Interviewed for the Fall 2015 ECE Current newsletter
Mr. Gerngross holds a Master of Science ('82) Degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mathematics from Boston University. He founded Santa Barbara-based Condor Engineering in 1989, which was a supplier of avionics databus tools and solutions. The company’s product portfolio included embedded, test, and simulation interfaces for commercial and military avionics databuses. Condor Engineering was acquired by GE Intelligent Platforms in 2006. Mr. Gerngross previously served on the Board of Trustees and Overseers of Sea Education Association, a nonprofit dedicated to undergraduate ocean education.
At the time I was actually working in engineering at Raytheon, here in Goleta. I knew that I needed more education and the department here was outstanding so it was an obvious choice. If it weren’t so good, I would’ve had to leave town and go elsewhere, but since it is known as a great program it was just an obvious choice. In fact, looking back, I realize that I really would’ve preferred to come here for my undergraduate studies too. If I had known about it at the time, that’s what I would’ve done.
I think the Electrical Engineering Department’s strengths are clearly the staff, the extremely strong faculty, and the forward-looking leadership that supports programs such as a capstone, which I think is a critically important piece of the undergraduate learning program. I firmly believe in the capstone program as an opportunity for students to get real world experience, which is one of the most important things they can get here. They learn to work with people, how to integrate technologies, and how to actually engineer something, so I think those are huge strengths. The capstone program is very important because it gives the students real world experience, working in teams, working to deadlines and specification, integrating the various disciplines in engineering into an end product. I’ve seen the products they create and it’s fantastic; it’s a great learning experience. The full support of the faculty is a very powerful and profound impact on the students.
Yes, I have advice for entrepreneurial students and I’ll try and keep it to a modest list. My first piece of advice is: surround yourself with good people. You can’t do it alone and you need high quality people around you. Secondly, don’t listen to the naysayers. There will always be someone saying, “You can’t do it. It can’t be done. It won’t work. It’s been done before.” Don’t listen to them, follow what you know, stick to your course, and stay with it. Third, you really have to know your customer. You might have a great technology, or a cool product, but without the customer it’s not worth anything. You really need to understand who your customer is, what they want, what they need, what they want to pay, and how many of them there are out there. Finally, my last advice is to not sell yourself short. You’re probably going to seek out financial support, and when it comes to the money you have to remember there are not that many people that have a good idea and can execute that good idea. Money is easy to find, good people with good ideas are hard to find. So, don’t undervalue yourself, don’t give it away, negotiate hard, and make sure you keep as much for yourself as you can.
I would say the pivotal course was CS 270, Advanced Operating Systems with John Bruno. He actually became a lifelong friend and mentor for me. The things that I learned in that course, in terms of low-level device control, software control, were what I used to leverage my career and ultimately became key elements of the products I created for Condor Engineering. Also, John Bruno became a colleague in my company and was responsible for an important part of our product line at one point. That course in particular was probably the single most important course in defining my professional career.
I’d say my proudest moment since joining this industry was the time I signed the paper to sell my company, Condor Engineering, to General Electric. For me, that was a tremendous validation of what we had done. Knowing that we had created something of such quality and importance that General Electric wanted to incorporate us into their embedded systems division. Knowing that our deal crossed the desk for approval by the Chairman, Jeffrey Immelt — that’s how important it was. It was also definitely one of the most poignant times of my professional career because I had to let go of my company, this business that I had nurtured for seventeen years, my family. I knew there would be big changes ahead, and I also knew as an entrepreneur that it would be challenging to assimilate into a larger corporate structure like General Electric. It was a very proud time for us, nonetheless.
My advice to my fellow alumni is to come to campus, walk around, see what’s going on, meet the people and the students, look at the projects, walk the halls, go see the labs. Alumni need to get involved. It’s amazing what’s going on here in the past 30 years, and it continues to grow. As soon as you visit the campus and see this progress, you’re going to get inspired and motivated, just like I’ve been. I think that’s the best way to kick-start your involvement here. This is not one of those “ivory tower” institutions — this is a fully engaged institution that wants to work with industry. They really want to work with us and develop a synergistic relationship. They want and need our support. I think they deserve it and we should give it to them.
My motivation to give back to my alma mater is primarily in two areas. First, it’s a measure of my appreciation. Without UCSB, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I went in my life. I’m very appreciative of everything the University has given me, both in terms of education and of the people who supported me throughout my life. For me it’s very important to give back and show that appreciation. Secondly, I enjoy doing it. When I write the check, I feel good. When I write the check, I know I’m helping future engineers get out there. I go to the capstone program presentations and I see the kids doing their projects and know that in some small way I helped make that happen, and it makes me feel like I’ve contributed. The bottom line is, the University is an exciting, wonderful place and I believe in UCSB. I think it’s a fantastic place. There are so many exciting things going on here.