I Become a Capitalist

When I joined TPC I didn’t consider the fact that I was now a cog in a major capitalistic venture. At first, it was easy to forget this; I was implementing computer based systems that would drag the industry out of the 1950s and make it more responsive to the needs and wishes of the customers. Hey, I really thought this then. I was in an industry that received minimum compensation for providing almost magical services to a universal customer base. Of course later, the Federal government got tired of TPC trying to hold on to its monopoly while the wolves nipped at the more lucrative bits and eventually the Feds forced the entire telephone industry to break-up and restart the process, but this time not based on providing universal service; rather, based on maximizing greed. We fit right in with the Reagan revolution!

My years with Ma Bell were long and not particularly eventful. I started at Headquarters in Newark, transferred for a stint at Bell Labs (pre-divestiture when the Labs was pure and made discoveries that were good for people, not just the bottom-line), came back to a company that started as New Jersey Bell, became Bell Atlantic at divestiture when the New Jersey, Chesapeake & Potomac, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia companies joined together, added New York Telephone and New England Bell, and with the acquisition of GT&E became the communications giant, Verizon.

Exciting? Not really. Every time we added a new company, that company seemed to become the leader of the enterprise and those of us that had been around since before divestiture were considered outdated and expendable (and too many good people actually were told to leave). My last position was managing about 13 people ranging from Boston to Virginia Beach and I was beginning to look forward to retirement, as early as possible. Unexpectedly, however, I had a stroke which forced me to retire with nice benefits and a disabled person’s tag. I haven’t worked since 2001 and honestly, I haven’t missed it.

One major disadvantage of working for TPC was that I had to set my sites on a very low horizon—Ma Bell is about as innovative and futuristic as a new buggy whip. Oh, we were always out there applying the latest technology but there were several problems with the approved direction:  first, an innovation had to be fully tested out and on the verge of becoming old news before TPC would take it on; the idea of any far thinking futuristic ideas was generally met with the requirement to fit in with the existing technology and to protect existing technology instead of replacing the old crap and allowing for a new way to do things. The second problem was, as in so many other businesses, funding. I don’t think that TPC was necessarily tight on their funding (which was definitely the case when it was a regulated monopoly) but rather that it was good at throwing money at projects that would be old news before they were ever implemented and if implemented, tended to emphasize the TPC commitment to keeping in line with the past while the future passed it by.

In my capacity as a planner, I often got involved with new projects and the process became quite familiar. One branch of the company probably epitomized the wasteful, limited approach to implementing new systems. It started with a general meeting suggesting the use of a mainframe (IBM) application to create accessible digital copies of documentation and important operational documents. The idea to use old technology for future systems was typical. A year later I was back in a meeting for the same project but this time they were being prompted by an outside company that was ready to make a nice profit if we implemented their mini-computer based software product. Of course, this nice profit was a major expense from our side and the project went nowhere. Finally a central computer based repository of documents went online and that branch of TPC announced that they had converted the documents to digital images and were no longer going to create paper copies for distribution.

Of course, no one bothered to verify or to fund the terminals in the field that would be required to get access to these digital documents and the project was not too successful. About this time, though, the internet was growing and TPC even began implementing its own intranet using the internet products and protocols. I believe we had the intranet pretty well deployed before this department realized they could use it to distribute their documents. But even then, many remote sites had to be content with dial-up access, which at that time was common on the internet, but not for offices that had to receive very large documents on a regular and timely basis.

The remote (client) terminal situation was one of those funding issues that were all too common. In order to get the project approved, the cost had to be kept down and to keep the cost down, many of the necessary parts of the project were left out or assigned to the end-users. Of course, the users in the field didn’t budget for these terminals either so we got into the business of taking the terminals that were replaced by one project and using them to squeak through on another project. And if that wasn’t bad enough, we had to watch millions of dollars of equipment be deployed for projects which, although favorites of the higher-ups, were doomed to failure. So sometimes the funding issues were not the lack of funds but rather the allocation of monies in strange and often reckless ways.

But enough war stories from TPC; that’s probably more than I have thought about the place in ten years.

[Continued]

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