had a good grade average at secondary school in Lidingö, just outside Stockholm. But until he was allowed to choose his subjects for upper-secondary school, he found it difficult to sit still in class. He wanted to see the point of what he was doing, not plow through things in which he had no interest.
“And at home I did not have the patience to fiddle around with things like Lego or Meccano. But I was very inquisitive; I wanted to make discoveries, do what nobody else had done,” he says. The obvious path was to study science; it would let him investigate and discover what controlled the physical world. Mathematics was fascinating. “I enjoyed studying advanced theory and solving difficult problems.”
Another incentive came from Uddenfeldt’s desire to explore the world. In his teens he went on summer courses in England and Germany; for six months he lived with a family in Boston in the US and got to spend a high-school year at Harvard on a scholarship.
“I had a secure upbringing; my dad was a businessman and had studied humanities. We liked discussing things with each other, often quite profoundly, but the ball always ended up in my court. I had to find the answers to the questions I had asked.
“I have always felt the need to think for myself. That is central. But people don’t do it.”
Another pursuit that fascinated Uddenfeldt was sailing. Lidingö is set in one of the world’s largest archipelagoes, and he and a friend sailed from island to island in a small sailing boat, a Stjärnbåt. This was not always as idyllic as it sounds.
“Once when I was sailing single-handed, I lost my rudder and had to use the sail to steer. The wind blew up a storm, I had no motor and there were reefs everywhere – not the kind of thing you could run away from. Afterwards I thought about my reactions. There was no time to think about the risks; it was a matter of struggling on, solving the problems there and then.”
When he left school, the obvious place for Uddenfeldt was the Royal Institute of Technology. After a stimulating master’s program in engineering, he was more than ready to go out and find a job. But his degree project supervisor happened to be Z, Professor Lars Zetterberg. And Z told him he should take a doctorate.
FIRST PATENT AT 28
Like Ulf J. Johansson, Uddenfeldt became one of Z’s protégés. He was awarded his doctorate in 1978 at the age of 28 and had already taken out his first patent. He no longer remembers what for, “almost certainly some encryption system”.
“Z was a clever supervisor. He gave us a lot of freedom and prompted us to think for ourselves, which meant that you could not always take the simplest route.” There was something fantastic about doing a doctorate, Uddenfeldt says. “Then you really have to know something nobody else knows. Then you can go further and feel that the ground beneath your feet is stable.”
In Uddenfeldt’s case, Z abandoned one of his principles. He always urged his protégés to move on, not to get stuck at the institute. But Z persuaded Uddenfeldt to accept a post as part-time visiting professor there. By then, at the age of 31, he had been working for some time for SRA. After a few years at its research department, he became head of research in 1985. In 1990 he was appointed head of technology at ERA, as it had now become. From 1998 to 2004 he was head of technology for the entire Ericsson group and global vice-president.
Uddenfeldt has taken out a great many patents over the years. An important one is for what is known as soft handoff, which allows a mobile phone to be connected to several cells at the same time, minimizing the risk of a call being interrupted by transferring between them.
He believes that realizing while still young that Sweden was a small part of the world had a good effect on his attitudes. “In the larger countries, you can easily feel that the domestic market is big enough and that the rest of the world will have to adapt to it. In our small Nordic countries, the domestic markets are too small so we know that we have to be humble and adapt if we want to succeed.”
Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn
Jan Uddenfeldt in his early teens
Jan Uddenfeldt at the Zermatt ski resort in Switzerland