There I was at the IBM Centennial on 16 June 2011

Friday, June 17th, 2011

Quite the achievement to have begun prior to the First World War remaining a well established brand in Barack Obama’s presidency. I believe that IBM is among our national treasures if not for its potential and if only for its heroic contributions to our country over the past ten decades. As with all champions, within its strength lies the seeds of its demise as it wrestles with the unsettling premonitions of the prevailing global economy. There is certainly much to admire in its people as there is much reason for concern as its own customers struggle mightily in adapting to and adopting the changes wrought by technology, particularly the speed at which markets gather information and make their own decisions. In my own professional lifetime, the corporation journeyed from market advantage by virtue of its access to business machines of various sizes and designs, typewriters to computers, office buildings and medical benefits, to the present where its seems that the average business enterprise struggles to understand the popular tools readily accessed by its customers, and even, employees, which are often superior to those provided at work.

The luncheon on the 100th recalled my first encounter with IBM. I was a customer in the Material Control Department of Bath Iron Works, circa 1984. We successfully upgraded our mainframe, from DOS to MVS as I recall, and implemented a suite of packaged software that was the rage of consultants at the time, MRPII. My role within the Department expanded to include traveling around talking to clients and partners, especially the Navy and Littons Industries, our construction partner, about the lessons-learned of our project. After a while, I thought that maybe I had a chance to apply for a position with IBM as wearing a nice suit seemed preferable to work boots and winters in the shipyard. I arranged for an interview with the Branch Manager in Portland, Maine (Branch Offices and their Managers were the fiefdoms and lords of its marketplace empire in those days. Today, nearly 50{915b2618a7c304f461205894c34b2284541042d3c677679407e2f30838792dcd} of the 425,000 international employees work from home). I dressed-up, drove to Portland after hours. I remember the time of day because every single desk in the Branch was cleared and locked with numerous signs reminding employees to clear their desks and to lock the contents. Entered Wally’s office; we met a couple of times before. Look on his face told me that this was a courtesy interview and not an inspection of my potential contribution to his company. We chatted politely and briefly, very briefly. He began with the opener as I recall, ‘so it seems that you’re interested in working for IBM.’ ‘Yes!’ I nearly exclaimed as I seized the chance to describe how my MRPII experience might suit me well for a role in sales or systems engineering. He nodded and related a personal story of how competitive was the prevailing computer marketplace where customers sought the low-cost provider more than the very best solution. Loooong pause with head nodding; eye contact; staring; me nodding; me staring. ‘You know,” he continued, ‘I have a friend who makes $150,000.00 selling shoes to department stores around New England. There are lots of ways to make money.’ Me nodding, me staring in absolute bewilderment at that remark. Wally rose, offered a handshake and thanked me for coming over. ‘See you around the shipyard,’ he said.

I guess that is really the tale of how I ended-up in North Carolina and spent most of fifteen years in software start-ups of one type or another. Not finding a sales job in Maine gave my wife a chance to study landscape architecture in North Carolina where the move south suited us both.

As I looked around the cafeteria on Thursday’s Centennial after the multitudes side-stepped through the bbq chow-line, I wondered how many of those present, especially the 600+ retirees, sat in a Branch Office. Many, I surmised. Even though we were connected by the path of IBM’s 100 year journey, I recognized that in some curious and necessary way, IBM probably has changed more since 1984 than I have. At any rate, despite the very casual attire for the occasion, out of respect for the moment and my amazement at my inclusion (when I really think about it), I wore my best suit with my best pair of shoes, Wally.

Can’t be a Navy SEAL; can behave like 1

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Good things come in threes even for Special Operations or Spec Ops types such as our Navy SEALS. Coincidentally or not, on the Saturday after the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden (1), Bath Iron Works launched the USS Michael Murphy, christened for the SEAL Medal of Honor recipient to commemorate his sacrifice in Afghanistan as well-described in the Lone Survivor. By the way, eighteen SEALS and Rangers perished in the related rescue attempt. On Monday May 9, the New York Times reviewed two recent books describing the SEAL life (3).

USS Michael Murphy, DDG-112, launched at Bath Iron Works on Murphy’s 35th Birthday

I’ve met a few SEALs and even helped a UNC graduate find his way into the program. One of my own cocktail stories is the November evening in 1974 when I took the physical exam required to apply for SEAL training. I travelled across the bridge from the Naval Base in San Diego to Coronado to meet my test instructor. He arrived at the pool with his German Shepard; both looked fit, serious and non-threatening. The gate to the pool was locked. Surprised was I when the instructor asked if I had the key; more surprised was I when having replied, ‘no, I don’t’, he looked up at the ten foot fence, commanded the Shepard to lie and scaled the fence commenting that we had to be finished by 1700 (5pm), 45 minutes from now. I followed him up the fencing, over the wire and into the pool area. I was nervous and now winded. He walked to one end of the pool, took out his stop-watch and suggested that I get into the water. I yanked off my boots and shirt and dove in. I forget how many laps that I had to swim or how much time elapsed, but I recall that 30 minutes was the maximum permitted. I dragged myself out of the pool and was informed that I failed – without prejudice or malice of forethought. He turned toward the fence. In a rush of panic, I asked if I could complete the remainder of the test. He stared, replying, “Affirmative.” Push-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups later, he marked my results on his clipboard. For swimming, noted the maximum time of thirty minutes. “You may not be the best swimmer, but I like your attitude for wanting to complete the test.” Up and over the fence, he jogged with the Shepard to his vehicle.

My career with the SEALs never got off the ground – or into the water. I applied and was denied permission until I finished my tour at sea, the reason that I was transferred to San Diego in the first place. I’ve known all these years later that becoming a Navy SEAL was a highly improbable achievement because I am not a strong swimmer or even a good floater and that cold conditions, both water and weather, deplete my energy in a hurry. Maybe it’s the New Orleans roots. At any rate, I run across these unique warriors from time to time. We all do and you just don’t know it from their demeanor. Here are a ways that we can be like them even if we could only barely pass the qualification physical:

1. Get in shape: physically, mentally, morally. Morally means accurate compass on what we stand for.
2. Let our actions speak for themselves. To the best of our abilities, lead and not manage.
3. Be respectful; be honest; don’t back down from the BS.
4. Expect a lot; trust a lot.
5. Take care of your people. They are termed SEAL teams for a purpose.
6. Commit to the mission.
7. Plan, cross-train, have a reasoned back-up plan.