NACStech 2010 speaker had a few laughs designing world's first 32-bit microprocessor
Few have been bowled over by the humorous insights of an electrical engineer. But few of us have met Don McMillan, a professional comedian who helped design the world's first 32-bit microprocessor.
The NACStech 2010 General Session Speaker — a former AT&T Bell Laboratories engineer and Silicon Valley chip designer — is familiar from numerous TV appearances, including stints on NBC's "The Tonight Show" and A&E's "Evening at the Improv." McMillan is the star of 15 Budweiser commercials and can be seen in spots for 7-Eleven, Little Caesar's pizza and others.
Attendees at NACStech 2010 discovered he's the only comedian who references "Avogadro's Number" and "XML" — and beta tests all his jokes. Convenience Store News recently spoke with McMillan about his career path and technology.
CSNews: What road brings someone with a master's degree in electrical engineering to comedy?
McMillan: No high school guidance counselor has ever looked at an SAT score and said, "Let's see. You scored 760 in math and 680 in verbal — young man, you should become a comedian!" So, I got my masters degree in electrical engineering — the funniest of all the types of engineers — from Stanford University and started my career in Silicon Valley. I was living in San Jose in the late '80s during the comedy boom in the Bay Area. While attending a show, the emcee mentioned an open-mike night where anyone could do a five-minute set. So I did. I loved it. I was engineer by day and stand-up comic by night. My big break happened when I won $100,000 on Ed McMahon's "Star Search" in 1993. I told my boss I was quitting. He got a big smile on his face, shook my hand and said: "I am so happy for you! That is great!" It never occurred to me until later that maybe he was just relieved to get rid of me.
About 12 years ago, I started using Microsoft PowerPoint in my show. It gave my show a new dimension. I started applying my years of engineering problem-solving skills to challenges such as relationships, kids, pets and family. I have charts and graphs about everything from what you can expect when you make microwave popcorn to determining the optimum thermostat setting to satisfy both me and my wife.
CSNews: What can those involved in convenience retailing and retail technology learn from your experiences?
McMillan: A laughing customer is a happy customer. A laughing employee is a happy employee. People need to laugh — every day. Laughing is good. It reduces stress. It lowers blood pressure. Some people say, "But my job is not funny." I have yet to meet a group that doesn't have some kind of "funny" around them. Sometimes they don't see it because they are too close to it. Sometimes they are just too serious or too focused to see it. Hopefully they'll see what I do in my show and take it back to their workplace.
CSNews: What's your take on the state of in-store or other retail technology today?
McMillan: When I graduated from college in 1984, state-of-the-art retail technology meant the cash register had a digital display and it could multiply, too. Woo hoo! There were no bar codes. There were no intelligent kiosks. Your cash register was only as smart as your cashier. "RFID" was Andy Taylor's address in Mayberry. "Digital signage" is what you got when you cut off another driver on the freeway.
Today's technology is amazing. We are not far from being able to pull into a gas station, having the station recognize your car and automatically charge your credit card, then walking into the store and having the in-store system do a retinal scan and check your bodily status, determine what you are hungry for and then pointing you to where you can find it in the store. Now that is convenience!
CSNews: What should retailers know about social media?
McMillan: I think we as a people are still trying to figure out what to do with social media. Right now, it's the cool thing to do. At one point, everyone was on Yahoo. Now, not so much. Later, MySpace was the place to be. Now, not so much. These days Facebook is super hot. But so were leisure suits in 1976. I'm not saying social media is going to go away — my dad still wears his leisure suit — but it will eventually be absorbed into our culture and become natural, like e-mail.