On the future of mobile computing, her philosophy of simplicity, and the time her company's product showed up in a thriller novel.
FORTUNE — At an early age, change was normal for Barbara Nelson. The daughter of a West Point graduate, Nelson is an army brat who was born in Tokyo and spent much of her early life living in different places. In school, she discovered a love of mathematics, and eventually enrolled in Stanford University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, a field where few women ventured at the time.
Her first job post-degree was at Intel, which was still small and, as Nelson puts it, “had so much to do, and so few people to do it.” Over the course of her 13 years there, the company grew tremendously, and she rose to a general manager position. As the company’s growth started to slow down, however, Nelson decided to move on to her next few adventures with positions at Quantum, NeoScale Systems, and Element Labs, among others.
Nelson now leads mobile security for the storage and security company Imation. Within her purview: The IronKey portfolio, comprised of devices that look like heavy-duty USB sticks but are capable of holding the storage space and software of a mobile computer. Some even have a remote kill switch that destroys the device’s data in case it is lost or stolen. Nelson, 59, spoke with us.
1. Which companies do you admire? Why?
People who have been able to dramatically shift business models over time and adjust their products. As an example, I would put Amazon on that list. They started out as an online book store; I don’t think they even had their own distribution centers. They moved from that to e-books, then to the world’s largest e-tailer of anything and now one of the largest providers of IT services because they had to build out their infrastructure and cleverly decided to commercialize it. So when Jeff Bezos says, “Someday we’re going to have drones in here,” he might! I think that’s an example of a business that did a really good job of knowing its core competencies and leveraging them into different areas as they evolved.
Another company worth mentioning is Apple. They developed three very different products — the Mac, the iPod, and the iPhone — that have radically changed the way that people do things. Now, because of a smartphone, you can get a cell phone signal in the smallest village in India or in the middle of nowhere in Africa and run your life from there. I don’t think we’ve yet seen the profound effect that this is going to have on people everywhere in the world.
2. Which area of technology excites you most?
The one I’m in, which is mobile. I think having things that people can carry with them in their pocket — that allow them to do things that they never thought they would be able to do — is a technology that’s come of age.
3. What advice would you give to someone who wants to do what you do?
The first thing that comes to mind is I think it’s really important to have a technical degree. You certainly don’t have to have it, but you learn things faster and it helps you connect the dots. But the biggest thing is to pick your companies and your bosses well. When you come out of school you learn from your experiences, so pick places where those experiences are going to be valuable. Really think about where you’re going to learn a lot about new technology, gain excellent skills, and work with people who are really going places. Don’t just go for the first thing or the “hot” thing because it may not be for you.
4. What is the best advice you ever received?
“Less is more.” Simplicity is important. Anything that’s true is typically simple. I’d add two other things too. “Trust your gut” because as engineers we are always going to want data; sometimes you just have to trust your instincts and fly blind. Then, a personal one from my mother, which is also extremely good advice: “Don’t marry a man thinking you’re going to change him.”
5. What’s the next big project you want to tackle?
There are two. On a work level, the biggest project is developing and growing a nascent market — a mobile workspace that you can use in any PC or Mac. While the idea is in its infancy, if you take it to the fullest extent, it’s all your work … anywhere, any time, in any piece of hardware. You can imagine an environment where nobody carries a PC, a tablet, or a phone. That hardware, or the capability provided by this hardware, is available in all the places you go — like the TV screen on the back of your airline seat. What you take with you is your unique part of that hardware — data and apps. For me, the next big thing is this disaggregation for how we think about all this gear we lug around. Now that we have a PC-on-a-stick, we’re going to completely change how that world works.
On a personal level, I have a business book I’m going to write one of these days. I’ve had the opportunity to work with tons of really smart people; you get a little something from everybody, so the book is a collection of stories and takeaways that will hopefully be interesting.
6. What challenges are facing your business right now?
We’re changing behavior, and even though there are big benefits to that — 10X lower cost, rock solid security, greatly improved mobility and ease of use — people are comfortable with what they do. Known pain is comfortable, and people don’t like to move away from their comfort zone. So the big challenge is that a PC on a stick, is not just a new market but a new behavior.
With BYOD [“Bring your own device”], companies are starting to realize that they don’t need to give a laptop to everyone who walks through the door. Instead they hand them a USB stick with Windows To Go and say, “Use whatever PC or Mac you want.” The good news is that we’ve got a very compelling value proposition, and many Fortune 500 companies today are leading the way. The bad news is it’s hard to change behavior. People are creatures of habit, so we’re trying to change habits for the better.
7. If you could have done anything differently in your career, what would it have been?
I probably would have cut my losses earlier in jobs where the company wasn’t going anywhere and it was out of my control. Unfortunately I’ve had to learn this lesson more than once. There have also been a couple of cases where I’ve worked with people who were really difficult, and I should have found a different job. There’s no reason to go to work every day and be miserable. There are always options. I have a tendency to try to stick with it, be loyal, and make it work. I’ve learned over the years that if it ain’t workin’, cut your losses. Move on.
8. What do you do for fun?
My husband and I love to travel, and I love music. I’m in a classic rock band and a church band. I also do solo piano gigs and have played for the last eight years in a restaurant, just to keep my chops up. I also do an occasional classical choir gig. Routine is really important because if I don’t have structure around the fun stuff, then I don’t do it. I need to have some structure and goals around it.
9. What was the last book you read?
On Heaven and Earth by Jorge Mario Bergolgio and Abraham Skorka. You would know the first man as Pope Francis. Abraham Skorka is a rabbi. It’s a book written by the two of them — they were friends — when the pope was an archbishop in Argentina. They would get together for coffee and discuss religious issues of the day. They agreed on some things and didn’t agree on others. I find any kind of comparative religious studies interesting. It’s fascinating to see what the belief structures are and how people rationalize them. When you’re reading it, the Pope is a different guy from what you think of when you think of a pope. He’s a normal guy. He and the rabbi are both very shrewd and intelligent, but the book is very low key. It’s not intense.
Another recent book I read was Black List by Brad Thor, and IronKey was featured in the book! It was kind of interesting because the general theme of the book is the NSA gone rogue. It was before the Edward Snowden event which makes it even more interesting. At the beginning of the book the author says, “This is a work of fiction, but all of the technology is real.” It’s pretty amazing what can be done.
10. What is one unique or quirky habit that you have?
I have several. I’m funny about color and organization, and I’m a little OCD that way. I still keep some things on paper, and I color code the files. I don’t like a messy desk; I like it clean, so I reward myself by putting away the pile of stuff when it’s done. In terms of habits, I’m a Candy Crush addict, but that’s not unique.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the role of IronKey in Imation. It is a business, not a subsidiary. Nelson therefore works at Imation and manages the IronKey business.
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