After 38 years at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), Margaret “Peggy” Focarino has decided leave the USPTO. She will officially retire from the Office today, leaving open the position of Commissioner for Patents.
On July 1, 2015, Focarino, known simply as Peggy by everyone at the USPTO, will become a private citizen once again. She has generously submitted to a number of interviews over the last 6 years and was, in fact, my first major interview when she was Acting Commissioner for Patents back in 2009. Upon learning of her retirement I requested one more interview – an exit-interview – which took place on June 9, 2015, in her office in the Madison Building.
Since she first joined the USPTO as the newest examiner in 1977, Focarino has worked tirelessly in a variety of different roles, always as a public servant. Not only has she worked in the public sector doing whatever job has been asked of her on behalf of the patent system, but she has also worked to be accepted as an employee of the USPTO, and not merely a female employee of the USPTO. Today it almost sounds sexist to even refer to someone as “a female employee,” but that wasn’t always the case.
“It was a difficult place when I first came here as an Examiner because of the lack of diversity and I know the job is challenging enough without having those additional issues to deal with,” Focarino explained as she told me that helping the USPTO become a diversified workplace was her most proud accomplishment. “Frankly I just tried to be one of the guys when I started because they were a little nervous around me because I was a woman and they didn’t have much experience working with women, so I tried to blend in. Today our Examiners come here and they’re celebrating their diversity and that’s just the most special and wonderful thing to me.”
There is no doubt that Focarino has been a trailblazer. As the first woman to become Acting Commissioner for Patents, the first woman to become Commissioner for Patents, and a member of the first all female leadership team in the history of the USPTO, Focarino has seen the agency change dramatically over the past four decades.
Focarino also expressed to me in our interview that one of her goals was to make the USPTO the top place to work in the federal government. A goal that she achieved last year and remains very proud of, as she should be, even if the Office did slide back to #2 in the most recent survey. This accomplishment was celebrated during her retirement party at the USPTO on June 25, 2015, with speakers recognizing that everyone except for Peggy was thrilled that they rose from a rank in the 170s to #25. Focarino wasn’t satisfied. She told everyone she thought they could get to #1.
With a few senior members of management leaving this summer there is little doubt that conspiracy theorists will believe either that Director Michelle Lee is cleaning house, or that perhaps senior officials are scrambling to leave the Office. Neither is true. In fact, speaking at Focarino’s retirement party Director Lee explained she tried to talk her out of retiring, telling Focarino “38 years is kind of an odd number, why can’t you make it 40?”
Although she says she does not know what exactly she will do, or even wants to do, once she leaves the Office, it is clear that she wants to take some time off through the remainder of the summer. I suspect that late summer, perhaps after Labor Day, Focarino will surface somewhere in the private sector. Leaving the Office after a long and distinguished career is nothing new, and in fact is akin to what other career USPTO employees have done in recent years (i.e., think Bob Stoll, Nick Godici, Steve Kunin, etc.). Although the USPTO is losing her services I have every expectation she will remain in the industry in one capacity or another for years to come.
On the issue of taking some time to smell the roses and what the future holds for her, we had the following exchange.
QUINN: I know we are down to the home stretch for you here. What does it feel like?
FOCARINO: Well, I don’t feel like I am retiring, I have to say, I still don’t feel like it’s getting towards the end because every day is just a regular day for me and every day is really full of issues and so it has not hit me yet. It probably will not hit me until I leave and then I will think “what happened?”
QUINN: Yes. It will hit you the first day you are not driving in here.
FOCARINO: Not driving here. I don’t have my Blackberry looking at it 24/7. Then I’ll realize it’s over.
QUINN: So do you plan on putting your Blackberry in a gallon of water on the way out and really taking some time off or are you going to hit the ground running on the outside?
FOCARINO: I would like to take some time off, probably at least the summer months, and just decompress a bit. I would like to think about what I might be doing that is productive in the future. So yes, I think I need some time to just think.
QUINN: I do not blame you one bit. But in talking to you a number of times since the retirement announcement was made I have a sense that you are not actually “retiring.”
QUINN: You’re leaving the Office.
FOCARINO: Yes, I am leaving the Office and I really have not thought about what exactly I will be doing next but I know that I want to continue to use my experience and do something. Obviously, I’ve put in a lot of hours here and many, many years so I’m not the type of person that would be happy doing nothing.
So why has she decided to leave the Office? She explained to me that she seriously thought about leaving after the USPTO became the top place to work in the federal government, but the timing wasn’t right.
At the beginning of any new Administration it is customary for appointed officials from the previous regime to step down, offering the new President their resignation. This means that until the President’s new team is nominated and confirmed career employees rise to hold “Acting” positions until the roles can be filled through the normal confirmation process. At the beginning of the Obama Administration Focarino became Acting Commissioner for Patents, the first woman to rise to that level on the patent side of the building. Upon the confirmation of David Kappos and his team, Focarino returned to her previous job as a Deputy Commissioner for Patents.
When she returned to her job as Deputy Commissioner she already qualified for retirement and never expected that she would become Commissioner. Bob Stoll had been appointed Commissioner, so it did seem unlikely that she would be promoted again, but when Stoll retired then Director David Kappos approached Focarino and asked her to take the job. She agreed and promised not to retire for two years, although at the time she did let Kappos know that her intent was not to remain at the Office for the full 5 years term of her contract.
After two years serving as Commissioner things changed a bit. Kappos was no longer with the Office and Michelle Lee was single handedly running the Office as Deputy Director. Focarino told me that she knew how difficult it was to run the Office even fully staffed with a confirmed Director, a Deputy, and Commissioners for Patents and Trademarks respectively. Focarino told me she decided that she couldn’t walk away at that point, it just wouldn’t have been fair to Lee or to the Office. Focarino decided to stay on longer than she had promised Kappos initially. Once Deputy Director Russ Slifer joined the USPTO she knew the timing was right to finally retire from the Office.
The decision to stay on past when she had previously told the Office she would stay is a perfect illustration of Focarino’s dedication. One thing has always been true, she has believed in the mission of the Office and she has believed in the patent system. Focarino was not about to leave the Office when the senior management team was already down one leader due to a long and protracted nomination process.
For years I have observed Focarino in a variety of roles within the Patent Office, and I have seen her excel. To say that she has delivered time and time again doesn’t quite capture what she has meant to the Office. She has a reputation as a doer. If you want something accomplished, and on time, Peggy would be put in charge. Perhaps the best illustration of this is when Director Kappos wanted to renegotiate the examiner quota system for the first time in a generation. Kappos turned to Focarino and a new count system was agreed to within six (6) weeks. To call that unprecedented isn’t enough. Negotiations with any union are a delicate dance even under the best of circumstances. Changing the definition of workload should have required a long and protracted negotiation. Instead, no doubt as the result of the trust developed between Focarino and the union over many years, the negotiations were successfully concluded in a fraction of the time one would expect they should have taken.
Speaking at Focarino’s retirement party on behalf of POPA, POPA President Robert Budens exclaimed: “On behalf of POPA, this sucks!” POPA awarded Focarino with their Defender of the Patent System award. “We haven’t given this often, and I can tell you no one has ever deserved it more,” Budens said.
The Patent Office is losing an extraordinary resource in Focarino. As Deputy Commissioner for Patents Administration Bruce Kisliuk said speaking at her retirement party, “she knows the culture of this agency like no one else.” Former Acting Director Teresa Rea explained that she was pleased to have served beside her “and our country has done well because of her service.”
There are others who can and will undoubtedly step into the fray and deliver. Still, it will be sad to see Focarino leave the Office. Her departure will mark the end of an era at the USPTO. While there are many capable deputies and assistant deputies within the USPTO, no one in senior management can come close to her years of service. Of course, as one chapter closes a new chapter always begins. Like Focarino, I agree that the Office has a dedicated team of leaders who can and will carry the Office forward admirably.
Editorial Note: Normally I publish the complete transcript of interviews like this. Due to user error (i.e., Gene forgot to put his iPhone on Airplane Mode and an incoming call turned off the recording) only a short portion of my 45 minute interview with Focarino actually recorded. Focarino has been generous with her time over the years, and has agreed to do a follow-up interview once she figures out where she is going and is established in the private sector.