College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Generations of Innovating: Father-Son Duo Trailblaze the Tech World

Wendell and Brian Sander, graduates of Iowa State University’s College of Engineering, have taken Silicon Valley by storm over the course of their careers. Both have generated innovative ideas and technologies across various startups, including Apple, Inc. in Cupertino, California.

From Iowa Farmland to The Bay

Wendell Sander grew up on a farm in Donnellson, Iowa, nestled in the southeastern region of the state. In grade school, he never had access to running water or electricity – resources many consider to be essential in powering everyday life.

Growing up, Wendell considered himself strong in the areas of math and science and was driven to study at Iowa State University’s College of Engineering. Wendell graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1956, and before he knew it, he would be on his way to Los Angeles, Calif. to work for Guilfoyle and Brothers. The company specialized in building radios, televisions and home appliances.

This would be Wendell’s first encounter with the tech industry in California – but far from his last. After returning to Iowa State to earn his master’s degree in 1962 and Ph.D. in 1963, Wendell returned to the West to work at Fairchild R&D in Silicon Valley. Here, he met a local computer salesman from The Byte Shop in Mountain View, Calif. who knew a man by the name of Steve Jobs.

Working with computers, Wendell needed to access software updates and contacted Jobs for help. On the side, Wendell was also working to develop a Star Trek game and Jobs was interested in learning more. Wendell then demonstrated a Star Trek game on an Apple I computer to Jobs.

Once Jobs announced the introduction of Apple II, one of the world’s earliest home computer systems, Wendell expressed an interest in working for the company. In 1977, Wendell became Apple’s 16th employee.

A Second-Generation Innovator

Rewind a few years back to 1963 when Wendell was finishing his Ph.D.: Wendell’s son Brian was born. Growing up, Brian enjoyed visiting the Apple office with his dad and the garage where the company was first born. In school, Brian was interested in the field of STEM and decided to study electrical engineering at Iowa State: a degree that tapped his capabilities.

With his family ties to the state of Iowa and Iowa State, becoming a Cyclone was the clear choice for Brian. As an undergraduate, he enjoyed playing pickup basketball with friends when he wasn’t studying for classes.

“I loved campus and the environment and it was a great place to live and go to school,” Brian said.

After graduating in 1985, Brian moved to California to work for The Engineering Company, a tech startup in Silicon Valley. Here, he worked primarily with handheld computing.

“In many ways, you could say it was the precursor of the iPhone, in terms of its ideologies and visions of what it wanted to be,” Brian said. “It’s just, you couldn’t build an iPhone in 1993.”

Following in the footsteps of his father, Brian soon began working for Apple in Cupertino. As a director for Apple, Brian oversaw all systems engineering projects for the Apple iPod and would routinely report updates to Jobs during team meetings.

“Steve had this great, intuitive sense of what the right thing to do was.” Brian said. “It was a perfect harmony of vision and engineering execution.”

You Sketch It, I’ll Build It

In the early 2000’s, Brian was eventually promoted to vice president at Apple while his father decided to return to the company, reporting to his son. Brian and Wendell worked on a number of projects together, including volume control for Apple earbuds.

“In retrospect, it was an interesting time to go through and an interesting place to be in the middle of everything when it was happening,” Wendell said.

Working together, Brian and Wendell would lean on each other’s talents. Brian says that in the office, he and his father would have interesting debates, but they were both focused on work as father and son.

“Our skills complemented each other and didn’t collide and I think that was a very unique working relationship,” Brian said.

Both Brian and Wendell credit their Iowa State experience in preparing them for career success. Wendell, who was involved with the Iowa State Marching Band, says the circuit classes were the most challenging and enjoyable, similar to solving “big puzzles.”

As a second-generation College of Engineering student, Brian had some of the same professors as his dad and was inspired and motivated by their teaching. Both enjoyed the small-town immersive experience they were given by attending college in Ames.

After careers in the very center of computing and electronics history, Wendell is now retired from his work and Brian has since transitioned to Pearl Automation, an auto-accessory startup located near San Jose, Calif.