Computing pioneer urges Tech students to know the difference between invention and innovation
Oct 16, 2017 | Atlanta, GA
Price received his B.S. in mathematics from Duke in 1952. Back then, mathematicians didn’t have a lot of options when it came to making money. “My career counselors at Duke told me that my best bet was to become an accountant,” he says. “That didn’t appeal to me.”
What did fire his imagination was finding a way to merge his love of numbers with his rapidly growing interest in computer science, then a nascent discipline.
Powering Up the Computing Industry
Price kept looking for that chance, and Georgia Tech gave it to him in 1956. That’s when Price, freshly married and with a baby on the way, was hired as a programmer at what would eventually be known as the Rich Electronic Computer Center. He also started studies for an M.S. in mathematics, which he received in 1958.
Working and studying at Georgia Tech allowed Price to position himself at the beginnings of the U.S. computer industry because of the job he took at Control Data Corporation (CDC). Starting as a staff mathematician in 1961, he was chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) before retiring in 1990. During his tenure, Price saw CDC and a handful of others, including IBM, General Electric, UNIVAC, and Honeywell, build the market for supercomputers.
At the same time, Price was building CDC’s business model and strategy, expanding his company’s offerings beyond machines and software to services based on computers and into international markets. The lessons he learned while researching at Tech – team building, collaboration – helped him guide his company to new heights.
Collaboration Is Key
“Executive management is, at its root, nothing more than solving problems and learning how to talk to people, to work with people,” Price says. “The only way a startup like Control Data was going to make significant progress was through collaboration, with competitors and customers,” he says. “That wasn’t the normal way that businesses – or for that matter universities – operated in those days. But the problems I was working on begged for a collaborative effort. Georgia Tech has always been a leader in interdisciplinary teams, and it still is today.”
The Tech students of 2017, raised on laptops, smartphones, and ubiquitous wireless networks, may have to fire their own imaginations to picture the state of technology in the 1960s: room-sized computers with bulky rotating magnetic drums for data storage and no special programming languages to run the machines.
The widely acknowledged father of supercomputing, Seymour Cray, worked at CDC during Price’s time. Price says others at CDC were just as brilliant as Cray. “It was absolute fun to go to work every day because of some of the most innovative, fun people to work with that I have ever known. They were bright people, but not one-dimensional.”
Price has other ways to pass along the lessons he’s learned from Georgia Tech and CDC. In 1985 he founded the National Center for Social Entrepreneurs, which helps startup companies in the nonprofit sector. Price also exercises his interest in growing technology companies as president and CEO of PSV Inc., which provides small businesses with investment, human resources, and strategy services.
Price has spent a lot of time in the classroom since establishing himself in the business world. He has taught at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and at the Pratt School of Engineering. Price has been a guest lecturer at Cornell University, the University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He sits on the Georgia Tech College of Sciences Advisory Board.
Advice for Tech Students
Price has seen technology companies transform the business and entertainment worlds, and he realizes the enormous potential for more change, thanks to technologies like the Internet of Things. As befitting someone who wrote a book called The Eye for Innovation (Yale Press, 2005), Price encourages students of science and engineering to make sure they know the difference between invention and innovation.
“Innovation is solving a problem, meeting a need in a better way,” he says. “Invention is inventing some algorithm or device, and if you don’t know what the hell the problem is, or what the device is good for, you’re going to waste a lot of time trying to apply your invention.”
He counsels students to make sure they chase their life’s passion, not just future paychecks. “I would tell them to find something in life that really intrigues them, whether it’s manual labor, digging a ditch, or solving equations of fluid dynamics – whatever it is that is fun for you. If you don’t really feel it’s all worthwhile, that it’s fun, then you’re lost from day one.”