Present position: chief executive officer, Packet Design LLC, Menlo Park, Calif.
First job: folk dance teacher
Most recent book read: The Last Precinct by Patricia Cornwell
Computer: Sony Vaio
Favorite Web sites: lightreading.com, yahoofinancials.com, cnet.com
Favorite food: chocolate
Favorite saying: "Everybody is a package deal"
Management philosophy: People do best when they understand the goals and participate in the success
Favorite award: Fortune's 50 most powerful women in business
When it comes to start-ups, some people just can't quit. For Judy Estrin, the hardest part about starting a company comes when it isn't just a little start-up anymore--when it merges with another company, is acquired, or goes public and suddenly feels a lot like a big, established company.
Estrin and her husband, Bill Carrico, have been through this a few times: in 1981 with Bridge Communications, which went public in 1985 and merged with 3Com two years later; in 1988 with Network Computing Devices (NCD), which went public four years later; and in 1995 with Precept Software, which was purchased by Cisco Systems three years later.
So what's a person to do?
One could retire. But Estrin, age 46, is bad even at taking a vacation. Or one could take on an advisory role, which she has. Currently she serves on the boards of Federal Express, Disney, and Sun Microsystems (as one of the most prominent woman engineers around, she gets a lot of invitations). But being on a board doesn't make up for not having a start-up to call your own.
Estrin thinks she's finally found an answer: start a company whose product isn't hardware (Bridge made routers and servers, NCD made X-terminals) or software (Precept made software for streaming video), but is instead new companies, grown out of research done internally. That company, Packet Design LLC, Mountain View, Calif., launched last year, released its first start-up, Vernier Networks Inc., also in Mountain View, this spring. (Vernier provides products that allow users to protect, manage, and control wireless networks.)
While the entrepreneurial path Estrin has taken may have initially been unexpected, the fact that she became an electrical engineer was anything but surprising. Her parents, Thelma and Gerald Estrin, are both engineers and IEEE Fellows. The two worked together when Judy was an infant to build Israel's first mainframe computer, the Weizac, for the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot.
Bred to be an EE
Given their parents' background, it was inevitable that the Estrin children would be exposed to technology early. "I was probably 12," Estrin told IEEE Spectrum, "when my dad first brought home some videotapes on Fortran that he made all of us watch." Of the three sisters, Judy was the most interested. Deborah is now a computer science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Margo is a doctor.
"What I liked about math and computer software," she said, "was the problem-solving aspect--which may be what I like about business. It's also about taking this huge problem and figuring out how to break it into pieces and solve the pieces to get you to an end result."
Estrin went to UCLA to study electrical engineering and computer science, then on to Stanford University, California, for a master's in electrical engineering and computer science. There, she was assigned a laboratory project that didn't seem significant at the time but ended up setting her future technical direction. She built a small ring network linking four microprocessors, not a trivial task in those pre-Ethernet days. Ever since, her technical focus has been communications.
At Stanford, Estrin also worked with Internet pioneer Vincent Cerf. At the time he was overseeing a team of seven researchers developing the transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) that was to be key to today's Internet. (Cerf had done his graduate work at UCLA under Judy's father Gerald.)