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Sierra Wireless founder Norman Toms has a knack for being in the right place at the right time when it comes to new technology.

"I've found some really interesting niches over the years, certainly," chuckles the chief technical officer of the Richmond, B.C.-based wireless equipment maker.

"But early on, I never quite grasped the idea that in order to make money out of technologies you had to get the timing right ..."

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Still, as a youngster growing up in Dublin, Ireland, the moment he started thinking about a career, the one thing he did have a firm handle on was that science and technology was where he wanted to be.

"School was kind of divided into three classes in the 1950s. There were the people doing classics - Greek and Latin primarily - and they would go on to do ill-defined, highly prestigious but poorly paying jobs. There were the people who did what was called finance or business who sort of disappeared into back office jobs doing filing and bookkeeping as far as we could work out," he said.

"And then there was the group in the middle, the people who did sciences, who generally weren't considered to be quite as brilliant as the people who did classics, but would get paid for doing whatever it was that they did," he laughed. "So I decided to pursue the sciences."

Mr. Toms went on to earn a bachelor's degree in natural sciences and physics, and then left Ireland to pursue a PhD in physics at Cambridge, specializing in how electron microscopes process images.

But while school gave him a solid grounding in science, he said some of the most valuable education involved management skills.

"Probably the most important things I learned were how to run a rowing club, how to be chairman of a college students club, and how to organize people," he said.

He adds that he's relied on that experience again and again over the past 30 years. "My best skill, if you will, is definitely surrounding myself with the best people and letting them do the job they are best at," he said.

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But he doesn't think of himself as a businessman, even though he founded a company. "I sit at the intersection of technology and business, and I think I have a reasonable vision of how the two intersect. But I prefer the advisory role now to the executive role of actually doing the day to day implementation of either side of that business, if I can help it."

And Mr. Tom's first job was a long way from the wireless business - as a student, he took wedding photos and developed them in a darkroom. After leaving school, his first professional job also involved techniques of manipulating light, this time at Britain's Plessey Telecommunications Research in the fibre-optics lab.

"It was an interesting job in fibre-optics, which in 1972 was brand new area. In fact the first fibre, very few people will remember today, was actually a long capillary tube filled with incredibly smelly organic fluids, and theory at that time suggested you could never make solid fibre with acceptable losses. So it came as quite a shock to us when, during my first year of work, Corning came up with the first solid fibre," he said.

With his background in theoretical optics, he was in the right place at the right time to be at the forefront of fibre-optic development.

"It was certainly fortuitous to get involved in an area that was about to expand so rapidly," he said. "I had the right analytical tools, if you like, to move into fibre optics, because it was a new area for everybody and quite a fascinating one."

Over the next few years, his expertise opened several doors outside Europe.

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In 1975, while visiting friends in Canada, Mr. Toms interviewed with Bell Northern Research and landed a job in Montreal where he spent three years building up experience in several types of broadband networking, from fibre to coaxial cable.

Then in the late 1970s, when few people had even heard of "multimedia," he had an opportunity to join a consulting firm being started by his former Bell Northern manager. Coyne and Associates and its sister company, Interdiscom, built some of the early equipment that allowed coaxial cable systems to be used for voice, video and data transmission to homes and businesses. Interdiscom built a prototype network outside Winnipeg for Manitoba Telephone System in the early 1980s, but the company was just too far ahead of the market and went bust.

Mr. Toms headed south to Scientific Atlanta in Georgia, where he developed modems for high-speed data transmission over cable networks. Then in 1987, a corporate headhunter from Mobile Data International came knocking, looking for someone to do mobile wireless data communications development. Mr. Toms packed his bags for Vancouver and a job as MDI's director of new product introduction.

Motorola U.

A year later, MDI was bought by Motorola, and Mr. Toms learned the difficult but valuable lessons that come from moving from an entrepreneurial company to a what he called a very disciplined, large multinational.

"The people who were there at the time use the term 'Motorolla university' for that experience period," he said. "I think we all learned a tremendous amount about process and some of the basics of quality in a company."

He worked his way up through the ranks at Motorola until he reached the vice-president level, but a rift developed while he and his team worked on a wireless system for a German telephone company. Motorola wanted to use proprietary technology, while Mr. Toms - again ahead of his time - advocated an open standard that was then largely unknown called the Internet protocol.

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"Motorola had a tight delivery schedule and they had stuff they could use that was more or less off-the-shelf, or they had me spouting great visionary things and taking a risk on going in new directions. So I can see why they made the decision they did," he said.

"I decided to move on and try to preach the gospel elsewhere."

He left Motorola with several colleagues and joined MPR Teltech, a division of BC Tel that did consulting work, where he took on a number of jobs for the U.S. cellular industry. Again in the right place at the right time, he managed the team that helped develop what became the cellular digital packet data (CDPD) wireless communications standard.

MPR disbanded in 1992, and part of the organization was spun off to form PMC Sierra. Mr. Toms recognized the business potential of wireless and started lobbying PMC executives.

"I could see here that we had a group of people who knew the CDPD standard better than anyone in the world, and we had a network of people within Vancouver who had worked at Motorola or still worked there who made it known that they wouldn't mind getting involved in something new," he said. "Lots of coffee meetings and lunch meetings convinced me that yes, we had a team of people who could make this thing happen."

His contacts helped him secure financing, and on May 31, 1993, Sierra Wireless got its modest beginning with Mr. Toms as the first employee in a borrowed area at back of PMC Sierra.

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Walking a wireless tightrope

"It was slow for the first couple of years. We had been told we were too late to enter the industry because there were already established competitors. But I think our time at MDI gave us a certain level of cynicism that helped us survive," he said.

"We didn't believe the rocketship was going to moon instantly, and so we scaled the company appropriately," Mr. Toms added. "As a result, we saw the early entrants go bankrupt within a couple of years and we just avoided it ourselves by gritting our teeth and doing everything we had to do to stay alive."

Mr. Toms co-ordinated the development of the core wireless engine found in Sierra Wireless products. With the help of co-founder Andrew Harries, the company's senior vice-president of corporate development, Sierra Wireless has gradually expanded into a major player in the wireless hardware and software market. In 1998, Mr. Toms was recognized by the Wireless Data Forum with an award for lifetime contribution to the industry, and in 1999 his company was named Canada's fastest growing technology firm by consultant Deloitte & Touche.

Sierra Wireless went through a Canadian stock market listing in 1999 and another on the Nasdaq Stock Market in 2000, and is now a multimillion-dollar company with more than 200 employees.

The sailing has gotten rougher again in recent months, though. The company has been hit by the technology-industry slump, and Sierra Wireless recently announced a round of layoffs.

The cutbacks hurt, Mr. Toms said, because aside from a bit of photography and a recent trip to climb Kilimanjaro, he says Sierra Wireless has been his "hobby and his life" for the past eight years.

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"I feel for anybody who has to lose job in these types of bumps, and it's always very unpleasant and painful and I take it quite personally," he said. "This job would have been a totally meaningless achievement if it wasn't for looking around and seeing several hundred people who are getting something gainful beyond just a paycheque."

The path ahead

But while the economic outlook is less than glowing, Mr. Toms is not discouraged.

"It's always disappointing when you miss the expectations of a continuously smooth growth curve and you hit a bump that has a little bit of a negative in it. But I think later on when we come back and look at history, that bump will be smoothed out in the overall growth of the industry," he says.

He adds that when he started Sierra Wireless, in some ways he was ahead of the curve again in terms of the market's readiness for the technology. But he said the market is approaching some major milestones on the path to widespread wireless data adoption.

"I'm really looking forward to the next couple of years. Right now we're seeing a bit of technology confusion that may be causing users to scratch their heads before they dive in and start investing in wireless data. But by the end of this year, we're definitely doing to see North American cellular carriers with many tens of kilobits of capability being offered to the end user, and we'll see the same thing in Europe. And people on-line all the time."

On his Kilimanjaro climb, Mr. Toms said it was mainly a matter of, "just putting one leg in front of the other and then remembering to keep doing that a few tens of thousands of times." In a similar vein, he said wireless market is like a path stretching away up a steep mountainside, and he plans to keep on climbing.

"I've never been able to look forward into my career and say this is where I'm going to be five years from now. My work could easily take me to unexpected places, although right now I don't see it taking me into anything but wireless. It's a fascinating area that covers such a broad range of ground that I think you can find enough areas to explore in it to keep me busy well past any rational retirement age," he said.

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