Pittsburgh Years

Simplex

pittsburgh.jpg

                          

 

 

I

t was a large, sterile-seeming room that looked as though it might once have been a small department store.  It was easy to imagine racks of clothes here, and clerks; neither fashionable.  The center of the room now contained a number of kiosks.  They held unemployment application forms in slots at their sides and, as in a bank, these four-sided cubes had a glass top and tethered pens with which to write out the called-for information.  Along one wall there were desks at which a few officials interviewed applicants who thought they had completed their form.  Rows of folding chairs filled most of the rest of the room, and there were a lot of people sitting in them, waiting their turn for a hearing.  There was a hum of sober, subdued activity; the floor and walls of the high-ceilinged room, were of some nondescript, light-colored ceramic tile and they amplified all these low murmurings.

Out of habit, and not knowing the protocol, I had worn my business suit and a tie.  I was the only one so dressed.  I took a form and sat down in one of the empty chairs to look it over.  I glanced at the other “clients”, the euphemism by which the unemployed, the disabled and the otherwise out-of-luck are today known to our government, a businesslike term aimed at increasing their self esteem which may have fallen low.  I qualified at that moment.  There were a lot of questions on the form, most of them, it seemed to me then, didn’t seem appropriate for me, though I recognized their necessity:  Employment history?  One company, and for a very long time;  How much had you been making?  Quite a lot, it seemed to me now—too much to be sitting here;  Why were you let go?  How to explain about the MBAs?  There was no space in which to tell my long story. 

Looking up from the form, I scanned the room once more feeling increasingly out of place.  I sensed that most of the other clients had been here before, and regularly.  They didn’t seem at all like me.  I thought, and then I thought some more, and the more I did that, the more the strangeness of this whole setup penetrated my psyche.

Why was I here?  To get a few bucks a week?  To be here seemed to say that I needed help.  But did I?  I still had my regular pay and it would last for six months, even if I couldn’t make a dime on my own.  Just by being here I seemed to be saying to myself that the seed of the idea germinating in my mind could not succeed, an admission of failure before the fact, and just when I was trying to be upbeat.

After a while I got up and left, thinking that I could always return if I had to, if things became really desperate. 

 

T

here is a form of tribalism that is common in the United States, a country of immigrants:  one helps one’s tribe, and the tribe helps you.  If your cousin needs a job, you can recommend him, unless he is a complete fuckup.  And he, in his turn, must extend himself to recommend a friend if the opportunity presents itself.  Little by little this circle of aid expands until it is large enough to be unnecessary; the smaller the tribe, the more imperative the process.  This is an age-old practice, and one from which I was now unwittingly, and rather peculiarly, to become a beneficiary.  Unwittingly because at that time such a process seemed so foreign to me that I was not then aware of it, and peculiarly because I didn’t seem to be a member of any such group in the first place: my German-American tribe’s circle had expanded so far, so many years back, that it had achieved meaninglessness.

In all small “outsider” communities the awareness of a patron, and particularly one in the mainstream of the greater culture, spreads quickly and becomes a vein to be tapped, a thin layer of silver or gold to be exploited and then husbanded.  And, it seems, I had once, some years ago, been such a patron, though, at the time, I didn’t think of it in that way, in fact I didn’t even notice it.

I have a special friend, Sanat Parikh, an Indian guy with whom I had done considerable engineering work: we had both developed experience in dynamics using computers—unusual then in structural engineering.  And we socialized a little too, having lunch together, or with a common friend, at a nearby restaurant.  He had a fondness for pizza because at that time he was an on-and-off vegetarian, and pizza was then one of the few good vegetarian meals available in restaurants here.

Once, in his own kitchen—he was single then, though he had a son who lived with him—he showed me how to make a potato dish with onions, spiced with cumin, and especially with turmeric, and hot red pepper to give it a kick.  He first slowly cooked the spices in oil to marry and mellow their flavors, and then he added the raw vegetables.  As it slowly fried he stirred occasionally and the turmeric turned the chunks of potatoes and onions a vivid and most peculiar yellow.  In spite of its garish look it tasted great and, as I was then learning how to cook myself, I became increasingly interested in Indian food in general, and especially in the spices which perk up the otherwise bland food, giving it pizzazz.

He smiled, as though with a child, when I once asked him what sort of curry powder Indians liked best; he told me that there was no such thing as curry powder in India; each woman has her own mix of spices, he told me, her signature blend, one that defined her and, to some extent, her home: Indian homes always seem to be permeated by a pleasant, low-key, spicy smell that give the entire place a unique fragrance, which is not content to confine itself merely to the kitchen.

Sanat was in the process of getting divorced.  His lawsuit for custody of their only child, a son, would slowly and expensively wend itself all the way up to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.  He won.

Another time, Sanat took me to a beautiful Hindu temple that exists in a suburb of Pittsburgh.  Its interior was ornate and exotic.  It’s exterior was an Asian vision, all in white.  The temple was a testament to the burgeoning upper-middle-class Indians drawn to the schools and the professional jobs then increasingly available to them in Pittsburgh, a much more cosmopolitan city than one might imagine.  Immigration was common here.  It began because of the once-pressing need of the great steel and glass companies for labor.  Now that need is minimal, but the requirement for engineers and doctors and teachers is blossoming, and the habit of importing needs from other countries has not abated here.

The contrast of this brilliant, white-painted, oriental temple with the dingy gray and serious stone of our much older Christian edifices could not be greater.  The structure, built on a hill in the eastern suburbs, in a forest then a resplendent green, transported one to the East more swiftly than the fastest airplane.  I was entranced.  Some sort of Indian play was being given.  It was incomprehensible and boring and I remember little about it, but the intermission remains vividly in my mind:

Hindu temple 2.jpgDuring this 30 minute hiatus from the elaborately costumed dancing to the peculiar rhythms and atonality of the East, the wives of the Indian men—who were mostly engineers and doctors and other professionals—had prepared innumerable forms of sweets that were now displayed for sale in great array in the lobby, presumably to support the congregation—or whatever the equivalent term is in the east.  All the sweets were laid out on simple folding tables covered temporarily with white napery.  Tea was served as well.  But the most startling aspect of this bounty was that the small sweet I put in my mouth had a fiery, spicy intensity that could not begin to be assuaged by the tea.

 I had been forewarned, but it seemed to me then inconceivable that sweet things could be that hot.  While these little fireballs were being consumed with abandon by the Indian men and women, I wandered around in a distressed and embarrassed state trying not to swallow, wondering just where I could innocuously dispose of what was then in my mouth, a tidbit that had seemed most innocent when I had popped it in there whole.  But now it seemed, no succor in sight, I had to down it.  Only Shiva knew the ramifications of this act to my digestive tract—and half the play still to come.  But I did it and then went quickly to find water, which helped not at all.

I had once thought that all Hindus were vegetarians, but this misconception was, much later, put right for me in, of all places, an island in the Caribbean where I became friends with another Indian.  Only some Indians are vegetarians and, of those, many of the men experiment with eating meat when they go to another country for the first time, especially if they’re spouse-free, permanently or temporarily.  But I found that most eventually return to vegetarianism—the women never seem to leave it.

The term Hindu is kind of an amorphous, umbrella term, that covers an enormous variety of traditions, cultures and beliefs.  Most of the Indians that I knew were in fact Jains, who do not necessarily consider themselves Hindu at all, since the Jain religion, if such it can be called, is a very old one that does not recognize an ultimate God, unless one considers the universe itself as God.  Of course this over-simplifies a very complex belief, a consequence of the limitations of my knowledge.

Strict Jains, many of whom come from a peninsula protruding from the west of India—itself a large peninsula.  It is often referred to simply as the subcontinent since, after wandering around Pacific Ocean over millions of years, as though an orphan, it finally crashed into the main Asian continent, decided it liked it there, and has been there ever since.  The peninsula of the peninsula that I referred to here is known as Gujarat.  It is just south of Pakistan.  There, strict Jains not only don’t eat meat, they don’t eat what we would call root vegetables either: potatoes, beets, onions, garlic and similar vegetables for which the part that one might eat is the root of the plant itself.  I’ve heard two explanations for this prohibition:

The first is that in the process of pulling up a potato, say, one might accidentally kill or injure a bug, or some other small creature.  This is not good since that little fellow might in fact be your great-great-great uncle still working out his karma.  The other explanation, and one which frankly seems to make more sense to me, is that in the process of pulling up the root, one utterly destroys the plant, kills it, muerte, and the plant itself ought to be seen as having some sort of life of its own.  This is as opposed to, for example, the plucking of an apple from a tree, which could easily be seen as a gift from the tree, which doesn’t seem to miss the apple at all; left alone, it eventually drops them anyway.  The tree is bountiful and therefore apples are expendable: one does not come back as an apple, though in principle I think one could come back as the tree.  I confess here to having written slightly more than I know about these beliefs. 

One might suppose that this belief system would not leave much left for humans to survive on; not true.  The Jains that I know eat very well, and in fact when they get a little older many have a tendency toward stoutness or what might fancifully be called Buddha-belly.  I came to like vegetarian food though I seldom eat it; the trouble with vegetarianism is that it is very labor-intensive and, in the best of all possible worlds, it seems practical only when there is a woman about.

Much later, long after the temple visit, I left structural engineering at Dravo and moved into computers and planning and scheduling, in effect becoming a minor boss.  Sanat talked to me one day about a friend who was working at that time in New York but who now wished to come to Pittsburgh.  I was hiring new people pretty regularly at the time and he asked me whether “I could use him.”  He said he was smart.  His friend came in for an interview and I hired him as a planner, which I needed, and this even though he didn’t seem to have any particular background in that field; he said he had been doing estimating work.  For obvious reasons I never regarded credentials as a key evaluation factor in my hiring.

Mahendra Gajarawala, the friend from Gujarat via New York, turned out to be a fast learner and eventually the best planner we ever had, nevermind that in that role he had always to interact with Westerners and spoke English with a very softly pro­nounced and distinctly Indian accent.  But here’s the point: I had, through this small act, and quite without thinking, become a minor patron of the then small, but burgeoning, Indian engineering community in Pittsburgh, a very tightly-knit society, everyone knowing everyone else.  These little things are not forgotten within the clan and, without being aware of it, I had acquired an honorary membership, or at least some status in an amorphous, but nevertheless real, subcontinent-subculture.

One of the Indian-American engineers with whom I had occasionally worked at Blaw-Knox had quit, for reasons unknown to me, and he had subsequently gone to work for another local engineering company: the R. T. Patterson Company.  His name: Mahendra Patel.  He knew something of what I had done in engineering and with computers at Blaw-Knox and Dravo since he had once worked there in the Structural Department, later becoming a project engineer.  He was now the Chief Engineer of Patterson’s Structural Department.  The company designed aluminum plants for Alcoa, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Pittsburgh, and they also designed steel mills.  It wasn’t a huge company, but it wasn’t small either.  One day, out of the blue, shortly after My Big Dislocation, I got a call from Mahendra at Patterson.  Their Electrical Department had a computer project they thought I might be able to help with.  Could I come talk with them?  Tribalism was now at work, and this time in my favor.

Both aluminum plants and steel mills use vast amounts of electricity.  The part of the project that I was called in on concerned the design of a high voltage electrical line—not the line itself, which is electrical work, but the towers and foundations that supported the line, not unlike those one might see while driving along the highway, tall structures typically constructed of hundreds of small pieces of galvanized angle-iron.  The design of these towers is not standardized since the spans between them, and other space constraints, can vary; the line itself can angle-off in a lateral direction which puts horizontal stresses on the towers, and even the amount of sag in the wires, the wind, and other esoteric matters, affect their design.

Since electrical engineers do not design steel towers, this task had devolved to Mahendra and his Structural Group.  And from somewhere they had acquired an arcane and user-unfriendly computer program which would determine the forces on each tower given the geometrical layout and the characteristics of the transmission line itself.  But they seemed to have no one there that could understand just how to use this software, so they engaged me to do this work, nevermind that there was no programming to be done, only the entering of certain information that the program required.  The user documentation was rudimentary and confusing, as though it had been written by some foreign engineer with a tentative grasp of English.  Eventually I managed to work it out and they felt I’d done a pretty good job.  I had, in a manner of speaking, now become their computer guru, if only on occasion.

Now that I had—however unwillingly—become a free agent, this connection to Patterson was to pull me in the direction of consulting.  I had no desire to start a business; I didn’t seem to have an entrepreneurial bone in my body.  I still clearly remembered the feast or famine of my dad’s business.  More than that, I realized even then that running a business involved the unpleasant job of selling.  But the impediments in the way of finding a new, salaried job at an engineering company, a position for which I had no formal qualifications, seemed insurmountable.  So, little by little, willy-nilly, I simply did what I could do to make money.  I backed into business, so to say.

At this time I was still making the same money from Dravo as I had been previously, when employed there, since those were the terms of my discharge after long employment there, but I was dreadfully aware that my six month “golden parachute” was losing air at nearly the same rate as when I had been formally employed.  Frugality could accomplish only so much.  This impending sense of doom, stronger at night as I tried to sleep, was to accompany me for some years.

 

T

housands and thousands of wires are routed all around steel mills, chemical plants and similar sorts of industrial facilities.  Each wire is embedded in a cable, in just the same way as are the several wires running from your table lamp to your electrical outlet, but some cables have many more wires in them than just the few needed for your lamp.  In turn, numbers of these multi-wire cables are either enclosed in protective, pipe-like conduits, or they simply lay in open cable trays, usually far overhead.  Simply keeping track of which wire is supposed to start precisely where, and just exactly where it should be terminated, on such-and-such an electrical terminal of such-and-such a machine, in such and such a building is rather tedious.

Determining and recording the routing of precisely how a cable and its wires get from that one place to that one other place becomes a rather complex planning and bookkeeping job.  This is further complicated because neither conduits nor cable trays ought to be completely filled because, Who knows?  Maybe additional cables will need to be added in them for reasons not originally foreseen.  For that reason one needs to know just how full each of these linear containers is.

Traditionally, all of this information was developed by electrical engineers and then listed in tables, by hand, by electrical draftsmen, on sheet after sheet of large engineering drawings.  This is of course very labor intensive and also difficult to correct when, inevitably, changes are made as the design progresses.  The Chief Engineer of Patterson’s electrical group, a relatively young engineer, thought that this would be a perfect computer application: With such a system, changes and additions could be made easily, and then the whole thing, the official Conduit & Cable Schedule, could finally be printed quickly and flawlessly on a line printer and sent to the field.  Ways to use the computer productively, as I have written before, were penetrating down into smaller and smaller companies.

I went to Patterson and had an interview with this man, who was accompanied by a young lady, Patricia Jones, who had some years experience in the electrical department.  She also had some experience with computers.  I was told she was to be my ‘liaison’ with the electrical department.  Liaison eventually turned out to be precisely the right term for our relationship.

By this time Novell had, unaccountably, stopped manufacturing computers and instead had begun concentrating on local area networks, in which endeavor they were to achieve considerable success, becoming, for a long time, the most significant player in this then-new field that linked any number of personal computers together.  Networks of computers seemed to me to resolve the problems inherent in single, stand-alone microcomputers, like the little Apple Computer that I had seen in Saudi Arabia.  I thought that a local area network would be a perfect application for this electrical system for Patterson and, down the road, it would have other advantages for the company too.

I was able to sell the concept of networks of microcomputers to Patterson, a rather conservative company, because by that time IBM, Big Blue itself, had begun to market a personal computer, the IBM PC.  This had the effect of putting their imprimatur on microcomputers as a class.  Now, instead of just “game machines”, they became honest-to-goodness tools for doing real business for small to medium companies that could not afford “big iron”.

This adoption of microcomputers was, in a way, a counterproductive move for IBM.  It had the effect of cannibalizing the down-scale market for smaller mainframe computers into which they might otherwise have sold at large margins.  But, having been instrumental in the development of micro technology, it must just have seemed natural for them to try to capitalize on it.  They just couldn’t stop themselves.  No one then knew just where the business was headed.  Yet, had IBM forgone microcomputers, they probably would eventually have lost that market anyway to all the other microcomputer manufacturers that were now proliferating; it was the chip itself that caused the hubbub, a chip available to anyone, and at a remarkably low cost.

The United States’ computer industry—IBM included—simply could not in the end compete at the low end of the market without government tariffs to keep out the low-cost foreign manufacturers, just as with the United States’ automobile industry today, and the United States’ steel industry before that.  Years later IBM was compelled to sell their entire microcomputer line to Lenovo, a Chinese company and, reinventing themselves, they then became primarily a very large and comprehensive technology consulting company.  Times change for everyone it seems.

Previously, I had become familiar with a software product for microcomputers called Data Star which was, essentially, a simple database combined with a report writer.  It was an ideal product for this conduit and cable schedule program.  While I was developing this application, initially on my own computer, the Novell, Patterson had accepted my recommendation and ordered the software and hardware for a small, Novell local area network that would support several IBM PCs.

Tricia and I installed the network together.  I thought she was my assistant; she thought I was hers.  Not the last collaborative effort she and I were to tackle in this mode of thinking.  Eventually we got the network to work properly.  To my knowledge it was the first local area network to be installed in Pittsburgh, though I can’t be certain. 

A young woman named Rosalind lived on the second floor of my small apartment building in Southside.  She was a manager of some sort at the local Food Bank, a charitable organization that initiates the distribution of food to low- or no-income people.  When she found out that I had a computer and knew how to use it, she explained that the Food Bank needed a program written.  I explained, somewhat defensively, that I really didn’t have time now (I thought this would probably be a freebie on my part).  I told her that there were thousands of inventory programs already available.  Then she explained carefully to me why they wouldn’t do what was required:

It seems that regional Food Banks like hers are, in a sense, wholesalers.  They get donations of goods near their expiration-date from large companies like Del Monte and Coca-Cola, which they then distribute to smaller charities such as homeless shelters and churches and other such organizations.  It’s a surprisingly big operation.  Periodically, the donors wanted to know, not unreasonably, what had happened to all the stuff that they had donated; who got it? when? how much?  So not only did the Food Bank need to know what their current inventory was—the traditional job for an inventory program—they had to know just where everything had gone as well.

My ears perked up when Rosalind said they would pay me to do it.  I asked her, somewhat skeptically, how much she thought they could pay?  She asked me how much would it cost?  I wasn’t sure since I had never done this sort of thing before.  I said it would be in the thousands, thinking that would scare her off; it didn’t.  So began my night time job. 

One day I was called by a project scheduler that I knew vaguely, though I couldn’t place him in context.  He had heard that I knew something about Primavera Systems and his company wanted a program for scheduling, one that ran on a microcomputer.  Rather than give him Primavera’s telephone number, which is what he really wanted, I told him that I could sell it to him.  And then, in a rare burst of self-promotion, I called Joel Koppelman, the head of Primavera, and told him that I was no longer with Dravo, was now on my own, that I wanted to become a dealer for them, and that I already had a sale.  He agreed—it didn’t take much then, in 1985—and I sold my first system for $5000.  I pocketed 12% as a commission.

Primavera did not at that time have an established set of dealers, only a few freelancers like me that knew scheduling.  The product was new and they weren’t sure yet just how the product would be sold: by themselves or through other people.  Gradually though, a dealer channel became established and, while Primavera continued to sell the product directly as well, a substantial number began to be sold by independents.  Eventually the country, and later the world, was split up into sales territories on this basis.

On the strength of that one sale of Primavera I had tentatively been assigned the territory of Western Pennsylvania, Western New York and West Virginia; tentatively because, if you didn’t sell anything, there was always the threat that your territory would be given to someone else who could.  Since I was now a dealer I began to get weekly lists of prospects in my territory: people who had responded to Primavera’s ads, attended one of their seminars, or who had otherwise got onto their mailing list.  Interest in the product was developing fast because it was one of the few, full-featured, scheduling program that would run on microcomputers.  It could do the most desired eighty percent or so and IP of what the very best mainframe programs could do.

I scrupulously called each of these leads, trying to get to like selling, now that I seemed to have to do it.  I developed a list of talking points and began playing the role of a salesman.  I was determined to make it work.  I had known people who liked to sell, and who were good at it—they were selling to me at the time—and I tried to get into that mold, to copy their jaunty style.  Most of the people I spoke with were just curious, “kicking tires” as it were, but more than a few of them were genuinely interested; microcomputers were now coming into their own.  And some of these companies bought the software.  It was a numbers game: see ten, sell one.  

I worked at Patterson most days on the Conduit and Cable Schedule system and in the evenings at home I worked on the program for the Food Bank.  In between I would make calls selling Primavera.  All of these began, very slowly, to pay off: when Patterson’s Conduit and Cable Schedule system was done, they ask me to develop another system; when the Food Bank system was done, I sold it to them for $5000; and then a number of other Food Banks in nearby states became interested and I sold it to them as well, with little extra effort.  And I was now beginning to sell Primavera Project Planner pretty regularly too.

Very slowly I began to realize that working by the hour didn’t pay off as well as selling things which, while it seemed unsteady, it had a bigger payoff at the end, and it seemed to have a lot more potential in the long run.  One has only so many hours one can sell, but nearly any number of things can be sold.

My relationship with Patterson involved a business negotiation, my first: they wanted to pay me $20 an hour for my help; as a consultant I wanted $40 an hour; we settled on $31 an hour, which gave me a minor sense of victory since we didn’t just spit it down the middle.  I was now not an employee but a contractor.  I sent them an invoice each month and a month or two later I received a check in the mail in payment.  I seemed now to be “in business”, whatever that meant.

I thought I ought to create a company name; I didn’t want to come across merely as an individual; and I thought I ought to have stationary and business cards.  I thought the name of the company should reflect my specific goals; it ought to say, right in the name somehow, just what it was that I was selling, what the aim of the company was.  Over the years I had come to know a lot about how large engineering and construction companies operate, and the sorts of systems that they wanted—or at least those that they ought to want.  It might be off-the-shelf software, like Primavera, or a new system to be designed and developed by me.  So, fundamentally—hedging my bets—I saw myself as starting a sales and a consulting company.

I had spent two years or more on the Pacer project, watching it become more and more complicated, and convoluted to the point where it had become entirely infeasible, nearly the black hole that the people at Gibbs & Hill had made of it.  It seemed to remain quite beyond anyone’s ability—including mine—to control that effort.  So more than anything else I wanted to avoid complexity, to offer simple solutions.  The market I had in mind was midsized companies, those that didn’t have a large, internal Information Technology organization, but which knew that nowadays they needed computers in order to compete.  I thought the new microcomputers, now in the process of becoming professional tools, fit that profile very well.

I asked myself, What is a word that means the opposite of ‘complex’.  Obviously, that word was ‘simple’.  But The Simple Company did not have an auspicious ring to it.  Yet there is a word, simplex, that means simple—among other things—but doesn’t sound ridiculous.  In fact I thought it sounded sort of high-tech.  And there was another problem that I wanted to solve with the name: I wanted the company to sound bigger than just me.  So, I thought to myself, aspiring to grandeur, Why not call it a Group, instead of a Company?  It was certainly a trivial distinction, but one that seemed to me somehow more modern.  In this way I came up with a name for the company:

The Simplex Group.