Following our partnership with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) in the search for the company’s Vice President of IP Licensing, Rene Chung had the pleasure of speaking with Brett Alten – Senior Vice President, Deputy General Counsel, and Chief IP Counsel of HPE to learn about his journey in discovering intellectual property law and practice, what he has witnessed in his career, what he is looking for when he recruits, as well as some of his valuable life lessons and inspirational advice.
The pandemic has caused a paradigm shift in our workplace and how we interact with each other. How has your leadership style evolved as a result? What new practices have you adopted that are most effective in retaining team spirit?
Overall, I think the pandemic has validated HPE’s leadership style. HPE has been a geographically distributed company for many years, so we’ve had a lot of time to develop a solid virtual culture with the right leadership style. The one change I’ve noticed since the pandemic is that more people share video during their meetings, which I think improves communication and helps to build deeper human connections.
IP is often seen as an obscure subject and very few people are made aware of it as a career option. What was your journey in discovering IP?
Before IP, I was building a career in physics. In college I studied physics, in Peace Corps I taught physics, and in graduate school, I earned a masters and Ph.D. in physics. I wanted to become a physics professor.
I completed my graduate research at IBM’s famous T.J. Watson Research Center in NY, and I eventually realized that spending 10-12 hours per day in a laboratory and working behind locked doors was too isolating. I realized that I wanted more human connection so I started looking at options and happened to find a book of registered patent attorneys at the NYC public library.
Although I considered other post-physics career options, intellectual property law and practice seemed to provide the human connection I missed, but also had the nexus to technology and business, another long-standing interest. Importantly, when I eventually interviewed for patent firms, I immediately knew that I found my people. It was especially true at Fish & Neave, where I spent 6+ years as a patent agent (while attending law school) and later as a patent attorney. The bottom line was that it took me a while to find patent law, but it was worth the wait.
What are some of the most significant changes you have witnessed in the IP industry?
One significant change is the patent eligibility of software. I remember in 1998 when the Federal Circuit held that software was broadly patentable, even when there’s no physical transformation. That case even permitted the patenting of business methods. Then, in 2008, the Federal Circuit considered the issue in In re Bilski, where it narrowed the patentability of software and business methods. Then in 2014, the Supreme Court held that certain computer-implemented, escrow methods were considered abstract ideas and found to be ineligible for patent protection. Each of these software patent cases changed our IP practice, and it’s continuing to evolve today.
There’s no doubt that many modern innovations are rooted in software. However, the unpredictable nature of software patent protection doesn’t encourage public disclosure of those inventions, like the patent system is meant to do. And, if the public doesn’t know or understand the invention details, the public can’t improve on them. Don’t get me wrong, IP strategies are rarely based solely on patents, but patent protection should be a solid option. In fact, many software innovations are protected by copyright and made public and leveraged through open source software projects, another important way to leverage your IP. And of course, some software inventions are maintained as trade secrets, another important form of protecting software. The point is that software and hardware should be broadly protectable under any form of IP and the owner of the software should decide how best to use them.
When we recruited for you, you emphasized the importance of hiring candidates who possess high EQ. When you conduct interviews, how do you detect and evaluate emotional intelligence?
This again reminds me of my first firm, Fish & Neave. When I interviewed there, I met with a senior partner who asked, “what would you do if you don’t become a patent lawyer” and I told him I would become a carpenter. We then spoke about carpentry for the rest of our interview and he offered me a job on the spot. Another partner once told me that he always applied the “2am question” when interviewing candidates. The question — “is this someone with whom I want to be stuck in a conference room working at 2 am?” That’s a very different and personal question, but they are related.
Both questions have little to do with the substantive practise of law, or even intellectual property law and practice. So, the decision to make an offer was really about whether the candidate has a high EQ. Does the hiring manager trust the candidate and will the candidate earn the trust of clients? And importantly, trusting relationships permit information to flow in organizations, which enables better decision-making. That’s good for the decision-maker’s career and the organization.
You have held various senior leading positions at Apple, Dropbox, SolarCity, and now HPE. In an industry where there are often very limited opportunities to progress into leading positions, what advice can you impart to attorneys who aspire to follow your path in intellectual property law and practice?
Again, the advice is simple – assuming you have the appropriate substantive skills, focus on strengthening your EQ. There are a lot of smart people, technically strong and competent, but that’s not what drives most careers. It’s trust, and I apply the same criteria for promoting and hiring. I tend to trust people that are self-aware and can regulate their emotions when things get uncomfortable.
On a more tactical level, I always advise junior attorneys to push work product forward as much as possible by leveraging everything in your toolbox. Avoid being overly reliant on your manager to provide feedback. You need to operate as independently as possible as fast as possible but communicate to make sure you don’t get ahead of your boss. And remember, it’s usually better to propose a solution than to ask for one!
You mentioned you spent some time in Ghana with the Peace Corps. Can you tell us more about your experience there?
I spent 2 years in Ghana teaching physics at a rural regional secondary school. For me, joining the Peace Corps was about adventure, risk-taking, and learning things on the fly. I was certainly given responsibilities that I don’t feel I earned. While there, I also started a vocational school as a secondary project. I wrote a funding proposal on a small portable typewriter, which UNICEF eventually funded. I brought other experienced Peace Corps volunteers into the school to help, and I loved it. One day I rode a motorcycle into the jungle searching for potential school projects and on the lookout for elephants. I got close to a small herd several times, but I never did see them. I also learned to speak the local language fairly well, which gave me the freedom I needed to travel to remote destinations. Just amazing!
Peace Corps did teach me or revealed a part of me, that I didn’t expect. I was often placed in uncomfortable, unpredictable situations with no playbook to follow. My job was to stay calm, read the situation, and figure out what to do. When you’re regularly faced with these kinds of challenges, you get used to living in ambiguity, and you learn to keep your cool when things get hot. It created a level of confidence that I didn’t expect.
What do you do to unwind?
I bike whenever I can. And, while it sounds kind of lame, I like to watch movies – action, sci-fi, dystopian futures. The most influential sci-fi movie for me was probably the Matrix. I also love movies from the 60s and 70s, like The Deer Hunter. I also love all kinds of music, from industrial techno to classical. On the classical side, I used to like Baroque, but these days I don’t have the patience for it. Now I listen to Sibelius, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov. I love the big sound that you can feel in your bones.