15 Rounds with IBM: Proposals, Prom-Mobiles and Phones

Saturday, December 21st, 2013

I wrote this on my 15th anniversary with IBM, November 30th. There will not be a 16th as I / we agreed to an 18 month separation process in June of 2012 cleverly titled Transition to Retirement (TTR). Our contract stipulated a 3 day work-week with a reduction in pay and the agreement that I, and others in the program, would not be subject to possible ensuing Reductions in Force (RIF), aka lay-offs. I kind of expected to receive a jar of blue blood that I would dab in the doorposts so that the RIF-Wraiths would know to pass me by.

Honestly, it feels good to go with a handshake and the semblance of a healthcare plan and not with a box and security guard escort, although I work from home. Maybe there is a business opportunity similar to the common working space / rent an office locations where one would just go to meet the actual boss and then be walked-out to the car. Might create employment opportunities for sad-seeming colleagues with the looks of shock and schadenfreude; the impassive security guard just doing his duty; the potted plant vendors and cardboard box suppliers; the gossip-around-the-coffee-mess distributor.

Isn’t it true that relationships can often be characterized by the way that they started?! Here’s how ours did.

In mid-summer of 1999, after traveling anywhere at any time to see nearly any customer, I was informed that I was the employee in the division with the second highest travel expenses. For a second, I thought that I was being encouraged to go for #1. This notion was dashed by the phrase, “And nobody wants to be known for that.” After 8 months, the team that I signed-on with, was organized out of existence as the cost could not be justified (n.b. trend developing). While scrambling to find a new team, I was assigned to manage a proposal process (RFP) for a promising deal with a German telecommunications company in Lake Mary, Florida.

I here learned that the support of your 6 degrees-of separation colleagues is related directly to the depth and width of the charge code or budget that you are able to offer them. We established a command center in the Atlanta Innovation Center- now gone which indicates who has the mightier sword, Accounting or Innovating. RFP support came from everywhere and in every form, including a software sales rep from Dallas in 5 inch powder blue heels. She relayed that her boyfriend played in an Atlanta rock band. I guess to stop the ‘what are your dinner plans?’ inquiries.

Encouraging was the wealth of information that each team, unit and division supplied to ensure that their product was specified as an essential element of the proposed solution. Less attractive was that nearly none of this information was directed towards the requirements of the client’s published requirements. Kind of like being tossed the dictionary and told to find the novel of choice. We cobbled together six binders of facts; factoids; paragraphs from other proposals; bios of experts, including many still with the company; graphs; architecture maps; web site addresses; and executive statements of commitment to partnership. Then they all caught the next flight from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (note this location) leaving the entire RFP package, including printing, assembly and shipment in the custody of one individual whom I recall was a former National 10k Walking Champion (cue the organ music).

In our favor was our status as a major client of this customer. Helpful may be for you to know that once upon a time, in a land far away, IBM itself got into the telecommunications business. There are still Rolm phones on desks at the RTP facility, usually next to the skeleton of the COBOL guy whom we thought retired prior to the last facilities consolidation. IBM sold this telecom division to these guys in Florida. Can you spell Quid Pro Quo? We couldn’t.

After reviewing our 40 pound proposal, the client informed us that of the 3 competing companies, they would have ranked us 4 of 3 if the laws of arithmetic permitted.

As you would expect, how the helping hands from Corporate HQ descended upon us now that they were poised to renew a contract for a warehouse of this client’s phone equipment, switching gear and PBXs, while the client’s sister division was poised to toss us off the bus of brotherhood!

Our corporate support earned us a reprieve or Your Final Last Chance which came in the form of a mandatory meeting to better explain our proposal. This meeting would occur nearly immediately at the Atlanta Customer Innovation Center with the stipulation that another customer had to join this meeting to offer an in-person reference for our self-described relevant talents, skills and experience.

Who better to supply a reference to business executives from a German company based in Florida than an IT executive from a Japanese company based in New Jersey. He flew down in exchange for travel expenses and a company logo jacket.

Young, new to the company Dan flew from California to join the briefing as the German Telco in Florida was his account to manage. At dinner the night before the reference-infused briefing and after an afternoon of prep where we orchestrated the color, gender, charts, projectors and seat assignments, I asked Dan “have we arranged for transportation tomorrow from the airport to the briefing center for the visitors from New Jersey and Florida.” “No,” he replied, “and two additional guests will visit from California, so we have three flights to meet.”

This was one of those innocuous moments in the movies when attention is paid to the wrong clue or ignoring the thrown-away statement. I took the action to figure-out how to meet three sets of executives at different times at a large, busy airport while Dan reserved transportation with the agreement that an executive limo would do. We agreed to meet after breakfast and with plenty of time to arrive at the distant airport to corral all of our guests.

I stepped from the lobby into the 9am morning summer sun of Atlanta looking for our limo. As I walked in the direction of the expected and presently parked black Lincoln Town Car, it drove away revealing a 120 inch (10 feet of interior space), white in color, dated in age, what my sons would take to the high school prom limousine. Standing next to the prom-mobile was Dan. No comment. No explanation. No apology. Off we went in the Anytime Anywhere Limo.

Our driver was an older chauffeur, Quido (I swear) in a checked jacket, vintage 1970s, with a not Gone With The Wind accent. The back of limo could accommodate an entire wedding or prom party as it included bar, fridge and television. With just Dan and me, it seemed as though we sat in an empty swimming pool as we bounced along I-85. The shock absorbers on the car needed replacement and had so since the early 1990s.

We arrive at the airport, parked in the limo lot and were informed by Quido that another driver would relieve him for our journey back to the Windy Hill Innovation Center.

Inside the Airport

The German executives from Florida arrived first. Dan met them. The New Jersey American customer reference arrived second; I met him. While waiting for team three from California, we 5 sat around a table for 4 enjoying styrofoam-flavored cups of coffee and looks-like-bagels. The conversation was sparse and awkward, mainly me conversing and no one taking the bait. Finally, at long last, thank heaven, team 3 arrived. I didn’t offer a coffee and bagel break. As we paddled our way through the crowds and their luggage to the limo, no one said much beyond introductions and grunting about the quality of their flights. Funny, though, was how similar the three teams of visitors looked as if we’d chosen a uniform of the day: black trousers, white shirts, no jackets, black computer bags and brief cases decorating an assortment of head shapes, facial hair, ages and heights. Could have been an Oceans Eleven promo.

I found the correct exit to the limo parking lot. No small feat if you know me. Then the real party started. The prom-mobile was even easier to spot than might be thought because a Fulton County police car was parked at 90 degrees to and 3 inches from our white whale’s front bumper blocking the vehicle from exit. This tactic reminded me of crossing the tee in the age Admiral Nelson: “Give ‘em the full broadside, lads.”

As our party approached the T-boned cars, we enjoyed the theatre of a short, round, anglican, female police officer – gun, mace, cuffs, nightstick, radio – the works – conversing with a tall, well proportioned, male, African-American limo driver. If for no other attribute, he was notable for the pigtail, rattail in the vernacular, that extended from its usual inception point, his head, to the middle of the back of his white shirt. They did not seem to be either high classmates catching-up or just two of us trying to make a living at the airport. I could tell this by the way she pointed her finger at him and the sound of his voice which you’d probably call shouting.

Team Calif-Fla-Jersey stopped so as not to get closer. After a couple of minutes in the heating sun, they looked about, spotted shade beneath a meager parking lot tree and sort of back-peddled towards this oasis. “Where do you think you’re going?”, asked the officer declaratively. I guess that she wondered if George Clooney’s pals were fixin’ to bolt.

I seized the opportunity to quell any misunderstanding by approaching our warring couple. Identifying myself as an IBM employee, hoping that she would think Executive and not ‘man whose role is prom-mobile coordinator’, I asked if anything was wrong?

I wanted to ask if now would be a good time to run for it. She replied that ‘this driver AND vehicle are not authorized on airport property, Fulton County or in the state of Georgia.‘ Me: “what should we do?” She: “Are they with you?” pointing at the trifecta in the shade. Me: “Yes, Officer.” She: “All of you, get into your car.” Us:
I motioned; they came; we did.

We splayed about the 10 foot cabin in silence without even the hum of the air conditioning unit. I thought to myself that I had figured I would, at least, be with IBM for one year before the company figured me out. Other visions and thoughts went through my mind mainly because nobody was talking to me or to anybody else. We occupied ourselves watching the officer deliver a sheaf of tickets to the guy with the pirate hairdo. Kind of like tv with no sound and a failing picture tube.

Prom Mobile

After a couple of hundred hours, probably 15 minutes, the officer and the driver separated. She motored off in her patrol car. The new driver fired-up the prom-mobile and away we bounced, just like a noble galleon on the high seas.

I stared at the empty faux-crystal liquor bottles on the side-board at my end of the entertainment cabin lamenting their dry condition. Not even I knew what to say about anything.

Unfortunately, our limo helmsman punctuated the silence with the his analysis of recent events by saying, “she’s lucky that I didn’t have my gun with me.” He might have used a vulgar substitution for ‘she’, but this is close enough.

Right on cue, all heads snapped in my direction as I was seated in the back seat at the back of cabin. Mustering all of my naval leadership training and bridge officer watching-standing command presence, I spoke for the group in reply, “I wish that you hadn’t said that.” Of course, I really wanted to scream for my mother, but fear makes cowards of us all.

We fought the seas of Atlanta traffic for about an hour back to Windy Hill. At one point near the end, the white, stretch prom-mobile, after bouncing on its former shock absorbers, so struggled up the hills of Windy just as our harbor was in sight that I would swear that we were passed regularly by joggers and moms pushing those jogging strollers.

We disembarked at the revolving door to the briefing center. I walked directly to front desk to order rides back to the airport at the end of the meetings. I received a longish look from the receptionist when I asked for a description of the ordered transportation.

Rolm Phone

This briefing went well and we were invited back into the ‘competition.’ I’m not sure who was awarded what or how many phones equal how many computers in a corporate horse trade. Ultimately, the Germans got out of the telecom game and sold their Florida facilities. The Japanese firm outsourced its IT department; Dan left the company and California.

My employment will conclude in ten days. I wonder what I could trade for a Rolm phone as a retirement souvenir.