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Insights from Nolan Bushnell at PKM’s SteelDay Event
Posted by Tasha Weiss on September 27, 2012 at 3:39 PM.


Tomorrow, September 28, marks the structural steel industry’s fourth annual SteelDay! Hosted by AISC, its members and partners, it’s expected to be celebrated at about 170 event locations all over the country and offers free educational and networking opportunities for the design and construction community and the public. Some pre-SteelDay events also took place this past week and kicked off the national festivities, including an event for the entire community at PKM Steel Service, Inc. (an AISC member/AISC certified fabricator) in Salina, Kan. (which drew in about 2,500 people!) steelday-2012-pkm_nolan_sitn3.jpg


In addition to tours of PKM’s facilities and more than 100 vendor booths on site, the event featured several entrepreneurial speakers including Nolan Bushnell, founder of the Atari Corporation, known as the “father of the video game industry” and one of the few people to have hired the late Steve Jobs.


AISC’s Victoria Cservenyak and Tasha Weiss had the opportunity to interview Bushnell at the event about his views on teamwork, innovation and other topics that apply to the structural steel industry and the success of all companies. Here is the interview, provided by Cservenyak:


Q: You spoke in your lecture about teamwork. What are some tips on inspiring teamwork amongst specifiers, fabricators, contractors and the rest of the project team?


A: Teamwork is really about mutual trust. That’s really the glue that lets a team work together. If you’re not confident the other person can do their job, then you don’t feel good about delegating that job to them. So the first thing you have to do is build this common glue of trust. The next thing is, nobody needs or should be greedy. It turns out that everybody feels good about proper pay for proper work. If somebody is taking all of the margin, then the teamwork fails. You also have to share risk. Every project has some corner risk and it’s important to share that. All those things, when properly put together, produce some wonderful outputs with the team that shares risk, rewards, capabilities, diversity. It’s wonderful.


Q: You’re writing a book about creativity in business – can you give examples of your “pongs” [the rules in his book are called “pongs” in honor of the video game he invented] or rules for business that would apply to the steel industry/workers?


A: Basically all of them (laughs) apply. I would say that the most important ones have to do with action. Action is the most important one. Most companies have a lot of creative people and a lot of people who have good ideas. But they just never get put into production, they never get used. I think that the more a company tries things, the better. Look for how can you do five percent of your work, five percent of your research, five percent of design on nutty ideas. New stuff just always seems a little bit nutty because you know what you did last year and you were comfortable with it. Things that are new are a little bit scary. So, you have to be willing to face your fears, do things that are a little different and every once in a while you will be surprised. And that crazy product that you thought was the nutty one becomes the most important part of your business. Remember, Apple Computer was in the computer business (“why do they have this little music player?”) which led to the iPhone, iPad, and a whole ecosystem of iTunes and an app store, which is much bigger than the computer part of their business. The crazy product became the dominant product. And that happens over and over again.


Q: What are your thoughts on Alan Kay’s famous quote: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it?”


A: I’ve lived that quote all my life. It turns out that making the future happen is really, really fun. I’m a big reader of science fiction and I so much want to live there. A lot of times I’m just going to have to invent it.


Q: What advice would you give to young engineers or entrepreneurs?


A: I think that the best advice is to be active. Do different things, learn different things. Go to different places, different trade shows. Try to be the sponge that soaks up the world and does things differently. The more you do different things, the bigger your brain gets and the more you have this sort of foundation of ideas to put underneath your ideas. That makes you more successful.


Q: Do you have anything else that you would like to add?


A: I think that the most important thing is for everyone to be a lifelong learner. I think that today the world is changing so quickly that if you’re not learning something new every day, every week, every month that you will find yourself obsolete without even knowing it. And you may think that you’re five years from retirement and everything’s fine and you don’t have to learn anymore. But by having that attitude, it means that your brain is actually decaying. If you’re not doing different things and learning different things, your brain will break much earlier, whether it’s dementia or Alzheimer’s etc., and that’s not fun. Growing old with a bad brain is really an ugly thing.


Victoria Cservenyak, AISC Digital Content Editor


Happy SteelDay, everyone! (And for those making last-minute SteelDay plans, visit to find and register for an event near you!)

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