Working for Your Friend
Working for a Friend
In my forty-year career, I've only had six managers. Of those 6, I consider 5 of them as friends. Not friends as Facebook friends, but real friends. What makes a real friend? A real friend is someone you enjoy being with. Real friends trust you and you trust them, they have your back, and you have their back. You know a lot about your real friends; their family, their interests, their strengths and weaknesses. And real friends know everything about you. Most people may have an occasional manager they consider a friend, but I wager my friend to manager ratio is unusually high.
Here are my managers that became friends, or in one case, a friend became my manager. I'll use first names, to protect the innocent. I apologize for incorrect time-lines. I'm doing this from memory, after all, that is what a memoir is all about.
My junior year in high school was the time to get a summer job. I interviewed for a dishwasher job at a local Dairy Barn. The manager, Bob, decided I was an excellent candidate to fill his short order cook opening. My only cooking experience was obtaining a Boy Scout Cooking Merit Badge. Bob and I bonded immediately. He was a good and patient teacher, and I was a quick, enthusiastic student. He soon gave me more and more responsibility. I met his wife Joan and attended several out-of-work functions. When Bob was fired by management, I refused to take over his job on a temporary basis. He was my friend. And I had his back.
My first computer job was in the summer of my Senior year in college. I took a job in the Maggs Research Center at Watervliet Arsenal. Jim was my boss, and we bonded immediately. Jim's group benefited from his fatherly approach to management, something only possible in a government job. We called him "Big Daddy."
After graduation, I joined Jim's group and spent the next ten years working in the nascent field of computer graphics. Jim encouraged me, essentially giving me free rein. Outside of work, I met his wife Joan and their children. In addition to his "day job," Jim owned a small farm and raised beef cattle. I helped Jim build a pole barn along with other work colleagues and Jim's friends. Each summer we had a big picnic on Jim's large front lawn. The kids enjoyed Jim's farm animals and the overall adventures to be found on a farm.
After the Vietnam War ended, the size of the research lab at the Arsenal was quickly reduced through a series of RIF's (Reductions in Force). Unbeknown to me, I was targeted to be laid off. The selection process was based on seniority and job description. My job title was Research Mathematician. I shared this job description with a physicist in the Lab. Of course, our actual jobs had little in common. The job description was vague. Somehow, Jim was able to change my job description so that it was unique. Jim saved my job. All of this took place without my knowledge. Jim had my back.
In 1977, I interviewed for a job at GE Research. The long-term future of research at the Arsenal was not good. The GE opportunity offered exciting new applications (other than building weapons), and the GE Lab had an excellent reputation. My interview at GE went well, and they indicated I would be getting an offer soon. I went to Jim's house on a Sunday afternoon and told him of my impending move. This was a sad moment, telling your friend you were moving on. It turned out I did not get an offer at that time because of some funding issues at GE.
For the next few months, Jim never mentioned our Sunday meeting. He never asked why I was still in his group. I think he was hoping I would stay. A few months later, I did receive an offer and left Jim's group. We remained friends for many years.
Changing jobs after ten years was a terrifying experience. I was leaving a job that some of us called OJTR, On The Job Training for Retirement. The group I joined at GE was the central computing group, called CS&S, Computer Systems and Services. CS&S provided GE researchers with computer services and scientific programming. GE hired me because of my expertise in finite element modeling and computer graphics. I hit the ground running, filling a technology void that GE researchers requested. Vince was my manager, and from the beginning, I realized that he was there to help the customers and to help me. Vince lacked the selfish attitude that many managers have in their quest to advance themselves, often at the expense of their employees. He helped me navigate an environment that was vastly different from my government job.
The manager of CS&S (we called him Ham Bone) had created a collegial environment. We had frequent social events, including a large summer picnic, attended by most of the CS&S staff and their families.
Vince's management style was to suggest what to do rather than mandate what to do. His suggestions were always well thought out. I always appreciated his input and followed most of his thoughtful comments. In a short time, we became friends outside of work. Our families enjoyed getting together. Vince and his wife Marilyn had three children. Terri and I had two children in similar age groups. We both enjoyed the race track and fishing.
Vince left GE in early 1987, but we stayed in close contact, and our friendship grew stronger. After I retired, Vince and I spent more time together, playing golf weekly. Today, I consider Vince, my best friend. He still offers advice, and I still take it. We trust each other with details of our lives that few others know. We defend each other when one of us receives unjust criticism. We have each other's backs.
Recently, Vince advised us on our home search in Santa Cruz. I sent him links to houses that piqued our interest. Vince's advice: "think one story." We almost ignored his advise, but fortunately, that deal fell through. We ended up in a one story ranch-style house, similar to the home we left (but much smaller and more expensive of course). Like a true friend, Vince never says "I told you so."
Vince organized a going way party for us when me moved from the East Coast to the Left Coast. At GE, Vince was famous for his going away speeches, always delivered from IBM punch cards. He came through again with a mixture of serious and funny comments.
Shortly after Vince left, CS&S was reorganized. Pete became my manager. I had met Pete on my first interview at GE and did some programming work for him when he managed one of the technical groups. Pete had a Ph. D. in Industrial Engineering with some knowledge of computer science. But Pete was quick to learn high-level concepts and how to navigate GE politics. Politics were very important in GE.
Pete had a very comfortable management style. He was never confrontational to his employees. Pete understood that if the group did well, Pete did well. He was also very protective of our group. Eventually, this trait would affect his future at GE.
Pete and I quickly bonded, sharing respect for each other's talents. We were about to depart together on a voyage through a tumultuous reorganization — a journey that required trust and respect.
The Research Center had a new Senior Vice President. CS&S was reorganized to be part of a larger IT organization that included new IBM mainframes, replacing the GE inspired Honeywell computers. Each organization was analyzed. Our small group had been doing more research than service but at low service rates. The management decided that our group should be moved into a technical laboratory, competing for research dollars like the other labs. We became CGSP, the Computer Graphics and Systems Program. At the same time, the funding model for the Research Center changed from 75% assessed funding, 25% business funding to 25%, 75% respectively. Assessed funds were like a research tax on the GE businesses who had limited control over that money. Business funding focused more on future business requirements.
In one instant our group was thrown into the competitive research world with no guaranteed funding and no existing customers. The Senior VP provided some transition funds to get us started. Pete and I hit the road, visiting GE businesses and Government groups, looking for matches to our group's skills. Pete and I took over 35 business trips that year, mainly arranged by Pete who knew the GE businesses. Pete was a master at picking the right business contacts. I was the technology presenter. We were a great team and ended up with our first government contract and a few small business contracts. This funding boot-strapped our small team into a larger, respected team that competed alongside the best groups at the Center.
Pete is the reason I was selected as a Coolidge Fellow in 1990. The Coolidge Award is the highest honor at GE Research. The competition is extraordinary. Pete nominated me, gathered the vast information required and made the critical presentations. This process was secretive, and I did not know I was nominated — the first time I was not selected. But Pete had my back and persisted.
As I wrote earlier, Pete was very protective of our group and made sure we got credit for what we did and also made sure that no other group would compete with us for funding in our areas of expertise. Likewise, we respected the other labs' relationships with their customers.
Another reorganization occurred, just as tumultuous as the last. A new Senior VP of Research arrived, and, as usual, management changes were imminent. Pete's boss was replaced. His replacement was charged with shaking up the organization. Even though our group had achieved recognition and respect within and outside GE, we were to move to the "next level," whatever that was. Soon, Pete was reassigned while a search began for a new replacement.
We remain friends with Pete and his wife, Linda. Linda is the best joke teller I have ever met. She tells jokes with such detail and emotion that draws one into the joke and then delivers the punch-line. Over the years I've tied to retell Linda's jokes, but can never deliver them the way she does.
Cathy joined our CS&S group a few years after I joined GE. Cathy had less computer science experience than many of us; her BS degree was in Biology. But Cathy was intelligent, quickly adapting to our heavy coding jobs. She was also great with customers, presenting a less-nerdy presence that many of us suffered from. Cathy worked with new research customers in the Chemistry Lab, a Lab that had been under-served by CS&S. She was a valuable asset for us, but another reorganization offered her an opportunity to advance in the Company.
Cathy left GE to manage a group that was formerly part of GE Aerospace, now part of Lockheed Martin. During her tenure in CS&S, I became very close friends with Cathy and her large family. This friendship started and nurtured long before she became my manager.
After Pete was replaced, I told Cathy about the opening for a new manager. After a lengthy, competitive recruiting process, Cathy, my friend, became my manager.
Cathy was thrown into a maelstrom. Our group's expertise had expanded beyond visualization and algorithms. We had embraced the Company's 6-Sigma initiative and applied it to Software Quality. Our group always had a strong software engineering background. And, from our service days, we were great software developers, probably the best in the Center. Most of the other groups that worked with software took their 6-Sigma projects as a means to satisfy the program requirements. We embraced the initiative and combined our projects into an extreme, quality software process. Eventually, we were told that we took the 6-sigma process too far and it was using too much of our time. We saw it as a necessary part of our work.
Cathy was caught in the middle of wanting us to continue this important work, but pressure from management that wanted us to hold back. The group got to the point of having a "workout" to determine the fate of the group.
I don't know the details of what happened, but I have a feeling that Cathy had my back, and that may have hurt her career.
Cathy and her daughter Veronica are still our friends. We have enjoyed many holiday gatherings at her home. Cathy's dad, Jim, was a lifelong GE employee. I always enjoyed our conversations at Cathy's gatherings.
I respected all of these managers, and they respected me. We had each other's backs in tough times at work and outside work. We enjoyed being together. We remain friends for life.