It was with great sadness that I learned of the recent death of Gordon Edge. These are some of my memories of a great technology innovator and business leader.
For a period of almost three years, during the 1980s, I was privileged to work at PA Technology, near Cambridge. This was a great place to be and formed part of what became known as the “Cambridge Phenomenon”.
Populated by a bunch of bright mavericks, it was led by its founder and chief maverick, Gordon Edge. Dressed immaculately, he spoke quietly, using few words, and what words!
Gordon had grown PA Technology from nothing, as part of the PA Consulting group, to include operations in the USA, Australia and Spain.
It operated using a business model which was quite foreign to me when I first joined. That model, known at the time by various terms including “matrix management”, makes perfect sense now. Nearly 30 years later, many organisations that I come across would benefit enormously from operating on this basis.
In addition to that constant aspect of working there, there are specific cases of brilliance and boldness that stand out in my memory.
Projects and more projects
This was a place that operated projects developing everything you could imagine: from inflatable bicycle seats to complex optical devices for the military; from jumping spider toys to leading edge biotechnology; from chocolate coating machines to the first pay-phones in the UK; from telecommunications network devices to large screen television projection systems; and much, much more.
You name it, and we did it, … or something like it.
Gordon Edge had a “reality distortion field” as strong as anyone I’ve met.
One classic story is of a meeting in which he suggested something, only for someone to point out that this contravened several fundamental laws of physics. His response summed him up: “I don’t see why we should let that stand in our way”!
Needless to say, he was an extremely effective salesman. It has been said that he could sell levitation! His ability to invite and gain commitment from people was legendary.
One day I was banging on about some opportunities to do clever things in optical signal processing within his earshot. Before I knew it he’d offered, and I’d accepted, the challenge of delivering a presentation on this to main board members of L M Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications company, who would soon be visiting us in a few days time.
One of the most interesting moments in my memory of PA Technology involved another visit. I was involved in a project developing a new technology for large screen television projection, and Gordon had enticed a group of members of the board of a large American company to cross the Atlantic to see this.
Included in their party was a elderly senior adviser on technology who had seen it all. He knew every available technology for television projection. He’d probably been inside Russian research establishments and seen things that many people in the West did not know about! However it soon became clear, from his curiosity and interest, that he had not seen this.
We had something novel, and it was one of those great moments which serves to confirm that what we were doing was world class.
Gordon was brilliant at analysing situations, creating models and frameworks within which other people could perform.
At that time, he saw the field of drug delivery as an area of opportunity (and it probably still is). This is the tricky challenge of delivering drugs to the site within the body where they are needed, despite those drugs being toxic to other parts of the body. Many techniques were available to be explored.
For this purpose, he convened a group to look at the opportunities, and asked me to join it. I still remember his analysis of the challenge as if it were a bombing mission, in terms of: payload, propulsion, navigation, targeting, release.
It was a superb analogy.
Gordon was a natural leader, simply because people naturally followed him.
When he disagreed with the direction taken by the leadership of PA Consulting and left to form a new organisation, Scientific Generics, it was no surprise that many people from PA Technology followed him there. Part of me would have liked to have gone too, and while I’d seen many of the good sides of working in a consulting business, I felt that I had unfinished academic things to do, so I took up an academic post in Oxford and moved out of that world.
In retrospect, I might have learnt a lot more by following Gordon Edge.
A selection of links to tributes from others:
“Tribute to Sagentia’s Founder, Professor Gordon Edge”, Sagentia’s tribute: http://www.sagentia.com/news/press-releases-and-news/2013/gordon-edge-tribute.aspx
“Professor Gordon Edge; a great man, a great legacy” a tribute from nu Angle http://nu-angle.com/gordon-edge-founder-of-sagentia-and-pa-technology-a-great-man-a-great-legacy/
“Gordon Edge, Cambridge’s own reality distortion artist” an historical perspective: http://www.cabume.co.uk/the-cluster/gordon-edge-cambridges-own-reality-distortion-artist-dies.html