I didn’t really get academia. I liked teaching, but I wasn’t a good scholar. I like to connect a lot of different things and drive a strategy, and that’s not what most scholarship is about. Most scholarship is about having absolute depth in one or two areas and pushing the boundaries there, so I don’t think I was well suited to be an academic. I just happened to go to graduate school when it was easy to get money.
In 1979 I was in my office at Washington State filling out my syllabi for the fall semester, and I thought, “Every year you sit here, it’s double-digit inflation, single-digit raises. This is an awful way to grow old.” And so I went on leave. It was a matter of my finding something unacceptable about my life and saying, “I’m willing to take a risk to avoid this.”
I think there are several things that hold people back. One is waiting for permission or approval to take a risk. The second thing is that people don’t take the first step because they don’t have a clear path to achieving their goal. And because they can’t see a clear path, they never start doing anything. All you have to do is figure out the two or three things that you need to pursue to get roughly in the right direction, pay attention to what’s happening, and react to it one way or the other. You’ll succeed at some things, fail at others. You’ll figure out whether you can fix the things you failed at. It is a process. The majority of successful people have had failures and happy accidents, and the way they had them was by getting out there.
Katherine Hammer, the president and CEO of Austin-based Evolutionary Technologies International (ETI), was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. After receiving degrees in English and linguistics at the University of Iowa, she taught for six years at Washington State University, then spent a year as a visiting scholar at the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Texas at Austin before signing on as a systems programmer for Texas Instruments. In 1984 she joined Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation (MCC) in Austin, where she developed a technology that allows incompatible computer systems to communicate with each other. Six years later, she and an MCC colleague co-founded ETI. Her first book, Workplace Warrior, will be published this month by the American Management Association.