I had a nice career in the computer science field. In almost every respect my daily life was highly technical and high pressure, but I loved every minute of every day. But it was all very accidental. I had worked in a wholesale food warehouse, as a camp counselor, a mainframe computer tape copier, as an entry-level junior reporter for a newspaper, as a cab driver, as a bank teller, and as a copy room clerk before I was asked if I was interested in an opening for the position of night computer operator. I said yes, but my previous experience on mainframe computers (Honeywell) was so terrible that I thought I should turn it down. But, I had left college before I had gotten my degree and any invitation to learn something new (accompanied by a pay raise) was always accepted and appreciated.
It was early in 1977. I was 4 years removed from college. I had travelled a bit, lived in several places, become a little wiser and more mature, but still had not garnered that pivotal moment when you know that ‘this is the right situation.’ It soon became apparent that this computer stuff was cooler than anything I had ever done before. I soaked up every manual I could find. I did research and reference work during off hours. I just couldn’t get enough. By any definition, this means you have found your calling. Although the expression ‘computer geek’ hadn’t been invented, that’s what I was.
It didn’t take long before I was promoted, then again, then again. People that want to learn and can accommodate the dizzying pace of the job are always good candidates for promotion. In those days the workplace was filled with mostly men and everyone was well-groomed and attired. A shirt and tie were the minimum and all the upwardly mobile people wore suits. I was brought up in a pretty conservative home so this was easy and natural for me but, not for the computer geeks. They had long hair, old clothes, questionable bathing habits, and a disdain for anything corporate. So it was unusual that I was both a computer geek and yet appeared like everyone else. There was a huge demand for the programming languages they knew and very few practitioners. They knew the situation and they knew the freedoms they could demand. Typically they would show up around noon with a shopping bag. In it were 2 large bottles of some kind of soda and 2 large bags of some kind of snack food. They would work until 3 or 4 am the next morning and then you wouldn’t see them again until they just showed up.
Well, my Dad had taught me a lot about modern management techniques. He had a Harvard MBA so he should know what he was talking about, right? Unfortunately not in this case. I don’t say this disparagingly but these were not normal people. They fit no established paradigm in the American workplace and so there were no rules or guidelines. They didn’t care about promotions, pay scales, normal work hours, or even paychecks. One of them had ‘forgotten’ where he put his paychecks for so long they were about to expire (90 days). He finally found them under his bed and made the effort to go to the bank and deposit them, all 9 of them! He is probably the reason we have direct deposit today. So, I had a problem.
That was when it occurred to me that everything had become too complicated. The conventional MBA paradigm brought together all the aspects of the business but it was based on the idea that everyone in the business actually cared about the business. I had people who literally didn’t give a damn about the business; mine or anyone else’s for that matter. They were there to do a very specific, very detailed, and very difficult job that few others could do. If I was going to make this work I had to improvise. That was the beginning of what I would forever refer to as the basics.
The first thing I needed to do was separate my people from everyone else in the business. There was a mutual dislike thing going on there so it really wasn’t that difficult. Clearly the suits didn’t like the hippies. The next thing, and this was really difficult, was to have a meeting with everyone. Finally I got everyone in the same room at the same time and we talked it out. I explained that I understood who there were, what they wanted, and I was prepared to give it to them. There would, however, be only two rules:
1. Work and play well with others.
The essence of this type of work is the ability to communicate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. But these people didn’t like each other, hell they didn’t like anybody. But they had a great deal of pride in what they did and how they did it. If I can get them to work as a team, a segregated team at that, then I have half a chance at getting the product(s) completed when I needed them.
2. Stay within the lines.
Maintaining a balance between fulfilling a requirement and not stifling innovative thought was accomplished through a few checkpoints that they all agreed to follow. Those were the lines. It turned out that they all wanted those checkpoints all along. Just nobody had ever mentioned it. They could come in when they wanted, leave when they wanted, eat at their desk, wear whatever clothes they wanted, and basically be as anti-social as they needed to be. But I needed everything finished according to the schedule.
When I presented my plan to my father he spit his coffee across the table! You’re going to do what!?! I explained the whole thing to him and of course I left him shaking his head, berating my idea and cleaning up his coffee. Yes, I knew I was a nut case, but this wasn’t manufacturing widgets here, this was creating unique, one time code for one purpose and one customer. It was something he had never heard of and had no basis of experience. For that matter, neither did anyone else. We were all just making this stuff up as we went along.
Well, productivity went up and error rates went down. Errors that were fixed once never came back again. No one was more surprised than me. My people were happier and had a tendency to stay around longer and work on the next project. My boss was shocked, and pleased. My father probably never recovered from his state of disbelief but did eventually accept the idea that the old rules sometimes didn’t always work. Pretty cool stuff. For the rest of my career, when I was asked what I did for a living I would always respond, “I’m a teacher.” That would always bring an odd look from the person that asked the question. I would explain my two rules and how well they worked. I always got a smile and a nod and “Yes, that would probably work in my company too! I’ll have to try that.”
The point here isn’t that I was such a terrific manager, far from it. But there are times in your career that will force you to take a chance on something different. True, it’s much different now in our politically correct world to be different, correct and successful. But when the time comes, and it probably will, don’t be afraid to take the chance to implement something new.
© J T Weaver