When Robert Pechman was a college undergraduate, he was told that his study of mathematics and physics would get him a good job at a company located where he wanted to live. But after earning a master’s degree in materials science and working on a PhD etching semiconductors in the 1990s, he saw his classmates sending out hundreds of résumés and having to move to places they did not want to live.
Following a conversation with a patent lawyer at 3M about patent law, Pechman left the PhD program, attended law school, and began working part-time and summers at 3M as a patent law intern during his second year of law school. After eleven years at 3M and a stint in private practice, he joined the in-house practice at Seagate Technology in December 2008, realizing that he most enjoyed consulting with inventors about the best way to patent their innovations.
At Seagate Technology—which designs and manufactures hard disk drives and other data storage devices and systems—Pechman, who is chief intellectual property counsel, seeks creative solutions to what inventors are trying to do from a very specific viewpoint. “My job as a patent attorney is to help them ferret out some broader implications of their inventions,” Pechman says. “What we’re protecting is more focused on the business needs and the product we’re trying to protect, as opposed to just being a technical paper describing what the inventor did.”
The choice of which innovations to patent and how to protect those patents depends on Seagate Technology’s business objectives and market demands. Pechman emphasizes that Seagate is a data company rather than just a storage company. “Even though storage is where we make our money, in order to be designing storage products, you need to understand how data is used and not just how data gets stored,” he says.
“It’s not the legal document that is our product. My products at the end of the day are millions of hard drives that get shipped out.”
Seagate’s customer base has evolved from computer hardware companies and the companies running server farms in the cloud to the companies that are managing and using data, such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google.
Referring to data storage as being in the cloud can be misleading. That cloud is actually located in server farms throughout the world, and much of its data is stored on innovative hard drives designed and manufactured by Seagate. The company estimates that by 2020, 1,800 exabytes of data will be installed in data centers around the world; each exabyte is one billion gigabytes. Of that, cloud data centers will account for 1,300 exabytes of installed storage—more than 70 percent of all data center storage.
“The cloud is a good analogy for remote data storage, but the word is too ethereal to have a lot of meaning,” Pechman says. “In reality, these data centers are actual physical things, and where they are located makes a big difference. Having your data located closer to where it’s going to be accessed and used has a huge impact on performance, latency, and how quickly people can get access to their data.”
Seagate’s products need to be designed to meet the power, performance, and security requirements of its customers for uses that include managing security surveillance video, streaming video, and accessing data for consumers’ mobile devices.
“We’re not the ones controlling the data; we’re the ones building features that help analysis take place,” Pechman explains. “We have this opportunity to help customers learn how to better use their massive amounts of data. The more people find data useful, the more data they are going to accumulate, create, and store, which is good for a storage company. It’s a really interesting time to be in the storage business with the explosion of data.” Seagate forecasts that by 2020, the total amount of data created by the Internet of Things will be about six hundred zettabytes, with each zettabyte equaling approximately one billion terabytes.
Hard drives are complex technological devices that rely on a constant flow of innovation to meet the ever-growing demands for greater data storage capacity. Pechman compares the operation of a hard drive to flying a 747 airplane at ten times the speed of sound a few inches above a lawn and counting the blades of grass.
“To manufacture something like that at the yields we do and with the precision we do is pretty remarkable,” Pechman says. Consequently, Seagate’s intellectual property protects not only its hard drive designs, but also the high-precision manufacturing techniques and equipment required to produce them.
Pechman’s department of attorneys and paralegals supervises law firms that are hired to file the patents on its products quickly. “We have a pretty small and mighty team, as we like to say,” Pechman says. The department has seven patent attorneys, each responsible for a separate business or technology area.
The company’s attorneys are sometimes shifted among its different technologies. “It’s a good thing to cross-pollinate so people see other sides of the business,” Pechman says. “It’s about flexibility in my team and playing to people’s strengths.”
Most of the attorneys have either an electronics or software computer engineering background, though some also have backgrounds in mechanical or chemical engineering or biology. “When I hire a patent attorney, they need to be able to understand the technology they will be working with,” Pechman says. “But I’m not hiring an engineer; I’m hiring an attorney, and it’s their skills as an attorney first and foremost that matter.”
That skill as an attorney is what Seagate relies on as the speed of innovation increases. Pechman understands that the efforts of his department are not an end in themselves but rather in the service of a larger cause. “It’s not the legal document that is our product,” Pechman says. “My products, at the end of the day, are millions of hard drives that get shipped out. I happen to play a small role as a part of that business team to make sure that happens.”