Unified  Communications

Ever since leaving my job in the Ballistic Systems Division, my work had been structured around building systems and then handing them off for others to operate.  Then I would move on to the next Big Hairy Audacious Goal.  But sometimes one needs to obtain operations management authority for a while to make sure things get going on the right foot.  Alas, that did not happen with Exchange server.

As hard as I tried, I could not get the operations folks to mange things using metrics that mattered.  How well were we doing at helping Boeing communicate?  Where were the rough edges?  What were we doing about it?  Were our investment projects aimed at those rough edges?  When I had discussed the measurement issue with Kay Gagnon when I was on P-3, the reality was that the leadership of BCS (renamed Boeing IT) could not have cared less.  All they did was make excuses for not measuring their organization's performance by anything that mattered.  Then we merged with McDonnell Douglas.  If things had been bad before the merger, they got infinitely worse afterward.

As I explained in the beginning of the section on email and messaging, the challenge we had for all of this stuff was to enable the company to more effectively communicate with itself.  And to really make that happen, we had to change the way people thought about the many systems used for communications.  Instead thinking of telephones, email, voice mail, faxes, and the many web mail, texting, and video conferencing systems that have emerged over the past several decades as each being its own separate thing, we needed to think of all of these as subsystems within a unified whole.  The technology needed to serve the people using it.

Communications systems as they still exist, as of this writing, are inherently rude.  They force people to be routinely irritating to one another.  The person initiating a communication gets to try to dictate the system and modality to be used.  For the person on the other end, if they become aware that a communication attempt is inbound and aimed at them, they are immediately faced with a choice.  They can roll with it and agree to interact in the modality of the other person's choice and preference of the moment, or they can ignore it.  This is just awful, and the many rough edges in our society are made many times worse because of this attitude on the part of IT people, the carriers, and the tech industry.

I used to marvel at the results of this mess when observing people at the end of the day on the P-3 program as they were leaving the building and headed to their cars to go home, often looking exhausted.  There were more than a few instances when a complete failure to communicate had occurred during the day between voice-centric and and text-centric individuals, which was typified by the customer relations manager on one hand, and the software engineers on the other.  The customer relations guy was a retired Navy Captain.  He hated computers and email.  If he couldn't talk to you in person, he used the phone.  The software engineers who worked in cubicles next to each other, wouldn't say a word all day long.  Instead, they would be using their keyboards to chat away, often with creative little apps they had built for just that purpose.  I knew from watching these folks that if we could find a way for them remain in their respective comfort zones, while freely and smoothly working as a team, that we would have a tremendous breakthrough.

Sadly, the problem was not technology.  The tools needed to solve this dilemma started to be invented in the 1980s.  Much of the work was done in order to create tools for the handicapped.  Steven Hawking's wheelchair was a tour-de-force demonstration of some of what could be done.  And, it didn't take much computing power.  The first version of Hawking's chair was powered by a humble Apple ][ from the late 70s.  Unifying communications systems was eminently doable.  Microsoft's Exchange Server had been specifically designed to be able to become the hub of such a system.  I had worked with Elaine and Brian to make sure that had happened.  The problem lay with IT, the carriers, and their failure to measure themselves by anything that actually mattered to their customers.

Getting IT operations people to think in larger perspectives and actually measure their results against things that matter was and continues to be an enormously difficult task.  A good CIO could do that, but alas, that was a super rare bird.  In many corporations, the CIO position was filled by either someone who knew very little about technology and what it could do, or by someone who was primarily interested in the perks of the office.  Bravehearts indeed!  [Thinking of one particular Mel Gibson speech from the movie.]

There is an aspect of this situation that would be comical if it were not so sad, and routinely the rood cause of late career layoffs.  IT people love to complain that their customers treat them as a cost center instead of focusing on the value that IT delivers.  Well duh!  How does IT measure and report on its performance?  What gets measured gets managed, and IT almost everywhere measures and reports on its costs.

Despite all of these issues, my experience with the IT leadership at Boeing before the merger was that you could build it, and they would reluctantly come, and get with the program, even it they were late to the party.  Once something of benefit was done, then they would take credit for it having been their idea all along.  That was fine with me.  My reward was in seeing it happen, not becoming famous for it.  After the merger what had once been merely the difficult became next to impossible.  If the pre-merger Boeing IT leaders had been arrogant little Napoleons (and that is being kind when one considers the way they behaved), the GE trained folks that came in from St. Louis were many times worse.  They were after power for power's sake alone, and didn't mind at all if that's what others thought of them.

 

After the merger a decision was made to restructure the way computing was organized at the corporate level.  It was made a part of a new Shared Services organization headed by a clueless self important guy named Jim Palmer, another finance guy.  The first thing Palmer did was go through the org chart an eliminate anything that could get in the way of his authority.  The two chief architects councils were abolished.  IT would no longer have to worry about being called on the carpet for making a mess for some operations part of the company.  Palmer ran things like a little Caesar.  I tried to carry on and make unified communications happen, but the environment was just too toxic.

 

The way my exit from AR&T went down was almost comical.  My director decided to accompany me on a vendor visit down in the silicon valley.  I was making a tour of potential vendors of a voice messaging interface to be added to our Exchange Server system.  On the way back to the hotel one evening, Kjell told me that he wanted to put me forward as a candidate to become a member of the Boeing Technical Fellowship.  The entry point would be as an Associate Technical Fellow (ATF).  The ATF recognition process required assembling a package that laid out in great detail what I had done to merit such recognition.  Then there would be a series of interviews conducted jointly by existing fellows and management.  

 

One of the traditions in AR&T was for each researcher to make a presentation on their work once a year.   Unified communications was a big deal, and a couple days after we got back from our trip to San Jose, I made my annual presentation.  During the Q&A the usual question of how I would handle the expected objections and resistance from the IT operations folks was asked.  I gave my usual answer.  I would build a demonstration system and just take it around the company and show the execs in the airplane company and on the defense side what it could do and how it would impact their operations.  Then it would be up to them to dictate it to IT as a requirement.  A couple days later I was called into my new manager's office and fired, or at least she thought she had done that.  She explained that I didn't want to be around when the next merit raise cycle came up, which was only a couple months away.  

Well, I had a lot of friends all over the whole corporation and could have gotten on almost anywhere.  But I wanted to see the inside of the airplane company.  So I called Peter Ringland who had been funding my work, and explained the situation.  A month later I was at my new desk in Everett.  One of my new assignments was to represent 777 and the Everett site's advanced computing research requirements to the organization that had just fired me.  When word gt back to AR&T about this, my old masters practically fell over themselves apologizing for what had happened a couple months earlier.  On top of this, Pete and Kerry Cruze agreed to continue to support my ATF application, provided my soon to be new management friend Tim Ellis agreed.  Tim was skeptical at first, but was soon on board.  There was a one cycle delay, but as soon as the powers that be could make it happen, I became an Associate Technical Fellow of the Boeing Company, now working for the Boeing Commercial Airplane company.  I spent my last fifteen years at Boeing working fairly closely with Tim, who always saw to it that I had a cube not too far from his, usually right next to him.