Reflections on Douglas Engelbart and His Influence on SRI Today


When I joined SRI International nearly 15 years ago, one man stood at the top of my people-to-meet list. He was a soft-spoken, friendly, sometimes stubborn man with big ideas on how to make the world a better place. Through the years, I was lucky not only to have many thought-provoking conversations with him, but also to form a valuable friendship that has taught me important life lessons.

Doug Engelbart and his ideas have touched people inside and outside of technology for decades. He was so convincing and inspirational—his thinking was truly far ahead of his time. His famous 1968 demo of interactive computing changed the world of computing forever in just one hour. While it may have looked like magic, the technology Doug and his team debuted that day at the Fall Joint Computer Conference in San Francisco was the combination of vision and a very special way of working together.

SRI CEO Curt Carlson congratulates Douglas Engelbart on winning the National
Medal of Technology (photo taken on December 20, 2000).

Doug and his team at SRI’s Augmentation Research Center (ARC) are models for everyone at SRI today. They rapidly and continuously iterated their ideas and tools, focused on the end user and the big problem they were trying to solve, and tapped into the multidisciplinary genius of the team. Although their work proved to be the foundation of personal computing and aspects of the Internet (President Clinton honored Doug with the National Medal of Technology), Doug’s ideas were not really about technology, per se. Rather, his goal was to improve collaboration and the way people work together to solve the toughest, most important societal problems.

Until his recent passing, Doug remained a visionary who firmly believed in the power of collaboration. To me, the way he worked is his biggest legacy beyond his technical contributions.

His ideas have a direct impact on SRI today. We like to say that the way we work is our most important innovation, but what does that really mean?

At SRI, it means that we focus on important problems and meeting customer needs. Projects are driven by passionate champions leading multidisciplinary teams aligned with the customer’s needs. We believe in creating compelling value propositions and “iterating” them rapidly and continuously. Doug’s approach is embedded in SRI’s Five Disciplines of Innovation®, an enterprise-wide, managed process for creating high value, tangible results.

Innovation is neither magic nor serendipitous; it requires a thoughtful, sustained process.

I’ve always believed in Doug’s principles, and some of them may seem intuitive. But meeting Doug, I found a role model for just how powerful these ideas can be. As Doug and his colleagues have demonstrated, a small, powerful team can change the world.

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