of a company that didn’t have enough capacity to meet the demand for a Black Friday sale so all the workers in the company worked non-stop to meet the demand. This isn’t a good way to run a company, but occasionally may be the only way to solve an impossible problem.

Tip 3: Be empathetic with those you are leading

The former president of Stanford and now chairman of Alphabet, John Hennessy, wrote a book called Leading Matters: Lessons from My Journey, where one of the chapters talks about empathy. Empathy is a key to successful leadership. It is vital that you understand the environment and issues of those who work for you so you can be empathetic towards them.

Tip 4: Engineers should be reminded to make something useful so that sales can succeed (and they can succeed too)

A simple principle that Dr. Cerf often communicates to fellow engineers is “if sales guys don’t succeed in selling what engineering makes, the engineers don’t get paid.” So, engineers should make something useful for people, otherwise, sales can’t succeed. And this rule is applicable to everyone – work to create something that is actually useful for people; developing useful features or products should always be your primary focus. 

Dr. Cerf made a deal with marketing when working before, “I won’t make things that you can’t sell, as long as you don’t sell stuff that I can’t make.” This straightforward communication works every time.

Tip 5: Humility is vital for leadership

You don’t know everything so you shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. It is not a sign of weakness to want to learn something, especially from people that report to you. It is absolutely important to be candid and even show some vulnerability. You don’t want people working for you to assume you are always right. People want to be comfortable telling you when work is overloaded. If you give people this impression that you know everything and in the end, your way didn’t work, the entire project will go astray and people will not forgive you for that. 

Tip 6: People that report to you have to be comfortable asking for help

You need to create an environment where people that report to you feel comfortable telling you when they need help. This is crucial because if you have projects where people feel overloaded and are afraid to tell you they can’t meet their targets, you will be too far down the track before you realize you cannot finish on time. If they tell you early enough, then you can do something about it such as changing objectives or extending the time, or solving the obstacle.

Tip 7: Listen, listen, listen

If you have to take away only one thing for leadership, it is to listen, listen, listen. You have to show you are listening, provide feedback, and reflect. For example, Dr. Cerf met weekly with customer service and saw what worked and what didn’t work for customers. Direct feedback is important. Without listening to customers, you can never truly improve your products. 

Tip 8: Experience really counts

Even when you are feeling imposter syndrome and not sure if you belong, remember everybody gets into that situation from time to time, and what you should do is get help, particularly from people more experienced and smarter than you are. 

Q&A with Tech Firm Leadership students and Vint

What do you do not to feel intimidated by people who are so experienced?

Cerf said for him he wants people to feel confident asking him questions and opinions. The last thing he wants is the assumption that people think he is too busy. Even when experienced people are busy, they want people to talk to them. 

After graduation, should students go for things that excite them, or go for things that are less risky and more financially stable?

If you graduate with debt, the first thing you should do is get rid of debt. After that, the most important thing after graduation is to work on something you are good at, you like and enjoy doing, and something you get paid for. Oftentimes, opportunities that show up may not look like opportunities, so planning your entire career does not work. What does work is recognizing opportunities, and it is also good to take reasonable risks early on in one’s career. 

How can we live a happy life?

The key to living a happy life is doing something meaningful and productive. If you are stuck doing something that you do not enjoy or do not have a purpose, it will be hard to stay happy. Surround yourself with optimistic people and be optimistic yourself. Cerf’s mindset is: “If someone says something that makes me feel bad, they win. And I don’t want them to win; I want to win. So, I want to stay happy no matter what other people say.“

What advice do you have for newly graduating students who are afraid of making the wrong decision after graduation?

People are happiest at work when they are learning. Try something new, and ask a lot of questions of those around you, because that means what they do is important to you. 

Be aware of opportunities and help create opportunities for others. Don’t imagine you must plan your career step by step. You should make a choice eventually. For young people, it is ok to pick something that doesn’t work out. When you’re young, feel free to try many things, because there is plenty of room for adjustment. 

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Full talk by Dr. Cerf at SCET