Of course, I remember the Berlin Wall being pummeled to gravel 25 years ago. I always hated what it symbolized, and I was excited. I was in Fayetteville, AR, at the finest hotel in town (a multi-story Holiday Inn at the time) when I saw the Germans storming the wall and whack-a-mole-ing the wall with ballpeen hammers.
How I came to be in Arkansas is a rather remarkable and foreboding story.
Before I start, when it became clear I was going to be sent to Fayetteville, I was plunged into a dark and gloomy mood. Fayetteville is flat as a pancake, unlike the beautiful Ozarks in southern Arkansas. It’s dusty, and littered with perhaps the world’s leading population of chickens. When landing in Fayetteville, as far as the eye can see, long metal buildings: chicken houses. But here in this little university town (U of A), you had Ferrari, Lotus, Lamborghini and Porsche dealerships. Wait, what? It’s true. You have to remember that Wal-Mart started a few miles up the road in Bentonville, AR, and many of the people in on the ground floor of Wal-Mart were zillionaires due to explosive stock growth and the brilliance of Sam Walton
I ended up loving Fayetteville. Folks from Arkansas are great. Friendly, welcoming. Some good restaurants, some good “membership only” bars (due to liquor licensing laws of the day).
And that’s where my story starts.
I was asked to accompany a Digital Equipment Corporation salesman to a large chicken processing operation. When I arrived at the tiny Fayetteville airport, the salesman picked me up and immediately suggested we have lunch. We went to the AQ Chicken House, yeah, it sounds hokey, but let me tell you the chicken, the lifeblood of Fayetteville, was served in a number of ways and all were killer.
The moment we walked in, in a booth in front of me was Don Tyson, head of Tyson Foods, and none other than Sam Walton. Don was in his standard issue Tyson uniform work shirt with a little oval with “Don” embroidered on it, and Walton was in jeans and a plaid shirt. Just two old boys eatin’ some chicken.
I sat down with the salesman who proceeded to order a massive order of chicken fried chicken (lots of gravy), onion rings and sweet tea. He bolted it all down as he explained the account to me.
We visited the customer and the purchasing agent played the salesman like a Stradivarius. By the time we walked out, the salesman had agreed to what I said to him in private were impossible terms. Because of the long meeting, I missed my flight out of Fayetteville so I had to now fly out of Little Rock, 190 miles away. On a good day, this was a 2:55 drive, and we were now 2:45 away from flight time. I had a birthday celebration to get to, and needed to catch that flight. I was going to have to haul ass to get to Little Rock.
The only problem was that the salesman, a portly gentleman, had overdosed on fat-laden gravy and greasy onion rings. As I nervously watched him drive towards Little Rock, he began to fall asleep at the wheel, actually running off onto the gravel shoulder.
“I need to stop to get a drink,” he said.
“Fine, get your drink, and I’ll drive the rest of the way.”
I figured I had to cover about 100 miles in an hour to make the flight.
You do the math.
Determined to make that plane, I hammered his car into warp drive, and we made it to the airport about 15 minutes before the flight. This was pre-9/11, so I was able to get through security in a few minutes. After that Ben-Hur run on I-40, I had missed the flight by less than five minutes. I pride myself on being able to smooth-talk gate agents, but sweating like an NBA player in the fourth quarter, I must have looked like a smack addict in late withdrawal. She refused. I was not happy with my salesman.
Flash forward a few days. The salesman called me to say that he was checking with me to see if I was sticking to my position regarding the improperly configured deal.
“Let’s see, you are selling a MicroVax, all the LIMS software, and you are going to include the deployment services, including instrument interfacing, under the field service install contract. No, you’re out of your mind. The machine is way too small for the account, the implementation will take six months at least, and you will be 3X the price you agreed to. I told you so.”
Not to be encumbered by the ranting of a technical person, he called DEC HQ in Marlboro, MA, and got a marketing person to assure him it was theoretically possible to deploy the system in the way he’d described. So, he ran with this more-suitable answer, and the project was sold.
Well, with all the surprise of the sun rising in the east, I received a call at my desk in the Application Center for Technology in Atlanta. It was my boss.
“Randy, the project in Fayetteville is going down the toilet. I need you to meet with the regional sale manager in Baton Rouge to sort this out.”
“Me? I told the %$#^ that it couldn’t be done.”
“Please, go with Phil to sort this out.”
Phil, the regional sales manager, was a silver-haired sales pro with a lilting North Carolinian accent. We met the salesman in the lobby and, as we headed to the conference room, Phil was greeted by every staff member in the office. He oozed charm.
“Mabel, how’s that daughter doing at college? Really? Mighty fine. Mighty fine.”
“Ralph, you sell that car yet? My son might take it off your hands. You take care now.”
This went on every three steps until we got to the conference room and “Gentle Phil” was transmuted to “Stalin Phil”.
He closed the door, told the salesman to sit down, and this guy whose golden touch a few minutes earlier was a sight to behold, turned into a vicious badger.
“What the Hell do you know about LIMS?” he asked the salesman.
“Ah, not much.”
“Then you need to listen to our experts and keep your big fat mouth shut!”
It went downhill from there. The salesman was gone within two weeks, and I thought I was done with it.
Au contraire mon ami.
About three weeks later, my boss once again called.
“Randy, I need an opinion. If you were going to fix that project, how would you do it?”
“I want no part of it.”
“I know. Hypothetically, what would it take to fix it by the end of February?”
“It’s December now. That’s a six-month project.”
“Well, the company has displaced all the engineers in Marlboro, as it’s clear they’re killing the product. You’d have to pull in two guys from the Boston area, a developer from North Carolina, and a project manager from Tennessee.”
“You wouldn’t be able to do it without a private jet. In that time frame, every second counts.”
“Limitless power to pull in anyone else you need.”
“OK, you got all those things. You start tomorrow.”
“WHAT? I never said…”
“The Senior VP for Sales wants this done. The customer is threatening to pull a $10,000,000 transaction processing order if we don’t get this done.”
“You need to get to Memphis in the next few days and tell the Area Sales Manager what you’re going to do to get this done in three months.”
Off I went. I was met with unbridled hostility by a Professional Services guy working for the Area Manager whose team had butchered the project. He was a real douche as I laid out my plan, and he caught me by the elevator on my way out.
“There’s no way you’ll get this done.”
“Maybe. We’ll see.”
I got back to Atlanta and called my boss. I asked how the process was going to get all these people from the four corners of the Earth assigned to the project.
“No problem. It’s done.”
“Call this number and they’ll come pick you up, and then grab the rest of the team.”
So, a few days later, the jet arrived at a private airport in Atlanta. The pilots asked me if I had any food requests they could take care of before we left.
“Sandwiches are fine.”
Off we went.
When we walked in with our Dream Team — top engineers from DEC and a top developer from our Southeast office, we saw big problems.
Problem number one: The Venerable Lab Manager had built his new dream lab operation, but forgot a computer room. They put the little MicroVax in a closet…yes, a closet. To monitor the temperature of the computer and the intelligent network switches, they hung a two-dollar thermometer in there and had a floor fan blowing air into it. Lab personnel were not happy because this closet was the only place they could hang their coats.
Problem number two: The Venerable Lab Manager had died mowing his lawn a few weeks earlier. Everyone in the lab loved him, and they were quite despondent.
Problem number three: We needed a large workspace in the lab and the only place to work was the Venerable Lab Manager’s office. Bear in mind the office had been velvet-roped off as a shrine to the man.
“Sorry about that, but we need the space.”
We hurdled the rope and started hauling in gear. We unceremoniously swept all signs of the Venerable Lab Manager into a corner and plopped our terminals and other equipment on his desk, coffee table — anywhere we could. The teary workers looked on in horror as we relegated photos and plaques to a big box in the corner.
The project had other quirks. I returned to Atlanta one day and, a few days later, I got a call from Avis.
“Mr. Hice, you were due to return your car three days ago. Can you tell us when you might be dropping it off?”
“I turned it in three days ago.”
In the small airport, the procedure for checking your car in if there was no one at the desk in the morning was to reach over the counter, drop your contract with the mileage on it, and the keys into a drawer.
Someone saw me do so, and stole the car.
Another day, we showed up in the lab for work on a Monday, and were slammed in the face with a horrible smell. Someone had left a lot of chicken samples sitting on a lab table and they rotted over the weekend. The staff tried to mask the smell with some sort of lilac spray, so we had a foul amalgam of lilac and rotting chicken flesh.
Fast forward to three months later, we realized we had moved Heaven and Earth. We fixed the project and saved the $10,000,000 order.
I made a final appearance in Memphis and presented to the Area Manager. Afterwards, he said,
“Thank you. Thank you 10,000,000 times!”
Out by the elevator, the douche Services Manager begrudgingly shook my hand. Never smiling, he said,
“I didn’t think you could do it, but you did.”
Those words dripped with hatred, but he felt he had to say something.
So here we are, 25 years later and the memories of the Wall always bring memories of the project from Hell where we snatched victory from the jaws of certain doom.
We still talk about the project. It was astonishing what we did in so little time when money, at least what we were spending, was no object.
Ken, our technical guru, is now retired. I still get weekly joke e-mails from him. Rich was our instrument interfacing expert, and I haven’t seen him since those days. Great guy, thick-as-syrup Boston accent. Cheryl was our crack developer and now lives happily in Atlanta with her husband. I chat with her in social media. The Project Manager only made sporadic appearances, as he had been deployed in Vietnam aboard a helicopter that took heavy fire. He lived, but never flew again, so he drove his RV to and from Tennessee each week…unless he decided to stay in Arkansas. No idea where he is these days. Sorta like D-Day from Animal House.
I haven’t been back to Fayetteville since. My brother-in-law has, and said the AQ Chicken House is exactly as it was. A nameless BBQ place still does land office business with the locals, and the exotic car dealerships are still there.
Maybe someday I’ll return to Fayetteville. I can’t imagine why, but someday I might. You never know.
And those memories will all resurface.
Hopefully, only the good ones.
Randy Hice is a leading authority in the field of laboratory informatics and currently works for a global healthcare company. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.