Lifelong Learning, LFM-SDM Co-Director Bill Hanson Shares Life-Changing Experiences

Dave Foley, Mathilde Wood, and Maria GonzalezBill Hanson

LFM-SDM Co-Director Bill Hanson Shares Life-Changing Experiences

By Monica Nakamine
December 3, 2002

There’s that old saying – “actions speak louder than words.” But for Bill Hanson, co-director of the LFM-SDM programs, the words of others were sometimes the impetus that caused action and change, influencing him as an adolescent, father, and engineer. He shared some of his insights at the Lifelong Learning Seminar Series, which was held on Wednesday, October 30, 2002.

Pictured above, from left to right, is Dave Foley, Mathilde Wood, and Maria Gonzalez, listening to Bill, at far right.

Many of Bill’s epiphanies came to him because of comments made by people who he has met throughout his life. The simplicity in their words reflected a greater meaning of what was going on around him at the time, shaping his way of thinking and his perspective on life.

Brush with Racism

Bill grew up during significant periods of American history – the Depression and World War II — both of which shaped our society culturally and economically. Bill’s hometown of Menlo Park, Calif. was not only divided by class, but it was segregated by race. Even though he went to a racially integrated high school, the world outside of school was an entirely different ballgame, as Bill came to realize.

“I had a friend in high school who was black,” said Bill. “I decided to venture out to his neighborhood one day after school. I bumped into him, and he told me, ‘I don’t know you after dark.'”

Bill wasn’t offended by this comment. Instead he took it as his friend’s way of protecting him, insinuating that he shouldn’t be in a place where he might be in danger because of the color of his skin. This was one instance that opened Bill’s eyes to racism, and the unfairness and brutality of it.

After high school, Bill went on to Stanford University, where he majored in industrial engineering, focusing on computers. He believed that the computer industry would allow him to:

  • Make the world a better place for his children,
  • Be innovative,
  • Challenge the status quo; drive change,
  • Create jobs for others, and
  • Do something he felt passionate about.

Honesty – the Best Policy

After college, Bill landed a job as a manager at Beckman Industries, which built analog computers. Although the computer industry was growing, the volumes were still low and the cost high, resulting in sporadic sales, which meant there could be times when assembly line jobs might be lost. Bill didn’t want to ignore the issue; nor did he try to hide this situation to those employees. Instead, he did what he thought was the right thing to do: Be honest. He held regular meetings with the assembly line workers to keep them abreast of the situation at hand regarding potential layoffs.

“A woman, one of the assembly line workers, came up to me one day and gave me this mug she made,” said Bill, as he held it up. “She thanked me and said, ‘You don’t know how important it was for you to be honest with us.'”

The mug represented her appreciation. But to Bill, it serves a reminder of how important honesty is, even in the gravest of situations. Because he appreciated their loyalty and hard work, the assembly line workers in turn valued his sincerity and candor.

Family Moves to New England

After five years at Beckman Industries, Bill and his family decided to move to New England. There, he was presented with an opportunity to help develop a new computer company called Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) that specialized in disruptive technologies and business practices. The timing couldn’t have been better since the Hansons wanted to break away from their extended family to create an identity of their own.

“As a family, we wanted to expand our knowledge of the U.S. and to better appreciate the values and history of New England. As Westerners, we wanted to know why Easterners talked funny,” said Bill.

Trusting his Gut Feeling

At DEC, Bill was responsible for the plants that manufactured all of its computer components. Although the company had always been based in New England, Bill and others thought it was time to have a plant in the West, and he chose a location in Phoenix, Ariz.

“I presented the plan to the president of the company, Ken Olsen,” said Bill. “He said, ‘I wouldn’t do that, but that’s not my decision to make; that’s your job. If you think that’s the right thing to do, then I support you.'”

Despite Ken’s opinion, Bill had something stronger than his approval – he had his trust. Bill also learned something about leadership and delegating responsibilities.

Joining LFM

Bill retired from DEC in 1994. But prior to his retirement, he served as one of the LFM’s industry co-directors. Just as soon as he left the corporate world, Bill became an official member of the MIT community as a full-time co-director for LFM. In Bill’s mind, MIT was never a “retirement” plan, but rather a natural part of his career’s journey for the same reasons he initially decided to go into computers.

“Just like Beckman and Digital Equipment Corporation, LFM-SDM has provided me with a platform to continue my desire to:

  • Make the world a better place for my children and now grandchildren,
  • Be innovative,
  • Challenge the status quo; drive change,
  • Create jobs for others, and
  • Do something I feel passionate about.

“After all,” he said, “that’s what’s LFM-SDM is all about.”