by Sudhir Ispahani

5 principles for a fulfilling career from the ‘Father of Digital Mobile Communication’

Nov 05, 2019
CareersIT Leadership

Dr. Jan Uddenfeldt, who helped develop groundbreaking wireless technology for Sony and Ericsson, says leaders cannot go it alone.

Blurred silhouettes amid abstract technology.
Credit: AlphaSpirit / Getty Images

“It’s great fun to learn new things,” says Dr. Jan Uddenfeldt. “Otherwise, I’d be retired by now.”

That’s why, after more than 40 years as a pioneer of mobile technology, Jan is still a force in the tech world, serving as an advisor and board member in Silicon Valley. He’s living proof of the Aristotelian ideal: the only way to do great work is to love what you do.

jan uddenfeldt Jan Uddenfeldt

Dr. Jan Uddenfeldt

The need to learn, and to create, is what drives him every day.

“I cannot help doing it,” says Jan, who helped develop 3G and 4G LTE wireless, Bluetooth technology and Android phones – as well as GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication), the standard cellular protocol for most of the world. Known as the “father of digital mobile communication,” he was inducted into the Wireless History Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 2014.

“The key to serial innovation,” Jan says, is that “you mustn’t just be pleased with what you have done. There will come new competition. They will catch up with you, so you have to be ahead all the time.”  

That’s just one of the insights he’s collected over the course of a career – and a lifetime – of profound change and advancement. Based on our podcast conversation, here are five indelible lessons from a true pioneer.

1. Invest in yourself

Growing up in his native Stockholm, Sweden, “I was interested in science early on,” Jan says. 

“It was fascinating to read about inventions and what people have done in the past. Something that really drove me into this field was what you could do with mathematics. I think that’s what made me go into high tech – or, in that era, electrical engineering.”

College led to grad school, and as Jan was working on his master’s thesis, his professor urged him to continue his studies. 

“I thought, well, that’s not so good,” Jan says. “That can’t earn any money. But then I did it, and I never regretted it, because I learned so much. Basically, all the things I learned when I did my PhD — I’ve been able to use in practical life.”

2. Start early to be first

After he earned his PhD from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in 1978, Jan joined the radio division at Ericsson, “which was very small – like two percent of the company at that time,” he says. “But they had skillful people, and it was great fun. I felt that wireless stuff was the future because there’s so many opportunities if you’re wireless. You can do so much more than if you are tethered to a wire.”

Jan stayed at Ericsson for nearly three decades, eventually heading R&D for the company’s 25,000 engineers and later becoming its Global CTO and Senior VP. 

Until the early ‘80s, Jan worked with analog cellular technology. But it wasn’t long before he built up a team doing digital cellular, or digital wireless technology.

That technology was later chosen to be the GSM standard. 

“Europe decided on a joint system and that really drew the market in a fantastic way. That was so much better than the analog stuff, but it was complicated. No one believed it was possible to make hand-held phones. That was a big struggle, but we did it.”

Back then, the cellular networks (then 2G) had a transfer speed of only like ten or 20 kilobits, he explains. By about 1993, Jan and his team were building 3G technology. 

“People started to talk about Internet and high-speed data, so we felt that we needed at least a megabit. That was high-speed in those days – to make a megabit was kind of dramatic.”

Ericsson began testing 3G in 1995, though it didn’t launch until the early 2000s. 

“It takes a while to develop things, so we realized we better start early to be first. I always thought it was important to be first, because then you can win. If you are late to the table, it’s hard.”

3. Think big and your team will follow

Under Jan’s leadership, Ericsson became a global leader in telecom during a period when wireless technology was spreading rapidly – alongside the internet itself.

“We became very successful in the mobile space, that’s for sure,” he says. Apart from the growing adoption of GSM and 3G, Jan and his team did pioneering work on Bluetooth technology. “We had good people and a good leadership team that could take risks.

 For technologists like me, that was great. We had money. We could try new things. We could do one thing and then start another.”

It’s telling that Jan refers to himself as a technologist.

“I don’t think I’m the best manager around,” he admits. “My style of leadership is basically to innovate. What I can do is drive new things and make them happen – to set up great teams. That’s what you need. You don’t need thousands of people, actually. You need very clever people.”  

Jan took on leadership roles because digital communication revolution demanded it, he says. Ambitious, world-changing projects aren’t a solo pursuit. 

“You cannot do it alone. I kind of became a leader because I was driven by this vision. If you are a visionary leader, people tend to come to you, and they like to work with you – even though you may not have the best skills as a manager.”

4. Keep your edge

After Jan left Ericsson in 2010, he joined Sony Mobile Communications as CTO, overseeing the company’s transition to Android smartphones. At that point, 4G LTE networks were supplanting the 3G standard and setting the stage for today’s ultra-connected tech ecosystem. 

Since then, Jan has stayed in Silicon Valley, where he serves on the boards of at least half a dozen startups whose products range from AI to multi-touch displays, cloud security and real-time kinetic GPS. 

It’s a place where “people are doing things that few can really dream of,” says Jan. “And it’s a very different world we live in now. Because almost everything today is software.”

That has a few big implications, he adds. 

“You can do things very fast. You can also fail fast … If it doesn’t work, you try something else. That, I think, is a very different way of doing the work to innovate and develop products.”

There’s another fundamental difference between startup world and Stockholm, says Jan.

“European leaders are usually businesspeople,” he explains. “Silicon Valley leaders are a little bit like half-crazy people. They are doing things that few can really dream of … And I think that seems to continue to be the case. Those people pop up all the time. The companies we have seen the last 10 years like Google, Facebook, Netflix and so on. They all are like that, I think. They have very visionary leaders.”

5. Pay it forward

5G is now just around the corner,” says Jan. This next-generation network is essential to everything we’ve been anxiously anticipating: AI; autonomous vehicles; virtual and augmented reality; IoT in everything, everywhere.

Jan explains that all of these technologies need to process massive amounts of data, “Autonomous driving is a good example. It needs data to be good. All these bandwidths – you can always ask whether you need it or not, but history proves that it’s very simple. You need it.”

While we wait for our self-driving Ubers to arrive, Jan is happy to share the hard-won wisdom he’s gained on the avant garde of wireless tech.

“The main thing for me is to give back,” says Jan, who consults with Ericsson and Sony in addition to working with various startups. “For the next generation to learn from our generation. They will have a lot of things they will do anyway – that they don’t have to learn from us. 

“But it’s good for them to have some perspective, and sometimes it can help them not to make the same mistakes … to learn from what we have done, both our successes and our failures.”