ECE alum and entrepreneur Fred Gibbons teaches engineers to make products that people need

From growing up in a small East Coast fishing village to becoming lifelong friends with Steve Jobs, Stanford Professor Fred Gibbons shares his journey as a first-generation college student and what inspired him to teach product management and design.
Fred Gibbons headshot Enlarge
Fred Gibbons.

When Fred Gibbons stepped onto the University of Michigan campus in the fall of 1967, he quickly found himself overwhelmed with the size of the classes and the bustle of the city. He’d grown up in the small, sleepy, seaside village of Woods Hole in Cape Cod, and he’d never been in a school with more than 100 students. As a first-generation college student, the new environment was especially daunting.

“It’s not that I didn’t know Michigan was big, but I didn’t realize how big until I had to find my first classroom and thought, holy smokes, you got to be kidding me,” he said. “I didn’t do well my first year. I was really struggling. But then, I discovered this computer thing.”

Gibbons originally planned to enter the naval architecture program; his father had been a fisherman and a ship captain. However, in a drafting class, he began using a computer and a plotter to finish his assignments.

“Growing up, I’ve always fiddled with things, and I almost blew the house up with a chemistry set – so, the usual things that engineers do,” Gibbons said. “But something that really helped me was finding something new, an emerging area, so I wouldn’t have to compare myself with anyone else. Computer Engineering was just happening, and I felt I could be more of an equal, rather than coming from behind.”

Gibbons graduated from U-M with a Bachelor of Science in Science Engineering and a Master’s of Science in Computer Information and Control Engineering in the same year. While many of his favorite restaurants and hang-out spots, such as the Pretzel Bell, have changed or moved, he still enjoys coming back to campus when he can.

“I remember being helped by lots of people, and having the freedom to kind of find my path there,” Gibbons said. “I found a pod of like-minded people, and we had a lot of fun.”

I remember being helped by lots of people, and having the freedom to kind of find my path there.

-Fred Gibbons

After Michigan, Gibbons went to Harvard for an MBA, and then joined Hewlett Packard (HP) as a Product Manager. He served as Marketing Manager of HP’s 3000 mini-computer product line.

“One thing that’s consistently worked for me in my life is to follow my instincts about what I’m good at,” Gibbons said. “I joined Hewlett Packard because I was technical, but I was also a business guy, and I was good at motivating engineers to develop great products and ideas.”

While working at HP, Gibbons met a fellow entrepreneur in engineering who took him out for sushi. The entrepreneur was Steve Jobs, and the two became lifelong friends. Jobs even helped Gibbons found his own startup, the Software Publishing Corporation, which produced Harvard Graphics, the PFS Series, IBM Assistant Series, and Power-Up Catalog.

“He gave me a computer, he gave me a printer, he gave me everything I needed to develop my first applications for the personal computer,” Gibbons said. “I don’t know why that happened. I used to tell him his ideas were wrong.”

After Gibbons took his startup public and sold it, he received an offer from Stanford to start their entrepreneurship program in their Graduate School of Electrical Engineering. After that, he was hired as an adjunct professor and allowed to develop his own course in product management and product design.

“I’ve worked with too many great engineers who can build anything, but they end up building things that people don’t want,” Gibbons said. “So my course teaches Master’s and PhD students that when you’re going to build a product, you must first understand the job somebody is trying to do. For example, people don’t want to buy a quarter inch drill; they want to make a quarter inch hole.”

I've worked with too many great engineers who can build anything, but they end up building things that people don't want.

-Fred Gibbons

As a teacher, he often finds himself mentoring students, like him, who are the first in their family to go to college. He offers this advice:

First, invest most of your energy in developing your strengths. You need a base level skill in your weaknesses, but don’t be afraid to look for what you’re good at and put your learning effort behind that.

The second thing is, everybody who’s a teacher and anybody who’s in the business wants to talk to you. So reach out to them. You don’t have to be afraid. Let them know if you’re struggling. These people are welcoming, and they really care. Trust them to give you a shot.

The third thing is, there’s an amazing amount of resources. Like I really struggled in math, but there are people and resources to help you. And sometimes you have to shop around to find the right counselor or person who understands you and what you want to do.

Finally, don’t be afraid to share your story. Our experiences as first-gen students are different and unique, and I think you’d be surprised how many people are interested in our stories. I grew up in a fishing village, so I know a lot about boats and things like that, and not many other people had experience with that, and they were interested in my background.

Gibbons is also a painter. Below is a gallery of some of his pieces. You can see more of his work here.