Some candidates decide whether to take a job based on its title or compensation, the nature of the work, or perhaps whether the organization is big or small.
Brian Holloway, head of the Deep Science Fund at Intellectual Ventures has a unique rubric: does it look like fun, will his wife be on board with the idea, is there Ultimate Frisbee in the area, and is there a horse stable within commuting distance.
“That really is about it,” he said. Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash.-based company that researches, patents, incubates and commercializes innovative ideas and companies, ticked all four boxes. Two years ago, Holloway took the job at the company founded and led by Nathan Myhrvold.
“I run a technology development fund focused on starting new companies from high risk, high reward science,” Holloway said. “That is, I get to spend my days doing really cool science to try and start companies.”
Holloway’s bio describes his technical expertise as including: “energy generation and distribution, energy storage, alternative energy, composites, manufacturing, nanomaterials, thin film deposition, materials for medical applications, and materials characterization with emphasis on surface analysis.”
It sounds a little incredible until you peruse his CV. After completing a mechanical engineering bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida and a PhD from Stanford University in M.E. and material sciences, Holloway had a brief stint as a legislative fellow for U.S. Sen. John D. Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat.
That was followed by nearly a decade at the College of William and Mary in Virginia as an associate professor. From there he was a director at a startup with a nanotech focus, a program manager at DARPA, and worked for the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research in London (the horse stable and Frisbee requirements were met at Hyde Park). Before coming to Intellectual Ventures, he was chief technologist in the Advanced Technology Lab at Lockheed Martin.
One constant through it all has been his wife, whom he met through a 4-H Club in northern Florida when they were 16. She was a horse enthusiast, he grew up on a cattle farm. When they married, Holloway recalled, his mom called the 4-H extension agent and said, “I know you wanted the horse people and cow people to mingle more, but this is extreme.”
Holloway’s wife has pursued a career working with horses while her husband dives into cutting-edge science.
“The thing I love about this job is I have yet to spend a day on a single topic or single field of science,” Holloway said. “I am scientifically ADD.”
But the depth and breadth of his role means that Holloway has occasionally found himself struggling to wrap his head around a particularly esoteric technology. He’ll call in experts in specific fields and go through rounds of evaluating the potential and merit of a project.
“It’s a process,” Holloway said, that includes asking hard questions about the market, economics, science and financial risk. It can be hard to spike a venture, he admitted. “You get vested in these things emotionally and scientifically.”
But sufficient research reveals the right path. “If you’ve got clarity,” he said, “then the rational decision stares you in the face.”
We caught up with Holloway for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Current location: Bellevue
Computer types: Windows at work, Mac at home
Mobile devices: iPhone X and I’m about to upgrade to an XI. I like having a high-performance phone. I use it so much that the battery in my X is starting to die after less than a day. I think the speed and the calendar are its best features. I love using it as a mobile office. Instead of carrying a date book and a lab book, I can do everything from my phone.
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Let me look! I use a lot of travel apps. Airline apps like United, Delta, and I love Seat Guru; you put in your flight number and it tells you which seats to avoid. I used City Mapper a lot when lived in London to navigate mass transit. Marriott, I’m a lifetime titanium person. Imgur is how I unwind by laughing at funny things like pet videos. I love the solitaire game on Mobilityware. This will sound super nerdy, but I’ve completed their daily challenge every day since Dec. 22, 2013. I use the Nest app; it’s helpful for opening the garage door to let my dog walker in. Or, if there’s a bear in my garage, it will warn me. I also like the Peak Finder app. I live out near Snoqualmie and the app uses augmented reality to tell me the peaks visible from my house and on walks.
I also use the Arlo app with Wi-Fi enabled cameras on my house so my mom can watch our house and backyard. She lives in Florida, so she loves keeping up with the patterns of my life here in the Pacific Northwest: the snow levels, the leaves in the fall, whether or not it’s raining, when the school buses come and go, neighbors on travel. She’ll recount the whole narrative of my neighborhood that happens while I’m at work. It’s great.
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? Functional chaos. I maintain that a creative mind can’t stand a neat place. It works for me because I build up entropy and then clean house. I mentally archive things by date. If I don’t move things, then I’m more efficient at finding stuff. I’m like an archeologist digging through the layers.
When I need to clean house, I’ll take anything on my desk I’m not sure about, seal it up in a box, put the date on it and store it. That way, I know nothing is lost. If a year or two goes by and I haven’t opened the box, I can throw it away. It’s my filing system. One time at a previous employer, I had a security clearance for which I had to complete an annual training. Nine months later, a security officer entered my office and said they didn’t have proof that I had completed the training. I unsealed the box where I thought it might be and produced the certificate.
My office reflects my personality. I’m not a stuffy person nor do I need to be super organized. So, while I may not look like I’m out of GQ, I get stuff done. It’s about quality, not the packaging.
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Be transparent. Be honest. Be ethical. Easy to say, hard to do. What I tell people is that it takes a lifetime to build up a good reputation and two bad decisions in a row to ruin it. Ironically, it’s usually not the mistakes, but the coverup that’s ruinous. You just have to keep going and let transparency, honesty and ethics guide you.
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? Honestly? My most valued social network is an email distribution list for Ultimate Frisbee players around the world over the age of 40. They also have a Facebook page that is interesting and entertaining. It provides stress relief — everyone needs a life. Professionally, I use LinkedIn. I use Facebook to keep up with my neighborhood and community. It can be quite hilarious sometimes.
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? Number of unread emails in my inbox right now is 2,361. I archive my Inbox too. I just leave everything in there.
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 32
How do you run meetings? I tend to run really flat meetings. I firmly believe everybody should be able to speak their mind. A meeting is not for one person to talk. It’s for a team to engage in discourse. I tend to not like monologues. Even if someone is presenting, I’ll start asking questions. I like a lot of back and forth. I do believe in almost all circumstances that a small team will come to a better answer, plan, strategy or decision than one person alone.
Going back to the transparency principle, for the team I manage I like to provide a lot of transparency and get a lot of input. I put everything on the table and lay out the goals of what we need to accomplish and then ask everyone for ideas of how we’re going to attack the problem.
Everyday work uniform? Button down, long sleeve, jeans, Keen hiking boots, belt. That’s pretty much it every day. Being able to wear this uniform is one of the things I love about Intellectual Ventures. I came out of working at places like Lockheed Martin where “business-casual internal-only meetings” meant you could wear a suit and no tie. Uniforms convey a lot of information non-verbally. You know how dogs start to look like their owners? Well, providers start to look like their customers.
I love the information that Intellectual Venture’ “uniform” conveys about our company, which is to say wear what suits you as an individual.
How do you make time for family? Evenings and weekends are for family. We don’t have any kids, but my wife has a time-consuming hobby: horseback riding. So, in that sense, it’s not so much about me making time for my family, it’s about how much time my wife has for me! Between work, the horse and home, there’s just a small window of time before she collapses. Ironically, she gets frustrated if I don’t travel enough because when I travel, she can stay at the barn as long as she wants. There’s no guilt factor with me being alone or waiting to cook dinner.
Laura and I met when I was 16. I kept calling her house morning, noon and night, but she was always at the barn. Her parents were a little conservative, so she wasn’t allowed to call boys back. In order to ask her out on a date, I had to go to the horse stable. And to this day, I hear, “You knew. From day one, you knew.”
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? I either work out in the gym or play Ultimate Frisbee. I play in the Seattle league, and in the open league as well as the men’s over 50 league. Last year, we tied for fifth in the nation for men over the age of 50. I’ve been playing for more than 20 years. I just love the competition and the fact that it’s the only thing I do in life where, when I am playing, all I think about is the game. I find it hard to turn off my brain, so playing Ultimate is like a mental break for me. I find it relaxing.
What are you listening to? I listen to a lot of books on tape. Right now I’m listening to “I Don’t Know Much About History” by Kenneth C. Davis.
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Materials Research Society (MRS) Bulletin, Phys.org, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) website, New York Times, Washington Post
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? Can’t remember the title, but some science fiction thing.
Night owl or early riser? Night owl, for sure.
Where do you get your best ideas? Usually in meetings. At least the initial notion of a good idea usually comes to me when I’m reacting to, interacting with, or extrapolating from, new information. It pushes my thinking. I love that sort of engagement. There’s a material science term called “work hardening” — that’s how you make some metals harder, by pounding on them and folding them over. For me, creativity and ideation with a small group is like mental work hardening.
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? One of the joys of working at Intellectual Ventures is that I get to interact every so often with Bill Gates. Of course, he’s really smart. He’s clearly a polymath, and he can think on several planes at once — from high level vision to topically really deep. It’s truly impressive how he can keep up with the breadth of things he’s working on. I don’t understand how he fits all that into a day, a month or a year.
I’m always intrigued by the thought processes of people who do vastly different things than I do — people like artists or surgeons. I can’t draw worth anything. I love to watch time-lapse videos of people creating art. I wonder if they’re able to do what they do because of learned technique, or they just intuitively know what needs to be done to create the outcome in their head. I’m fascinated by people who view the world differently from me, especially people who are extremely efficient with their thinking — like senators who have just brutal schedules, or military generals who must make important decisions on limited information.