From Apple to Nest Labs, Always a Designer

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I WAS born in Detroit, but because my father was in sales we moved a lot. I attended 12 schools in 15 years, and graduated from high school in Grosse Pointe, Mich.

During summers, we would return to Detroit, where my grandfather, a high school teacher and later a school superintendent, would teach my brother and me how to fix things around the house and build projects, like a soapbox racer, in his workshop.

Computers have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. In grade school, I took a summer programming class, using a mainframe computer with punch cards. My grandfather helped me buy an Apple II; he didn't know anything about computers but recognized that, for me, it was an important tool -- just like his hammers and drills. In high school, a friend and I started a small company, Quality Computers. We worked from his parents' basement, reselling Apple II hardware and writing software.

In 1987, I entered the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, to study computer engineering. But my classes didn't satisfy my interest in computers, so I founded an educational software company and another company to design computer processors for the Apple IIgs model.

After I graduated in 1991, I moved to Silicon Valley to pursue my dream job: working with General Magic, whose founders created the first Apple Macintosh. I knocked on their door until they hired me later that year. I spent four years there, developing hardware and software to create personal hand-held communications devices, including Sony's MagicLink. In 1995, I pitched a hand-held product to the C.E.O. of Philips, the Dutch electronics giant. He hired me to build its mobile computing group to develop the Velo and Nino personal digital assistants.

Music has always been one of my passions. Philips wanted to expand in the United States, and the company named me vice president for business development to manage its digital music strategy and investments. Being a corporate guy wasn't enough for me, so I left to start Fuse Systems, a consumer electronics company. But it foundered when the Internet bubble burst in 2001. That same year, Apple Computer hired me as a consultant in designing what would become the iPod digital music player. Computers plus music plus Apple -- it was another dream gig.

Eight weeks later, I approached Steve Jobs with the initial iPod concept and was put in charge of building and leading the development team. One iPod led to another, eventually becoming 18 generations of iPods -- and then three generations of the iPhone.

My wife also worked at Apple. Eventually I wanted to spend more time with our two children, and I also wanted a break. So in 2008, I stepped away as senior vice president of Apple's iPod division and became a strategic adviser to Mr. Jobs. He was an incredible influence on how I think about bringing products to market.

After leaving Apple, we decided to build a "green" home in Lake Tahoe, Calif. While researching heating and cooling systems, I realized that the thermostat was ripe for innovation. I founded Nest Labs to build the self-programming Nest Learning Thermostat. When owners are away, sensors adjust the temperature to save energy. The thermostat has been selling in the United States and Canada for 20 months, but because the device is Wi-Fi connected, we know that it is being used in more than 80 countries.

We designed the thermostat for do-it-yourself installation, and we even include a custom screwdriver in each box. I think my grandfather would have liked that.

As told to Elizabeth Olson.

employment

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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