An Inside Look at Lenovo’s Engineering Engine

The technology industry’s rapid pace of innovation makes sourcing Lenovo’s next big idea especially exciting. We’re working on the future of wearables, smart devices, home technology and so much more. We sat down with our Chief Technology Officer, Peter Hortensius, to talk about what inspired him to become an engineer, and how he leads his R&D teams to develop new, transformative devices.

How did you know you wanted to pursue engineering? Did you have an “ah-ha” moment that inspired you?

I come from a family of engineers – my father was an electrical engineer, and his brothers were mechanical engineers. I chose electrical engineering specifically because it’s the most math dependent, and I was really good at math. Not to mention, I love puzzles. As a kid, I would spend time with my dad working on all kinds of puzzles. That’s what I enjoy most about engineering, actually. I get to spend most of my days helping to build and experiment with new things, take them apart, and figure out how they work.

Is there another engineer past or present whose work you admire?

I think the people most engineers look up to are those initial innovators who really changed the field – Tesla, Edison, and of course, John von Neumann, who invented everything there is to know about computers. But for me personally, the people who influence me the most are a little more obscure. The first person I ever worked with at IBM was quirky and a bit of an introvert, but worked with supercomputers, an especially advanced field at the time. The people I’ve worked alongside over the years are the ones who’ve impacted my career the most because we’re collaborating by doing, trying, and experimenting with different things. 

At a 1993 IBM research event showing off one of my first projects – area wireless data communications for laptops and IBM’s tablet, the first in the industry. Here I’m giving a demo to Jeff Jaffe, then head of IBM Research Computer Sciences. Career takeaway: focus on what you think will be big in the future, position yourself in a key role, and make it happen.

Are there any companies in particular that you think are doing something really innovative?

Today, more companies than ever are doing novel, innovative things. While some of those ideas come from big companies, many come from small companies. What I enjoy most about this job is helping to find those kinds of innovations and figuring out whether we can make them a reality.

Can you tell us about a day in the life of Peter Hortensius, CTO?

The phrase “each day is different” definitely applies. But for the most part, there’s a reliable formula. If I’m in Raleigh, my day begins similar to many of my friends and colleagues. I start by checking email, sorting through the morning news on social media and watching the local news channel to get a handle on what’s happening in the world before I get to the office by 7:30 or 8am. After that, my day typically consists of conference calls and then usually a handful at night with some of my colleagues in farther time-zones. I try to maintain a work-life balance, so on the weekend, whenever possible, I like to disconnect completely – no phone calls, emails or social media.

Since I lead teams all over the world, I’m on the road quite frequently. Each quarter I’m usually traveling to China, Europe, and the West Coast of the U.S. for a week at a time. When I’m going from city to city, my schedule gets fairly unpredictable.

How do you ID the technologies you’re evaluating or exploring?

Most of the ideas or projects we’re interested in evaluating come in through my teams or through a network of contacts. Once we decide to actually consider something beyond the basic overview, then my team does a lot of the groundwork for research and viability.

We spend a lot of time and energy working with startups, looking at what’s interesting, what might be worth an investment, or whether we should direct them to a product group if they’re close to getting something off the ground. I also spend a lot of time too with our own engineers. I have the great privilege of being able to explore and evaluate the latest technologies to see if they’re the right fit at the right time to become products. We have seven R&D labs around the world, and of course, I’m down in the weeds with those technicians puzzling out new ideas. It’s an engineer’s dream to get to play in this technology sandbox.

A photo of me from my first management job with my then boss, Brian Bakoglu. Career takeaway: Great bosses can teach you a lot. Brian was that kind of boss, and I learned a lot.

What inspires or motivates you?

It depends on the job. For one thing, I wasn’t always CTO. When I ran the Think business unit, I was motivated primarily by short-term adrenaline – handling real-time problems. It’s very operational and mostly short-term focused, aside from the weekly product meetings.

As CTO, I have a much longer-term perspective. The things I oversee require me to think of in terms of “what does this decision or product look like in three to five years,” rather than “what does this look like in the next six months when I put it out as a product.” I find the puzzle aspect of figuring out a roadmap that spans years from now rather than just months intriguing.

We’ve reached a fascinating, transformative period in technology – the Internet-plus era is changing how we do everything from next-generation product development to using big data and connecting with devices and each other. The idea that one day products we demoed at Lenovo Tech World, like Magic View smartwatch, Smart Cast and Smart Shoes, could come to market is exciting. And like I said, more companies than ever are doing novel, breakthrough things with technology. There are so many, in fact, I have too many to choose from to share in my innovation of the week on Twitter @PeterHortensius.

Do you have any advice for kids entering the workforce today?

I tell anyone who asks me this question: “find something you love to do.” Once you do that, everything else will fall into place. You won’t mind working hard (or working late), you’ll be good at it, and you’ll enjoy doing it. It all boils down to finding something you love to do.

Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterHortensius.