Success in a Hard Driving Industry

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A graph of Bob Whitmore’s life would show a steep upward trajectory from “cub” engineer to Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President of one of the largest manufacturers of hard drives and storage solutions in the world.

But along the way, he also has circled back to places and ideas in his past that could help catapult him toward the future.

Whitmore got a good start in life: He was born in Iowa City at University of Iowa Hospital, where his father was a resident in orthopedic surgery. The family moved to Davenport, Iowa, where young Bob excelled in math and science at Davenport Central High and enjoyed tinkering on his uncle’s farm. Although he considered studying architecture, he decided to study engineering and returned to Iowa City as a freshman at The University of Iowa.

“Like most engineering students, I found the curriculum extremely challenging,” says Whitmore, who earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering in 1986. “In a way it was a test of attrition: ‘Can you survive this?’”

Survive he did, with academic achievement recognized by induction into Tau Beta Pi national engineering honor society and Pi Tau Sigma national mechanical engineering honor society.

He also gained entry into graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1988. While wandering around the job fair during his first year of graduate school, he picked up a brochure from a company called Magnetic Peripherals (MPI), a division of Control Data Corporation.

“It said something about rotating through several different engineering specialties,” Whitmore says, “and that kind of appealed to me. On the other hand, the company made disk drives, and I didn’t know anything about disk drives.”
But the rigorous engineering curriculum at Iowa served him well when he finally entered the work world, beginning with Control Data.

“At Iowa, I learned to solve a problem, communicate an idea, and participate on a team—all things that a good engineer needs to be able to do,” he says.

In Whitmore’s worldview, even if you don’t know what a disk drive is, as an engineer, you can figure it out and then figure out a better one.

At Control Data, rotation through different divisions offered the young engineer an opportunity to learn more than just the traditional engineering craft. Rotations through manufacturing, product engineering and research gave him a broad view of the company, allowed him to quickly create a company wide network and understand the applications of computer technology which disdain traditional disciplinary barriers. Later in his career, Whitmore and his family—wife Molly (RN, BSN 1986) and two children—were given the opportunity to live in fascinating places, including Singapore.

That cross-disciplinary, global experience reverberated years later, when Whitmore had risen to be one of the top executives at Seagate Technology—the multi-billion-dollar company that bought Control Data (MPI) in 1989.

“It occurred to me a couple of years ago that we no longer offered that program to let young engineers experience many different facets of the Seagate business,” he says. “So I reinstated it.”

Today the Strategic Engineering Program—STEP—offers Seagate’s top engineering recruits the opportunity to learn about components, product engineering, and manufacturing by working in six-month rotations in the company’s Asia, Northern Ireland, and US operations. The program is highly selective, each year accepting only a dozen of some 200 new engineers.

That global experience mimics Whitmore’s own. Although Seagate’s Minneapolis operation is his home base, he continues to travel frequently to the company’s international manufacturing plants and design centers to ensure his teams are working effectively and efficiently. In 2006 the UI alumnus returned to his alma mater to talk to engineering students about the importance and impact of globalization.

As Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Whitmore is responsible for overseeing the design and creation of all the technology that goes into Seagate’s disk drives--$800 million of the company’s one billion dollar hard drive research and development budget. (The company’s annual revenue is approximately $12 billion). His attention and energy is focused both tactically on near-term productivity and strategically on staging for market demands five and ten years in the future.

Whitmore says the company has a single guiding principle: “People will create and consume data.” He adds that data storage needs have been increasing at the breathtaking rate of fifty-percent increase compounded annually—a figure that undoubtedly assures many people in the industry of their job security.

And will there come a time when hard drives are obsolete?

“Hard drives will be around for a long time,” Whitmore says. “There’s just not enough capacity in other technologies—such as flash—or at a low enough cost to accommodate the replication, movement, and cloud storage of all the data that’s out there.”

The Iowa native also looks to the future in his stewardship of extensive woodlands that he and his wife own in Wisconsin. The couple works with state foresters to manage the timber, planting and thinning for sustainable growth.

“If I hadn’t become an engineer, I would have been a farmer,” Whitmore, a member of the college’s advisory board, says. “I guess I’m kind of circling back to those days when I enjoyed tinkering on my uncle’s farm.”

He and Molly also actively support the Ponseti International Organization, a nonprofit established to further the work of the late Dr. Ignacio Ponseti, a world-renowned University of Iowa orthopedist who developed a “low-tech,” nonsurgical method to treat children with congenital clubfoot. Ponseti trained Whitmore’s physician father, so the son decided to close the loop by giving back to help sustain the master’s work.

“Medicine is a lot like the hard drive industry,” Whitmore says. “The latest and greatest technology often is for the better, but sometimes it’s the straightforward solution that wins the day.

“We’ve done pretty well at Seagate,” he adds. “Since I started in this business, more than 200 hard drive companies have come and gone. Three are left. Kind of like getting through the U of I, it’s a matter of survival, but we’ve done more than survived: We’ve thrived.”

Something that could well be said about Whitmore himself.