Chandrakant Patel is a storied inventor with 151 patents to his name, a pioneer in thermal and energy management, and a visionary when it comes to the application of IT for sustainable growth. He is also HP’s Chief Engineer, a legendary mentor, and an HP Senior Fellow, an IEEE Fellow (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), an ASME Fellow (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) and an inductee of the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame. We spoke recently to the 30-year veteran of HP about the current state of innovation in Silicon Valley and how his office is helping support HP product development.
There was a lot to talk about, so we’ve broken the conversation into two parts. This first post explores the role of Chief Engineer and how it impacts both HP Inc. as a whole and HP Labs, where Patel is based. Next time, we’ll look at a project that’s a big focus for the Chief Engineer’s office right now: growing technical communities within the company to speed multi-disciplinary innovation.
HP: Let’s begin with the context you are working within. How have you seen Silicon Valley change over the years – and what are the major trends that you are keeping an eye on?
I’ve been in the valley for 34 years now, and I’ve seen it change from a place where we had a sequential product development life cycle to one where continuous integration / continuous development is king. That really came out of the software side, but as a mechanical engineer I always wondered, could this be done in hardware? And then came Tesla, which I see as a prime example of a modern, cyber-physical, continuous integration/continuous development company. That’s one major trend that is here and not going away.
At the same time, the Valley is buffeted by the same social, economic, and ecological forces that impact the rest of the planet. Among the things to watch are an increasing global population undergoing rapid urbanization, climate change, and conflicts that are moving people in very large numbers across national boundaries, often as refugees. Together, these suggest that as a company we need to be working on systemic innovations that operate at the crossroads of people and planet while also earning us a profit. To put that in terms of products, you can’t just sell a sensor anymore, for example. You have to sell an end-to-end solution that features that sensor and solves a significant problem that people have. And the sale to the customer has to be based on the value that that customer finds in your solution.
HP: So how does that impact your role as Chief Engineer?
I like to use a maritime analogy. Imagine a ship with the bridge on top looking out to sea and a large engine room below. On the bridge, we are constantly looking at the trends: social, technical, political, economic, ecological. And in light of the trends we see, we set our course, which for us means working on systemic innovations that make life better for everyone, everywhere, and make money as we do it. Just take healthcare as an example. With aging populations in many regions of the world, we need to build out infrastructures that allow us to scale the supply of healthcare far beyond where it is now.
So how do we create technologies that offer an amplification effect and improve human productivity? These technologies, to continue the analogy, get developed in the engine room. And crucially, given the world we live in, the teams that create them will inevitably be multi-disciplinary. So we need to find ways to harness the power of our multi-disciplinary engine room – our chemists, material scientists, chemical and electrical engineers and so on – to create the multi-disciplinary solutions that we have identified on the bridge. The Chief Engineer’s role, then, is to link the two spaces. So I’m connecting the needs that we identify to the solutions we develop and constantly working on figuring out how we can do that better.