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Not Just Another Notebook

Scientists' laboratory notebooks have illustrious histories -- and deserve a shot at the future.
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One of the first things I did, upon founding my first company, was to buy a bunch of laboratory notebooks imprinted with our firm’s name. Each new employee was issued a numbered notebook and personally instructed as to how to document his or her work, especially innovations or inventions. This included the receptionist.

I had two reasons for doing this. First, I wanted to reinforce the idea that intellectual property development and protection was a key component of our firm’s business plan, and that we took it very seriously. Second, it sent the message that everyone’s ideas had value to the company. No exceptions.

Too often, a company’s corporate culture creates expectations about whose ideas will be heard and whose won’t be. How many companies expect--truly expect--their receptionist or their shipping clerk to suggest the inspired idea that leads to the next blockbuster product? Thirteen years after Clairvoyante, mine does.

The lowly notebook does not often get the respect it deserves. We think of notebooks as repositories for nearly illegible meeting notes, appointment dates, and to-do lists. These are all necessary functions, of course. But the noble laboratory or inventor’s notebook is in another league altogether. Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings might still be in our leading museums, but would his name be known by nearly everyone if not for his notebooks filled with illustrations and text describing his ideas on flying machines?

Attending Fairchild U

My first job as an engineer was at Fairchild Semiconductor. It’s called Fairchild University for a reason: It’s known for the number of firms founded by its alumni. On my first day I was issued a numbered laboratory notebook. My new boss, C.C. Wu--the man who invented the matched dual operational amplifier in the early days of the integrated circuit--showed me how to use it.

Writing in that notebook became a very strong habit. I took pride in the neatness of my entries, the workmanship of my illustrations, the clarity of my thoughts. The discipline of a well-written entry forced me to think through my ideas and their implications. Each time I made a new entry, I had a senior colleague read it over, and then sign and witness, each new page.  

This was not some perfunctory review. My colleagues questioned each idea, in detail, until they understood exactly what I was attempting to document. I came away with new ideas for further research and better skills as a writer, with a new ability to more clearly state what might have started out as only a vague idea. I will be forever grateful for this early discipline.

When I moved from Fairchild to Advanced Micro Devices, I was again issued a numbered laboratory notebook. But, surprisingly, I wasn’t given any instruction about how the notebook should be used. The act of assigning the notebook was just another just another task on a checklist that the human resources department rushed through for each new hire.  

Months later, as I prepared for my first patent application, AMD’s attorneys complimented me on the quality of my documentation. Over the next several years, those attorneys used my notebooks in training sessions for both new and longtime employees.

In 30 years, I’ve filled volumes of lab notebooks. I’ve been told that such notebooks will soon be a relic of the past, and will go the way of manual typewriters. Now we write up our reports on laptops while sipping our second mocha. When we’re done, we hit send and entrust our writings to the vagaries of the local wifi hotspot. I’m even told that the whole reason for an invention notebook--the need to prove priority-;is no longer valid. The United states has joined the rest of the world, granting priority by “first to file” rather than “first to invent.”

Yet I remain the anachronism, sitting in the corner of a café, with my pen hovering above the pages of yet another notebook, marshaling my thoughts to renewed clarity before committing them irrevocably to paper, and perhaps to prosperity.

Last updated: May 30, 2013

CANDICE ELLIOTT | Columnist | Springboard Enterprises

Elliott is Springboard Enterprises alumna and currently founder/CEO of Nouvoyance, an independent fabless semiconductor firm, developer of PenTile Subpixel Rendering technology. Her previous start-up, Clairvoyante, was sold to Samsung Electronics in 2008.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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