Pittsburgh Years

Micros

pittsburgh.jpg

                          

 

 

T

hey seemed very serious, this cohort of young Saudi Arabian boys in camo stalking ominously around the al Dhahran Airport with submachine guns at half-mast.  It flashed across my mind that the now universal military uniform of camouflage, with its initial purpose of disguise in the jungles, was, here in this airport, serving precisely the opposite function, that of highlighting these young men, of making them more obvious, of giving them status, even menace.  Very flexible this camo.

To my eyes there seemed a peculiar air of childish­ness about the boys that was almost funny, though I certainly wasn’t laughing.  It was their young age, the ominous guns, their unrelieved sense of self-importance and their diminutive size—those Westerners having their baggage inspected seemed to tower over them.  The al Dhahran airport was otherwise a quite normal, even elegant, airport, perfectly modern if one ignored the grown men sashaying around in elegant white robes and elaborate Arab headdress.

The boys watched suspiciously as the customs officials, near-boys themselves, went through everyone’s luggage slowly and carefully, shirt by shirt, pants, shoes, underwear,…  everything.  They were in no hurry whatsoever.  Why were the boys with the guns watching?  Weren’t the customs people sufficient?  Or did they think we might run were contraband discovered?  There didn’t seem to me to be anyplace to run to.  It was, I think, simply theatre, which lent an air of seriousness to their searching.  I had been told that they were primarily looking for booze—bottles of mouthwash were sniffed as well as any other liquids suspected of being disguised liquor—foreign religious materials and, especially, pornography.  All of this is illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Potter Stewart, a United States Supreme Court justice, once, famously, wrote of pornography: “…  I know it when I see it.”  Perhaps never having seen the genuine article, these fellows had a conception of pornography quite different from our own.  In their mind, for example, the cover of your innocuous-seeming Life magazine might be taken as pornography.  Forget about Cosmo magazine and Elle.  All of these would either be confiscated or, at the boys discretion, blacked out with their ever present, rapidly moving, black markers, or the cover would simply be ripped-off on the spot.  As they went through your wallet you may have had what you thought a loving picture of your wife or your girlfriend, and certainly innocuous.  But if the photo revealed her in a short skirt or a swimming suit it might be confiscated too. 

All television tapes—remember VCRs?—were suspect, no matter the title on their plastic package.  These would all routinely be confiscated for inspection later, with the promise of return to your hotel at some future time if they passed the review.  I try to imagine one of these reviewers working, day after endless day, watching American tapes for pornography.  It seems to me that this would be life-changing for a Saudi; could he ever be the same again?  What went through his mind when he returned to his family in the evening?  Perhaps they got hazard pay.  There were a great deal of these tapes brought in-country by expats because there was otherwise nothing to do in Saudi Arabia except to watch Saudi television, sing-songy in that Arabic fashion, and completely boring to Westerners, with the possible exception of study groups: culturists or anthropologists.  I believe that the Christian bible was permitted—we are all Abrahamic after all—but any materials for religious proselytizing were confiscated.  The Latter Day Saints come to mind here; Islam may have borrowed from the Jews and Christians, but they were certainly not going to be followed by anyone else, after having determined the best of all possible worlds.

The Muslims seem a strange bunch, though these here in the Arabian desert were perhaps the strangest of the strange.  Years later I had occasion to stay for a month or so in Istanbul.  In 1453 Sultan Mehmed had, with considerable effort, conquered Constantinople—it had quite a fortress, one formerly considered impregnable.  Afterwards they took over the Orthodox Christian Cathedral known as Hagia Sofia that had been built there by the Eastern Christians in about the fourth century of the Christian Era.  Quite understandably they converted this grand structure—still there—into a mosque.  It is a very large and beautiful building.  The part Text Box:  


that is strange about this is that after assuming control and, I suppose, recognizing quality when they saw it, they left the exquisite, iconographical stained glass windows in place, one of which depicted the Virgin Mary suckling the baby Jesus.  They mosque-ified the building simply and inexpensively, as warriors might do, by displaying all around the mid-level of the structure a series of rather tacky white signs covered with Arabic writing.  When I saw this I wondered what they said, but I was not to find out.  Later, their culture solidified there, they built a completely new mosque, The Blue Mosque, right across the way, as if in architectural competition.

Some time back, Blaw-Knox had worked on a project in Algeria, another Muslim country.  Oddly, in that country, each expatriate worker was permitted to bring in one bottle of booze—but only one.  Muslim countries vary widely in respect of liquor; in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon and many other Islamic states, liquor, often in the forms of arrack and beer, are routinely consumed by Muslims even though the Koran forbids it.  Our clever project managers in Algeria mitigated their problem by having each man—even non-drinkers—bring in exactly one bottle of pure grain alcohol, 200 proof, unaccountably available in Pennsylvania’s State controlled liquor stores, a modern-seeming monopoly that strangely reflects Muslim principles: the citizen may need help in maintaining his well being (it also brings the state considerable money).  Once on the job site in Algeria each bottle was then cut into four 50 proof bottles which would get the job done, and almost get them through their stay, or until the next guy came over with a new bottle.  All of this tells you two things: strange liquor laws are not confined to Muslim countries, and where there’s a will there’s a way.

Before leaving for Saudi Arabia, the company had given each man a 30 page, custom-made brochure on Saudi customs and culture so as to minimize in-country difficulties.  We were, after all, the brochure announced prominently, guests in their country.  We were looked at both suspiciously and with grudging admiration, since we and the Brits seemed to be the only people able to get that black gold out of the ground and do something with it.  Their entire economy was quite dependent on oil; the Arabians themselves were seemingly incapable, or perhaps simply uninterested, in doing for themselves.  Each family received a Royal stipend and, if frugal, had no real need to work.

One of the best-performing projects in our company at that time—making money and looking as though it might complete on time; not an ordinary circumstance—was a desalinization plant being built on the shore of the Arabian Gulf in Saudi Arabia near Al Khobar on the East Coast.  (Had we been working for Iran, this same body of water would have been known to us as the Persian Gulf.)  This plant was only one small part of an immense new complex that the Saudis, flush now with oil money, were building in this vicinity.  Gasoline prices were high and, in America and elsewhere, drivers waited in line at the pump.  In Pennsylvania, one could gas-up only an alternate days, depending on the oddness or the evenness of one’s license plate number.  The Saudis were banking what seemed to them inexhaustible amounts of money.  And they were spending it.

The notion that had now been internalized by Saudi royalty was that The Kingdom was losing out on considerable money by just shipping crude oil out to the rest of the world where it was then to be refined into the various high-value-added products, notably gasoline, for which crude can be used.  They asked themselves, Why not do this refining ourselves and get a bigger cut of the action?  Yet Saudis themselves haven’t the least idea how to build anything.  Nor, for that matter, any interest in doing so.  Their alternate method had been implemented completely by 1980.  And that was, with grudging Western acquiescence, to confiscate entirely the till-then Western-owned Arabian American Oil Company, known as Aramco.  This company has a long and storied history, and the story is not altogether pretty.  Nevertheless, Aramco did know how to get oil of the ground, and they knew what to do with it afterwards.

Our desalinization project, worth maybe sixty million dollars or so at that time, was a mere sideshow compared to size of the entire enterprise underway there, on the shore of the Arabian gulf.  Virtually every major construction company in the Western world was involved in this project in one way or another.  Even our own small project was challenging, and not especially because of the process, but because of its location, the logistics and expense involved in getting everything over there, the politics of dealing with the many entities involved, and of getting it built once these problems had been solved.  Dravo’s solution—a radical one—was to pre-assemble the entire plant in the United States, in large and complete sections.  And then to float them over to Saudi Arabia on huge oceangoing barges where they would be fitted together, pipe to pipe, wire to wire, steel beam to steel beam, making a complete plant with the least possible on-site labor, which is very expensive.

I had been sent to Saudi Arabia by the head of the project, the Brit who was later to become President of our company, because there was a fellow there, Peter Protopapa, a Greek who used to do scheduling for me, that had an Apple II microcomputer at the site.  I think it was Peter’s own computer.  He had developed a primitive cost control system using it, and a crude form of tracking equipment deliveries, which had quite impressed the Project Manager.  In such a remote area the normal systems that the company used were unavailable.  I was to see if I could help bring him a little more sophistication in programming, and to see if this sort of microcomputer system could actually be useful on job sites or was just a plaything.

I knew Peter was an interesting person, and smart; he had a degree in Chemical Engineering which he chose not to pursue professionally.  I remember that the nails of the small fingers of each of Peter’s hands protruded from his fingertips quite a long ways, the rest were trimmed normally.  When I had asked him about this affectation once he said it was a mark that meant that he was not a physical laborer, that he was one of the elite;  though Peter did not seem at all pretentious.  I knew him pretty well because when he had worked for me as a project planner I had attended his wedding, a rather grand Greek Orthodox affair in which the bride and groom ceremoniously circle many times around a sort of a freestanding altar before finally making their commitments.  It seemed, as they circled, as if they were still making up their minds about the marriage—one last chance so to speak.

Greeks seem to enjoy circling.  I was once, at another time, in a Greek restaurant which I think was somewhere in Canada.  The 375px-Balaika,_Nordisk_familjebok.pngcustomers were mostly Greek, and they seemed impelled—with the aid of Ouzo—to dance.  The dancing was done by a dozen men or so forming a circle each connected to the other, not by holding hands—probably not manly—but by each pair holding one end of a handkerchief.  As the Balalaika played, the men circled rhythmically to the music and the undulating voice of the singer, and while doing so they managed to look very stern.  This surprised me; shouldn’t they at least smile?  They seemed to be having fun.  But apparently it is more serious than that.  These were, after all, Greek men, men whose ancestors taught the Romans much of what they knew about machismo.  But in an expansive spirit of brotherhood—I did not know any of them; they saw me watching—they waved me over, split their circle, and the two men now on each side of me each offered me one half of a handkerchief.  It was fun, and I tried to look appropriately solemn.

The appreciation of foreign places is, in some sense, an acquired taste.  Every new place is interesting, even Saudi Arabia, if only for its peculiarities.  At the hotel in Dhahran, where I stayed after just arriving from the Airport, a Sheraton as I recall, there were two dining rooms, one for families, the other for men.  When I say women, as distinct from women in families, that is misleading, since the notion of a single woman being out by herself, has yet to penetrate the cultural thinking of Saudi Arabia.  It is only that single men are not permitted in the family dining room.

The pilots and flight attendants of the airplane that brought us here were also staying at the hotel.  There was a swimming pool there and, since they had a mandatory layover, they were up for a little rest and relaxation.  So they went swimming.  The religious police swooped down on them, saying that “mixed” swimming was not permitted.  Separate hours of the day were allocated to the men, and other hours to the women.

Booze of course is not allowed in Saudi Arabia.  So the hotel, accommodatively, has concocted a drink consisting primarily of apple juice with a little club soda which was called a Saudi Cocktail, and it is beautifully served with ice and a slice of lemon in a stemmed glass.  In a perverse but effective way they make this seem like liquor by charging about $6.00 a drink (in the 1970s). This, ironically, helps support the illusion of drinking liquor, simply because it is as expensive as liquor.

Soon we were transported to the job site on the Gulf.  We were to be housed there in a large oceangoing barge anchored to the Arabian shore.  It seemed like quite a large ship though it did not have the lines of a seagoing vessel.  On the shore, clumps of crude oil, looking distinctly like dark cowpies, littered the otherwise beautiful beach.  A large stack, perhaps 100 feet tall, had a bright and noisy flare at its top 24 hours a day, burning off the natural gas attendant to oil drilling; it was thus never very dark in this place.  Otherwise the landscape was sandy with a patches of short weeds, a gently rolling expanse of this terrain extended as far into the distance as one could see.  Clumps of some sort of grass made their best effort, but it was feeble; perhaps in the rainy season it might flourish.  But this was February.

Clusters of construction trailers also dotted the landscape around our work site.  And in the far distance one could see a few tents that housed Bedouin nomads.  Camels were picketed outside the tents which, even at a distance, seemed rather elaborate, almost regal; they appeared to be made out of some sort of skins, and were large and colorful, not in the least like a camping tent.  I was told that animal skins made up the floor, right on top of the dry sand.  And I was also told not to wander over there.

Living on the barge was like being on a navy ship; there were at least seven “decks” on this barge.  They were segregated in this way: one deck near the top was reserved for engineers and other bigwigs (I was included in this category).  Had we been in the Navy this would have been the Officers deck.  Other decks were each reserved for the other rankings: expat constructors of several nationalities and, on the bottom rung, Filipino cooks and stewards.  All were men of course.  One entire deck was reserved as the expat mess; this is where I took my meals.  The Filipinos had their own mess, with their own type of food.  While I say Filipinos it was in fact more mixed then that, but Filipinos predominated.

Nautical terms prevailed on this craft.  In the small compartment assigned to me there was a head, a small desk with drawers and a cot; the walls were metal, as they would be aboard-ship.  And there you are; space is tight.  In the “officers” mess the food is quite good: steaks and chops, hamburgers and French fries, vegetables and fruits, all imported from the West and professionally prepared.  I felt right at home in that respect.  After dinner, people watch movies there in the dining hall from VCR tapes that were brought from the US or Britain, or Australia, or any of the other Anglophone countries.  Some tapes remained there from people who had come and gone and left their entertainment for those who would follow. 

This sort of accommodation had a subtle benefit for the project: one can work as many hours as one chooses, and most people do, until becoming so tired that one goes to the mess hall, then to bed for sleep.  There is nothing else to do. 

I was not much impressed with the little Apple Computer and Peter’s use of it.  I should have been.  And later, reflecting, I came to see in it a seed of value.  At our home office in Pittsburgh, computer hardware and software was highly regulated by the corporation’s Information Systems Department.  It was nearly impossible to use anything else but what they “sold”.  They, quite naturally, went for what was then known as “big iron”, which is to say the largest IBM mainframe that they could get their hands on.  IBM even sponsored a monthly dinner attended by the Information Technology heads of each of the major corporations in Pittsburgh.  It was supposed to be a meeting in which ideas and gripes could be aired directly to IBM.  But I suspect that, as the drinks flowed and the colleagues chattered, the primary aim was the building by IBM of collegiality and loyalty.  I was not immune to this fever for largeness.  It seemed to me that scale and complexity was desirable; what then could not be done?  What systems could not then be developed?

The little Apple system seemed like a toy.  It was sold in small stores in strip malls.  The young men that sold them knew little about software development, they seemed more into games.  I went into one of these stores once just to look around.  I asked about prices and components.  The Apple computers of the time did not have a hard drive they had a floppy drive.  It seems to me it held 128 KB of information, and it seemed to have a minuscule amount of main memory.  What serious application could be implemented using one of these?

And yet…  The seed had been planted.  On a remote site such as that in Saudi Arabia—there was no Internet then—the simple systems that Peter had developed, clearly delivered value, as we might say today.  When it comes right down to it, the computing power required for most business systems—as opposed to Engineering Systems—is minuscule.  Quite valuable little systems can be developed on very small computers.  I had always been somewhat skewed in the direction of bigness, possibly because I came from an engineering background.  But the computer requirements for simply keeping track of a lot of separate things is not much.

Our division, the Chemical Plants Division, incurred a substantial internal charge each month, millisecond by millisecond, the for the use of its mainframe computer, a charge from which micros would be quite immune.  I was not then very money conscious, in respect of the company, (or personally, for that matter).  In my ignorance, I assumed the company to have a more or less unending supply of dinero.  I really didn’t know anything about business; I was all technology.

I had once made an attempt to have the company buy a minicomputer.  And the reason was that in that way I would be independent of the strictures imposed on us by the IT department.  I had planned to use it for our material status system and our documents status system, MSS/DSS, a surprisingly popular system within the company, and one that required very little in the way of computing resources.  But it was not to be.  All requisitions for equipment—no matter what your own boss said about it—had to be passed through the Director of Information Technology at the corporate level.  And from their point of view it would’ve been an incursion into their exclusive domain.  But…, buying a little microcomputer?  I could probably put that on my creative expense account.

 

G

radually this seed that had reluctantly been planted in my mind in the construction trailer in the Saudi desert grew, in spite of my general distaste for the limited capabilities of the Apple computer.  I began to think of all the things we could do with small computers generally, both on job sites and in the home office.  And the ability to free ourselves from the central control of the corporate IT department had a distinct appeal; everything we did had to be vetted by them and they protected their mainframe turf relentlessly.  Microcomputers were relentlessly touted in technical magazines and in the computing books of that time.  The ability to put a complete processor together on a single small chip sounded fantastic.  Yet for years nothing real seem to come of it; mainframes, meanwhile, were still on their ascendancy. 

As the still-reigning computer guru of the company, and one with a pretty free hand, I had been experimenting: somehow I scraped together enough money from somewhere in the company to buy a new microcomputer system.  How I got this past the guardian IT department I don’t remember; I’m sure a dodge of some sort was involved, but I was not a virgin anymore; I had learned to play the game.  I was still not convinced that Apple, or the other early microcomputers were the right solution, but I had begun to change my thinking about them.  In part this was due to the fast, nearly exponential development that micros were finally undergoing in the industry; experiment­ation was blooming, new products were proliferating.  After a lot of looking around I settled on a new and unique product.  It was called the Molecular

The Molecular Computer System was a small metal box about 12 inches wide, 30 inches long, and about 30 inches high.  It had, for those days, a serious hard disk.  But its most distinctive feature was an array of eight slots in the back into each of which a circuit-board could be inserted.  Each board contained a complete microprocessor system including, as I recall, 64 KB of RAM, which then seemed quite a lot.  Each of these boards could be wired directly to a computer monitor located anywhere you liked, so, in effect, eight users could be independently supported by this one small unit that carried a very small price tag.  The monitors had only green text on black, but that was typical for those days.

Today the Molecular Computer would be called “thin client” technology, very thin.  It seemed to me then far ahead of its time.  It required no special air conditioning or other babying and it took up very little space.  It didn’t even need a separate room.  If a processor went bad you just inserted a new one; we set it on the floor in a convenient corner and that was pretty much that.  It came with what I thought were two pretty hot software products called WordStar and DataStar, third party software and functional precursors to Microsoft Word and the Microsoft Access database program.  The operating system was CP/M.  With these simple products one could develop practical applications very quickly, software that had genuine utility for the company.  For more complicated stuff, it seems to me that it had a Basic compiler.

One of the privileges of a computer guru is to attend computer conferences.  At one of these, really a very grand sales show, I stumbled across, in the vast auditorium, a booth staffed by a small group headquartered in, of all places, Orem, Utah.  They were selling a new microcomputer.  It had for its time a very elegant vector-oriented graphics screen (meaning that you specify the screen coordinates to start from, and another set to go to and it would draw a line between the two), and the line was crisp and sharp.  It was aimed at graphical applications.  The CPU itself, and all its necessary components were so small that they were housed in the keyboard itself.  The only other independent component was a box that contained a five gigabyte hard drive.  Today this seems a trivial amount, but then, even on mainframes, a large, washing-machine-sized hard drive, an IBM 2311, for example, held only 7.25 MB.

Microcomputer technology had now begun changing at near warp-speed.  To say that I was entranced would be an understatement, and the reason was that this computer was perfectly suited for engineering applications which were still uppermost in my mind even though I seemed to have become co-opted for several years by more mundane business applications.  I filed this computer away in the back of my head for the time being.  The company that marketed these computers indicated that their plan was eventually to connect them using a local area network, the first time I had heard this term, and it took me awhile to absorb the implication.  The name of company was Novell, the year…  about 1981.

By this time, as microcomputers became more and more able to be used for real applications, I was sold.  It seemed to me that mainframe computers, in their regal isolation, serviced by their large coterie of attending acolytes, had simply carried a good thing too far.  And I could see that microcomputers, now only at the dawn of their introduction, would inexorably eat away at this elaborate and expensive infrastructure.  Apple Computer, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University forecast that in only a few years a very substantial microcomputer could be produced for $3000.  While this then seemed quite impossible, it showed the ferment burbling away in the electronic enclaves of the Far West.

To try to make the management of the Chemical Plants Division aware of this vision, and because by that time I had little else to do, I wrote a small paper titled “Where Do We Go From Here…?”  In it I tried to explain to people, who knew little about how computers actually worked, just what the tradeoffs were between the chosen path of IBM mainframes (at this time pretty much the only game in town) and the budding new micro­computer technology, and just why, in my opinion, these toy-like upstarts were eventually going to replace the mastodons of big iron.  Just to rub it in a little, I also sent a copy to the IT department, asking for comment.  I got it.  The assistant manager, whom I knew well—he had always liked a little joke—wrote back to everyone I had sent it to.  Paraphrasing his comments, he said something like, “Very interesting, ha, ha, but you’re full of shit.”

But, full of it or not I, and a friend of mine, Raymond Woo, who had worked with me in engineering and who had become my assistant in managing the computer department, bought a Novell computer for ourselves with the notion of developing engineering applications of one sort or another on our own.  The price of the computer at that time: $12,500.

 

B

y 1983 all the machinations of the MBAs—who by now had proliferated into every corner of the business, replacing the former engineers who had, until then, been the managers—were too little, too late, and too out of touch; they really didn’t know the business.  They had the notion that all businesses were essentially the same.  We were then in the midst of a recession, and the buying of companies for diversification, the building of grand offices and the other hallmarks of corporate success took their toll, sharply and surprisingly quickly.

Adding to the trauma, the government money that had been spent on coal gasification, shale-oil development, Canadian oil sands and all the other esoteric technologies then thought able to free the country from the high cost of crude, suddenly collapsed as OPEC dramatically lowered the price of oil and the air fizzled crazily out of this balloon.  As I write, this passion play has once again been recast and has reopened under the klieg lights.  The buoyant music and irrepressible optimism that new governments, with new-old dreams, seem to generate without even trying, is playing once again.  And once again the price of crude is playing its Shakespearean role.

My days began to grow longer and longer, as though I had once again been reconstituted as a five year old.  Having nothing special to do seems to elongates time exponentially.  Everyone, and especially me, began to see the handwriting on the wall.  But my situation seemed to me to be more fraught than was that of the others: I was making what I thought was quite a bit of money ($52,000 a year as I recall which, depending on how one calculates it, was equivalent in 2007 to little more than $160,000 a year), and I still had absolutely no credentials.  Thus my ability to find a job in engineering remained problematical and somehow computers and software did not yet seem to be as valid a profession.

I had never wanted to be what has come to be known as an entrepreneur.  I very much liked working for a big corporation, thinking deep thoughts and letting other people worry about the money part of the game.  I still remembered the ups and downs of my father’s business, but the downs remained the more vivid of the two.

Nevertheless, at this juncture, starting my own company was about the only thing I could think of if it came to that.  And so I came to consider it more seriously.  I still remember a small notebook that I bought to begin my planning.  In it I began to write down the names of companies that I thought might be able to use my services on a consulting basis.  It seems to me that I had listed about 100 companies out of the Pittsburgh Yellow Pages.

I was thinking now of microcomputers and how they could transform companies that did not yet have computers, because the traditional ones were so expensive.  So generally I chose companies that were smaller than Dravo: my thought was to penetrate the lower end of the market, those that could not afford big iron, but that could afford micro­computers, and particularly microcomputer networks, which then, I thought, were about to come into their own.

Primavera Systems was a new company based in Philadelphia.  It had been formed to develop new critical path software for project planning and scheduling and, most importantly it ran on CP/M-based microcomputers.  The dominant operating system for microcomputers then.  This is computer lingo meaning Control Program/Micro.

There were two prime movers in this scheduling company: Joel Koppelman and Dick Faris.  They had made a deal with another fellow, Les Susskind, who had actually developed the initial software, I think it was coded in FORTRAN, because Les had worked for an engineering company in Philadelphia, but I don’t think it was initially in a form suitable for microcomputers.  Together, the three of them—and perhaps they had some money from other parties as well—incorporated as Primavera Systems, Inc.  Joel was the President and the main sales guy while Dick was the technical guru along with Les.  I recall later hearing about all three of them pulling all-nighters trying to get the software in shape as a product that could be sold for microcomputers.

In Boston, Project2, nicknamed P2, the product developed by Bob Daniels during, and after, his stint at MIT, was making money, a lot of money: houses, a yacht, all the accoutrements of entrepreneurialism one could wish for.  The product was not for sale.  One simply licensed it and paid as one used it; the costing algorithm had something to do with the number of activities and relationships, and of course the number of times one ran it.  At the end of the month the program would print out an invoice for each customer.  This is the product that I had adopted for Dravo and it was still being used though I was no longer involved directly in planning and scheduling anymore.  Of course it still ran on IBM mainframe computers.

Primavera’s idea was to undercut Project2 by making their product do about 80% of what P2 did and sell it for a whole lot less.  Anticipating this competition, Primavera called it P3, though this acronym supposedly stood for Primavera Project Planner.  You could buy it for $5000 and then use it as much as you cared to without any licensing fees at all.  That was peanuts.  Besides that, all you needed to run it was a microcomputer, not a mainframe.  So one would be liberated completely from the grand IT depart­ments and from Bob Daniels’ licensing fee.  All that was needed was to scrape together a few thousand dollars.  In some companies this small amount could be charged to a specific project, in which case the IT department would not even notice it.  There is always a way.    

About this time I was approached at Dravo by Primavera.  They wanted us to adopt their software.  Joel Koppelman made an impressive demonstration after loading their software on our cute little Molecular Computer System.  Yet we had invested so much in training for the Project/2 software that I was cool to the idea of Dravo making the switch at this point: as expensive as Project/2 was, we were actually making money on every use of it because at this time most of our contracts were now cost-plus and we simply passed the fee on to the customer, after marking it up for additional profit.  All of this is quite legitimate and this practice in engineering companies continues in the same way today.  But, as the future of the company became clearer, I filed this notion of microcomputer-based planning software away in the back of my mind for the future. 

 

N

ow the disintegration of the company began to accelerate.  Not only had the Pacer project been eliminated, so had the new President of the Chemical Plants Division, the Brit, who had, in some sense, been the most recent sponsor of my guru-ness.  And the President of the entire corporation, the MBA, Tom Faught, was to follow shortly thereafter.  He would be mourned by no one except the now equally endangered MBAs that he had brought in.  Someone, up there somewhere in the company hierarchy, had gotten the message.  And hard.

The new Dravo building, by then largely completed, towered in the downtown skyline.  It was sold-off to Mellon Bank, and so it remains today.  We stayed right where we were, in the One Oliver Plaza building for the denouement, as divisions were sold off all around us, with the lone exception of the group that mined and processed lime, primarily for scrubbers, an extractive function that apparently cannot not lose money no matter what happens.

One day, while I was reading a computer magazine, Larry (Mensa Larry, my nominal boss) came into my office, sat down, and very seriously told me that that my days at Dravo were numbered.  And he implied that his days were as well.  He was shortly to be proven correct on both counts, but frankly, at that point, I must say that I didn’t care about Larry in the slightest.  There was something incompatible about the two of us, something I’d never quite been able to put my finger on but it was nevertheless real.

It is all very well to anticipate some misfortune intellectually; one can imagine it and then put it aside.  But, when it becomes real, the thought of it takes on a new and quite different intensity.  I felt it now in the pit of my stomach.  I had been at the company since 1960, 24 years.  In a sense it had been my only real job and I had grown very comfortable in it.  Beyond that, it had, over time, given me a great deal of personal satisfaction; I had grown up here, finally passed over the boy-man threshold here, and achieved a certain amount of respect.  Soon it would be over and somehow I would have to reinvent myself again.

The conclusion was not long in coming.  Larry had known what he was talking about.  I listened carefully as the human resources man explained the terms of my “lay off” (a phrase that seemed to imply that I merely needed a short bed rest).  The words fired, canned, or the simple term, terminated, seems to have escaped from the politically-correct lexicon now dominating the Western world.  Yet the basic semantics of the terminology—you no longer have a job—remain unchanged.

In consequence of my long service at the company I was to receive nearly half a year’s full pay at regular intervals and, it was explained to me, that this did not preclude receiving unemployment compensation at the same time.  In addition I was to be given two weeks’ notice, during which time I would not be expected to do anything productive, and I would have the use of my office and telephone if I wished.

At this time I lived in a small apartment at 2106 Sarah street in a District of Pittsburgh called Southside.  For reasons I choose not to explain here, I had left “home” in Mount Lebanon, leaving Nola, and Laura, our youngest daughter, the only child still at home.  Since I am not a confessional sort, and if I were this is certainly not the format in which I would undertake it, the details of this separation remain between Nola and me.

The circumstances of this parting had nothing to do with my losing my job of nearly 24 years, but these near-simultaneous separations, both personal and professional, amplified my feeling of disconnectedness.  And it was much worse of course for Nola, who was the passive actor.

I leave this matter here, quite unexplained, in part because of a natural reticence in matters of this sort, and perhaps from a reluctance to acknowledge my end of the problems.  But in reflection, looking back now from my old age, I see clearly that, sadly, it could not have been otherwise. 

Let me add only that if this short description of the parting with my long-term wife seems to trivialize the matter by its brevity, it did not seem so to me.