Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Unfinished Dreams

Personally, I feel like I was very successful in life. Of course, there are a few more years to go before I finish my race, but now that I’m retired it affords me time to reflect over the first 65 years of my life, my career, my marriage, my family, and just how well things went for me. Let me start by stating I’m particularly blessed. I can’t imagine all the good things that happened to me in my lifetime as being real ... it has to be a dream! Starting with wonderful parents who raised me in a wonderful little town full of happiness and childhood dreams. That was the perfect beginning. I got to do most all the things I wanted to do as a child, and got support from all those that loved me.

As a family, we traveled and I got to enjoy the beauty of the Lord’s creation in my home state of Montana and around the country. We picnicked and camped and boated and fished … I didn’t hunt. My love of beauty and nature grew out of that childhood.

I worked more than I cared to at the time, but that employment gave me valuable life lessons as well as a good income growing up. I got to drive the delivery truck and that was part of my on-going love affair with things with wheels.

I sputtered a bit on the education front, flunking out of the Montana School of Mines, but I did gain valuable guitar skills and party skills, and met some more great friends. I was a bit lonely being away from home for the first time, but that was a good life lesson too.

I spent some more good times with friends, partly aided by a broken arm that gave me a draft deferment for over a year. I lost a good friend in an automobile accident, and that may have been the only real grief in my young life. I worked in mine, mill, and smelter; and was no stranger to manual labor. At night and weekends, the music played, the girls danced, the friends gathered round, and happy times were had by all.

Eventually I ended up in the Navy, enlisting for six years to gain advanced electronics training. That was a childhood dream that I finally accomplished. I spent my military career as part of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, thereby avoiding the conflict in SE Asia. That was probably a blessing in disguise. I made great and wonderful friends during that time and engaged in motorcycles and mechanics and lived independently. It was a time of music and parties, and I partook of those with great vigor.

After finishing my national service (with one humongous two day party on the beach), I spent almost a year in Spokane, Washington living with my parents. I had no responsibilities, and I learned to sleep late. I got my First Class Commercial FCC License, and did some work in both radio and television before embarking on the next leg of my life’s journey. My original goal was to work for a large music store in downtown Spokane as a musical instrument repairman, but that dream evaporated. The radio and TV work substituted, and the FCC license turned out to be a key to another dream in another state.

I moved to Colorado in January, 1974. That had been a dream I shared with my shipmates, and many had planned to join me there. I had attended an Air Force School in Denver as part of my Navy training, and always dreamed I’d return. Many of my colleagues in the calibration lab on the USS Vulcan shared that dream, and I had visits from many shipmates during the first five years I lived in Denver. My best buddy, Woody, came out west and lived with me for nearly a year before returning to his ancestral home in New England.

Woody and I shared a great joy of motorcycle racing as well as a fondness for running. We would run five miles a day, and race bikes on weekends. I was also good friends with the Lincoln family. I met Linda’s first husband, Tom, on board the Vulcan. We got together later in Longmont, and I shared interests in both guitar and motorcycles with Linda’s brother Chuck. I knew Linda’s mom and dad, and helped a bit around their house. One time Chuck and I caught a motorcycle part on fire in his mom’s oven … long story!

At that time, I was working for A.R.F. Products as an electronics technician designing and testing advanced radio controllers for missiles and rockets … including the space shuttle, and Woody was seeking work. He had a degree in math and wanted to be a math teacher. The employment agency gave him a lead to the Electronics Technical Institute, but he didn’t want to teach electronics. I did. I applied. I got the job. It was my First Class FCC License that sold me to them. They needed someone to teach FCC License Preparation, and there I was. My long-held dream to be a teacher was fulfilled.

At the same time, I was back in school studying Electronics Engineering at what was called Metropolitan State College. (Now it is called Metropolitan State University of Denver … I’m not the only one who has changed.) It was an unusual school with no campus. The classes were held in various office buildings throughout Denver. That worked for me since I was living and working in Denver. The GI bill was quite generous in those days, and/or tuition wasn’t that high back then, and I got several scholarships, so I actually got more money from the government to go to school than it cost. I was working full-time, so money was not the problem it often is to a poor student.

Metro gave me a ton of credit for my Navy electronics, and I started getting straight-A’s in school. It wasn’t that hard since I taught electronics at ETI and then studied it at night at Metro. I ended up graduating with only one B, and that was in a one-credit class. So my final GPA was 3.97. Pretty close to 4.0.

In the meantime, Linda had divorced her first husband; we started dating; I fell head over heels in love with the sweetest women I’ve ever met … plus the prettiest girl that would ever even say ‘hi’ to me, much less date me, and even give me a kiss now and then; and we got married. That was my greatest dream fulfilled, and has been the anchor of my life since. Two sons and several grandchildren later we approach our 36th anniversary this week and I’m more in love with her today than any day before. That will be true tomorrow too. Trust me, I’m a mathematician. I understand infinite series. (These things are blessings to my life!)

By this time, I had married, purchased our first house in Longmont, been hired by IBM, and was expecting our second child. I still had some GI bill left, so I moved across the street from Metro (which, by then, had built a large campus in Denver which was shared between a junior college, Metro, and a branch of the University of Colorado) to the University of Colorado at Denver, and began working on a Master’s degree in mathematics with a minor in physics. Most of the classes were in Denver, which I commuted to for both work and school until I started at IBM. I also took some classes at the Boulder campus of CU. I didn’t do as well in graduate school. I actually got a lot of B’s and even a C. As the doll Barbie says, “Math is hard.”

Even though CU had a very good initial program of math starting with an excellent class on Mathematical Proofs to help students make the transition, I struggled for a long time with advanced math principles. Doubly concerning to me, at the time, was how easy it seemed to be for my classmates. At one point the instructor of Advanced Calculus took me aside and said I was in the wrong class. She said I should take “Advanced Calculus for Scientists and Engineers.” She thought it would suit me better with my engineering background. I said no, I wanted to be a mathematician and this was the class I wanted. She said, “OK, but you’re not doing well.”

That was when I discovered the local (Longmont) Public Library. I would go there to escape the mayhem of a house full of kids and a wife, I learned how to concentrate and study like I never had before. It took me almost a year to gain those skills and force my mind to work like it had never had to before. Electronics came easy because it was always incremental steps. I did Ham Radio and built electronics projects as a kid, and then studied in the Navy, which was good, but not exactly rigorous, then I taught electronics and took my degree. It was all incremental learning.

This math was different. Sure I had studied math before. I even took Differential Equations … rumored to be the toughest class in engineering school. No problems there. But now, as a math major, it was deep … very, very deep. The physics went better, and — after a year in the study cubicles at Longmont Public Library — I caught onto the math. That Abstract Algebra II class that I only got a C, was the last C. I didn’t get all A’s, but I did get my Master’s in Mathematics.

I remember after one final exam I visited the professor to see my grades. I had a 68 on the final exam. He told me that was OK, it was the second highest grade in the class. I started to leave, and he asked for the test back. I said I understood, he might use that test again. He said, “No, I just might have to prove that some people actually passed the class.” Maybe my fellow students weren’t doing so well after all. Things got better and I slowly caught on to what was going on. At one point we developed under-determined matrices for the new, at that time, cat scanners from GE. I started seeing how all this theory had a practical side too.

I became such a fixture at the Library that I ended up being appointed to the Longmont Library Board. A few years later I was elected Chairman of the Longmont Library Board. I spent seven years working with the Longmont Library, and I led the process to automate the library (install the catalog computer) and laid the ground work for building the new library. Alas, with the Internet, I don’t go there as much any more, but that’s a story for another note. On with my dreams …

Eventually, I earned my Master’s. That was part of my dream, but my main goal was a PhD: A “Doctor” of Philosophy. Know what? I wasn’t even sure what PhD: EE or Math or Physics or possibly Education. My job at IBM was going well, and after several years as an engineer and mathematician in the disk drive manufacturing area, I joined IBM Technical Education as a member of the Software Engineering and Computer Science department.

I started traveling and teaching all over the US and even some out of the country. It was a great fifteen years I spent in IBM Education, and — as is typical — I learned a lot more than the students. IBM sent me off to school at Harvard and Vanderbilt in Nashville. I attended on-line classes, more at CU and also math classes at CSU. But all these were short classes. I completed an internal IBM curriculum that was actually part of the IBM Education department I worked in. It was called the University Level Computer Science Program. It was a series of almost 30, one-week long classes taught by a pair of college professors. Each week-long class was taught at an off-site conference center, although — near the end of my attendance — many classes were on-site in Boulder (to save money). Each class was 40 hours, so it was equivalent to a college class, and the professors came from over 120 universities. This was IBM’s process to keep their programmer staff well educated. Many early IBM programmers did not have CompSci degrees since that was a new subject. Many were engineers (like me) or mathematicians (like me) or physists (you’re catching on), or musicians …

I both graduated from and administered the ULCS program for many years, and am personal friends with many of those professors to this day. Sometimes I would co-teach with some of the college instructors in other IBM classes I ran on Software Testing. During this time, I built my reputation throughout the IBM Corporation as a testing guru and quality expert.

Finally, the strain of continual travel to teach and administer classes forced me to seek another job at IBM. Besides, I still had my PhD dream unfulfilled. I left IBM Education and started work with the IBM Printing Systems Division in Boulder. All this time I had never left Boulder. My Education job was all over the country, but my office and home was always in Boulder.

I started out at PSD (Printing Systems Division) leading the effort to prepare our systems for Y2K, the great date change issue facing us at the start of the new millennium. After an award winning success with that project, I was put in charge of the PSD SW Testing Lab. I ran the lab that did the final testing on all the IBM printing software. During this time I started attending the University of Denver seeking a Master’s degree in Computer Science. Although I already had a Master’s in Math, I wasn’t ready to decide just what PhD to go for, and I wanted to get an official certification of my career change from electronics engineer to software developer.

The DU classes strengthened my skills in C++, Java, and UNIX, which fit perfectly with the product development going on in Boulder in my lab. I was the lead tester and managed a million dollar lab with billion dollar staff. I loved working with my fellow testers and the relationships were deep and rewarding. Plus, we really got the job done, lowering field defects by double digit percentages year after year.

I made many physical improvements to the lab, installing advanced benches and computers and organizing the systems for maximum efficiency. I developed a lot of signage to guide the use of the equipment and created databases and processes to manage the workflow and organize tasks. Working with my manager, we developed an advanced training program and even testers from other divisions would attend our curriculum. (Once a teacher, always a teacher.)

I won several monetary awards and, one time, IBM sent Linda and me off for a vacation and conference in Hawaii for a week. My title changed from Engineer to Project Manager, and I completed the rigorous IBM Certification process. I began a time of consulting with customers and assisting other IBM Project Managers on projects that were in trouble. Again my reputation spread beyond the Boulder lab and, once again, I was traveling all over the country.

That was important because I had been a Senior Engineer and Senior Project Manager at IBM for about fifteen years at this point. In many organizations, “Senior” is the top rung of the career ladder. If you want to go higher, either in pay or status, you had to become a “Manager.” That is what, at IBM, is called a “People Manager.” Now I had people working for me in the testing lab, but I didn’t manage their pay or career. I just told them what to do daily. Their People Manager had the personnel  responsibility.

Fortunately, IBM has a dual ladder for executive levels. You don’t have to become a first-line manager, second-line manager, executive, vice president. You could climb just as high as a technical, non-manager role. As a Senior Engineer/Project Manager, I was already at the same pay grade as a first-line manager. But more was to come.

My “first-line” manager, Mary Barez, began a campaign to have me promoted to “Senior Technical Staff Member” or “Band 10.” (Senior Engineer was “Band 9.”) The ultimate goal was for me to become a “Distinguished Engineer” or Band D.

IBM Distinguished Engineers (DEs) are executive-level technical leadership positions and are appointed for outstanding technical contributions and leadership. IBM Distinguished Engineers are corporate appointments.

The expected career path for technical distinction at IBM is not well known or well documented, but it is called the Technical Resource Program. It is similar to the Fast Track Executive Resource program and has the following path:

  • Senior Technical Staff Member (STSM), Executive IT Architect, or Executive IT Specialist
  • Distinguished Engineer (DE) 
  •  IBM Fellow.

To progress to the DE level an individual would be expected to be at an Executive grade (STSM) and have other distinguishing factors (for example, prolific inventors or patent holders) as well as being globally recognized experts in their respective fields, contributing to their clients' success, and IBM's growth.

STSMs and DEs are integral members of their units' executive teams, demonstrating leadership to these units and across the company by consulting with management on technical and business strategies and their implementation. They often have operational responsibilities for large, complex technical projects, and may have line management responsibility as appropriate.

As STSM I was a member of a council that planned our development budgets and provided special reports to management on direction and technical strategy.

Career progression can be towards the more senior technical executive position IBM Fellow, but also beyond that to more senior executive business management roles building on their technical achievements.

The IBM Technical Community numbers over 200,000 people, including over 600 Distinguished Engineers and about 5,000 STSMs.

So STSM was the first step. But my manager could not promote me to that level. It would require that the Division Manager give that promotion. Mary set the groundwork for the promotion, filling out paperwork and contacting technical leads in other divisions to give testimonials of my skills. She ended up transferring before the promotion occurred.

My new manger was the Director of the entire Quality Organization, and he continued to lobby for my promotion. The final step was when I led the adoption and acceptance of ISO 2000 by PSD. I didn’t do it all, there was a team of over a dozen that led our division to successful completion and certification, and it was an important business step for our group of around 3,000 employees. It allowed us to bid on contracts and get sales we could not get previously. It was a massive undertaking that involved creating a Quality Management Process database (I used Lotus Notes) and documenting all our development processes in a specific format. I then led the training (always the teacher) of all the employees in preparation for the audit and validation. We passed and were rewarded the ISO certification.

That led to my promotion to STSM. Now I was one of only eleven technical leaders in all of PSD, and I was responsible for the technical processes of our entire quality organization and overall product quality. Included in this promotion was a nice pay raise and I celebrated with the purchase of a new sports car. Daddy done good!

I continued with the goal of DE. I never expected I could become an IBM Fellow, but DE would be the crowning cap in my career. I continued to lead the quality effort at PSD and my boss was soon promoted to the Vice President of Quality, and I was his staff person. He gave me the title of Technical Quality Leader (or was it Quality Technical Leader), and I focused on the overall quality of all our products. I added hardware to my previous software responsibilities and dug deep into the job.

I developed a new tool for managing quality that I called QSAT for Quality System Analysis and Tracking. Basit Mustafa, an intern and later programmer at IBM worked with me on the project for months and we developed the new tool and presented it to the management committee. I insisted to my manager that Basit do the presentation, since he had done all the coding. (I was the system Architect or designer). My boss objected, but I talked him into it, and it was a valuable experience for Basit. (The biggest concern was that Basit would not be brief. It was an important meeting, and this was just one item on the agenda. I figured Basit would be more terse and laconic than me!)

It gave Basit important recognition and it established me as a person to work for. I didn’t steal credit from those that did the technical work. My motto was, “There is no limit to what you can do, if you don’t care who gets the credit.” I went on to champion many development processes, establishing Orthogonal Defect Classification at PSD, and working with a group developing a similar system for “Problems.” (Problems are customer calls with issues. Not all the issues are defects. In fact, most are not. OPC was developed to manage and learn from problems.) I was in line to get a patent for this new work, but IBM sold PSD before the long patent process was completed. 

I was then assigned to IBM Research and traveled around the country helping other IBM organizations implement OPC. That further increased my exposure around the company ... again teaching was key to my advancement.

I was also very involved with the IBM Academy of Technology. This was another step. The Academy consists of the top three to four hundred technical leaders in IBM. Membership is by invitation from the Academy, and selection is not done by IBM management. The Academy has an organization of Affiliates. I was soon a member of an Affiliate when I served as the Chairman of the “Boulder Technical Vitality Council,” an inter-divisional organization covering all the technical people in IBM Boulder — not just Printing Systems, but all the five divisions on this 5,000 employee campus. We held an hour-long technical presentation every Tuesday in the cafeteria, and I was a common speaker. The Vitality Council was responsible for on-going education and technical employee retention. (Again, once a teacher, …)

I attend the Academy’s annual meetings and was hoping that I would soon be offered membership. My hope was either I would be promoted to DE and then offered member ship, or — more likely — offered membership and then promoted to DE.

Unfortunately, fate intervened. IBM Printing Systems was sold to Ricoh in 2007, and I was no longer an IBM employee. In the words of Maxwell Smart, “I was this close.” I don’t know if I ever would have made DE or been accepted into the Academy. It seemed I was on the right path and knew the right people … it really is who you know AND what you know … you know. PSD had two DE’s, and that was quite a few for a division with only 3,000 employees, which included about 1,000 engineers. I think I was on track and my manager was working for it, but it was not to be.

I’m sure I never would have become a Fellow. I know one Fellow, and she’s a lady. She was one of the inventors of JPEG and MPEG. That gives you an idea what it takes to be an IBM Fellow. I worked with her on several projects, including some mathematical verification of test completeness. Google “IBM Fellows” and check out the well known engineering names in that small community of technical excellence. No, my goal … my dream … was to become a DE. I did make it to STSM, which is a lot more than most IBM top engineers. But I just couldn’t go.all.the.way. (I miss Howard Cosell.)

So that’s one dream I’ll never make. How about the other dream? PhD?

Well, I’ve got some news on that. I’ve been attending Stanford University since the beginning of this year. I take online classes, and I’m studying hard. The next step is to take the Qualification Tests or “Quals.” My goal is to take them next January. Not this January … a year from now. Assuming I pass the Quals, there are still lots more to do. Research, a dissertation, I’d have to go to California and work at the campus. My time line is that it would take me about five to seven years, with one year completed so far. To tell the truth, I don’t think I will make it. Just the financial cost seems too high, and for what? Oh, just a dream I’ve always had!

The realist in me says, "I’m just taking some classes and tests to see how far I can get." The dreamer in me says, “ ‘Dr. Cheatham’ would really sound good.” If you’re a betting person, I recommend the realist. I really, honestly, don’t think I’ll go.all.the.way. I’m just going to do this until I get tired of studying. I wonder if my old cubical down at the Longmont Public Library is still available.

Meanwhile, since I believe dreams require a sound track, I’ll leave you with this title.

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