The Definitive Guide to Business

The No. 1 thing the co-inventor of Ethernet learned from his mentor, Steve Jobs

Bob Metcalfe started working with computer networks in the 1970s and was part of Xerox's Palo Alto, Calif. team that invented what would become Ethernet, the foundational technology used to connect computers. He's known as "the father of Ethernet."

In 1979, Metcalfe started a company to sell Ethernet technology, 3Com Corp. Later that same year, Steve Jobs tried to get Metcalfe to join Apple.

"I had never heard of Steve Jobs, and I had never heard of Apple, but and I had just started my own company so I turned him down," say Metcalfe, speaking to CNBC.

"And instead of getting angry with me, he helped me all all through the 1980s. My company benefited greatly from Steve's support, and he's one of my heroes."

Bob Metcalfe, the co-inventor of the Ethernet, holding an original piece of Ethernet cable.
Photo by Kim Kulish
Bob Metcalfe, the co-inventor of the Ethernet, holding an original piece of Ethernet cable.

3Com went on to go public in 1984, and in 1999, its peak year for sales, the networking tech company did $5.7 billion in sales. In 2010, 3Com merged with Hewlett Packard.

Metcalfe considered Jobs a mentor.

"He was 10 years younger than me, so that was odd. I had a Ph.D. He dropped out his sophomore year in college, but he was my mentor anyway," says Metcalfe.

"He was a scary fellow. You get within a few feet of him and he could convince you of anything — and it's famously called 'Steve's reality distortion field' ... as you walk further away you got about 10 or 15 feet away, then you came to your senses and you realize that maybe he was just being persuasive."

What Metcalfe, now a Professor of Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, learned from "Steve's reality distortion field" was that you have to be okay with people being mad at you. It's part of pushing new boundaries, he says.

"[Jobs] had very high standards and he did not suffer fools gladly, and so he annoyed a lot of people," says Metcalfe.

"In order to make an omelet you have to break some eggs," he continues.

"So he, you know, he's famous for being a bit of a jerk from time to time, and I think that was part of the package deal.

"You have to constantly be making judgments about what's good what's bad and what's going to work and how's it going to play out, and in doing that, if you have high standards, you're going to break some eggs along the way.

"So a willingness to break eggs is one of the things I learn from Steve," says Metcalfe.

Metcalfe says he also learned from Jobs the importance of packaging products for the general consumer, not just for the tech community.

While Metcalfe generally is in awe of Jobs and grateful for what he has learned from the tech icon, Metcalfe says there was one downside to being friends with Steve Jobs.

"Steve Jobs came to our wedding," says Metcalfe. "And what's wrong with having Steve Jobs at your wedding? No one remembers anything about the wedding except the fact that Steve Jobs was there."

See also:

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak: Motivation is more important than knowledge for achieving success

Here's what happened when Steve Jobs called to buy this founder's start-up

4 keys to launching a successful business, according to this entrepreneur who sold Siri to Steve Jobs