Tuesday, February 01, 2011
You got it, babe. IP was there before it went, like, totally tits up.
IT WAS CALLED THE PINK PALACE. I was just having a conversation with my wife. She got impatient with me because I was being cloyingly nostalgic about my own past corporate career. She's still in the midst of big doings, understand, and the fate of the top execs she's dealt with every day for years is much on her mind. Understandably, she doesn't appreciate my long distance psychoanalysis of who's doing what why.
I get that. She's right. But it occurred to me that some of you out there might not be getting it. That you're letting golden moments of some kind slip through your fingers without being aware of it. So I'm going to give you an autobiographical glimpse of success and failure, and failure and success. You can draw your own conclusions. This isn't a lecture. It's just a moment of InstaPunk reflection.
I spent a year and a half working for a publishing company which launched me from beginner to competitive analyst in the booming microcomputer industry. I worked for a year and a half in a startup division of a Fortune 100 corporation intending to profit from the brand new (at the time) office systems market. Then I spent ten years as a management and communications consultant, here and abroad, travelling over three continents and winning awards for breakthrough implementations in the arena of "change." Then I returned to my original and most comfortable role -- writer -- like a hobbit returning to the Shire.
I ask you: Now that I can do what I like, take the jobs that interest me, and decline the rest, what would you imagine I feel nostalgic about? The place I exploded from? The stature I succeeded to, with my own firm and some laurels to boot? No.
What I feel nostalgic about is the Office Systems Division (OSD) of NCR Corporation in Dayton, Ohio. There were about 400 of us, doomed from the start by a top management that wanted a new market without understanding the first thing about that market. In fact, everything was against us. We had an OEM product (i.e., purchased from another manufacturer with more technological smarts than our whole company put together), personal rivalries, hatreds, and scandals sufficient to make an R-rated series on HBO or Showtime, and yet I have never ever worked with a group of people so dedicated, so determined to do whatever was necessary to succeed.
In the end we failed. I won't leave you in suspense on that point. But that year and a half -- no, make that a year and five months -- remains the most intense, the heaviest of my entire corporate life. I had five different titles during that time, had a hand (and budget) in everything I thought I had the remotest ability to do and even far beyond that, I had one work day that lasted for 36 hours straight in which I got to tell my Vice President that his product release plan would ruin his own career, got chided for my insolence, then saved him from his own rotten decision with a workaround that saved him for another two quarters. I also experienced every vicissitude of personnel issues, including the first emergence of Shane in a corporate setting (uh, me. Sorry), as well as much more serious and nearly criminal conduct by people with whom I was obliged to work each day.
In short, I had an entire career's worth of Fortune 100 corporate experience in just 17 months. Every management consulting proposal I made over the next ten years was drawn not from the 17 months I spent in an Ivy League graduate business school (Sorry, Cornell) but from the months I had spent at NCR World Headquarters in Dayton, Ohio. Specific gravity? It's the anchor of everything I've ever known for sure about business. I won't get started on the anecdotes because I'd never stop. I'm not overstating it. I'd never stop, regardless of the subject -- megalomania, technology, sex, office politics, salespeople, software engineers, sex, top management buffoonery, marketing sense and nonsense, outsourcing comedies, meetings, meetings, meetings, meetings, and meetings. And did I forget? Sex.
And one authentic genius. No. Not me. His name was (probably still is) Frank Bogage. I didn't know anything about computers. I was a writer, a thinker, and a doer. Frank Bogage was the real thing. He'd built chips in his basement just like Bill Gates. But Frank never had the luck. His position at OSD was resident genius. And marketing scapegoat. I'd heard wondrous tales about him at my launching pad -- Datapro Corporation in Pennsauken, NJ -- where people kept comparing me to him, unfavorably, because I was a good writer and Frank was a genius, and then I went to Dayton and Frank glommed onto me.
Anybody want an HBO high-tech series full of sex and sin and treachery? Frank Bogage is your protagonist, the man who knew everything about everyone else's business as if their minds were merely microchips on his computer. Maybe that WAS the truth of it. Let me interrupt the chronology to describe the first morning we both arrived at the OSD software facility in Columbia, SC, where only Frank had the smarts to kick engineering ass and make it stick. Why was I there? Only because Frank said I was necessary. I was an eager beaver and Frank usually ran late. It was one of those hotel lobbies with an atrium and glassed-in elevators that descended toward sparkling fountains. I was thinking, "Where's Bogage? We're going to be late" when I saw him descending from the fourth floor in his blue suit and typically grim look. He was the spitting image of Napoleon Bonaparte. Descending in a glass elevator. To the lobby and its fountains. I'll never forget it.
Now that you can see Frank, understand what he did for me. He was a genius and he took me under his wing because I was the only other one, besides him, who knew who he was. Well, that's not entirely true. Everyone at OSD knew he was a genius. I was the one who understood how much of a genius he was.Which is why I had been at NCR HQ less than a month when Frank and I went over the head of the director of Marketing to tell our VP that OSD had no marketing strategy. I'd written a memo, you see, and Frank was the guy who had to do all the top management briefings with other Fortune 100 companies, and I didn't know that going three levels over your boss's head was career death.
We survived that cataclysm because Frank was a genius and I was a newbie. It would take less than a year before we repeated the exercise in the 36 hour day mentioned above. In the interim, though, Frank taught me about the computer industry. He foresaw most everything that's happened since. He knew that DOS was fatally flawed, a rotten operating system that would be perpetually assailed by security and communication problems, even as it has been in the Windows years, where DOS still loads its 640K before the megabytes of fixitcode loads. He knew that the future had to do with multi-tasking, multi-threaded.... oh forget it.
Frank was absolutely a genius but he was also my friend. They dispatched him to every Fortune account to make promises NCR had no intention of keeping, about how they would compete with and displace the IBM PC. I remember a week when he wasn't at work and was supposed to be. The director of marketing, who hated Frank, demanded to know where he was. I was busy up to my eyeballs, too, but I found out. Frank had landed in St. Louis, a switchpoint for his transfer to Fort Worth, when airport security found him wandering under the replica of the Spirit of St. Louis. Mr. Bogage had absolutely no idea where he was, how he had gotten there, or where he was going.
Everyone found out. No one made a big deal of it. We all travelled a lot. It could have happened to any of us.
It really could have. That's how hard we all worked.
uh, was there a point, chief? Yes. There was.
Some of you proclaim quite loudly that you hate your jobs. I understand. But here's an experiment. Put a link to this post on your Facebook pages. Suggest that an NCR OSD reunion might be in the offing. See what kind of response you get.
I'm talking, as I was with with my wife in a much more direct and material way, about the power of belonging. I'm the ultimate maverick and lonely rolling stone, but I still belong to OSD. Truth. And if anybody turns up Bogage, let me at that puppy. Smartest man I ever knew. Which should scare the rest of you plenty. They called the two of us the Blues Brothers. Because we kept predicting doom if the company didn't follow our advice. How did that turn out? This way.
But none of that matters. What matters is that team spirit and solidarity are everywhere in the marketplace. If you don't have it at your place, at least give a thought to what you might do to gain it. Believe me, I do know it's not possible to have it everywhere. All I'm asking is that you remember a paycheck is not the only product of a corporate affiliation. OSD! We were smaller than the Dog Pound, but we had all the spirit of an NFL team. OSD! OSD! OSD!
A sense of belonging is a wonderful thing. The only hole in my heart Mrs. CP doesn't understand. Because she's a member of the ultimate team. She takes it for granted, all those brilliant talents focused on a mission they consistently achieve. It's like winning the Super Bowl every year, year after year and decade after decade.
Why she hung up on me when I suggested one of her team might miss the game really seriously if he hung up his pads.
Like her, though, most of you know I have no insight into individual human behavior. [Sigh of Relief.]