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Five People Who Made A Difference. . .To Me (#3 The Product Manager)

March 11, 2015

When you were a kid did you ever dream that you scored the winning touchdown? That you fought off the terrorists to save the princess. Basically, that you were the hero? 

I hope so. We all should be the hero of our own story. But, in real life how often does that opporunity come around? Most of us never get asked to do the extraordinary. David Thoreau said, 

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

I had that chance. I had the opportunity to do something extraordinary. It happened early in my career and that opportunity has set me on a course that, while not always extraordinary, certainly  included more than my fair share of extraordinary moments. 

There was no good reason to pick me. I was on a team in WordPerfect Office Support with other engineers equally qualified, equally capable. But, just as getting assigned to the Office team was a random stroke of luck that defined most of my career, getting asked to work with the EPA account was a seeminly random event that had far reaching impact. 

The man who made that decision was a WordPerfect Product Manager named Dave Clare. Dave was the PM for the Office product, which mostly meant WordPerfect’s email program. It was sometime around 1989 or 1990. WordPerfect had recently shipped version 3.0 of Office. It allowed multiple email servers. It sounds strange today, but in the early days of PC based email programs, all the email had to sit on a single server. If you wanted to send email to someone in your company, you logged into the email server and sent your email. It was then delivered to another user on the server. That person would later log in and read you email. The problem was that only a certain number of users could be logged into the email server at the same time. It was not unlike queuing for the restroom at a sporting event. You pretty much had to wait until someone in front of you was done. 

WordPerfect Office 3.0 changed all that. Now you could have as many post offices (that’s what they called their email servers) and connected them all together. There was now no end to the number of users you could host. . .except there was. We weren’t sure exactly what the maximum number was, but it somewhat less than the EPA was trying to host at one time. They spent a ton of money on Office and they couldn’t make it work. So, they would call into support and talk to us, and we all dreaded their calls. They were demanding and their system was so complex that you would spend the first 45 minutes of the call simply learning the background needed so that they could even ask their question. 

Dave’s job was to market GroupWise. The sale to the EPA had seemed like a fantastic deal. But, now it was turning into a disaster. They gave him an ultimatum. 

Fix our GroupWise problems or else.

Or else what?

We will go with a different email supplier.

Who would you go with?

Anybody except you.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. 

Suppose I give you one engineer and he’s dedicated to learning and supporting your system?

We’ll try it.

And just like that, I was thrust into the hero’s role in the story. But, it wasn’t just a story of adventure, there was intrigue as well. Our executive vice president was adamently opposed to WordPerfect employees touching customer keyboards. He was not going to be pleased with me flying to Washington DC and get my hands dirty setting up EPA systems. 

Dave had some brilliant advice. . .”Don’t tell him.” 

So, not only was I called on to be the hero, I had to do it covertly. It was awesome. 

The reason Dave appears on this list is for two reasons. It was the first time anyone had bet the farm on my ability. There was no alternative. Plan B was to make sure that Plan A worked. It was an incredible amount of pressure. I was all of 25 years old. And I had never felt more responsible. Because Dave believed in me, I had to believe in myself. Throughout my career I’ve had opportunities to play the hero. Times were the entire enterprise depended on me. Everytime I was ever tempted to doubt myself, I remembered sitting in Dave Clare’s office and him telling me how confident he was that I could fix this. 

Secondly, Dave gave me great insight into office politics. We were going against the orders of the third most powerful man in the company. But, it was the right thing to do. So we did it. I found out later that he nearly got fired for it. I think even he had been let go, he still would have done it. Because it was right. And when you know what is right, and you get results, you can get away with a lot. 

Incidently, I redesigned the EPA network and got it stable. My success led to WordPerfect creating a group of dedicated on site support people called the  Strategic WordPerfect Assistance Team. Yes, I got to be a member of a SWAT team. Coolest team name ever.


You can read more about my time helping the EPA at “How I Saved The EPA (Don’t Tell Pete)” 

Dave remains active in the IT world. His LInkedIn profile is here

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild. 
Follow him on Twitter (@rodneymbliss
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