The Art of Innovation
By Karen Rosen, ATLANTA TREND™

Dale Malik has been a tinkerer and a putterer since he was a little kid taking things apart. He made pocket money fixing transistor radios for $1 -- in a good month he could make $20 -- and was always fascinated by how things work and why they work.

Now Dale spends his time making things work better. He’s one of AT&T’s top innovators and is counted on to help derive new products and ways of doing business. He holds more than 100 patents and was on the cutting edge of the PC, Internet and wireless revolutions.

At AT&T Labs, Dale develops next-generation technology and products for video and wireless applications in the consumer marketplace. He’ll divulge that he’s working on eight to 10 projects, but they’re so top-secret he can’t discuss them.

"My family always thinks I work for the CIA," Dale jokes.

He does share some qualities with Q, the character who outfits James Bond with the most remarkable gadgets.

But Dale’s innovations are more subtle and have become woven into ordinary life, such as leading the charge to cut down on spam and viruses, pioneering voice caller ID before caller ID on boxes became commonplace, getting rid of that annoying busy signal when people used dial-up or making your iPhone capable of setting your DVR.

Someone once said of Dale, "You can operate in zero gravity. We can drop you anywhere and good things will happen."

"I like to look around,” he says, “see what new technologies and business problems are emerging that offer an opportunity for improvement in the way things are done."

And how does Dale measure success? "At the end of the day, when a customer experiences wonderment and goes, ‘Wow, I don’t care how you did that, but that’s very nice.’ That’s the right reaction."

Early Career and Successes

Dale studied engineering at Manhattan College and was an early micro-computer programmer, developing games using a paper tape reader in high school.

After graduating college he helped pioneer the development of the first digital synthesizers and sequencers while working for musician Stevie Wonder. Not only was digital music in its infancy, but Wonder, who is blind, had to be able to use the computer to create the music on his own, without assistance. The work was recognized on the credits for Mr. Wonder’s album, The Woman in Red.

Dale was the first engineer for AT&T in the early 1980s, to leave its R&D group and move to marketing to help launched its personal computers. “I’ve got to be on the forefront of everything,” he says. "I want to see the latest innovations; I want to push the envelope. That was my forte of being unafraid."

Dale left AT&T in 1989 and helped found Link Technologies, made famous by the television commercials "Help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up."

"I had this altruism thing going on," he says. "I wanted to do something for people that they would be long lasting. Plus I thought I’d make money at it." Dale developed a lot of the early emergency response equipment, and also plunged into marketing. “I got my MBA the hard way,” he says.

After moving to Atlanta in 1992 to run the BellSouth innovation lab, Dale helped launch about 50 products in the next seven years, driving the advent of smart telephone services.

"The bottom line is ‘Are we doing the right things for customers? Are we pushing the envelope trying to figure out things that get us a competitive edge? ‘" he says.

Joining the Internet business right at the cusp of broadband, Dale quickly realized that something had to be done about spam and viruses. This was a huge problem that couldn’t be solved with just technology alone. As an industry leader he was able to drive colleagues and competitors to create a worldwide forum (Messaging and Anti-Abuse Working Group) to approach the problem from technology, operations, and public policy fronts to affect a better solution. He stepped up to a most unusual role in heading up Public Policy, and was called upon by the FCC and government agencies for advice and testimony.

"We didn’t stop the spam, but you don’t hear people complaining about it today like they used to," Dale says.

Dale says television is ripe for innovation. "One needs to stop and think: I have a big screen in my house. It’s on. What might I do? What would be nice for me to have? How that should interact with the other things I have?"

Instigating and Innovating

Innovation won’t come easily. Dale believes it takes 100 failures to get two successes. "Most people don’t like to fail. I love to fail. You know why? Because the more failures, I know I’m an inch closer to success."

He’s feels it’s just as important to be an instigator as an innovator.

"I can never take credit for what goes on here,” Dale says. “I just love that I’m a part of it."

Unlike Hollywood inventors, he doesn’t shut himself into a lab all by himself to tinker. "A big thing for me is I have great people to work with," Dale says. "It’s a little bit like putting on a musical or an orchestra. You’ve got people that can play the different instruments, now you’re got to compose. Sometimes I jump in and I’ve got to pick up an instrument."

He believes the next frontier is personalization, or personal awareness, especially with personal devices.

"People want to feel that technology understands them,” he says. “You can tell when you pick up a piece of technology whether it understands you, because it starts to do things and you say, ‘That’s right. That’s exactly what I needed.’"

Dale has a sign in his office that quotes former Alabama coach Gene Stallings: "Never confuse activities with accomplishments. Results are what matters."

"You have to prove that you’re making bottom-line impact and you’re contributing," he says. "Otherwise, you’re just doing stuff. It may be interesting, but does it translate into that competitive piece, or changing the customer’s reaction?"

Dale never knows when something interesting will emerge or will spark a change in how he and his colleagues are approaching a problem. "I don’t know when I’ll have an ‘A-ha! moment,’ but I’m constantly searching," he says. “I’m constantly thinking. I’m constantly on.

"If it ever gets dull and boring and there’s nothing to play with and there’s nothing to try, I’m done. I’ll move on to something else."

Secrets to Success

1.  Look at the problem. Look at the parts that you have available to use. Try them in different ways or not at all. Be willing to take risks and do things in a different – but very targeted – way. People generally are afraid of innovation because they fear the change and they don’t understand the structure. Innovation can be to a degree very structured. It’s not chaos.

2.  If you’re not experimenting, you’re definitely not learning.

3.    Constantly challenge the status quo. When you ask the question, ‘What can change?’ You force yourself to be uncomfortable with where you are right now. Can we be happier? It’s almost like as soon as you feel that you’re on an accomplishment, you already need to be after the next piece. A lot of people are not comfortable with forcing the issue. It doesn’t bother me at all. I think it’s very important.

4.   Engage people and be willing to listen. You must really, really listen. That sounds so parochial, but you really have to open up your mind and listen to what people are saying. Where there’s pain, there’s opportunity.

5.  Sometimes you’re most innovative when you’re under a lot of pressure. My favorite saying is, ‘A well-fed lion can’t hunt.’ You have to apply the personal pressure. When things are going well, that’s when I’m the most nervous. Otherwise it’s easy to back off.

Dale Malik is one of AT&T's top innovators. ATLANTA TREND™ expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Dale Malik for sharing his thoughts with us.


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