When Cisco Systems, Inc. launched a search for the ideal engineering team for its TelePresence project three years ago, the company’s managers looked for sink-or-swim types of engineers.
“No one had ever done anything like TelePresence before,” says Phil Graham, senior director of engineering for Cisco, referring to the company’s unique video teleconferencing system. “So, we were looking for people who’d been continually thrown into new areas and had always been successful at executing.”
Enter Michael Dhuey. Dhuey, a 25-year Apple Computer veteran and co-developer of the monumentally popular iPod, helped breathe life into TelePresence. At Cisco, he contributed expertise in camera technology, displays, power supplies, backplanes and even in visual effects, at times working with famed Steven Spielberg cohort Janusz Kaminski to create the proper lighting effects for TelePresence.
“He doesn’t show fear of technology,” says Graham. “When he doesn’t know a topic, he just gets in and learns.”
Indeed, Dhuey’s ability to learn has put him among the finalists in the Design News Engineer of the Year balloting for two consecutive years. And he’s been placed in that rarefied realm of the engineering world for good reason: The easygoing hardware engineer has helped Apple and Cisco move beyond the realm of product engineering and into the creation of whole new product experiences. Like the iPod, which was about creating a music experience that fits inside a shirt pocket, TelePresence was designed to immerse the user in a virtual world.
Dhuey’s success in those areas shouldn’t be surprising, however, given his background. He began programming at age 14 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and by 16 was working as a programmer at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance. He was awarded his Bachelor of Science in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before joining Apple in 1980 and has earned 13 patents during his career.
The iPod, however, was Dhuey’s big splash. He joined the iPod project (then called the P68) at such an early, secretive stage that Apple wouldn’t even tell him what the product was. When he finally learned the nature of it, he still wasn’t allowed to tell his family.
“I told my daughter, ‘I think you’ll really like this when it’s done, but I can’t talk about it,’” he says.
After the P68 project launched, Dhuey had just nine months to design the electronics hardware that fit inside a tiny enclosure with a user dial and a 1.8-inch-diameter Toshiba hard disk. As hardware engineer, his job was to scale down the bulky metal FireWire-based prototype and make it fit inside a shirt pocket. Having already worked on the Apple III, Lisa, Macintosh and Mac II, Dhuey was given free reign by Apple to get the job done.
“I was told, ‘We need this project. It has to be ready by Christmas, so make sure it gets done. And don’t screw up,’” he says.
Dhuey didn’t. The iPod rolled out in October 2001 to thunderous acceptance.
“When we first announced it in October, I had a prototype, so I gave it to my daughter and said, ‘You can have the first iPod to take to school and show your friends,’” Dhuey says.
In April 2005, however, Dhuey left the iPod and Apple behind and moved to Cisco to work on the TelePresence project. Dhuey, who describes high-definition displays as a hobby, was eager to work on TelePresence because he saw it as an embodiment of the science fiction he’d seen in movies and on TV for decades. “I grew up watching ‘The Jetsons’ and ‘Star Trek’ and they always had interactive video conferencing,” he says. “I came in and interviewed and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
TelePresence, though, was different from any predecessor in the video teleconferencing world. It used fiber-optic Internet connections, not telephone lines or satellite links. It employed the latest technology in high-definition displays, cameras and lighting. Cisco, in essence, wanted its new system to be a corporate television studio. Dhuey was suddenly called upon to go beyond the world of shirt-pocket music players and enter the realm of TV imagery. He rapidly answered the call.
“He jumps into new tasks and quickly becomes an expert in those areas,” Graham says of Dhuey. “Then he’s contributing at a very high level not long after that.”
Since launching TelePresence late in 2006, Cisco has placed more than a hundred of them in corporations and agencies around the world. The units have been demonstrated for the White House and donated to Middle Eastern countries in hopes of helping defuse tense situations with more frequent face-to-face contact between leaders.
Dhuey foresees the new Cisco technology ultimately being “ubiquitous,” much like the iPod. He’s clearly proud of his role on TelePresence and says the key to such success is the company’s faith in its engineers.
“It’s like the Nike philosophy, ‘Just do it,’” he says. “They just have to trust you and let you go do it.”