Archive for the ‘Reflections’ category

My Business Values

I’ve always had a strong work ethic. At eight years old, I cut lawns for several neighbors. Steady customers appreciated my effort to edge, as well as sweep and bag. In the winter, my friends and I leveraged every snowstorm, shoveling for those same neighbors. For extra cash, we’d scrounge for empty soda bottles to collect the two-cent deposits, and at Christmas time we’d go caroling, door-to-door, hoping for monetary tips, though often settling for hot chocolates. At 12, I delivered the New York Post, before it became a tabloid. At 16, I rode my tail off for the corner drug store, riding my bicycle to deliver prescriptions. At 17, I worked for my best friend’s father, running the shipping department of his racing safety equipment catalog business. Even though tuition was free at the City University of New York, I worked full time, learning to live on little sleep. I worked for both United Parcel Service and the United States Post Office. For three summers, I installed above-the-ground swimming pools. I delivered laundry and painted houses.

After realizing that I was only in business school because my father wanted me to be a banker I transferred to Queens College and took Philosophy, Literature and majored in American History. I was smitten by Existentialism: it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. Despite the Liberal Arts degree, upon graduation I went straight into the world of investigating and approving retail credit for almost five years, but I didn’t like the work. It was way too stressful and repetitive. We used to binge drink our lunch, at least once a week. I shared my personal feelings with my fellow creditmen. “You’ll never give up this salary,” they predicted. When I did, it would be ten years before again earning at that salary level. When my wife got the offer to work in thoracic surgery from Duke, we were intrigued by the encyclopedic description of the Research Triangle and decided graduate school would be next for me. I chose Library School at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, partly because I had memories of great sounding jobs that used to be in the Sunday New York Times, jobs like museum curator and archivist. Dusty old jobs for thinkers.

In graduate school, I discovered computer science. I enjoyed data base design and thesaurus construction and worked on a massive program to try to get a computer to be able to read a novel, deconstruct it and summarize it. Natural language processing. Upon graduation, Carolina had an opening for a Business Reference Librarian. Despite not having the required library experience, I met with the University Librarian: “Do you really believe that someone who worked for two years in a grammar school library would be more qualified to serve the business school then someone with five years as a business man?” He bought it and took a risk on me. Of course my Computer Science instructor was distraught; he wanted me to go into programming. But I was tired of going to sleep, dreaming algorithms, running them in the morning and watching them work. “Well, you’re putting one foot in the grave; let’s wait a few years and see if you climb all the way in!” I spent the next four years as the Business Librarian. I served on several committees and became a champion for pushing new technology: Computers and libraries were obviously going to merge one day. When I grew bored with the snail like pace of change in the University, I started to look around. Almost four months after applying for the Technical Librarian position at BNR, I was invited for a ninety-minute interview. BNR was Bell Northern Research, the R&D subsidiary of Northern Telecom. They were growing in the states driven by both divestiture (AT+T was being split up) and environment: the lack of unions in North Carolina was quite attractive to this Canadian company who was continuously hobbled by the labor strife back home.

When I was asked what my master’s thesis was on, and I answered “Telecommunications Protocols in Library Networks,” their eyes lit up. Apparently, I was the only applicant that demonstrated good knowledge of business in general, and telecommunications in specific. Northern’s offer was significantly better than Carolina’s counter. The decision was a no-brainer. Whatever the job, I wanted to excel, striving to be the best house painter, the best mail thrower and the best stock boy. Working in manual trades taught me the art of learning from master craftsmen. My swimming pools had the lowest repair rate. There was one crew that slapped pools up and let the repair team try to fix them. I had insisted on working on the repair crew for a week, so that I could learn how to avoid the most common problems. Intuitively, I grew the value of getting it right the first time.

Before Nortel Networks, the longest I had ever stayed in one job was four years—at UNC. Usually, I left because I got bored, relatively fast, as soon as my learning curve started to flatten out. I sought change naturally, not only changing jobs frequently, but also constantly trying to change the job itself. I was a change agent long before the term was coined. For me, change is about learning, growth and development. After all, what’s the alternative? Status quo? Backsliding? Boredom.