As I See It: High on Quack
November 16, 2009 Victor Rozek
It was November 1st and the Pacific Northwest was so vibrantly attired in Autumnal splendor that you’d think God was showing off. I was riding my bike along the Willamette River, through dappled sunlight and a steady sprinkle of golden leaves. The air was crisp and scented with mulch, and the river sparkled like molten silver as it made its unhurried journey to the sea. It was unexpectedly warm and dry for this time of year, and I rode without urgency or agenda, past frolicking dogs, stately blue herons, and lawnfuls of Canadian geese.
Beyond the rose garden, the path dipped beneath the Ferry Street Bridge toward the University of Oregon football complex where the night before, amid the craziness of Halloween, the Ducks spanked their long-time nemesis USC before 60,000 screaming fans high on quack.
Life was exceptionally good, and being there in that moment was enough. My breathing was easy, my legs pumped without effort. I rode on, breathing it all in, each inhale a surrender, each exhale pure gratitude. At one point, I passed a young father running along side his son, encouraging him as he wobbled on his first two-wheeler. The boy was concentrating furiously, too intent to appreciate his Dad’s guiding presence. Children who are loved have no need for gratitude.
We are, I mused, moving toward Thanksgiving, once celebrated in appreciation for survival, now a gastronomic expression of gratitude through overindulgence. And as I rode, I started mulling about the people I was grateful for in my professional life. People who helped me survive; who had run beside me, encouraged me when I wobbled, and made sure I didn’t take a nasty fall. And I thought about how focused I often am on my own process and how–like the young boy doing his best just to stay upright–I often took their care and kindness for granted.
I have been blessed to work for a number of capable managers, possessed of both technical mastery and leadership skills, but very few who genuinely seemed to care about their employees. One exception was a short, brilliant, firebrand of a woman, who single-handedly imposed her will on a wildly chaotic environment.
In the early 1980s, Silicon Valley was like the Wild West, but less formal. It had few rules, little structure, and no discernable sheriff. Markets and opportunities emerged like icebergs in the fog, and readiness was all. Those who survived had to be able to change directions faster than a bat chasing a mosquito.
The telecommunications company we worked for was growing like kudzu, without direction or constraint. At one point, it was hiring about 30 people per day, desperate for bodies, sacrificing quality for sheer numbers. Credentialed people were low-hanging fruit and were therefore in high demand. For second-tier jobs, anyone with real-world experience was golden; but a willingness to work and learn on the job was often the best qualification a hiring manager was likely to find.
Sheila was hired as the manager of computer operations, a misleading title, because there really was no such thing before she arrived. The name implies some coherent, centralized process by which technical resources are managed. Instead, what Sheila found were 13 midrange systems, spread about the company, each department with its own loose standards and procedures (or lack thereof), each system running different software and unique versions of the operating system. The people responsible for the maintenance of these systems often had no IT experience. The system manager might be a programmer, but could just as easily be the department secretary, or anyone who thought computers were cool and wasn’t afraid of them. Backups were sporadic and unreliable, with tapes poorly labeled and stored in desk drawers and utility closets. When things went wrong, which they often did, the primary task of the system manager was to call the vendor for assistance. Thus, vendors were camping out onsite, support costs were extremely high, and downtime was epidemic.
Then the new sheriff arrived. Soft spoken, but with steely determination, Sheila convinced the princes of 13 separate fiefdoms to part with their systems (which in those days were evidence of status), and moved them all into a properly cooled and powered computer room which she designed. She then wrote an Operations Control System through which a single scheduler could schedule and run hundreds of jobs, perform nightly backups, manage a tape library, and move applications from development, through testing, into production. The system probably also made coffee and baked donuts, but it’s been a while and memory fails.
What I remember most vividly, though, was how she used her technical and leadership skills to ensure every member of her department could succeed. Beyond making certain that employees received the training they needed, she created an environment that was not people dependent, but rather driven by structure and process. No matter who was at work, (and we ran two shifts) things ran smoothly, because for the most part, the processes she established were failsafe. And when mistakes occurred, she was more concerned with how they happened so that procedures could be corrected, rather than who was at fault.
Sheila could also be exceptionally kind, even when being so might not be in her best interest. She once approved one of my hires, a young man from Vietnam who spoke virtually no English. He had escaped from his country at night in an open boat packed with refugees, made his way to Thailand and eventually the United States, and was applying for an entry-level operations job. When I expressed my reservations, in halting English he offered to work for free if we would just give him a chance. How could we not? We paid him, of course, and he turned out to be an excellent employee, promoted within a year to programming.
Sheila actually hired me twice, at two different companies, the second time ensuring that I received a generous “signing bonus” with which I bought a convertible. She provided me not only with a career path on which I was able to construct a comfortable life, but many life lessons in leadership, compassion, and generosity of spirit.
Another manager was a guy who hired me long before we actually met. I worked with him at a company that folded. Being an entrepreneur, he took selected members of the staff and resurrected the business online, hiring me based on my prior work. Like many other business people, he struggled during the economic decline. But such was the quality of his product, that at one point he was offered a six-figure buyout. Still, he refused to sell his company, not because he couldn’t use the money, but because he felt a responsibility to his employees. As the economy constricted further, he was forced to scale down the scope of his business, which meant that some of his employees had less work to do. He could have asked them to sacrifice, but he didn’t. He paid them the same wage and took a second job to make ends meet.
In today’s me-first climate, he holds some extraordinary beliefs. He believes that those who can hire, must hire. He believes, when humanly possible, in putting his employees’ interests on par with–and sometimes above–his own. He believes in loyalty, even when he is treated poorly, because living his values is more important than how others behave. He believes there is always enough to share.
He carried me through difficult economic times, and I never missed a pay check. And while the money is appreciated, what stays with me is a profound sense of gratitude for the way I’ve been treated. It is a rare privilege to know a man who defies convention and who, as an unapologetic capitalist, has bridged the cavernous gap between head and heart.
His name is Tim Prickett Morgan, and this Web site is his creation. Oh, and by the way, he called the other day to say he was sending his employees a sampling of his home-brewed beer.
Man, how good is that?
My bike ride is almost done. The sun is slanting low in the western horizon. On the east side of the river, the soft light gilds the leaves and they shine as if illuminated from within. I take a final look at the glistening metallic river as it continues its journey homeward. That’s where I’m headed. Home to a wife who loves me and a cat who tolerates me. Even in tough times, so much to be grateful for.