Joe Booker could write a book about how he scaled the corporate ladder, but he insists few people would want to hear about it. There were no secrets, no shortcuts, no detours—just long days spent putting in hard work. “That’s not going to make for compelling reading if you’re looking for quick fixes,” he said.
Booker, vice president of operations at San Jose, CA-based network switching company Alteon Websystems, Inc., is being modest. His career could serve as a model for anyone dreaming of conquering a senior management slot.
When he was a child, he was told that an African-American man must be better than everyone else in order to be successful. That harsh fact of life served as the foundation for succeeding at every job he held.
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Booker’s career began when he joined the Air Force after graduating from Bluefield State College in WV. When he reported to his first duty station in electronics, the senior officer asked him what job he’d like. Booker asked, “What is the most difficult job you have?” It was running the Doppler radar systems, and Booker took it.
He learned early on that achieving success means taking risks everyone else avoids. So began a precedent he still stands by.
When he left the Air Force, Booker took a manufacturing engineering job with IBM, teaching disk drive and controller theory. A couple of years later, he realized his life was too predictable. “I needed more disruption, excitement, and unplanned elements every day,” he said. A management track was the answer.
“When you’re managing others, you’re always dealing with something different and being surprised,” he explained.
Booker thrives on surprises. “At some critical turning point, you have to decide whether you want to be a manager or a technologist,” he said. “You can only do one well.”
Climbing rung by rung
However, Booker didn’t want to be just another manager—he wanted to be a superstar. He could have chosen the easier engineering side of the business, but he opted for manufacturing because it offered a chance to stand out.
In 1969, when Booker’s boss offered him a managerial job at Memorex, at the time a small fledgling company with potential, he jumped at the opportunity.
The Memorex job was the career catapult he needed. When he started, Booker asked his boss, “What is my job?” His boss said it was to ship products any way that he could.
Another challenge resulted in another success. When his boss quit for a better job, Booker was named his temporary replacement. A few months later, it became a permanent job. Three years later, he was boosted to the director level.
Next, he joined disk drive manufacturer Shugart Associates as a senior manager before eventually leaving to take his present job at Alteon.
James Burke, Alteon’s CFO, calls Booker a natural manager. Burke has known Booker for 18 years. “He has a unique ability to focus his energy solely on results,” he said. “In a fiercely competitive industry, he’s managed to control his ego—no small feat in Silicon Valley.”
Booker’s words of wisdom
There are important lessons to be learned from Booker’s career. Once he decided on a management track, he channeled all his energy into standing out. “I knew I didn’t want a staff job,” he explained. “I wanted jobs that were measurable and quantifiable. I didn’t want anything that was safe.”
Booker purposely put himself in the firing line so the results of his work would be obvious, tangible, and linked to the bottom line. This path is not recommended for the passive. “There was no gray area concerning my work,” he added. “I either met cost or production schedules or I didn’t.”
Pausing to look back upon a life full of impressive accomplishments, he said, “Growing up in the South and being a poor black kid, I didn’t want to carry a lunch box to work. I wanted to leave my house wearing a tie every morning.”
What may seem a piddling goal for others was the difference between success and failure for Booker.
Bob Weinstein's weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. It appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.