Interview Exclusive: USPTO Director David Kappos

David Kappos, Under Secretary of Commerce and USPTO Director

On Monday, July 19, 2010, I was granted behind the scenes access to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and was allowed to follow USPTO Director David Kappos throughout the day as he went from meeting to meeting. I have already chronicled much of the events of the day in the previous article– Behind the Scenes: A Day in the Life of David Kappos. At the end of the day I was granted a 30 minute interview with Director Kappos, which appears below.

In this interview Kappos discusses with me his management style, his famously long hours, how he manages to inspire the Office to work harder than ever before, his efforts to get funding for the Office, how the USPTO can help innovators create new businesses and new jobs, and how to inspire young people to do public service. We also learn that he and Judge Rader share the same favorite movie (see Judge Rader Interview at the end), he likes Star Trek and Star Wars equally (an astute political answer no doubt) and the famous American inventor he would like to meet is a “Mount Rushmore” inventor.

In terms of interview mechanics, I was joined in Director Kappos’ office by Drew Hirshfeld, Chief of Staff, and Peter Pappas, Chief Communications Officer and Kappos’ Senior Advisor.

Now, I proudly present my interview with Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, David Kappos.

QUINN: Thank you very much Director for taking the time at the end of this day.

KAPPOS: You Bet!

QUINN: I appreciate your giving me the opportunity to get an inside view of the PTO. And one of the things I try to do whenever I sit down and chat with people is to get a behind the scenes look. I got a good look today but one of the things I’d like to ask you about, since you spent so many years in the private sector, is what management techniques have you brought from the private sector into the government?

KAPPOS: Well that’s a great question, Gene, and that’s a perfect place to start. I’ve been here nearly a year now and if there’s anything that I’d say I’ve tried to do, it is to bring sensible business-like, private sector management, and especially leadership to the USPTO. Many of these things the team is already excellent at and all I’ve done is to champion them and try and find best practices and to help them to grow here. People are very adept at that, and pick up on things very quickly.

So one example of that is management’s dynamic with the important and powerful union constituencies. They have broken many past leadership teams at the USPTO and can make or break any leadership team. That was something that I started focusing on from day one and the way you achieve that as a matter of leadership is by doing several things that will seem very straight forward. Number one, you team with labor instead of working at odds with them. Number two, you include them in your decision making process instead of trying to impose decisions on them. Number three, you simply listen and respond and be prepared to make reasonable changes to your thinking based on input from the union. That is the basic leadership and management approach that I brought to working with the union– to treat them like valued partners rather than like potential adversaries. That’s exactly what I’ve done and I think it’s enabled us to get a lot of things done collaboratively with our union partners.

The second thing that I’ve tried to bring in, while recognizing that we are operating inside the government and the government is a democratic institution that is built by its nature to discount uncertainty, is to try to bring in an approach that is endemically impatient in the sense of wanting to move forward as quickly as reasonably possible on everything. I actually think we’ve made some serious progress on that and I think I’ve seen things change for the positive with the whole USPTO leadership team. An example is the guidelines that we’re putting out right now on the Bilski decision. In the past, I think we probably would have taken a little bit longer to get these out. Of course we’re not taking any short cuts, and we are still going through all of the analyses and processes. But, we are just trying to do it in a way that is on a bit more of a business time frame than a traditional government time frame. I think that the team has taken to that, and it is to the credit of the whole USPTO team. People are finding ways to pick up the pace consistent with working in a democracy. We’re not short cutting things. We’re still doing everything; in fact I think we’re doing more because we’re partnering so much with the Department of Commerce that people there have commented that they have never seen so much interaction with the USPTO. People who have been around for decades are saying that. So we’re trying to do things in a team-oriented fashion, but we are trying to do them faster.

QUINN: It seems to me that you have infected this place in a very positive way. And I wonder how you’ve managed to do that in such a short period of time. Because I know you famously have very long work hours and it seems as if your management team matches those hours and of the people I’ve talked to, not a single person complains about working more now than perhaps they’ve ever really had to under any other previous Director. It seems you are all moving forward with a common goal in mind and I’m wondering how you managed to do that. Is it just sheer force of will or leading by example? What would you credit?

KAPPOS: Well it’s always hard to say with these things. Again, I would point right back to the team. I’ve said many times that my greatest surprise in my year in the government has been the dedication and quality, skill, capability and the work ethic of the USPTO team. And this includes examiners but I, of course, work most closely with the leadership team and that includes Drew [Hirshfeld], Peter [Pappas] and many of the other people that you met today, and many people you didn’t meet. I suppose if there is anything that has helped its having senior leadership–and this includes Sharon [Barner] and myself and Arti [Rai] of course, Commissioner Stoll and Commissioner Beresford and the folks who have come in to help us succeed. They really deeply understand and are part of the IP system, just like the career team here. We’ve invested our whole lives, just like you, Gene. We have invested lives into this system too, we understand it, and we get heavily involved. As you can see, I heavily edit, at every stage, every document that goes out of this agency. Sharon devised and led the creation of the strategic plan. This stuff doesn’t get delegated to some unnamed, unknown person to just produce a document and senior management says “OK.” And I truly believe that leadership is about setting a pace, but it also is about being involved and showing you care and giving the most important thing we all have to give, which is our time. We do that around here. If there is anything that I would describe as my core leadership skill, it is that I will give people time to meet with them and listen to them and and respond to them. And I won’t necessarily tell them what they want to hear, but I think, I hope, that that causes others to get that same sense of the importance of what we’re doing and to feel like they’re comfortable spending their time investing in it because my senior management team is certainly spending its time investing in the success of this agency.

QUINN: Are you going to burn out?

KAPPOS: No, not at all. Are you kidding? I just told someone recently who said we need to take a break that this is just the first inning. We’re just getting going. And then someone else in the IP community was complaining about the rapid pace coming out from the agency and I said, (laughing) “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” So we have plenty of bandwidth. And you know, Gene, the day is short with these things. I understand that I’m not going to be here forever. I serve at the pleasure of the President and the Secretary of Commerce. If they decide they don’t want me, that’s it! These things are term limited. And so you have to come in every day with a very definite sense of impatience and with a sense that you’re not willing to wait or sit back and relax, and I think that is the way that the whole team looks at this.

QUINN: What has been the most satisfying thing about your job?

KAPPOS: That’s actually an easy question to answer. We’re very much just getting started here so I would not say that I am at all satisfied with the way things are and I don’t think anyone, Sharon or Bob or Drew or Peter or anyone else would say they’re satisfied that we’ve really accomplished anything. Yes, we’ve done some things that are really good indicators. The count system, clearly a good indicator; the SPE (supervisory patent examiner) PAP (performance appraisal plan), clearly a good indicator; and the examiner PAP, which isn’t yet approved by the union, but I think will clearly a good indicator. All of these measures that you can see moving in the right directions are clearly good indicators. But at the end of the day we will and we should be measured on accomplishments not indicators. Accomplishments are progress. Accomplishments are bringing the backlog down in a sustainable way, increasing quality of the agency. Those are the two things that I think will be heritage accomplishments. And we have a lot of work to do and a long way to go on those.

Now, that being said, so far the one thing that I feel the best about is when I walk from here to the train station, because I take the train. So I walk in every day in the morning. I was walking in at literally 6:45 this morning coming in and I’ll walk out of here at about 7:30 tonight hopefully. And when I walk down that street sometimes, and particularly now in the summer, there are a lot of people are out. And there are times when 20 people will stop me to thank me for my efforts at the agency. That’s the one thing that makes me feel really good.

QUINN: I think I know what the answer to this is going to be. But what is the least satisfying thing about your job?

KAPPOS: Well it’s kind of hard to answer that question off-hand. I think, however, the least satisfying thing probably would come down to amount of energy that we all have to spend on basic financial issues frankly and things that are second nature to the IP Community. And this is not a swipe against any one or Congress or anything like that. The folks in Congress have been very helpful in trying to get us access to our funds and OMB has been very helpful and the DOC folks have been extraordinarily helpful. But yet, it’s odd that with that many people trying to be helpful, it can be so difficult to get something done that everybody thinks is so straightforward; that the USPTO should have adequate funding to do its job. There’s not a single person that I have said that to who has said, “No you shouldn’t have adequate funding.” Yet here we are pouring enormous amounts of energy, into this very basic, you know it’s like Maslow’s pyramid and we have to be stuck at the very, very bottom fighting tooth and nail every day for food, water and shelter.


KAPPOS: And it’s unfortunate that we have to spend so much time on that.

QUINN: Well that wasn’t what I thought you were going to say. Every time I’ve heard you talk you talk about innovation and jobs. And I see right now over there just a few feet away is a bumper sticker that says “Innovators create jobs in America.” And that again would strike me as being absolutely obvious but yet it doesn’t seem like it is obvious to others.

KAPPOS: That’s a great comment, Gene, and had I thought of that I would have listed that as a tie for number one because we’ve got a long way to go and it is incumbent on us I think as the keepers of the IP System and the leadership of our Nation’s Innovation agency to make it clear to non-lawyers, our moms and dads and our folks back home if you will that the IP system creates jobs and will have a tremendous impact on the success of our country going forward and that needs to be job one getting that message across. I think it’s unfortunate that that isn’t well understood. That’s why the ministers from the UK are calling to talk about these issues. They’ve figured it out. They get it. They get that IP is incredibly important to job creation and having healthy people in our country and having the opportunity that we all had and being able to have our kids have that kind of opportunity.

QUINN: Do you worry there’s a backlash of sorts against innovation in the patent system in general? Do you sense that or feel that?

KAPPOS: No. I think there probably was several years ago, even when I was in the private sector and things were a lot more flush. And people were in some ways scapegoating the IP System. And a bad patent would come out or a low quality patent and everyone would say, “Look, there are problems with the patent system.” I don’t hear that as much any more. In fact I don’t really hear it much at all any more. I think there is recognition in all parts of the IP Community. My old sector of information technology all the way over to the life sciences sector that IP is incredibly important to our nation’s future. That I think people will say they recognize. And then where things start to break down is; why is it that people find jobs or don’t find jobs? Well a lot of them are because innovations that are stuck in our 720,000 unexamined patent applications here.

QUINN: I’ve done a few interviews recently and one of the things I’ve started trying to do is ask each the person, without them knowing who’s coming up next, to provide an interesting or provocative question. Chief Judge Michel, who didn’t know that it was you who would be next said that he would like to hear the thoughts of somebody on how we incentivize talented lawyers to go where they can do the most good as opposed to where they might make the most money immediately. And his thoughts were that a lot of times it may be better for the individual to take a lower paying job to get experience and it’s certainly better for society because you get the benefit of their work and their effort and so on and so forth. And certainly all of what we do depends upon good people being committed to getting the work done that we need done. Nowadays the cost of a law school education is almost unbelievable. So what can we do to continue to make sure that the next generation is making good decisions and making decisions that will help them to benefit society?

KAPPOS: That’s a great question and I think there are several things that we need to do especially to get talented people who are coming out of our law schools and our engineering schools and talented experienced lawyers to come and work for the USPTO. And it starts, Gene, with, number one, the recognition by the agency that we are a source of talent for the private domain and that people who gain experience in the USPTO and then go and work law firms, companies or wherever else they want to work, become ombudsmen; they become alumni of the USPTO and they are our extended family if you will. Not only is there nothing wrong with people making the USPTO one stop on their career trajectory but we ought to champion that. It’s perfectly OK. Now, that being said, obviously we want people to come and make a home here and join the family for a long period of time.

One thing you need is you’ve got to lead in providing work force flexibility. Everybody wants work/life balance, although I don’t use that term anymore because everybody knows that doesn’t exist. The way you have to think of it, the way I like to think of it, is as work/life integration. This means enabling people to go to their children’s’ recitals, to go to soccer practice but still meet the demands of a very challenging work environment. And I think the USPTO has been the world’s leader in the Federal Government at that and that’s through teleworking and work at home and flexible work schedules. This agency’s really good at it. We’re continuing to invest in it. We hope the legislation will finish going through Congress here soon; the telework legislation that will enable us to push forward even further and I think that’s a really important part. You would not believe how many USPTO employees tell me that they love working at the agency and the reason they love working here. They don’t complain about pay; it’s not as much as in the private sector, but they don’t complain about that. The thing they say is they love flexible work and teleworking. And it’s not that they don’t get as much work done; they get more work done because we let them integrate the work into their life. So that to me is incredibly important.

The other thing I think that we need to do, and we are working on this here at the USPTO, is you’ve got to communicate with your employees about the importance of what they’re doing. You’ve got to instill in them and enable them to track and understand the criticality of the work they’re doing. You and I know that this agency is one of the most important parts of the government because it’s the place every single new invention–wherever it comes from, whoever creates it, wherever they are–comes through this agency before it goes out and creates some new industry. The laser, biotechnology, unlocking the human genome, DNA, the Internet. For every single one of them the first stop is the USPTO. And some examiner granted every one of those patents. So this is something we’re working on. I want every USPTO examiner to have a docket that she or he carries that’s got the famous, important patents that they allowed and the jobs that they created and the people’s lives that they’ve saved.

QUINN: That’s excellent. I know the examiner who granted the first MRI patent who was a lifer and is very proud about that and his role in it.

KAPPOS: Yes and what you find is that some examiners keep those kinds of portfolios but others have not got them yet. And in any event we need to make it easy for every examiner to have that portfolio just like you’ve got your resume; this would be an examiners portfolio of the important patents that they granted. The MRI is a great example. Think of how many lives it’s saved. It’s saved lives of people in my direct family and probably of everyone around this table. So those are the things I think that we need to do at the USPTO in answer to Chief Judge Michel’s Question. We need to champion the importance of the work that our folks do. We’re working on that and we need to provide them with the flexibility to integrate their work into their life to make this a great place to work.

QUINN: Now I’ll extend the offer top you, without knowing who will be in the hot seat next. And if you want to take some time and get back to me in writing you can or if you want to try and think of one off the top of your head.

KAPPOS: Yes, I can think of what I feel is probably the most important question off the top of my head. And this goes back to something you mentioned, pointing at the “Inventors Create Jobs in America” sign. What do we need to do as a country to ensure that our intellectual property system truly lives up to its promise as the creator of opportunity for Americans, that it deserves to be and it should be?

QUINN: OK, now I have just some quick fun questions.


QUINN: Favorite pastime or hobby?

KAPPOS: That would be home fix-up projects.

QUINN: Favorite Sport?

KAPPOS: Ice Hockey.

QUINN: Favorite Movie?

KAPPOS: I would probably point to Casablanca

QUINN: Are you serious?


QUINN: That was Judge Rader’s as well.

KAPPOS: Is that right?

QUINN: Yes. Who would you most like to meet? And the theme is famous US inventors; Benjamin Franklin, the Wright Brothers or Thomas Edison? Or you can go off the board with another famous inventor of the past.

KAPPOS: (thoughtful pause) Abraham Lincoln.

QUINN: Oh good one. Any particular reason?

KAPPOS: Well, he saved our country and he was himself an inventor and clearly had an appreciation for the system. You know that quote that is often attributed to him that the patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, I think is really prophetic in the discussion about jobs and this whole thing that I’m very interested in which is the democratization of manufacturing. It’s when you can make your invention that you go from being an inventor who has created something interesting but really just a novelty of the mind to someone who has created something that really causes things to happen; puts people to work, saves lives, etc.

QUINN: Best Fictional Inventor: Emmet Brown Back to the Future, Q from James Bond, Tony Stark from Iron Man, or MacGyver? Or you can go off the board if you’d like.

KAPPOS: Oh Boy, I thought you were going to mention, and I will go off the board with this one too, Sherlock Holmes.

QUINN: Interesting. I didn’t realize, and I probably shouldn’t mention this out loud, but I didn’t realize he was an inventor.

KAPPOS: Yes, I would call him an innovator but you might think of him as an inventor.

QUINN: Your favorite Science Fiction visionary, Jules Verne, Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek, George Lucas of Star Wars, or H. G. Wells? Or again you can go off the board.

KAPPOS: Science Fiction Visionary? I would definitely go with Jules Verne.

QUINN: Any particular reason?

KAPPOS: I think that his work had the advantage of bringing children into the expanse of the future and enabling kids to think about it.

QUINN: Star Trek vs. Star Wars?

KAPPOS: In terms of what?

QUINN: Well you can take that question any way you’d like. Are you a fan of either?

KAPPOS: Both. You can’t choose between them. They’re both great! Dead Heat Tie!

QUINN: OK, that’s a good political answer. (Laughter all around)

KAPPOS: Yeah. Nice Job!

QUINN: Captain Kirk or Captain Picard?

KAPPOS: Boy this is where I’m going to show how out of it I am. Captain Picard is? Kirk of course I know from Star Trek.

QUINN: He was the captain of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

KAPPOS: Oh. Well I’d have to say Kirk. I’m a traditionalist.

QUINN: And the last question I have is; when you are no longer the Director of the USPTO, what is going to be the first thing you are going to do? If you’ve given that any thought.

KAPPOS: [Laughing]

QUINN: If you were on a deserted island what would you want, maybe a hamburger or a steak? So now you’re no longer the director. What is the first thing you’re going to do?

KAPPOS: I actually haven’t given that any thought. There aren’t really things that I am not doing now that I can think of. It’s not like I am going to stop working or that kind of stuff.

PAPPAS: Pop open a bottle of Champagne [Laughter] and let the cork fly.

QUINN: [Laughing] Well on that note, I probably shouldn’t take up any more of your time. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me, and thank you for allowing me a behind the scenes look at the USPTO.


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Join the Discussion

3 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Skeptical]
    August 4, 2010 07:56 am

    successfully overhauled the count system

    Success by whose measure? Certainly not by the measure of RCE’s (which still rose even with the lower count credit).

    Rumor has it that a more complete overhaul in PAP in underway, but details of any such effort have been notably lacking across the blogosphere.

  • [Avatar for Stan E. Delo]
    Stan E. Delo
    August 3, 2010 05:50 pm

    I guess Dave seems to have answered to the call of duty, as not a single comment so far? If the job of examiners is made easier through active co-operation between all parties and improved tools, the problem of the attrition of examiners might very well vanish, which would seem to be the case. I think Dave was right on the money when he successfully overhauled the count system for remuneration to the examiners. I once heard it said that one of the most critical jobs in the US is that of the patent examiners (and especially their Director), As Chief Justice Michel mentions in another post, nearly nobody really understands how important this aspect is to the growth and recovery of the American economy, including nearly all of our Senators and Representatives if might I be so bold as to conjecture.

    Thanks to both Dave and Gene,

  • [Avatar for Mark Malek]
    Mark Malek
    August 3, 2010 05:40 pm

    Great interview!

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