He fired me and Launched my Career in Tech PR

People sometimes wonder how I started out in engineering and wound up in PR.  Something that happened recently really made an impression and brought my career journey full circle, 35 years later.  Read on to learn more, and I hope you enjoy the story!

Geeking out with Audio

I was walking the NAB show aisles at the Javits Center in NYC a few weeks ago, taking in the exhibits and scouting new business when I decided to check out the neighboring AES (audio engineering society) show.

Audio has always been a passion and was one of the reasons I wound up in the tech field.  I play keyboard, and liked to consider myself an audiophile back in the day; I attended AES meetings while in college in Boston, where luminaries like the Amar Bose of Bose Speakers and the “K” from KLH speakers also hung out.

I had briefly toyed with becoming a sound engineer before my parents convinced me that “real” engineering was a better career choice.  So, I switched majors, transferred schools and pursued an EE degree at B.U. – a move that cost an extra year in my studies, since I got a late start.

That was 35 years ago.  Now I was in NYC at an audio trade show and basking in all the gear.  I had recently decided to buy Avid Pro Tools, set up a home studio and finally figure out this sound engineering stuff – maybe get to compose and record the right way.

Anyone watching would have noted a shit-eating grin on my face.  And then, I saw a large booth for a company whose name I had been trying to recall recently.  I was amazed to see that it was Eventide – a manufacturer of effects processors for professional musicians.

Yes, that was the one! The company that gave me my first job.  They looked like they were doing great – it was an impressive booth, humming with activity.  And standing nearby, holding court among several admirers, was the man who had said: “You’re hired!”

It’s Agnello!!

His name is Tony Agnello.  

After flailing around after college, going on a European tour with my bros, and striking out on the job front for the better part of a year, I had lined up an interview with this man at an audio company in nearby New Jersey. If I wasn’t going to be a sound engineer, I was excited about the chance to work as a design engineer for a cool audio company like Eventide.  

It’s been a long time and I forget all the details.  At one point I made the mistake of calling him “Mr. Angelo.”  He snapped “It’s on-YELL-oh” (it seems the mispronunciation was a sore point).  That slip-up didn’t blow my chances and I was amazed to land what I thought would be my dream job.

So, I went to work at Eventide, which was in a cool office in a place called Little Ferry.  There was a funky vibe there, with much talk of gigs and name dropping of famous musicians who used the gear.

In addition to Tony, Richard Factor was a key exec (and is still there, Tony confirmed).  He was a long-haired, cool, fast-talking dude who was funny.  I once overheard Richard describing Little Ferry as “the most carefully pronounced town in NJ.” I remember there was a great hot dog place nearby, a local institution called Callahan’s.

I was given my first assignments, a station at a drafting board, circuit designs, chips, and testing equipment, and I set to work figuring out this design engineering stuff. But it was not the thrill ride I’d hoped for.  My eyelids would grow heavy as I did my best to figure out the circuits and assignments. No amount of coffee seemed to help.

And now, son of a gun, there he was, big as life, looking good, no worse for the 35-year wear.  OK, a bit grayer but fit and a little like Jerry Garcia in his later years, or Tommy Chong.

Remember Me?

The name on his show badge clearly identified the man; there was no chance I had the wrong guy. I waited for an opportune time and then tapped him on the shoulder.

“You’re never going to remember me?” Tony turned around with a broad smile, looking worried and eager at the same time. He said something like: “Try me!”

Tony Agnello, the Man, the Legend at AES

I told him my name and explained who I was.  He had given me my first job.  It lasted just two weeks. In the second week, I accidentally fried an expensive chip. Tony fired me soon after, telling me (not the exact words) that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing (and he had said that Richard agreed; seemed surprised about my fumbling around with the testing equipment).

Hearing all this 35 years later, Agnello was crestfallen and apologetic. He asked if he’d been mean about it.

“No,” I reassured.  “You were actually very nice and told me what I needed to hear.”  I explained that it really was OK, he had been right.  I was not an engineer.  But I’d gone on to a successful and fulfilling career in PR.

From EE to PR

These days when new business prospects ask how an EE geek wound up in PR. I sometimes talk about my ill-fated experience at Eventide.

From there I moved on to roles with GE, IBM, several startups, to where I am today – at Fusion PR, a tech PR agency that I helped grow from its earliest days. My roles were progressively less hands-on tech, more involving communications and people skills.  The common thread throughout has been working in the tech industry.

I am grateful for my engineering background; it has served me well in technology communications.  I might not be great at designing circuits, but I know what CPUs are, how a computer works and can explain digital signal processing.

So, I thank Tony and Eventide for giving me my first job and firing me, setting me on this path.

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4 Responses to He fired me and Launched my Career in Tech PR

  1. Don Bates says:

    Great story. Thanks for sharing. I hope you’re you’re doing as well as ever.

  2. Paul Geller says:

    Thanks for that interesting and illuminating post, Robert. EE’s loss is PR’s gain….But from the sound of it (no pun intended), worked out great for everyone.

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