What we fear, and why?

On a Sunday earlier this spring, before the whole Coronavirus issue, Maggie and I were hiking in the valleys surrounding nearby North Mountain, in Phoenix, AZ. As we walked a couple engaged in a vigorous discussion passed us, going in the opposite direction. They were speaking Russian, a language I’ve learned to recognize. They spoke freely, with no shyness or hesitation. As we walked I was struck by what my brother, Leif, had told me about riding the Russian subways when he and his family lived in St. Petersburg.

Leif and his wife would not speak out loud on the subways. Communicating meant pressing their lips carefully against each other’s ears or those of their children and whispering quietly. He had a genuine fear for their safety if other riders had been able to discern they were foreigners. The children, however, were fine. Growing up in Russia, they had no discernible accent and could speak freely. This experience made me think about how fortunate we are to live where we do. It is unlikely anyone in the USA fears for their safety when speaking a foreign language or having an accent.

At the most local level, where we live, Americans rarely feel fear of “the other.” The Greek family that runs the bakery upsets no one. The Mexican family living down the block with the mother and father who aren’t so good at English, heading to work every morning, and often getting back late, leaving the kids to fend for themselves are completely fine. The neighbors all keep an eye out for them with a willingness to step in if anything looks amiss. Even the elderly Sikh man who’s never seen without his turban has been accepted, with some neighbors figuring out that not cutting his hair is part of his religious observance and they’re okay with that.

Given this is true, then why are we so easily manipulated to fear “the other,” by politicians and others wishing to use that emotion for their own ends? How sad when “the other” even becomes our own neighbors, friends and even family, when they have political positions different from our own. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to understand although difficult to do anything about, other than being aware and vigilant of what is going on.

Our attitudes of fear and even hate of “the other” is a primal survival mechanism. It is part of our instinct to avoid danger, to fear anything appearing to be different. It is what kept us alive in ancient times. As the writer Bill Bryson so eloquently states in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything:

“Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”

But like many remnants of our reptilian brain, some of what goes on in that part of the brain has very little usefulness in modern society. When one race or group of people consciously or unconsciously fears for their safety, if their importance or control is threatened, they’ll develop defenses. This can quickly lead to exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race or group to justify their actions to secure their own safety and survival.

We’ve outlived most of the need for this deep-seated instinct, but it still exists and is often manipulated by unscrupulous individuals and advocators. It is easy to cause us to fear a horde of “XYZ militant terrorists,” or whatever “the other” group is that is being exploited, or “this party or people” who want to destroy our country.  It holds barely a thread of something that sounds like fact, and any actual risk of such an event or attack occurring is often so remote to be downright silly. Yet newscasts are frequently monopolized with these unlikely and remote eventualities having little chance of ever impacting a particular listener.

For instance, around Halloween, many people fear their children are at risk of being given poisoned candy by strangers while trick or treating, even though there has never, ever been a documented case of this happening. Ever. Yet “urban legends” are regularly brought up and repeated, often as fact and often on the news.

I get angry when the media blatantly exploits these deep instincts. My brother and his wife’s fears on the Russian subway were probably justified. It made sense to trust their experience and reports from American friends advising caution. But it does not make sense to trust politicians or media talking heads who exaggerate or make up facts to make us fear other people when that fear, in context, is not justified. Or, at the very least, they should be required to put the fear they’re pointing at in the context of other real risks the population actually faces. But that’s another whole set of examples and considerations.

Is being fired always bad?

One of my best friends has a deep knowledge of cars and motorcycles, so we always have plenty to discuss. Recently, though, our conversation drifted to corporate life. His employer has been promoting him. From leading engineering projects, he now manages people and that includes letting people go. This is disturbing and is upsetting him. After we talked last week, I thought about lessons I’d learned being in a similar spot myself. Letting someone go or being let go, is never, ever fun.

With a near photographic memory and a passion for great engineering, it was no surprise to me a few years back when he began to get noticed and promoted. But more money and bigger titles began moving him further away from solving engineering problems, which he loves, to being closer to and dealing with people. Someone once said, “The world would be a nice place if it wasn’t for other people.” While my friend is not one to suffer fools gladly, he’s able to keep those feelings to himself, and is respected as an intelligent, thoughtful and fair leader.

However, the impact of the Coronavirus on his company’s business has forced him in the past month to lay off almost a third of his team. It has been brutal and I sensed how difficult this was for him, no matter his stoic attitude. Firing an employee is one of the most difficult and unpleasant duties a manager has to perform and most avoid it for as long as they can. “Well, we may have let ‘so-and-so’ go too soon,” said no one, ever. The number of euphemisms for this occurrence are many: sacked, canned, axed, expelled, furloughed, fired, laid-off, let go, released, down-sized, discharged, RIF’d (reduction in force), re-organized, involuntarily-separated, lost one’s job, pink-slipped, dismissed, got the boot, kicked out, retired, removed, and cut loose among others.

His experience made me think back to the fall of 1985. After leaving Open Systems, I was offered a management position at AT&T. Arriving too early on my first day at the office of my new employer, I killed time at a nearby breakfast place, grabbing a newspaper and cup of coffee. I opened the business section and the headline at the top of the page screamed, “AT&T announces 24,000 person layoff in Information Systems Division.” Humm, “That does not sound good – that’s the area that had just hired me,” I said to myself. Scanning the story I noted the announcement would impact 6% of AT&T’s total workforce, but would directly hit the 117,000 Information Systems division. Perhaps my first day will be my last, I thought, setting some sort of personal record

Entering the office suite of Area Vice President Gil Rainier at the top floor of the AT&T building, I held the newspaper up and said, “What’s going on with this?” Not expecting this sort of greeting, he hesitated and then said, “Well, it’s one of the reasons you’re here.” He went on to explain. His regional branch offices weren’t just in Mpls/St. Paul area, but included St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Chicago, each with 100-120 employees each. He’d been ordered to downsize those branch offices to between 25-30 people each along with taking his area staff down from 30-40 to less than 25. Gil explained, “I know most of these people personally. We’re friends. I can’t do this objectively, so I am wondering, if along with your other responsibilities, you could help us make these painful reductions?” It was my first day on the job; it was impossible to say no.

Amazingly, before the reduction in force could be implemented, I’d had time and budget to hire one of my top past colleagues. Together we constructed a plan to exceed the Midwest Area’s annual quota for selling AT&T computers and equipment. Managing that effort is a story I’ll leave for another time. Just when we had moved into full execution mode on our sales plans, the layoffs began. My team continued on the plan and I put the cloak of doom over my shoulders and headed to the branch offices.

AT&T was not heartless. It cushioned the layoffs with a generous “separation package.” I don’t recall the exact details, but it was close to one month’s salary for every year you’d been with the company. So if you’d been with the company for ten years, you got almost a year’s pay in a lump sum after signing the “I won’t sue” paperwork. Plus, AT&T covered health insurance for two additional years or until you found other employment. A softened blow is still a blow and many of the meetings were full of tears and anger. Employees told me AT&T was the only placed they’d ever worked and after twenty plus years, could not imagine what they would do. They frequently wept, feeling a major part of their lives was over. Sometimes they yelled and screamed. AT&T had not only been a workplace, it was where they met and socialized with some of their best friends. They had few ideas on how they would go on and I felt ill-equipped to deal with the despair, frustration, and hopelessness they expressed.

But here is what I told my friend: For years after I left AT&T, it was impossible to attend an industry conference, trade show or event, and not be approached by at least one of these former AT&T colleagues. They’d begin by asking if I remembered firing them from AT&T. They told me how much they’d hated me and the company for doing that. But here was the surprise. Every single one said, in only slightly different words, “that was the best thing to ever happen to me,” or “that was the day my life changed for the better, and I’ve never been happier.” They all told me, in retrospect, how much they’d been stagnating at AT&T. They’d lost themselves in this behemoth company where their efforts were unseen, largely unappreciated and disconnected from what made a company successful. They told me how they were now working at a place where the impact of their contributions was obvious. They knew the value they were adding and so did those around them. This was a feeling they hadn’t had before. They were thrilled. And of course, it made me feel better, too.

I’m sure not everyone managed through it with such positive results, but I came to see things like forcing people to wake up and change to not be entirely negative. Everyone is afraid of ambiguity and the unknown. Being let go is never fun. But venturing out, whether you take the step yourself or are pushed, can sometimes turn your life around.

Epilogue: In the spring of 2020 we had a market crash and a national quarantine which precipitated the closure of many businesses and resulted in innumerable lost jobs. This take is not about hourly and day workers whose lives have been turned inside out and for whom I have the utmost sympathy and compassion. This story speaks to people who can and will bounce back. For those people, fold your damaged ego gently and put it in your pocket for later.

https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-1985-08-22-8502040337-story.html (link to an achieved story from the SunSentinel in 1985 about the announced lay-off).

Who got the best deal?

Jaguar XJ6

The purchase of one of my dream cars, a Jaguar XJ6 sedan, did not work out entirely as anticipated, but in the end, everyone was happy. Buying the nearly ten-year-old Jaguar from a local used car lot was easy. Making it go away was a tad more difficult. The euphoria I felt when it left was nothing compared to the buyer’s side of this tale, which I didn’t learn until later.

Immediately after Ginger was born Maggie began complaining that our daily driver vehicle at the time, the venerable, indestructible and seemingly immortal, Toyota Celica, was not meeting the standard for a good “family car.” Her biggest complaint: it only had two doors. Getting Ginger into and out of the rear-mounted car seat required a multitude of gyrations, including bending the front seats forward and holding them out of the way with your butt as you made all the appropriate adjustments in the back. “Can you just get me something with 4 doors?” she begged. Well, that left me with a lot of options and in less than a week I’d obliged.

Al Cady, John Bonte, Stu Baker, and I frequented a lunch spot a mile or so from Control Data’s headquarters. CDC occupied land near where the Mall of America in Bloomington, MN now sits. Restaurants lined the frontage road along Hwy 494, as did used car dealerships and occasionally we’d see something pretty. One day Al Cady bought a bright-red Jaguar E-type convertible. He loved this long, sleek beauty until we mentioned everyone one assumed a guy his age driving around in that sort of car, was basically announcing to the world he was having pecker problems. He sold the car.

One of the lots had a gorgeous silver 1974 Jaguar XJ6. I returned after work for a more extensive look and was immediately smitten. An early business hero of mine had been Paul Ginther, the VP of Marketing at Schaak Electronics, who drove a gray Jaguar XJ6. I thought Paul was the coolest guy ever. I wanted to be Paul Ginther when I grew up, a VP of Marketing who drove a Jaguar. They were asking $6995 for a car that in 1974 had cost almost $30K. So, a pricey car that had depreciated a great deal and looked perfect to me. I saw no rust, a big issue in Minnesota, and the dealer assured me it had been methodically serviced by the prior owner, an elderly woman who only drove it to church. After some negotiating, I brought it home for a bit over $5k plus Maggie’s Toyota. While not exactly what she was thinking, once she saw the beautiful leather and wood interior and humongous back seat, she pronounced it more than acceptable. It was March, 1984. Our time with the Jaguar began and it was sublime.

As the XJ6 reached its 50th birthday, Octane Magazine editor Glen Waddington wrote a wonderful celebration of the car. In his article, he speculated that the XJ6 may have been the best car in the world. “It rode with a comfort and silence that were alien to other cars of the day, save perhaps the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, yet it also handled with the kind of balance that normally came only with a smaller, harsher sports car.” He goes on to say: “The XJ6 is a breathtakingly refined car. It has an uncommon suppleness, as every movement of wheels and body is kept in deft control by exquisitely judged damping. The steering, often criticized for being over-light, is quick and accurate. The engine feels zingy and surprisingly potent in such a large car and its 0-60mph time of 11 seconds and 117mph top speed don’t tell the whole tale.” British car builders own this niche, and you see elements of it in the Rolls Royce, Aston Martin and Bentley. They build better luxury touring cars than anyone on the planet.

I just loved the car and we spent the summer happily loading it up with miles. We took it to Milwaukee for a wedding and a sight-seeing trip for autumn leaves in northern Minnesota. We frequently drove it to Rochester, Minnesota to display our newly arrived daughter to her grandparents and friends in that part of the state. Sitting behind the wheel was amazing. Once you got over all the wood and leather, the rows of rocker and dip switches were reminiscent of an airplane cockpit. Of great fun was picking up another couple to take them to dinner and hear them wax enviously about how much room and luxury there was in the back seat – it was like riding in a limousine.

That fall, however, I noticed two disturbing things about the Jag. First, when looking closely at the car after washing it one day, I saw nearly every inch of it was covered with small, nearly-microscopic rust pinholes. This told me immediately that the car been the recipient of a quick “Earl Scheib-style,” $99 paint job before it was set out of the dealer’s lot and it was covered with rust underneath. The second issue was that as the fall season arrived and overnight temperatures dropped, the Jaguar (which lived outside) was beginning to experience difficulty starting. The idea of Maggie and Ginger in that car through the winter suddenly seemed like a really bad idea, and so I became determined to sell it quick.

Selling a car then meant listing it in the newspaper’s cars for sale classified ad section. Maggie and I discussed at length the right price to put on it. I wanted to price it for the same $6995 figure it had been on the used car lot when purchased it in the spring. I figured that number would give me plenty of room to negotiate down since we really only had a bit more than $5k into the car. Our ad went live in the paper the following week, followed by zero calls. No responses, no nibbles, nothing for a week. The paper called and offered a renewal for another week for half price. We debated on dropping the price to $5995 but decided to let it ride at $6995 for another week. And then we got the call.

A middle-aged guy called saying he worked at the University of Minnesota and had seen our ad and wanted to know if the car was still available, and if so, would it be possible for him to come and see it and bring his friend, an English car specialist along. We scheduled a time that week after work and they arrived. The car was in our driveway, and I went inside to let them examine it without me hovering. After about 20 minutes they rang the bell. He announced he was indeed interested in the car and would like to return on Saturday. Would I allow him to take the car to a British car mechanic he knew? Might it be possible to have the car for a few hours on Saturday morning? Not having any other prospects, I agreed.

When they left, Maggie and I talked. Who knew what the mechanic would find? The car had worked flawlessly for us, and uncharacteristically for me, I’d never even checked the fluids (other than oil) or taken it to a mechanic. We just drove it. I feared that although I’d put a good coat of wax on the car, the rust pinholes might reappear. And of course, the general condition of the starter, engine, and transmission, were mysteries to me. What might be wrong? It was a British-made car from the ’70s, without a reputation for great reliability.  We were asking $6995 in the paper, but would have been thrilled to $5995, what we’d nearly listed it for. I cautioned Maggie if they found anything substantial, we might have to go well below that. We agreed we didn’t want to take less than $5k for the car if we could help it, but would need to be ready to consider and discuss sub-$5k offers. Then the two guys showed back up with the car and I met them in the driveway.

I liked the two guys and hoped they would end up with the car. They talked carefully about what they’d learned from the mechanic, reading from a list, carefully trying not to say anything that might hurt my feelings. As they showed me small nicks in the paint here and there, pointed to the age of the tires, and some worn carpet, I began to think, “Sheesh, maybe they didn’t find anything wrong,” and it turns out I was right. The mechanic had judged the car to be in good mechanical condition. Then they came to the part when they needed to make me an offer. They’d clearly rehearsed this.

One of the two, with the other one alternating his gaze intently from me to his partner, said, “Okay, we know you are asking $6995 for the car, but after looking it all over and seeing the things we’ll need to fix, we’re prepared to offer you $6500 for it.” He paused briefly as I looked at him and said nothing. Then he continued, “But, we know you were expecting more, so here is what we are thinking. How about if we agree to split the difference, and we’ll give you $6750 for the car? What would you say to that?” I waited a long minute to get my breathing under control and fight the urge to grin and then said, “Well, that is less than what we were hoping, so would you excuse me while I discuss this with my wife, who is in the house?” And I turned and left. I came into the kitchen where Maggie was feeding Ginger a snack. I poured myself some coffee, sat down at the table, and began to read the paper. After a while, Maggie looked out the window and saw the two guys walking around the Jaguar, and asked me what I was doing. I said, “Oh, you and I are having a discussion on how low we’re willing to go to sell the car.” She nodded and went back to feeding Ginger. I finished the funnies and the sports section, and 15 minutes later finally went back outside. While I knew they were more than likely to come up with another $100, it didn’t seem fair. So I told them we’d decided to accept their offer, but not before moaning a bit about it. They provided me the cash, I signed and gave them the title and they were gone. When I came back into the house and showed Maggie the $6750 in cash, she was pleased. But this is not the end of the story.

Two weeks later we attended a dinner party at the home of Dr. Walter Bruning. Bruning had been recruited by Control Data CEO Robert Price from the University of Minnesota where he had been a chemistry professor, to run the division my group reported into. He was a brilliant man and a genuine character. We loved him and his wife, Karen. Toward the end of the evening, Walt regaled the group with a story he’d just heard the night before while having dinner with some University of Minnesota friends. It seems these two professors had found a priceless Jaguar sedan owned by some guy out in Eden Prairie who had no idea what he had. The two of them, over a two-day period, had shrewdly managed to virtually “steal” this car from the unwitting Eden Prairie guy. Walt told how they’d offered far less money than the owner wanted but in the end, they’d stuck to their guns and paid only what they’d set out to pay. The car was now in their possession, and they would spend the winter restoring it.

It took every ounce of restraint not to pipe up and say, “Yeah, I think I know that guy.” But in the end, isn’t this the definition of a great deal – both parties happy with a transaction?

Links: https://subscribe.octane-magazine.com/JaguarXJ6

Yeah, I’ll probably quit

In 1989 my time with AT&T in Los Angeles was coming to an end. They’d given up the idea of being major players in the computer business, the primary reason for hiring me. Then a recruiter called about a new stealth company financed by IBM, CBS and Sears and I learned an important lesson – always tell the truth in a job interview.

Stu Fishler, a high-end recruiter in Los Angeles, had called and asked if I’d meet him for lunch to discuss a new company, called the Prodigy Services Company. They were looking for a local branch manager. Although headquartered in New York, this job was LA-based.

At AT&T I’d become familiar with the branch manager role and had experience interacting with IBM branch managers as well. The position had a certain stigma to it, borne out in this story. “One day, God was playing golf with some of his pals. He hits a bad shot. It bounces off a tree, an eagle swoops down, grabs the ball mid-air in its talons and drops it onto the green. A nearby rabbit pushes the ball into the hole with its nose. Watching this, one of the players says to another, ‘Who does he think he is, God?’ His partner says, ‘No, actually He is God. But he thinks he’s an AT&T Branch Manager.’”

Ross Glatzer today – not much different than when we first met.

As I became increasingly frustrated with my role at AT&T, I was keen to at least get an offer from this new venture and did my best to impress the local recruiter. After weeks of back and forth, it appeared I was one of the leading candidates. Fishler told me the next step was to visit Prodigy’s headquarters in White Plains New York to meet the final decision-makers and the trip was scheduled. The day of interviews started with a human resource manager in the morning, followed by a full day of meetings. First were the VP’s of Marketing, Development and Operations. Then came a half dozen other key managers and my day concluded with an interview by Ross Glatzer, who was then the VP of Subscriber services, but on the road to becoming President and CEO, who I was told, would make the final decision. From where I sat, Glatzer always ran the place and I now know when we met, he was already in the running to take over the reins of Prodigy from its founding CEO, Ted Papes.

Fishler had prepared me well and the interviews went smoothly. Sometimes I wondered why I was meeting with certain people as they had nothing to do with what was expected of me, should I get the job. But finally, the interview with Ross Glatzer, the big boss, arrived. I was tired from all the scrutiny and questions, but at least had well-practiced answers. After a few typical interview questions, Glatzer asked me something no one else had. He said, “Steve, I’ve been looking at your resume, and see you’ve never spent more than five years with any company. While it appears you initiated most of your job changes, I’m concerned. If you join us, will you only last five years and then leave for greener pastures?” My first reaction was to fabricate a small lie and say, “Of course not, Mr. Glatzer. I would never do that.” But then, at the point where I almost didn’t care if they offered me the job or not, I thought to myself, “what the hell?” and answered as truthfully as I could to this unanticipated question: “You’re correct, that’s a risk. I tend to get bored. I suspect if I’m no longer involved in new and interesting things, I’ll probably quit. But if I’m engaged and challenged, I’ll stay as long as you like.” I could tell from his face this wasn’t the answer he was expecting, but I think he also knew it was the truth.

In the hired car back to the airport, I had the feeling a job offer would be coming and I was right. I joined Prodigy in late 1989 and was involved in this historic precursor to the Internet, where so many innovative and break-through technologies were unveiled. My initial role as a Branch Manager with Prodigy was handling sales and market planning, distribution, subscriber acquisition and retention in Los Angeles and eventually, Orange County. I took over from the temporary manager Prodigy had sent to launch the LA market — Jim (Jimbo-Billy-Bob-Bubba) O’Connell. Jim was a large, red-faced, New Jersey Irishman and an awesome guy who went on to become a good friend. A few years later I was transferred to New York. After a year working on a special project with Dave Waks, Marty Evancoe and Rob Kost, I took over all of Prodigy’s communication products (Bulletin Boards, Chat, E-Mail) as well as its budding Internet Products (Web Browser, Newsgroups, Prodigy HomePages). At the time I left Prodigy, my areas were responsible for over 80% of the company’s non-subscription revenue.

Ross Glatzer and I crossed paths on occasion, although I never reported directly to him. Other than my direct boss, Bill Young, Ross was the only person to approach me about the recent death of my son, caring enough to seek me out and ask me how I was doing. Ross Glatzer was a good and fair man, navigating Prodigy through a highly complex and quickly changing landscape. In the end, the speed required to survive in the emerging Internet space was impossible for a company of its size to maintain. I attempted to capture what those times were like here. As I moved to the founding teams of various early-stage companies and eventually started several of my own, I never forgot the care and attention Ross Glatzer and Prodigy put into every person hired.

Rob Kost, Maggie, Doc Searls, working on our respective computers in our Eden Prairie kitchen – with beer, guacamole and chips.