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Jeong Kim
Jeong Kim
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Jeong Kim Interview (page: 3 / 6)

President Emeritus of Bell Labs

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  Jeong Kim

How did you first develop an idea of what you wanted to do with your life? How did you become interested in science and engineering?

Jeong Kim: When you have difficulty with English, which was natural, you have to concentrate on the things where you are not as handicapped, which was math and science. I'm not sure I was talented in the field, but those were the areas I studied more.

Because my English was so poor, my high school administrator actually got me to take an IQ test. After administering the IQ test, the psychologist -- I cannot quite remember whether it was him or the administrator -- told me generally how it came out, and he thought that I was much better at analyzing things, and my comprehension ability was very, very high, but not necessarily as good on things like memory and those sort of nature. You know, I kind of wonder whether the memory had anything to do with lack of sleep, but I didn't score as high there so I said, "Okay, I shouldn't become a doctor. A physician requires a lot of memorization. I can't be a lawyer; I can't talk. So, what can I become? I can become either a physicist or engineer." So I basically decided that that's what I want to do.

This was in 1978, when the same math teacher introduced me to computers, and...

I saw what Steve Wozniak was doing at that time, the development of Apple Computers, and I was really fascinated by it. As a matter of fact, I thought that will change the world, and I wanted to build my own computer. I wasn't sure that I could, but I was really fascinated and dreamed of doing something like that. But you know, I didn't have time to do anything, I just dreamed. But when I went to college, you know, for those things you've got a lot more time, because I got a scholarship. So, I didn't have immediate worry as far as feeding myself.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Where did you go to college?

Jeong Kim: Johns Hopkins University.

I spent all my time building my own computer, designing and building. And then, in the process, I learned through my faculty advisor that there was this new start-up company called Digitus. It was started by a guy who just created it from Johns Hopkins, and a professor, and a couple of other people. And, I joined that company and became a part owner right away and became a partner because at that point in time the computer was all new, and the fact that I was young didn't really matter. I'm a reasonably quick learner, and I had enough patience to become an engineer and contribute positively. So, I worked as a design engineer. That company did extremely well.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

I joined the Navy in 1982, while I was in school, and then became an officer when I graduated from college. A lot of people ask me, "Why did you do that?" I mean, I was making so much money there I would be a millionaire, and there was no doubt in my mind that we would have done well. Well, maybe not. I mean, in the sense of -- at the time, it seemed like there was nothing that was going to stop us from becoming incredibly successful, and we thought we could do it better than Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. But, I felt that this country already has given me so much, and I needed to pay back. I did not want to wait until I was 80 years old, or 60 years old to pay back, and that it was better going into the Navy, and gave part of my time -- my prime time of my life -- serving this country. So, I spent seven years in the nuclear submarine service.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Jeong Kim Interview Photo
After I left, IBM came out with their PC, and there was a major consolidation. All the other computer companies went bankrupt. We plugged all the money we had into the company. Personally, I plugged in all the money that I had earned as a Navy officer in the submarine service. All my paycheck went into the company just to keep it running. That was a mistake. We made a lot of mistakes in that company. Maybe it was a good thing, because I learned a few lessons about cash flow and so on.

So I said to myself, "When I get out of the Navy, I'm going to do it again, but I'm going to do it right." In the Navy, you alternate sea duty, shore duty, sea duty. So when I was doing my shore duty in Washington, D.C., I decided to get a degree in management, because that was something I lacked. I got a masters degree in technical management from Johns Hopkins, but I didn't learn anything there. That program was designed for people to become middle level managers in a big company; it was not really designed for entrepreneurs. But I did manage to get a degree. Then, when I got out of the Navy in '89, I still felt I was not well equipped to start a company. So instead of starting the company right away, I decided to go work for Allied Signal. I worked at the naval research lab doing satellite systems development. One thing nice about working there is that satellites use state-of-the-art communications and computer devices, so I was able to catch up on the computer and communications technologies. At the same time, I also decided to finish my education, not necessarily to get the degree, but to get the education. It's such an efficient way of absorbing information because somebody prepares it for you, and you just sit there and listen. So I got my Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in 1991 and I felt I was all ready.

What degree was it?

Jeong Kim Interview Photo
Jeong Kim: It was a Ph.D. in reliability engineering. In satellite systems, we are quite concerned about the reliability and longevity of a payload, and I was responsible making sure the design was as reliable as it could be. I was interested in electronic reliability and network reliability, that's the field I studied. It was something I had to learn anyway, even if I didn't get the degree.

You've said you weren't the smartest, but you worked hard.

Jeong Kim: That's true. I wasn't number one in my class. I've taken a theoretical math course and there were times I really struggled to understand it. The kid next to me understood it so easily, I saw the limitation of my brainpower in that particular field. So I know there are a lot of people smarter than me, but I have my other strengths, so I'm not threatened by it. There's always somebody who's smarter than you. When you are dealing with very difficult problems, there are people who can solve the problems better than I can, and that's been true throughout my entire life. So I try to work a little harder. The important thing is to get results, get the object accomplished. There are many ways to do it: one's pure force, one's being smart, one's being lucky.

I never felt I was lucky. I never felt that I was the smartest, but working hard is something that I could do. And I think one thing that I am capable of is -- somehow -- my body has pretty good endurance. I can just work day and night and maintain the concentration. And, I've never met anybody who can work as long and reach the same level of concentration without getting burned out. So, that's an ability I guess, that I have.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Are you familiar with the Aesop fable of the tortoise and the hare? Just keep going and going, and you can win the race.

Jeong Kim: I'm not even trying to win the race. I'm just trying to add some positive value to myself, to my family, and to society. That's what I care about. I don't think in terms of end games and I don't think in terms of specific goals. I just try to accomplish certain things, and when it's done, I try to take the next step, one step at a time.

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This page last revised on Apr 21, 2014 16:52 EST
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