After more than 35 years in the San Francisco Bay Area’s tech industry, Norbert Jeske M.S. ’81, Ph.D. ’86 has amassed a wealth of knowledge about software, hardware, the solar system, and career advancement. Rather than start a consulting business or develop a new product, he decided to spend his post-early-retirement years helping UC Berkeley students and alumni get ahead.
As one of the inaugural members of the Berkeley Career Network, an online resource that connects Cal students, alumni, and faculty, Jeske helps people improve their resumes, ace interviews, and land that first job after college. As a mentor and advisor through the Berkeley SkyDeck startup accelerator program, he helps cohort teams define their product and refine their strategy to get one step closer to VC funding. He also volunteers as an application reviewer and interviewer for The Leadership Award and The Achievement Award Program scholarships.
“I have always been very interested in giving back and contributing to society in various ways, almost all of it behind the scenes,” he says. “The idea of mentoring, which I had been doing in my professional career with younger colleagues, appealed to me.”
From the dairy farm to semiconductor simulators
Growing up about 20 miles outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Jeske knew early on he wasn’t cut out for the family business—dairy farming. Science and math interested him far more than milking cows.
After completing his astrophysics degree (with honors) at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jeske got accepted to the UC Berkeley Astronomy Department’s graduate program aimed at an astrophysics Ph.D. He didn’t wait to hear from other schools before saying yes.
“When I got the phone call in February from one of the faculty members saying, ‘We’ve decided to extend an offer,’ I just said, ‘Okay. I’m coming. You let me in, I’m coming.’”
During his six years as a graduate student and Ph.D. candidate, Jeske developed simulation programs to model physical conditions in ring galaxies and software to model various characteristics of galaxies. He also learned he enjoyed teaching, and earned a UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award in 1982.
With the completion of his thesis on the horizon, Jeske did what he tells students not to do: got a job before he finished his thesis. Knowing opportunities to teach astrophysics were slim, he looked to Silicon Valley, where tech companies hired people with Ph.D.s to simulate things like semiconductor chips.
Unfortunately, four months into that first job, at a company called Xicor, the higher-ups laid off Jeske and three other new physics experts. Jeske and his wife had just bought their first home.
He recovered quickly. About six weeks later, Jeske ended up leading development for the SPICE Plus circuit simulator. The simulator was based on the SPICE program written by Larry Nagel, as part of his Ph.D. dissertation for UC Berkeley in the mid-1970s. SPICE, in various forms, is still used today.
“The company I was working with, like other companies, got the public domain software from UC Berkeley, enhanced it, and made it proprietary,” says Jeske. “Coming in from a physics background, I was able to add some fundamental linear algebra enhancements that the SPICE program hadn’t really handled well.”
A few years and a few companies later, Jeske moved to Autodesk, an architectural software company now based in San Francisco. As a graphics software engineer, Jeske and team developed interactive graphics and visualization technology for Autodesk’s widely used products.
That Jeske knew the “20 different flavors” of a graphics hardware card wasn’t as valuable in today’s market, he says, considering the industry’s transition to the cloud. Autodesk offered Jeske and a few others generous severance packages. He moved on.
From machines to mentor
In his new role as mentor, Jeske interacts with students one-on-one or in small groups. He reviews scholarship applications for the Cal Alumni Association’s Alumni Scholars Program and has interviewed scholarship finalists.
“I’m very committed to doing what I can to help the Alumni Association give those scholarship awards out,” he says. “In many cases, it’s what makes the difference between students being able to actually attend UC Berkeley and pursue their dreams.”
As a UC Berkeley Career Center mentor, Jeske works with students from all ages and backgrounds and with all types of career goals. Online and in person, Jeske uses his natural knack for bringing people together. Jeske isn’t one to give dramatic speeches or even talk much about his accomplishments, but he does enjoy connecting with all types of people.
“I wasn’t the type of employee that came in, sat at my desk, did my little software development, and went home,” he says. “I tended to walk around, or virtually walk around. I knew people at Autodesk all over the world, not just the software techie nerds. I knew the businesspeople, the legal people, the accounting people.”
Because of his open nature, Jeske has made connections in all types of fields. On occasion, he’s willing—selectively—to make introductions.
One recent Cal grad was looking for her first job, ideally in software development.* She hadn’t done an internship and found the job search especially challenging. She posted a message on the Berkeley Career Network looking for advice in getting job interviews. Jeske responded.
"My contact and my connections brought her into visibility. Her ability got her the job."
Jeske helped the recent grad rewrite her resume and cover letter. “His advice was super helpful, especially because he had worked in a loose sense in the area I wanted to go into,” the student says. “I sent my initial resume to him, and he sent it back with edits. I know there are other resources for that, but I thought it was better to go to someone who had been in the industry, because he would know what people would be looking for.”
As Jeske got to know the student, he recognized her potential. “When I was interacting with her, I was like, ‘You’re better than I think you think you are. You’re pretty solid.’”
When the student came across a job in her field at NVIDIA, a company that designs graphics processing units, she showed the post to Jeske. He told the student to go for it—Jeske also offered to put in a good word with one of his connections at that company. The student got the job, beating out more than 200 applicants.
“It’s not that I said she was good,” Jeske says. “My contact and my connections brought her into visibility. Her ability got her the job.”
Norbert Jeske’s talents in math and physics helped him develop a long career in tech. His “soft skills”—generosity, leadership, communication—help him help younger generations find their footing.
“The major thing about mentorship, really, is just unselfishly giving from yourself,” he says. “You may make some acquaintances that stay with you, but probably not. These are young people launching themselves into life, and I think it’s a very nice thing to just give them a little help. I was there, once upon a time.”
By Heather R. Johnson