It was December 1970. My last final was
completed and my wife and I were off to
start a post-education life. Purdue prepared
me in ways I could not have imagined back
then. I had been taught well. My summer
jobs had proven that I was technically
competent, and I left Purdue with as much
knowledge as the employees in the computer departments of large companies.
In the real world, however, there were
still many practical lessons to be learned.
It was important to temper my technical
expertise with an understanding of business. When I started my own company in
1976, I made that concept the cornerstone,
and my first published article highlighted
this understanding. It was called “The
OOPS Factor.” (OOPS stands for Ordinary
Oversights Postpone Systems.)
At the time, system analysts asked
ordinary humans to approve “program
specs.” That was an impossible task, so
everything was automatically approved
without any review to validate the assumptions. That is why there were so many
OOPSes in early system development.
My company, The User Group Inc.,
changed everything by writing and giving
the end user a “guide” describing how to
use the system rather than how we programmed it. Once the user signed off that
the guide represented what they wanted,
we would use our expertise to write usable
programs. This was radical in 1976.
Purdue trained me to be fearless when
asking questions, tracking symptoms to
problems and applying scientific methods
when searching for solutions. It worked
wonders for my career. Experimenting is
part of life, where failure is not a negative
to fear, but a positive step toward an
When I founded my company, there
were no associations for computer consultants, so I started one. I went on to become
part of the Electronic Data Interchange
(EDI) Coalition of Associations, which
helped remove the complexity of new
technology and make it available to more
small companies. When I recognized that
too many companies wasted their employees’ time with busy work, I wrote my eighth
book to help them understand how to make
their operations run more efficiently.
Purdue gave me the background and
confidence to be a computer scientist who
was also capable of writing articles and
books. That diverse skill set next led me
to Saint Louis University, where I taught a
graduate school course in innovation and
corporate entrepreneurship. And a few
years ago, I started a roundtable of corporate executives focused on moving their
companies forward through innovation.
I became the chairman of the Gateway
Venture Mentoring Service, providing free,
team-based support to early-stage startups
as well as managing the St. Louis Regional
Chamber of Entrepreneurship Educators.
Now, after 38 years in consulting, I am
starting a new career as a senior manager
for Boeing Co., specifically in Ventures, a
unit of Boeing Defense, Space & Security.
We want to dispel the myth that large
organizations like Boeing cannot create
My role is to create a culture of entrepreneurship that encourages individuals
to make better use of Boeing’s innovative
capabilities and inventory of advanced
technology. We have to enable employees
to try new ideas, to rapidly prototype new
products and to accept failures as steppingstones to success.
Part of the transformation will be easy
because there are so many brilliant people
in the organization. The difficulty will be
implementing concepts like “accelerated
failure” into the company’s legacy of quality
Broadening market opportunities to
nonmilitary products and services will
require a change in mindset — and time.
But I’ve been given the support of top
management and I can still hold my own
when meeting with researchers as a business executive. Thanks, Purdue. I could
not have done it without you.
AS A CONSTANT
BY STEVE EPNER