PUBLISHED:March 08, 2009

Dennis O'Connor '10

March 7, 2009 — Reflecting on his pursuit of a legal career after a long and successful tenure as a microprocessor engineer, Dennis O’Connor points out that both fields involve problem solving. “The practice of law is about solving problems for people,” says O’Connor, a gregarious 50-year-old 2L. “Every aspect and element of law is attractive to me on that basis. Engineering is also about problem solving — it just doesn’t always have that personal element.”

The named inventor on more than 30 patents filed during the 15 years he worked for Intel Corp. in Chandler, Ariz., O’Connor explains that many of them involve “highly technical things that are deep in the heart of a microprocessor.” Occasionally, though, he sought inspiration in the view of suburban sprawl from the fourth floor of the Chandler R & D campus.

“I would ask myself, ‘Is there something new we can do with a microprocessor that these people would want that would make their lives better or make my life better?’” That line of inquiry, along with his love of the syndicated sci-fi drama “Babylon 5,” led to his invention of the digital video recording technology now best known to consumers as the “TiVo” box.

“I would get home from work when the show was halfway through, and didn’t like to wait until it finished taping and have to rewind the tape,” he recalls. “So I thought about whether there was a way a PC could solve the problem.” Although Intel did not pursue manufacturing the system beyond developing a few prototypes — the company’s commercial success was based on microprocessors — O’Connor says he takes great satisfaction in being the named inventor on the patented process. “TiVos are great. They changed my life.”

Having graduated from SUNY Albany with a degree in math in addition to two years at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., O’Connor says he learned most of his engineering skills on the job at General Electric’s Corporate R & D Center during the 1980s. “It was an exciting time. For an engineer, that place was magic. You could walk down the halls and look into the lab bays and see everything that other people were doing.” It was at GE that he found his interest and ability in the microprocessor architecture work that eventually took him to Intel.

Encouraged by Intel to patent novel microprocessor features, O’Connor found that he liked working with patent lawyers and agents. As a member of the intellectual property committee for his business group, he also helped determine which inventions warranted patent applications, an exercise that he says helped him take a hard look at the novelty of his own work. “I would advocate for my own inventions if I thought they were economically important, but I would happily advocate for another engineer’s invention over my own if I thought it was neat [and innovative.]”

As much as he enjoyed engineering, O’Connor says he periodically thought about going into law. Undergraduate elective courses had impressed upon him the fundamental logic of law, he says. “Looking at the underlying issues and the unresolvable problems to which society has to cobble together a makeshift solution got me first thinking that someday I might want to be a lawyer.” He finally decided to make the career shift thanks to financial security resulting from the Internet and Phoenix real estate booms, coupled with the fact that Intel was selling his division.

Just as he found “magic” at GE’s Corporate R & D Center at the start of his engineering career, O’Connor describes Duke Law as “Disneyland for the mind,” referring to the intellectual discourse available in class and out. “Even in engineering you will not find this level of intelligent, rational thinking among so many people in one place,” he says adding that being an older student both helps him to fully appreciate the experience and makes him determined to make the most of it. Law school highlights have included working as a research assistant for Professor Jerome Reichman, the Bunyan S. Womble Professor of Law, a leading expert in international intellectual property, and serving as president of the Intellectual Property and Cyber Law Society; O’Connor was lead organizer of the group’s highly successful “Hot Topics” symposium.

His experience at Duke has changed him, says O’Connor: “How I think about the world and how I view the world has changed. I’ve become less politicized. I have a deeper appreciation that some problems can’t be solved.”

O’Connor will spend his 2L summer working for Judge Roslyn Silver of the Arizona District Court in Phoenix, where he and his wife intend to permanently return after his graduation. While he’s certain he can be happy in any area of legal practice, he admits a natural affinity for intellectual property law.

“Being an engineer is who you are, it isn’t a job,” he says. “It’s the same with law. If I can practice in patent and technology law I can keep both those parts of me engaged. And that would be enormously fun — to be able to apply both my legal and engineering skills to solve problems for people. That’s got to be the dream job for me.”