Pittsburgh Years

Critical Systems






he bar on Seventh avenue in the Garment District  of Manhattan fascinated me.  The outside: nothing special, but on entering it was not as I had expected.  As with bars everywhere at that time, the bartender was a man.  That was not a surprise; it was no different in Pittsburgh.  But here, large-bellied and tuxedoed, he mixed drinks with panache, exuding professionalism.  Vodka martinis seemed to be the choice for these clothes makers and deal closers that were his customers.  And of course the drinks were very expensive, even the beer which I was sipping while waiting for my airplane back to Pittsburgh from Laguardia.  But the ambience here was different in some way that I hadn’t previously seen.  I couldn’t quite get a fix on it.  I suppose it was the clientele itself that intrigued me.

The well-dressed people seated at the bar seemed to my Pittsburgh eyes unusually sophisticated.  They were not simply well dressed in suits and ties, and rather elegant skirts and tops, they had a certain unclassifiable style I had never seen before.  I sensed an odd dichotomy between their dress and mannerisms, and in the language they used.  I had little idea just what it was that they were talking about, and every third word spoken seemed to be some declension of the word fuck.  Their ease and fluency in this tongue seemed remarkable to me; I tried not to look startled.  I am not a prudish person and I was certainly not offended by this novel use of language, just fascinated at its extravagant, even eloquent, employment in this seemingly high-toned place.

As I sat at the bar I seemed an anthropologist studying a foreign tribe, with a special interest in their unique linguistics.  This was particularly noticeable to me because the several women seated at the bar seemed easily as practiced in this patois as were the men; this startled me.  I had some papers with me from a meeting I had attended and I leafed through them casually, not to seem to be taking notice.  In my study of this tribe I assumed, as my first cut on the matter, that these characteristics were unique to the Garment District.  I later found that it was just a feature of New York City and of the people who made their frantic livings in this oddly interesting place.

Standing on the curb of Seventh avenue waiting for a taxi to the airport, I saw young men pushing racks of clothes along sidewalks jammed with people, and when necessary they went courageously, with their racks, onto the street themselves, dodging taxicabs which were traveling at reckless speed.  Everyone seemed in a hurry.  The sheer flow of humanity, and its diversity, amazed the young man from Pittsburgh in just the same way that Pittsburgh had once woken up the young man from Naperville.  I guessed that here I was, as the song goes, at the top of the heap.

The Blaw-Knox Chemical Plants Division had been bought again, this time by another engineering-construction company, the Dravo Corporation.  This firm maintained their headquarters in the same building that we did so, as before, we didn’t have to move anywhere; it seemed to most a cosmetic change, simply a new senior management.  Not only that, but many of the Blaw-Knox people expected improvement: our history was as an engineering-construction company with that certain mindset that they seem to have: a delight in technology, an acceptance of risk and a sense of being in for the long haul; Dravo was the same.  In this business, at the same time, there is competition, but there is also brotherhood.  No one was sorry to lose the sewing machine company, White Consolidated Industries.

Dravo was an old company.  It was begun by one Francis Rouaud Dravo.  The occasion of its founding was recalled by a later president of the company:

Mr. F.  R., as he usually was called, obtained his degree as a Mechanical Engineer at Lehigh in 1887.  He was first engaged as a draftsman by Witherow Gordon Company, builders of blast furnaces and rolling mill machinery.  About a year later that company went out of business.  His next connection was with Julian Kennedy, consulting engineer on a steel mill expansion program.  That assignment did not last long, so again the young man was without employment.  He then decided to go into business for himself and became Pittsburgh representative for a manufacturer of steam engines.  This was in 1890, but it was a year later before he secured his first contract, the sale of an engine to the Citizens Gas and Light Company, at Braddock, Pennsylvania.  Because of his engineering background, Mr. Dravo decided also to install the engine and place it in operation.

More recently, one of Dravo’s divisions, the one that was housed in several floors of the same building that we were, their Minerals and Metals Division, had developed a process for the pelletizing of metal ore.  I was told later by one of their managers that they had made so much money constructing these novel plants that it was almost embarrassing.  Believe me that this happens seldom in the Engineering and Construction business, in which tragic losses are more the norm and bankruptcies proliferate.

At any rate, Dravo had hot pockets, so they bought our division of Blaw-Knox.  One of the reasons they were attracted to us was that we had better systems than they did—not just Project Management Systems, for which I was partially responsible, but Engineering Systems in general.  And they seem to know that.  And with all of this capital sloshing about they had also bought another major engineering company in New York City: Gibbs & Hill, a company that specializes in the electrification of transit systems.  According to one source they were formed originally in 1911 to electrify the entire Pennsylvania railroad system which was completed in 1938.

Dravo, still flush even after all this spending, went on to acquire still another engineering-construction group located in Denver.  By now they had become quite a conglomeration but, unlike White Consolidated Industries, all these businesses were construction and engineering companies.

One of Dravo’s aims was to standardize all the systems among the various companies that they now held.  Primary among these systems were project management and cost control systems.  Upon these systems depend not only the ability to control projects—to the extent that they can be—but also these management systems help a great deal to sell a company’s services; most clients are aware of the generally poor record of the industry in this respect.  In a real sense, engineering and construction projects are similar to war: few plans survive the first encounter with reality.  So the notion behind this effort was to integrate the ways in which projects were managed with the hope that through broad-based use of the same systems, improvement would gradually be forthcoming.

To develop this combined system they selected a project manager from their organization, and from Blaw-Knox they selected their chief systems analyst, me.  I was to head up the design of an integrated set of systems, and the project manager was to control the costs and manage the progress of this development.  I was provided quite an elaborate team including even a consultant from IBM who periodically sat in on our meetings and provided general business advice—IBM was never slow in sensing opportunity.  Our development budget was in the neighborhood of a million dollars, which was quite a lot of money in those days. 

We called the project PACER, an acronym that had a rather convoluted meaning which I’ve since quite forgotten, but the thrust of its meaning was that we were to “pace” our projects, making progress and costs visible in such a way that management could, sooner rather than later, see more clearly just where things were going wrong on each of their projects.  In this way, problems, thus discovered early, could be corrected at the least possible cost in time and money which are, in a real sense, the same.

The first part of my effort was simply to visit the various companies which Dravo now owned to see what sorts of systems they had in place.  In systems design, as in politics—not substantially different undertakings, as I was to learn—it is ordinarily better to begin with a new system that reflects in some way the existing systems, even if the image is to some degree cosmetic.  In systems analysis, as in evolution, a bunch of small steps, rather than one big jump, usually works best.  Thus my trip to New York City.

At Gibbs & Hill we spoke with the head of their computer department and a few of his associates.  We showed them our stuff and they showed us theirs.  This exercise was much like playing doctor, as children do: hesitancy, coyness and lack of openness predominating.  They didn’t seem to have much in the way of systems for the sorts of control that the Pacer project anticipated—for one thing they didn’t do construction at all, only engineering—but they did have a very extensive Computer Aided Design, or CAD system.

CAD was then very new and their installation was certainly state-of-the-art.  They were spending a great deal of money leasing it from IBM, training for it, implementing it, and impressing their customers with it.  For that reason, the Systems people at Gibbs & Hill  thought that they were pretty hot stuff.  They looked at us as naïfs with respect to computer technology.  They certainly wondered, without precisely saying it, why it was that they had not been assigned to develop this new system since they were obviously far more advanced than we were.  But we were the buyer and they were buyee, so that settled that.

Their collaboration, present on the surface, was understandably thin, delicate and tentative; if one scratched that surface only a little, the cooperation fell away quickly, not my first exposure to the politics of systems design, but my first at this scale.   

The early meetings in New York were exploratory, and my trips were usually limited to flying to Laguardia, in the morning, and flying back in the late afternoon.  But over the weeks and months, as we began to get into the nitty-gritty of design I occasionally had to stay for several days at a time.  Usually I stayed at a Hilton or a Sheraton, but a few times, just for fun, I stayed at the Algonquin Hotel where, while the rooms were rather small, the hotel, as a package, was suffused with an indefinable elegance and an aura of stagecraft—it was near Broadway—and of The New Yorker magazine, a weekly which I had read for a number of years.  At The Algonquin, when the magazine was published, a free copy would be slipped under your door.  One knew that one was not at the Sheraton if only because the USA Today, that staple of hotels in America, was nowhere to be found.

Even the famous Algonquin Round Table was still there in the hotel, though the wits that had surrounded it and jousted back and forth had by then, of course, nothing more to say.  I managed to have a number of other adventures—mostly culinary—in the city, including dinner at 21 Club, the Four Seasons restaurant and a few other ritzy places.  Quite an education for a boy from the country, and one that exercised the highest skills of expense-accounting, a discipline that I had been taught by experts while spending six months at the Shippingport nuclear power plant.

Dravo had hired a new CEO whose name was Tom Fought to manage all this expansion.  Uncharacteristically he was not an engineer; a first for Dravo and for Blaw-Knox.  Instead he was a man with an MBA degree and he tended to hire people with similar backgrounds.  These people were inserted into key places among the more staid engineers.  This notion was to prove crucial to our project.  I remember a meeting in the CEO’s office when he looked at each of us individually with his steely blue-gray eyes and said that we had better make this project work.

While all this was going on, over a period of a couple years, everyone’s confidence was soaring at the present state of the economy.  Dravo, still not out of money, had decided to build a large new building in downtown Pittsburgh, to be called the Dravo Building.  It was under construction.  Plans for the building were circulated among department heads and spaces chosen for the various departments to occupy.  It was to be quite a large structure—more than 40 stories—into which the entire corporation in Pittsburgh could be integrated, with plenty of room for expansion.  I chose my space; it was to be quite nice.

The Pacer project was rolling along and we had managed to design, conceptually, a number of systems, but only after innumer­able, argumentative meetings.  It is a strange thing about systems: each company is partial to its own systems and though everyone in principle understood the benefits of collaboration, they didn’t want to change.  I now find this tendency quite unexceptional—everyone wants what they’re familiar with, then they won’t have to learn anything new, and there is considerable pride in the home team, and skepticism in the ranks over the question of whether these new systems-people could even begin to understand just what it was that they did and how they did it.  But at the time, still near-virgin in this respect, I found this rather strange: why wouldn’t everyone want the newest and the best?

The new theory under which the company’s now-controlling MBAs operated was that if one could manage one sort of business, one ought to be able to manage any kind of business; the business of MBAs was business.  And, beyond that, the more, and different sorts of businesses under control, the better the overall outlook was thought to be.  This notion was promulgated by the business schools of the day.  Gradually this conglomerate form of corporation has become discredited, but at that time it certainly made the lower-level Engineers wince.

Dravo hired a new president for the Chemical Plants Division.  The new president was a Brit who had been recruited from Westinghouse, a very large and fabled old company headquartered in Pittsburgh.  (George Westinghouse was to win the AC/DC war against Thomas Alva Edison, leading to the wide distribution of electrical energy in the world.  Westinghouse and General Electric, Edison’s old company, now vie for dominance in nuclear power—though not now in the United States.)

The new President from Westinghouse brought a colleague with him, Larry someone (his last name seems blessedly to have been removed from my memory), who had worked for him there previously.  He was to replace the Aussie project manager for the Pacer project, the man I had been working with for some while.  The president said he was keen to keep the project rolling and that I would like the new man very much.  And he added that “He was very smart.”

The new fellow seemed a little strange to me, rather impractical.  Nor was likable a word one would use to describe him.  Politically, he was, if possible, even less skilled than I.  Once, in an uncharacteristic effort at getting acquainted and developing camaraderie, he invited me to go with him to a regular MENSA meeting at a hotel in Pittsburgh, which he attended regularly.  He thought I ought to join.  But I found the people there as peculiar as he, and declined as smoothly as I could.

Unfortunately, the economy now turned down.  And despite the best efforts of the Brit, in the general process of corporate reorganization and downsizing, the Pacer project’s budget was cut to zero.  Eventually the few people remaining on the project, including me, were reassigned to a new department that was eventually, after numerous organizational permutations, to be headed-up by none other than Larry, my MENSA friend, and now my boss.  In this new role he was to be in charge of systems development—but only for the Pittsburgh groups.  I was to be assigned some vague new position as a sort of technical guru in support of this effort.  The precise role that we were to play was vague.  Meanwhile, each company or division went on using the familiar systems that they had used for years and the notion of corporate-wide systems integration was slowly put back in the closet, to the relief of many.

But that was not to be the end of my time on the critical path…