Those of you who don’t read a lot of ransom notes may have a little trouble making out exactly what this one says.
Let me spell it out for you:
I know the exact location of Jack Kilby’s lab where he invented the integrated circuit. Will reveal all for a price.”
And it’s a great object lesson for how to learn to be a consultant before you ever take the plunge. Here’s how I did it.
Ransom Notes and Learning to Be a Consultant
A few years ago, when I worked as Creative Services Manager for Texas Instruments (TI), I came across some information about the location of Jack Kilby’s original laboratory.
Kilby was an American electrical engineer who created one of the biggest inventions of the 20th century, the first integrated circuit.
And I had located the TI lab where it all happened.
I had communicated with a facilities manager in TI’s Semiconductor Building for several months about the possibility of doing something special on the anniversary of this invention.
We discussed reconstructing Kilby’s 1958 lab—the manager had the old furniture, some of the electronic equipment, the carpenters and electricians, and the budget to make it happen.
He also had early building configuration blueprints showing the location of Kilby’s lab, along with photos of the office. I had even verified the location with a couple of retired engineers.
At this point, the anniversary was about a year out.
But before I get too far into the story, let me tell you a bit more about Jack Kilby—and while I’m at it, the success tips we can learn from my experience recreating his lab.
Kilby was important, so I especially want to share his story.
One of the Rock Star Inventors of Our Time
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a Kilby “groupie.”
There are few men who can lay claim to have invented something so significant that it truly “changed the world.” Jack Kilby was one of these men.
His invention of the microchip helped pave the way for the entire field of modern microelectronics and gave rise to the modern computer era.
First integrated circuit, invented by Jack Kilby. (Photo courtesy of Texas Instruments).
Kilby’s patents as an engineer totaled more than 60 during his lifetime, including the microchip, the handheld calculator, and many more.
In 1982, Kilby was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame, alongside Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers. In 2000, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his role in the invention of the integrated circuit.
Jack was a 6-foot 6-inch gentle giant of a man who could often be seen strolling the halls of the Semiconductor Building where I worked. When he was spotted, people left their desks and poured into the halls to get a glimpse of him. Jack never seemed to notice. He was usually deep in thought.
Jack Kilby (Photo courtesy of Texas Instruments).
But what about the ransom note?
I’m coming to that! First, let me finish the story.
I had missed the 35-year anniversary of “the chip” several years prior. Beautiful brochures, ads, and more had all been produced by our advertising agency.
The large and very capable internal creative group hadn’t even been considered for the job.
As we approached the 50th anniversary of Kilby’s invention in 2008, I was determined we would have a seat at the table. I wanted the assignment. But how to get it?
Consulting Tip #1: Know What You Want!
The Kilby story perfectly illustrates that you don’t have to wait until you quit your job to learn to be a consultant.
- First, grow where you are planted.
- You can learn to shine as a consultant on your current employer’s dime. (And maybe get a promotion out of it.)
- Always approach your current job as if you are a consultant and your employer and fellow-employees are your customers or potential customers. It’s all about the mindset.
- If you want to work on a project of interest, ask. Tell them why you should be considered.
- Hold up your hand in meetings. Volunteer.
Now for the Ransom Note
I was up late one night, unable to sleep, just searching the internet, when I accidentally stumbled across a software program that converted whatever you typed in into a ransom note. It was totally unique. I experimented with it, and then a plan hit me!
The next day I dropped an envelope containing the ransom message you see above into TI’s internal mail. It was addressed to Kathryn Collins, TI’s Worldwide Communications Manager. Fortunately, there would be no way it could be traced back to me. I hoped.
My plan was to keep sending notes like the first one, but with increasing levels of urgency until I figured out how to actually approach Kathryn with the idea.
I knew what the call-to-action would ultimately be. I wanted to spearhead the reconstruction of Jack Kilby’s lab
As I wrote each note, I was worried the FBI would come knocking at my office door at TI. Or that HR and a guard would escort me out of the building permanently.
Sometimes stepping outside your comfort zone is scary. It’s okay. We all feel that way.
One week later, I received a surprising reply!
Kathryn and her inner circle of communication managers had discussed the note and finally determined it must have come from me. Her handwritten response said:
Hey knucklehead, next time you send me a ransom note, give me an address so I can get the money to you!”
I was startled—I hadn’t even sent my follow-up ransom notes yet.
How had they figured out who sent it?
Consulting Tip #2: Be Certain You’re Well-Qualified
As a new consultant, you’ll reach out to a lot of people in your search for clients. You need to be sure you’re well-qualified to do the project you propose.
Here are a few tips:
- The customer’s business should be something in which you have depth of experience and knowledge.
- You should have a deep interest in their business.
- You should believe that you can help them grow their market share.
- If you want to work with a particular customer, first get to know their products or services.
- If you believe you are the right fit for a company or one of their projects, find a way to let them know about you and your qualifications as a consultant.
When I proposed the Kilby lab recreation, I felt well-qualified to be the lead on the project. Here’s why:
In 2005, TI’s 75th Anniversary had taken place. I had worked with a team of retirees and current TI employees—Max Post, myself, and Amy Treece as leads to research and produce a 266-page history book of the company’s first 75 years. The book opens with a congratulatory letter from President George Bush.
Every employee (at that time there were more than 35,000 worldwide) received a copy of the book.
In addition to the history book, which took nearly two years to complete, there were dozens of other communications pieces produced for that occasion, including:
- An award-winning, interactive history website.
- Banners that highlighted TI’s achievements, which were hung up and down hallways in the company’s buildings around the world.
- An online education campaign.
- A month-long series of full-page historical ads in the Dallas paper.
- Online contests about TI’s history, with prizes.
- Worldwide celebrations in every country where TI had a plant.
For its efforts, Texas Instruments won 25 International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) awards in the 2006 competition—one Gold Quill award, eight first-place Silver Quill awards (regional competition) and 16 first-place Bronze Quill awards (local competition). It was the most awards won by any company.
I am not claiming or desiring any credit for any of this. It was a huge team effort. My point is simply that I felt like I had done my homework on TI’s history and was ready for the Kilby lab challenge.
Kathryn confirmed it was my involvement with the history project that led them inexorably, breadcrumb by breadcrumb, to my door.
I Was Given the Go-Ahead
It took just one quick meeting with Kathryn Collins to get the approval to recreate Jack Kilby’s lab.
My good friend Max Post, a TI retiree with whom I had worked on the history book, and I visited the TI archives to pull out significant artifacts that could be used in Kilby’s new old lab.
The lab was constructed on a major hallway in the Semiconductor Building where hundreds of TI engineers and other employees would pass daily on their way to the cafeteria for lunch.
When the construction was complete, it was essentially left up to me to fill the office space with items appropriate to the era.
The recreation of Jack Kilby’s 1958 lab.
Magazines from the 1950s are displayed. Bookshelves are filled with books that Kilby would have read. Family photos hang on the walls and sit on the desk. Jack’s ever-present coffee cup, ashtray, lighter and pack of cigarettes are there
His briefcase sits open on a workbench, as if he was preparing for a business trip.
Finally, one of the working models of the original integrated circuit is placed in the center of Kilby’s desk, next to one of Jack’s lab books—the one he used to create the first schematic of his famous invention.
The TI history book sits on a stand facing the glass wall, displaying the page that shows Kilby receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics from His Majesty the King of Sweden in December, 2000.
We unveiled the lab on a day that was devoted solely to honoring Kilby and celebrating his achievements. The Kilby family was invited, along with friends, fellow engineers, and dignitaries who knew Jack.
I remember, after the event, one of the Kilby daughters saying to me, “It looks like dad has just stepped away for a moment.”
That was perfect.
Consulting Tip #3: Do It! And Do It Sooner than Later
- It isn’t enough to simply recognize opportunities that present themselves. You have to take action on them.
- As soon as you believe you’re ready, take the action of asking a prospective customer for their business.
- If you can do this in a creative way—one you feel comfortable doing—do it!
- Speak up when the right opportunities present themselves. If you don’t, someone else will. You can count on that.
- If you don’t speak up, they’ll get the project or the customer. And the credit, too.
- Be the consultant that helps turn heads in the marketplace. Do it with flare and impact!
- Be a problem solver. Always be on the lookout for solutions to your client’s problems.
- Always put honesty and ethics at the top of your dealings with employees, customers, and prospective customers.
- Be careful what you put on social media.
- As you have promotional successes for one customer, find ways to adapt them for other customers in different industries or niches. This is one good way you can scale your business.
- If you can approach a prospect in a creative way—one you feel comfortable doing—do it!
- Don’t forget to go home to your family at night. They miss you.
And never rule out the power of a good ransom note!
The Rest of the Story
Interestingly, after Jack retired, he became a consultant to Texas Instruments and other companies.
His consulting advice for us would be:
Here’s a short video about the Kilby lab recreation.
If you’d like to learn more about Kilby’s life and achievements here’s an interesting video about him.
This project was incredibly important to me. In fact, it probably laid a foundation for my own consulting business, forcing me to be creative in asking for the job.
What creative ways have you used to ask for the job, both as an employee and as a consultant?
What are your thoughts about learning to be a consultant before quitting your job?
Phil is an advertising and direct marketing consultant with decades of experience. While offering his services as an advertising copywriter and creative director, he writes children’s stories. He has also been an exotic parrot breeder, a soda jerk, and a professional musician.