Embracing Ambiguity

Rich Marin

My good friend and riding buddy, Rich Marin, writes a daily blog post/newsletter called The Old Lone Ranger.  Rich is highly disciplined and writes 1,000 words, every day.  Rich and another friend, Philip Richter, inspired me to start my newsletter.  Philip’s site and blog is the Turtle Garage.  On Saturday, January 9, 2021, Rich’s post was titled “Getting Big Enough. It again made me recognize and appreciate different ways people look at the world.  While ostensibly about his size and the sizes of people in general, toward the end of the piece Rich crossed into a discussion about the changes 2020 and COVID have brought to our world, the disorientation and unpredictability of things and reactions to that.  You can read his full post here.

The part of his post inspiring this response is:

“And yet, who among us does not know people who surprise us with their ability to handle the whirlwind in ways that startle us. I know people who get frazzled in steady states, but who blossom and thrive in chaos. That seems counter-intuitive and almost inexplicably unnerving, but it’s true. I attribute it to a phenomenon I observed long ago in someone close to me. I concluded that I am a linear thinker for whom logic adds clarity. This other person did better handling chaos than order. They were random thinkers, people who could sense patterns rather than reason through sequential logic. I am certain I hit on a very real attribute characterization with this observation.”

While fairly certain Rich is not talking about me, I thought, “Well, I resemble that remark.”   One of the many things Rich and I have in common is being self-aware. But my trait of tolerance for ambiguity and desire to keep pushing ahead in times of uncertainty was something I only became aware of later in life.  Even after becoming aware of it, years passed before the implications of how it might affect my career dawned on me. Eventually, I figured it out after leaving the stable cocoon of employers like AT&T, CDC, and IBM and into the world of early-stage tech startups.  I was finally professionally fulfilled in this environment where the arrival of new technology or a competitive announcement could require an overnight reassessment of every assumption about our business.

In his post, Rich observed that some people “get frazzled in steady states.”  Frazzled wasn’t how I would characterize my feelings.  My dissatisfaction when working for large, “steady-state” companies was frustration with the agonizing slowness of getting anything done, the number of people required to buy-in before moving forward, and my colleagues overwhelming satisfaction with the status quo and rabid fear of upsetting the apple cart.  So, maybe it was frazzled, but it felt more like frustration, numbness, and exhaustion to me. It was probably why I only lasted about 5 years each in these big companies.  The daily grind of working with people who did not appear to care or understand the key drivers of the business and what we needed to transpire to move forward drove me crazy.  Working side by side with people who got their professional fulfillment from an ability to leave the office at precisely 5 pm every day with an absolutely clear desk, is what eventually did me in.  And just so we are clear, not everyone in large organizations behaves or thinks this way, and certainly not Rich Marin.

It was just six months after leaving IBM that my recognition of the “Aha moment” Rich describes occurred.  We were living in Croton-on-Hudson, NY.   I was acting as the half-time VP of Marketing for a start-up in global trade in Connecticut and had a consulting contract with a venture firm in New York City and spent one day a week there.  Many evenings I’d attend events on what to do about this new, weird, chaotic, nebulous, and probably powerful new thing called the Internet. It was at that point I realized professionally, for the first time in my life, I was completely happy, satisfied and thrilled with my job. I couldn’t wait to get up every morning.  It was non-linear, unstructured, totally lacking in certainty, and yet, in my mid-40s, I was finally doing what I was good at.

To be fair to myself, earlier life circumstances had forced me into a professional life of only working for large companies. The risk to my family of not having health insurance was too high. My health history and what insurance companies viewed as adverse “pre-existing conditions” made me uninsurable, except when bundled into a huge group policy only available through large employers. I remember riding the train back from the city one afternoon, staring out the window at the cakes of ice floating in the Hudson River and thinking how if every one of my current income sources were to instantly dry up, I would be able to find something else quickly, and it would probably be better than what I was doing now.

I spent the rest of my working life with early-stage start-up companies.  While far from dependable in the long-term sense, my work was always satisfying and gratifying. I hated to lose and felt real angst and fear when we’d run out of options and had to close up shop.  But even then, I knew I was doing the right thing.  Rich is correct about the new pressures coming from a world seeming to be constantly evolving, complexities of the web and where to go for reliable information, and a polarized political landscape that keeps getting worse even when we think it is already as bad as it can get.  Rich concluded that the biggest challenge may be to find something that isn’t changing. He may be right, but I’m not sure it matters to me.  While I may not thrive on ambiguity, I’ve learned to get comfortable with it.  Perhaps he’s right – it’s my nature.

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).

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.