Maybe you’ve had “Jim”s in your life, maybe not.

There are two Jims I remember from my days in the Ford Parts and Service IT organization. I’ll start with the first Jim.

The first Jim really defined “rough around the edges.” He was an old-school COBOL programmer working with IBM’s IMS (Information Management Systems) databases. He was also a man with few, if any, social graces. Not that it mattered to him. He was a stocky Black guy, craggy face set in perpetual scowl — or, at least in a frown of concentration — dark eyes glowering under a shock of black hair. I don’t think I ever saw him smile.

One time, I was walking down the hall and he was coming the other way. I said Hi to him, and his response was a jolt of the head accompanied by some kind of gastric expression. Another time, he had chosen a nice white shirt to wear but had also somehow placed a black magic marker, no cap, tip down in his shirt pocket, leaving a softball-sized dark disk. I don’t think he noticed; if he did, he didn’t mind; and if you did, you didn’t say anything.

In one infamous meeting, we were working through a major development upgrade, and we were using (were chained to, really) the infamous Software Development Life Cycle, or SDLC (more on this in the Tale of Jim Too). The manager in charge (who, come to think of it, was also named Jim - go figure) was going around the room asking each development lead if they were ready for the next launch. That Jim finally reached the other Jim, my Jim. “Are you ready?” “Uh-huh.” “Are you sure?”

To which my Jim famously replied, “Sure I’m ready, I just gotta get through all this SDLC stuff first!”

While we all laughed uproariously in this meeting, the deeper truth was there. Jim was Jim. He knew what he needed to do, in fact had been doing it while others were still in grade school. He grew up with the systems, knew the code, knew the OS and database systems, the JCL (job control language), completion codes, all of it. He took code home with him on his own time and before the days of laptops, big printouts he’d go over to make sure that everything was right. Not just good enough, but right.

You develop methodologies and certifications for new folks, people who need guidance, frameworks, gates, guardrails to ensure proper behavior.

We didn't really need that with Jim - even though, to be fair, we had to have everyone following the same set of rules.

When Jim released his code to production, he knew — knew — that it was right. You learned not to challenge a man who stood behind his work. It was pride. It was personal.

I learned this the hard way, challenging him on something or other. I no longer remember. I just remember that I was younger, much less experienced, a new supervisor nonetheless, and brashly pushing past that sinking feeling you have when you sense you may be wrong more than right but don’t have the guts or wisdom to admit it. I still remember that feeling; remember, too, the sense I had that I needed to respect this man, who knew more about these big systems than I ever would.

I could see how upset he was by my challenges, but I was too blinded by my own new-supervisor insecurity to realize that I had challenged not only the quality of his work but his investment in it. I was too naive to realize how much I was playing with fire. How much I was questioning the source of a man's pride.

If there was a loser in that meeting, it was me.

Still, he held no grudge. That was not who he was.

Years later, I was overseeing the operations side of a major facilities merger. Our programming teams were working through all kinds of issues. Jim came into my office and told us we had a real problem, never mind all the other stuff that was going on. Uh-oh. I’d learned. If Jim says something’s wrong, we’re in a lot of trouble.

We’re losing data, Jim said. That sent shivers down our spines. Data loss — not corrupted databases, not transaction files, no. This was worse. Data was disappearing, according to Jim. I looked at him as he relayed this, and I knew. He’d gone over everything in his universe, combed through files, control totals, code, you name it. I could see him doing it at night, at home, making notes. Data had disappeared, somewhere during all the lift-and-carry operations of the merger.

We brought in the IBM people. One of the engineers who came in was an old veteran named Frank. While others swore up and down that Jim’s analysis had to be wrong, Frank didn’t see it that way. His prediction was simple. The problem would be escalated within the company. There would be no answer. But the problem would not recur.

And that’s how it was.

So many years later, it doesn’t matter what the real truth in this situation was, or whether the ultimate cause was ever found and shared. These are two big companies, after all, and I’ve learned (I hope) not to cast any stones. You do that, they just come back and sink your own boat, small as it might be.

But one thing I knew. Jim’s word could be trusted.

You see, you know — you really know — when someone has done their homework, really examined all aspects of their work — and then stood by the answer. You know, because they don’t waver. In Jim’s case, his lack of what we (in our sophisticated ignorance) might call social graces lent credence to his conclusions. He was too coarse to be clever, too disheveled to be dishonest.

He’d done his homework, said his piece, and he stood by his word.

That’s grace, by the way — and it comes more often than not in rough-hewn packages versus slick, sculpted exteriors.

That kind of grace is hard-earned, the result of countless hours of effort. It’s proven over time, through tough and lonely hours. It’s the kind of thing that rewards pianists willing to slow-practice, athletes drilling shots over and over, actors and actresses and writers polishing lines. It’s not always matched with good manners. But if you find it in your organization, you prize it.

Does that mean you tolerate behavior that injures others? Of course not. Attacks, be they racial, gender, age, or anything else - are inexcusable. In this world of doubling down and hate speech and name-calling, we need to remember that. If we have dog-whistles, we keep them where they belong. In our pocket. We treat people we interact with as the flawed creatures they are, because we’re flawed, too. That recognition breeds honesty and builds trust.

We called this decency, once upon a time. It’s a useful thing.

What Jim taught me was this. He was gruff, but never hurtful. He took offense, but only if you challenged the work he stood by. He knew his capabilities, even if he couldn’t express them eloquently. These are qualities to look for, because what they represent is personal integrity.

In a world too often dominated by “daggers in men’s smiles(1),” finding integrity is akin to finding the gold in the ore(2). It’s rarity makes it precious, even if surrounded by a rough, gruff exterior. Learn to recognize it, and cherish it when you find it.

So, all these years later, I thank you for your gifts, my rough, gruff Jim.

(1) "daggers in men's smiles," from Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act II Scene III. It means - oh, heck, you know what it means.

(2) "gold in the ore." This is probably too obscure, but here we go. It comes from Robert Frost's essay on poetry, "The Figure a Poem Makes" (1939). Frost opines that "sound is the gold in the ore." It's a somewhat catchy phrase, I guess, but not one that's lent itself to Internet fame. Why do I remember it? Well, in a college class on poetry, our professor (the late, gruff Dirk Jellema) had printed up a series of quotes on poetry, with Frost's item misrepresented thus: "the fold in the ore." Which left all of us (well, me, anyway) wondering if we had to look in clefts of rock to find poetry. I suppose, after all, that we do.