Tech icon Judy Estrin spoke to Berkeley students on the importance of company culture and the evolution of Silicon Valley


December 5, 2017

Students in the A. Richard Newton Lecture Series attended a fireside chat with the iconic Judy Estrin. Known for contribution to the development of Transmission Control Protocol — a system that is critical for the networking in the internet to happen — Estrin has founded multiple companies, served on the board of directors for the likes of KQED and Disney, and held the position of Chief Technology Officer for Cisco. During her talk, Estrin emphasized the importance of having strong leadership skills in order to inform company culture as well as commented on the evolution of Silicon Valley at large.

When most 16-year-olds were grappling with the basic concepts of geometry, Judy Estrin was already entering her freshman year at UCLA. After graduating from undergrad, Estrin would go on to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford. And after that, Estrin — who was then in her early 20s — would move on to become one of the key players the development of the internet.

Needless to say, Estrin is an early pioneer and champion of technology as we know it today. With decades of experience in entrepreneurship and innovation under her belt, Estrin spent much of her fireside chat during the A.Richard Newton Lecture Series discussing her leadership philosophy and the importance of cultivating an environment conducive to innovation.

When Estrin first entered the workforce, she had never thought of herself as a leader. Instead, she considered herself more “people-centered.” But as her career progressed and as she was given more responsibility as a manager and then as a founder, Estrin learned the value of not only being a leader, but also the importance of continually developing her leadership skills.

For example, while she was CTO of Cisco, Estrin was managing a company with thousands of employees as well as entering an established company culture that was foreign to her. Instead of tightening the reins, Estrin realized that she could not control every aspect of her workforce and instead needed to learn to how to influence people in a more indirect way.

The awareness Estrin carried in her leadership tactics has served her well in her career, especially with regards to the insights it’s offered in cultivating an environment conducive to innovation.

According to Estrin, creating a diverse and collaborative environment may be a daunting task, however, it’s critical to driving a truly productive work environment. In fact, Estrin has boiled down the key factors needed to achieve a truly innovative and successful company culture to almost a science. The key principles that drive innovation in an organization are curiosity, willingness to take risks, openness to collaboration and feedback, patience, and trust among employees. For Estrin, a company can’t pick one principle over another. All five need to be present for innovation to occur.

As the talk came to a close, Estrin commented on the culture of Silicon Valley now as opposed to it in the late 70s, when she first came onto the tech scene. What she said is still the same is the plethora of passionate, smart people motivated to create. A key difference: the Valley’s current focus on money as opposed to collaboration. Estrin emphasized that this “rat race to be the biggest and best” has become a detriment to the tech world.

“This focus on money comes at the cost of solving problems that need to be solved,” Estrin said. “Now it’s all about being the next unicorn or celebrity CEO. It’s a rat race of needing to be the biggest and best.”