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Few of us 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.
The comedian starred in “Don: Plain & Tall,” a film that was awarded Best Feature Comedy at the Back East Film Festival and the Breckenridge Film Festival. He has appeared in “Air Bud III: World Pup” and other movies, and guest starred on “Star Trek: Voyager,” “Babylon 5” and other series. McMillan has two management-related video hits on YouTube.
Attendees at NACStech 2010, held May 5-7, in New Orleans, discovered he’s the only comedian who references “Avogadro’s Number” and “XML” — and beta tests all of his jokes. Convenience Store News recently spoke with McMillan about his career path and today’s 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 types of 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: How is consumers’ use of technology most effecting retailing today?
McMillan: The biggest thing is that people expect technology to be there. Have you seen someone on a pay phone lately? Don’t you think: “Where’s his cell phone? What a loser.” I was in a store recently that only had an old-fashioned cash register. As the clerk keyed in the price of each of my items I couldn’t help but think, “What is this? The Dark Ages? Did you just upgrade from an abacus?” People expect scanners and bar codes and instant inventory and Web access. Someday soon a customer will expect to be able to scan the bar code on any item with his own phone and get all the background information on that item. I can see it now: I pick up a book and scan the bar code with my phone. Automatically, a synopsis of the book comes up, 15 reviews appear and my phone tells me that the same book is available — and is cheaper — three miles down the road at Walmart. And eventually, we will come to expect that to happen.
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.
The real question is: Which social media should you use to reach the people you want to reach? For example, if you want to make new friends or reach old ones, is Facebook really the best place? Yes, you will collect a lot of Facebook friends, but is that a good thing?
Twitter is even worse. It’s annoying and it instills a feeling of self-importance that frankly, the world does not need. I don’t need to know what you dreamt about last night, what color socks you’re wearing or what you are thinking of having for lunch at “Hot Dog on a Stick.” I already have enough information to plow through just to make it through the day in this Age of Too Much Information. I don’t need the tiniest details of your life adding to my data smog. It’s not that you are unimportant — it’s just you are not that important. It is not a coincidence that the root of the word “Twitter” is “twit.”
So, my final word on social media is this: Get used to it. It’s here to stay. Find the social media that fits your needs. And please don’t “tweet” me.