Building an Empire
One of the greatest adventures of my career has been building my own empire. One of the global insurance companies was in dire need of guidance. They needed a nationwide network of interconnected servers, a team of developers to act as resources to build internal tools. They needed someone to work with internal corporate entities to tie them all together and streamline processes around this new network. They offered me full discretion in the role to attract me and it was a challenge I just couldn’t ignore!
When I came on board I found a single desktop computer to serve as the email server for 4400 local employees and none in the rest of the country. The Commercial mortgage division had 1 large application server but were desperate for someone who knew how to manage it and I had 2 developers struggling to maintain any kind of focus while being pulled in all directions. So with my little $100,000 (1990 dollars) hardware budget in hands, I got to work, horse trading with the other divisions who had an agenda for the new network.
Within 4 months, I had deployed 14 IBM servers across the country including a pair of mail servers capable of handling double the number of concurrent employees it was seeing complete with load balancing and failover protections. I had arranged client software training for all of the staff in each region and had integrated the 14 Canadian servers with the other 163 servers worldwide. Now that we had a real infrastructure to work with, I began working on building my staff and integrating with other internal support divisions.
One of the areas in the greatest need was the internal support entity. Their manager had come to me on several occasions in the hope of getting some help to train his staff in providing support to the corporate user community.
Sitting in the cubical next to me sat the finance manager for the division. He always puzzled me because he barely had any staff. One cute little blonde thing that he went to lunch with regularly and another young girl with a bad facial deformity. One day, quite out of the blue, the Finance manager poked his head in my office. “Hey John, do you need any staff?” he asked. I asked him what he had in mind and he told me that the young girl with the facial deformity was his original Admin Assistant but that he inherited her from customer service and she wasn’t very good. He said he had hired a better assistant and wondered if there was any area I could user her in otherwise he was just going to let her go. He told me her pay was all budgeted for the next three months so basically she was a free resource. A chance at a good resource, a chance to save some ones job and all at no risk to me! I jumped at it.
Debbie was her name and she was in a sorry state. Most of her work had been in a word processor and she had no knowledge of any of the other basic office tools. She indicated that she had asked to participate in some of the in-house courses for Excel but her requests had always been denied. So I told her I had need of someone who could do some software installs on various machines and operating systems. I told her she would be installing on Linux and Windows systems and would have to deal with differing network installations and connecting those installations to the servers.
“I have no clue what you just said!” to which I replied, “Don’t worry, you will. I’m going to take you under my wing and teach you everything you need to know.”
I think I handed her one software manual to read if she got bored, introduced her to the internal support manager and explained that I was going to train her to be workstation installation expert that they could then use to satisfy workstation installation and support requests. In between times I wanted her to get her feet wet practicing support problem solving skills.
Every time I had to do an install, repair an installation or just had some spare time to teach I grabbed Debbie. Eventually we were able to transition from watching over my shoulder to me watching over her shoulder. I taught her how to build her own disk of helpful drivers and tools and she had become very proficient at diagnostic testing.
Debbie quickly transitioned into an independent subject matter exert that the entire company came to rely on. I took great pride watching people clamber after her for help.
One thing you haven’t noticed in this conversation is mention of her look. So one day I asked her what had happened? She explained she had been a figure skater, working on her career in the sport. She went to the dentist for something and shortly after she developed a serious infection inside her jaw. She was rushed to hospital where half of her jaw had been removed. She felt she couldn’t continue her skating career anymore and started working for the insurance company.
A couple years later I had the good fortune to give a recommendation for Debbie. She was transitioning to an IT company specializing in building task planning and scheduling solutions. She was going to join as a support person/programmer!
A gem only sparkles if you polish it!
Later in that same company I went through an extensive hiring process trying to find developer talent. One I interviewed went so far as to walk in the room, slide her proof of certification across the desk and say, “So can I have the job?” It was a short interview.
In the end, I passed up dozens for a guy from the customer service area who had no formal IT education at all and had been buying every programming language he could afford to get his hands on and teaching himself. I was there for the birth of most of these languages so I was able to quickly assess just how much he had in fact learned of each one. This was back when the internet was just forming so there were far fewer resources available to help him.
There were some interesting challenges too.
After building on of the servers that was going to be deployed to another province, my network guy threw away all of the old boxes. Well, he had forgotten to install one of the $2000 raid level 5 SCSI drives and it was in one of those boxes he threw out. There had been a garbage pick-up already but he insisted on searching every garbage in the building just in case. It took till 3am for me to convince him to give up and go home. The next morning I had to break the news to the director. He wasn’t a fan of having that much money just thrown away but mistakes happen.
The company ended up hiring a new CIO. When he called me up to meet with him I found we had differing ideas on how to manage the environment and staff so I opted to move on. Before I left that company, the internal support area was up to full speed. The security division had staff fully trained in the creation and management of accounts on the servers and I had trained administrators in all the major centers in Canada. Apparently the network lasted just as I had built it for another 5 or 6 years.
Since then, one of my administrators has become the CIO of another major regional insurance company. The developer I hired moved to the US to work as a developer for another company down there. Debbie eventually got hired by that software company she was asking for the recommendation for. She was there for quite a while and then moved on. I lost touch with her after that. She had the unique ability to draw out people who could see beyond the surface. I wish her and all my peeps well.