This is the final segment of my interview with Drew Hirshfeld, Commissioner for Patents at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. In this segment we get to know Hirshfeld personally, as a father and New York Knicks basketball fan.
To read the interview from the beginning please see An Exclusive Interview with Drew Hirshfeld.
QUINN: All right, well, I don’t have much more, but one question that I wanted to ask was just in setting this interview up we’ve swapped a couple emails and I can’t help but notice that you’ve been emailing me at 6 a.m. So that then makes me wonder whether you are following in the footsteps of David Kappos and just not sleeping ever.
HIRSHFELD: No. I work very hard at the work/family balance, but I will say included in that work/family balance is I email an awful lot. I won’t say I won’t be sleeping, but I do plan on being on email pretty much when I’m awake.
QUINN: Right, right. So tell me about your family. So you have kids?
HIRSHFELD: I do.
QUINN: And their ages?
HIRSHFELD: I have three daughters, 19, 16, and 13. So I currently have three teenage daughters.
QUINN: Maybe I shouldn’t say anything.
HIRSHFELD: No, they’re wonderful and everyone laughs when I say that but I have, maybe I’m lucky, but I have like the easiest teenage daughters.
QUINN: That’s great. So one of them is off at college?
HIRSHFELD: One of them is off at college, yes. She’s a sophomore.
QUINN: And the other one is starting to look at colleges.
HIRSHFELD: She is.
QUINN: And then the other one –
HIRSHFELD: Is getting ready for 8th grade.
QUINN: So how do you do that? How do you juggle that? I know you’ve had to juggle that for a while. Life on the 10th floor of the Patent Office is not what most people would think of as your typical government job. It’s not a 9 to 5 or 35-1/2 hour a week job. It is a real commitment.
HIRSHFELD: Right. I think the best way to say it is my whole life is integrated together. So when I’m with my family, I’m focused on the things that I need to do with them and enjoying my family, but I will always find the time to figure out what needs to be done at work. I’m very fortunate I have been able to balance that. And I can tell you I’ve coached soccer for almost ten years. I volunteer to coach and I will continue. I’ve got two more years until the kids graduate high school and go to college, and I plan on continuing to coach. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to find that balance, and if that balance means getting up at 5 a.m. to get to work, and checking emails at night before I go to bed, or take a break from practice, whatever it is that’s totally fine. It’s enabled me to keep the balance.
QUINN: So do they understand Dad’s job? Do they know the role you’re playing in the innovation economy? Or are you still just “Dad” when you come home? You’re not “Mr. Commissioner,” you’re just, “oh, Dad.”
HIRSHFELD: I think I’ve been “oh, Dad,” up to 10 days ago. And I think that my kids have heard about the commissioner announcement through channels other than me, which was kind of an odd dynamic. I think that’s the first time that they might realize the magnitude of my role at the PTO. But like I said I’ve got the most wonderful wife and kids and we’re able to work together to keep the balance. I can tell you this past weekend I had a dozen 13-year olds out camping for a couple days and—
QUINN: So you were probably looking forward to getting back in the Office.
HIRSHFELD: That’s right! [Laughter]
QUINN: Did you get rained on where you were at?
HIRSHFELD: No, no we had perfect weather.
QUINN: Oh, good. Excellent. That’s always good. So I guess I really don’t have anything else, unless – when I first started interviewing people I would ask them a handful of fun questions to get to know them. Would you be interested in—
HIRSHFELD: I’m OK with that.
QUINN: OK. When you’re spending time just for yourself, is that going to be playing sports, reading a book, watching TV? What do you do to unplug and recharge?
HIRSHFELD: I don’t really have too much time just by myself. I would say nightly I have like an hour of TV before I go to bed just to unwind. But I have an awful lot of hobbies and things that I do that keep me busy, but usually not by myself too much.
QUINN: OK. Are you—
HIRSHFELD: Now that you say that I am thinking of something. I actually do, I own some property about 23 acres, and that’s where we were camping out this past weekend. And so the only alone time I really have is when I’m out there keeping that up.
QUINN: OK. Favorite sport to play?
HIRSHFELD: To play. To play now, now that I’m –[laughter]
QUINN: Well, back when you might have been younger.
HIRSHFELD: I was a track person. I competed in track from, let’s see, probably the 7th grade all the way even after law school — I still competed independently on my own after law school. So I did track for an awful long time. Now the downside of that is from competing that long and that hard, because I was very into what I was doing, I now have some health issues that prevent me from playing too many sports now. But I would say that my favorite sport now, which I don’t get a chance to play too much, would be basketball.
QUINN: OK. Favorite sport to watch?
HIRSHFELD: Definitely basketball. And then soccer a close number two.
QUINN: Favorite team?
HIRSHFELD: This is embarrassing, but I’m a big Knicks fan.
QUINN: Oh, that is embarrassing. [Laughter] So do you prefer college basketball or pro basketball?
HIRSHFELD: Pro basketball.
QUINN: OK. Favorite movie?
HIRSHFELD: Field of Dreams.
HIRSHFELD: I don’t know if I have a reason. I’m one of those people that likes, maybe this is some downtime, but I like movies to be entertaining and I like fantasy movies. I like sports movies and that seemed to put it altogether.
QUINN: Do you have a favorite author?
HIRSHFELD: I don’t have as much time as I would like, and if I do have spare time I’m usually reading something from the PTO. I guess my favorite author is John Irving because I like the way he covers people’s lives in their entirety, and how people grow and change.
QUINN: Do you have a favorite band or singer?
HIRSHFELD: Not particularly, no. I’ve seen Brandi Carlisle a bunch of times with my family because my whole family loves Brandi Carlisle.
QUINN: All right. Are you a sci-fi guy?
HIRSHFELD: Not too much.
QUINN: So if I said Star Wars versus Star Trek you—
HIRSHFELD: No. Not at all from that level.
QUINN: OK, all right, all right. So now, more seriously, favorite fictional inventor? And some options might be Emmet Brown from Back to the Future time travel. MacGyver. The Professor from Gilligan’s Island. Tony Stark, the Ironman. Or you can go off the board.
HIRSHFELD: So, no, so I’ve—thanks for giving me options because I drew a blank when you asked that. But I shut off once you said Emmet Brown because I love time travel stories. And Back to the Future was one of the most fabulous movies of all time.
QUINN: Yes. For me it has to be either Emmet Brown or Tony Stark. If you can invent your way to becoming an Avenger I suppose you have to be on the short list, right?
QUINN: But Emmet Brown and time travel is pretty good. OK. Famous historical figure that you would like to meet? It could be Benjamin Franklin, it could be George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, it could be somebody more recent vintage. It could be a sports figure.
HIRSHFELD: I’m going to stick with the sports theme and say Michael Jordan.
HIRSHFELD: I just love his drive. Unmatched.
QUINN: So that’s Michael Jordan prior to him trying to become a baseball player, right?
HIRSHFELD: Yeah. Michael Jordan the basketball player.
QUINN: So now the last question, I’ll ask, and we can go back to maybe being a little bit more serious here— but hopefully reflective. If Emmet Brown could zap you back into your office as the first day examiner here at the Patent Office what advice would Drew Hirshfeld today give Drew Hirshfeld 21 years ago?
HIRSHFELD: I would give myself the advice that, as an examiner, you’re really the face of this Office. That every time you send out an office action or give a phone call to somebody, you are representing the Office, and are the face of this Office. And I took the job because I really liked being able to make a decision because I think it’s the right thing to do, and no other influences on me; and I really enjoyed that about being an examiner. But I perhaps didn’t recognize how much your interactions with the public, and putting your name on that patent, how important that is.
QUINN: OK. I lied. One last question if I can.
QUINN: So since you said putting your name on that patent something popped in my head. Do you have a favorite patent that you issued? Or is there a famous patent that you issued or something like that?
HIRSHFELD: I worked on a series of patents along with other examiners because there was a series of patents filed for what’s called a coordinate measuring machine. And it was a device that would measure dimensions, it would measure in three dimensions. And it was to be used for cars that were in an accident. And instead of having to bring the car in the shop, and do these measurements in the shop, you could do it in the field. So you could literally put down this automated robotic arm and it would take measurements and tell you the damage to the car. And the reason why that stands out to me is because years after I had examined some of those patents, the inventor came back to PTO and met with a number of art units and discussed how he’s impacted the industry. And so for me that always has stood out as being one of the most exciting inventions I worked on. But I will admit partly because we got to see the results of what occurred from working on it.
QUINN: I think that’s really important. Because sometimes there’s that disconnect. You never know what you are going to work on. One of my friends, he still now works in the inventor assistance area, he’s long since retired, he issued the first patent on an MRI so he has a similar story about having worked with that inventor over and over again and has seen what that has really done and how that really has changed people’s lives.
HIRSHFELD: Absolutely. Changed the whole industry.
QUINN: And I wonder whether it might be worthwhile to encourage examiners to go back and to think whether you should have an answer to that question at the ready because I think it would help younger examiners become more proud of what they do and better understand the role they are really playing.
HIRSHFELD: Oh, it absolutely would. We actually are giving that thought, how do you make a portfolio of cases, you know, patents that examiners have worked on so that they can see not only the day-to-day that they worked on, but see the effects down the road and it’s something we have been working on and considering.
QUINN: All right. Well, thanks a lot, Drew.
HIRSHFELD: My pleasure, Gene.
QUINN: I think the Patent Office is in good hands.
HIRSHFELD: Thank you.
QUINN: And I look forward to the next five years. Congratulations.
HIRSHFELD: Thank you. I’m happy to chat with you. I’m glad you came by.