A Conversation (and Day) with Joe Fjelstad Part 3

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Part 3: Fjelstad’s Entry into the Industry, and Thoughts on War, Education and India

I-Connect007 Publisher Barry Matties and industry veteran Joe Fjelstad, CEO and founder of Verdant Electronics, met recently to spend an entire day together enjoying the Oregon community of McMinnville.

In Part 3 of this interview series, Fjelstad divulges his interesting entry into the electronics manufacturing industry, including a brief diversion as a restaurateur. In this portion of the interview, the pair was touring the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum (home of the Spruce Goose) where Fjelstad spoke frankly about his experience in Vietnam and how it has shaped his view about war, which he shares. Finally, the importance of education was discussed, as well as India, and why the rest of the manufacturing world should be paying attention to them.

SG_tail.jpgMatties: How did you get started in this industry?

Fjelstad: I studied chemistry in college, which led to a job as a technician doing analytical work and analyzing plating chemistry for local PCB shops at a company called DataLab. I ran all the analysis on plating solutions for the company’s clients, and when I got an opportunity to set up a lab at one of them—Printex in Mountain View, California—I took it. They actually had a lab but it wasn't functioning. So I set it up and got my work done in about two hours, and I added microsectioning to my skill set—which I got pretty good at. From there, I went out into the shop and got into the processing and learned about the various areas of manufacturing. The nice thing about it was seeing how it all fit together. Later, I took a job with Chemline Industries, which did chemical manufacturing for the industry, including all the electroless copper line chemistry as well as strippers for the screen printed inks used to pattern PCBs for plating. I also oversaw the first successful batch of catalysts under a Photocircuits license. Eventually, I took a brief period of time off to open and operate a French restaurant in Eugene, Oregon—which was quite successful, I might add.

I next ventured into military aerospace at Boeing Aerospace. While I am on the topic of aerospace, I should note that for me one of the great ironies of the present time is that military, aerospace, automotive, and medical have something in common with the world's poorest people. That is, they must have the most reliable electronics that can be made. At the top of the market, it’s all about mission and application, and at the bottom, they are needed because people can’t afford to replace them. Making reliable, low-cost electronic products for the world’s poor is going to be important to the future of the planet. We just crossed over the 7 billion mark in human population last year and it is anticipated that the world will reach 8 billion people by 2020, if we don’t blow ourselves up before that. 

Matties: Speaking of military, I know that you served in Vietnam. As we walk around this air museum of war planes, what are your thoughts about war?

Fjelstad: War is the failure of diplomacy, I have heard it said. It's a sentiment I agree with. On the other hand, there are times when you can’t avoid it, as was the case with Nazi Germany. Still, one suggestion I've heard is that no young man should be allowed to go to war without the permission of his mother. If you do that, you start to limit the number of players in the game rather quickly. I don't know if we're ever going to get away from it. We've been bashing each other’s heads with stones and sticks for tens of thousands of years. I'm hoping that we will grow up someday but I'm not sure about it. That’s my cynicism talking and I hate being a cynic.

Matties: Cynicism and reality oftentimes are blurred.

harvey_miller.jpgFjelstad: I've had these discussions with Harvey [Miller]. After all he has seen and endured in his 93 years, Harvey is still an optimist, which I really admire. I admire the man and have great affection for him, but it's tough for me at times to share his optimism. Of course, I keep going back to my larger perspective relative to the solution of these issues, and it's all about education. Education of all of the world’s peoples: men, women, boys and girls. It has been pointed out by sociologists and demographers that there is an inverse relationship between the birthrate of a country and the education of its population. We must find a way to turn this, because there are limited resources going forward. With limited resources on the planet, how do you parse them out equitably? You and I and our families and friends are all very lucky; we just happened to be born in the right place at a good time, but I could have been born anywhere and that always disturbs me when I think of those who did not enjoy our happy circumstance. It disturbed me when I went to the Soviet Union and it disturbed me when I was in Vietnam—in fact, every time I've been outside of the U.S. When I look at it, we're all blinded by thinking that these blessings are a birthright. I suppose to a degree it is, but on the other hand, I could have been born anywhere.

Matties: It seems rather random, doesn't it?

STPIndia.jpgFjelstad: It does. We are blessed by circumstance, but I don't think that you have to tear down your own culture or country to be able to raise the level of another. They're not necessarily mutually exclusive. We can help bring others up, but they need to participate in the process. I think India is going to provide the world a working example; it appears they're going to focus on themselves and do some heavy lifting of themselves by their own bootstraps.

Their path to the future is not going to be the same as that of the rest of the world. They are going to focus on internal markets. They are not going to try to sell to anybody else, if I understood correctly a recent discussion on NPR, I believe it was. 

Matties: Which makes sense—they have more than 1.3 billion people.

Fjelstad: Exactly, and the number of people is going to rise. When I look at the strife in Africa and just the mindless killing of each other for natural resources, part of me understands it on an intellectual level in a fight for survival of sorts, but the soul of me, my moral core, abhors it. I don't know how to stop it. Edmund Burke said, “The only thing that is required for evil to persist in the world is for good men to stand back and do nothing.” He also said, “The greatest mistake that one can make is to do nothing, just because one can only do a little.” If only we could all understand the importance of doing a little, and then do it. I personally take that bit of sage advice to heart because I know I can't change everything, but I can do a little. That's what I try to do.

Coming Thursday, Part 4: The Birth of the Occam Process

Click here to read Part 1 in this series and Click here to read Part 2.



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