Experience counts, especially in a fast changing world
The title is a paraphrase of a quote from Henry Ford, one of America’s most successful business icons. Truly successful people do not let negative hurdles stop them from reaching their goals. I have seen this time and again through my readings on Disney, Leonardo da Vinci, Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, Albright, Ghandi and many others. I enjoy reading the stories in hopes that some of their spirit and wisdom will rub off on me, plus their stories are really compelling.
What is the impetus behind this blog? I work with some young Masters of IT student at Georgia State University and I find myself often telling stories to illustrate certain points. I recently have had several students that are very, very bright and they want to accomplish more. However, if I mention an idea, I get, yes but if I did that it would not work because… Unfortunately, this reminded me of much of the negative self talk I had as I was growing up. So here is a story of why you should not listen to yourself.
German, English, Computers, Public speaking
In high school, I was less than a stellar student. I was just taking a ride and not really engaged. My grades were average, manly due to a lack of interest and effort. I was not very well read and in fact I was a poor reader. English was one of my worst subjects and German was the worst. My German professor was scary. I got a D in German and had to take the course over again. I can still hear Herr Watts rant and rave. With all of these poor results, I told myself that I should go into college and take a corriculum that did not require much English and did not have a foreign language requirement at all. Thus I went into Engineering.
I went to NC State with a major of Chemical Engineering and that lasted only a year. I switched to Engineering Operations, which was much less demanding. The best thing, was that there was no foreign language requirement. I did have to take freshman english and this is when I had my first epiphany. We had to read Dante’s Paradise Lost which I really dreaded. However, through a very engaging professor, I actually learned quite a bit, and my appreciation for literature and reading greatly improved.
During my second year I had to take a programming course. Also, during my second year I met this really cute girl with the most precious ponytails. So, of course the pony tails and my computer courses did not go well together. I was too interested in all things other than going to lectures and keypunching all of those cards and submitting them to the lab for a 24 hour turnaround. Can you imagine, that if you missed a period, you would have to wait 24 hours to find your mistake. Insane. I did ok in the programming area, however, I never went to class, so I was not too successful with the computer course. So, of course, I wanted to stay as far away from computers as possible. There were going to be only a handful of computers in business anyway.
Now the the twist to the story. My engineering studies gave me good training on how to think holistic about a process and to look at problems from a total systems perspective. Not computer systems of course but the total system or process. Through a thorough analysis, one can make some small incremental changes and realize some big benefits. This was before Hammer’s book on Re-engineering the organization hit the shelves and drove the reengineering craze of the 80s.
I interviewed for several industrial engineering jobs, but took a job as a methods and procedures analyst for a large jewelry chain. This was a very well run organization and they were always looking to improve their store operations. So if they made an improvement in one store, they could replicate that through the 125 store chain to multiply the benefits. Well, low and behold, the assigned me to a project to replace the mechanical cash register machines, with electronic programmable cash registers. These new cash registers were in essence, small computers. You have to remember, in the mid seventies, there were only a few companies that had electronic cash registers and we were going to be one of the first. We installed a system designed by Singer, the sewing machine company. However, I really took to the project and was eventually programming all of the cash registers in octal code and running the backend systems. It was hard but rewarding work. I became addicted to computers then and there as I saw first hand the potential business benefits of the coming computer age.
During my time at the Jewelry chain, I married the cute pony tailed girl and also joined the Jaycees, which taught me some great leadership skills. While in the Jaycees, I became photography editior and editor of the local chapter magazine. So now I had to use the creativity that I did not think that I had plus I had to write! I ended up with an award winning magazine.
My next career adventure was to get my MBA at the local university. What a great experience and after four years of hard work (working full time and going to school at night), I got my MBA with an emphasis in Quantitative Analysis. I wanted to be an Operations Research Analyst where math and statistics are used to help businesses make better decisions. Little did I know that this was more advanced that all but the largest companies could use. Now we call this Analytics or Big Data.
I left the Jewelry chain and went to work for the largest bank in the area, where I continued to hone my analytical skills, After a few years, I went to work for a large international chemical company called Ciba-Geigy, where I was manager of IT for one of the division’s IT department. Ciba was a world class company with world class processes. After 10 years at Ciba, I was offered a position in Basel, Switzerland. What a wonderful opportunity, so I moved my young family to Switzerland where I now needed to learn to speak German.
I took learning German very seriously and eventually was able to read, write and speak German fluently. So, I should have taken German more seriously in high school and should not have listened to my negative self talk about me not being good in languages.
To wrap up this long story, I have now had a successful career as CIO for several multinational corporations, I have mastered German while living in Europe, and I have written an award winning magazine for a non-profit organization. When I was younger, I had a avoided the areas in which I ultimately mastered. Even though, I have had a successful career, I wonder what it would have been like if I had not listened to those negative thoughts.