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How I Saved The EPA. (Don’t Tell Pete!)

May 29, 2013

We are getting rid of your Wordpefect Office email program.

What are you planning to replace it with, if you don’t mind me asking?

Anything else!

Doug was the Office Product Manager and he had a problem.

This was 1991. Our latest email server, WordPerfect Office 3.0 had been out about a year. Version 3.0 was our first multiple server version. There were a few hiccups during the beta (Racist Programs and Assaulting Servers.)

The product was starting to get some traction and we’d made a couple of big sales. The biggest was the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA had about 40,000 employees and they were all using our email program. Well, they were trying to use it. We hadn’t tried to run on a system that big before. And there were definitely some growing pains.

But, you would think that if any company was positioned to provide help with a problem installation it was WordPerfect. As I mentioned in “You Want a What? We Don’t Even Make Those Anymore” we prided ourselves on customer service. We had the best customer service in the world.

There was just one problem. Our support model was built around supporting individual installations of WordPerfect’s word processor. Which meant that even for the Office program we had a team of operators and a phone queue. When someone called, they got routed to whomever was available.

That works great if you want to know how to write a keyboard macro, it doesn’t work so well when you want to know why Connection Server #5 is getting an error message that none of the other 4 is getting. We literally started from scratch every time the EPA called in. This was very frustrating.

Many of our DC sales guys were very technical. However, they weren’t allowed to touch the customers’ keyboards. They were expected to stand next to the customer and talk them through their demos.

The source of this policy was our Executive Vice President, Pete. He understood WordPerfect, but he really didn’t grasp the added complexities of an enterprise-wide email system.

“If our software is not simple enough for a customer to buy it off-the-shelf and install it, we need to redesign it until it is simple enough.”

That’s a great goal. But, it’s just not practical for enterprise level software. Remember, this was before the days of the internet and remote logins. Customers expected us to make it work. They didn’t want to have us tell them how to make it work.

Doug called Bernadette, the EPA IT administrator.

“One of your biggest frustrations is having to reexplain all of the background every time you call, right?

Yes. Especially if it’s a simple question.

Suppose I gave you a single support person to work with? You just call him when you have a question.

He would need to come on site and help configure the system.

Ah. . .okay. Would that keep you from throwing Office out?

We’ll try it.

Great. His name is Rodney Bliss.”

And that’s how I got tagged to be the first Technical Account Manager, WordPerfect SWAT Team member.

There was just one problem. Pete had that rule that employees were not to touch customers’ keyboards, let alone travel to Washington DC from Orem, Ut to touch their keyboards.

I met with Doug in his office.

“You’ve been temporarily reassigned to the Marketing team. You know the EPA administrators right?”

Yeah.

I need you to fly to Washington DC and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina and fix their system. We can get development resources if needed. I just need you to make it work for them.

Cool.

Oh, and one more thing. This is vital. I need you to not let Pete know.

The Executive Vice President?

Yeah.

Okay.

Doug was my air cover. He had a VP further up the chain that was providing his air cover. But, as I explained in “Sometimes You Just Need to Punt,” the first rule of air cover is that you never ever want to use your air cover.

I spent months shuttling back and forth between DC, Utah and North Carolina getting the EPA installation working. I didn’t interact with the Executive VP much, so keeping out of sight was easy. i had to be careful what i talked about at lunch to try to keep rumors from forming. I also had at least one executive level briefing with our executives. Once it was set up, of course, I was the one to maintain it.

Three things came out of Doug’s skunkworks project.

1. I fixed the EPA problems, saved the account and they enjoyed Office for many versions to come.
2. We expanded my role and formed the SWAT team to provide that same level of support to multiple companies.
3. Pete found out. He pushed the owners to fire Doug’s air cover VP. Instead, Alan and Bruce saw the value of what I’d done and they fired Pete instead. (I think the VP’s air cover was Alan.)

Anyone who loves Novell GroupWise really owes a debt to Doug. Had he not put his job on the line to save the EPA, WordPerfect Office might have died on the vine. At the very least it would not have been the technical marvel it was for many years.

The Executive VP was a big part of the reason that WordPerfect had a Sick Corporate Culture. He was gone before WordPerfect died, but it was his management that really set the stage. Doug was surprising because he was willing to disagree. WP policies were designed to Turn Honest Employees into Dishonest Ones.

I also owe Doug for plucking me out of obscurity and helping to launch my career.

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