In my last entry, I discussed a rough, gruff Jim. A Jim who never made the management team, but who had integrity and pride in his work.

This Jim is both different and the same.

Jim was a stocky guy, the kind who would be comfortable tossing loads of shingles onto a roof. (There’s a roof story coming; be patient.) He had wide, open features, a boyish look, blondish hair he pulled to one side over a broad forehead. His fingers were stocky, too, probably more at home wielding a hammer instead of a pencil. When he wanted to list points in an argument, he would place the stubby index finger from one hand against the stubby finger of the other and, in that slightly high-pitched voice of his, declare: “First, we need infrastructure… then, we need tools…”

Jim was brilliant. A Ford Motor Company Parts and Logistics IT Manager, Jim had successfully revamped the sprawling parts depot business for North American operations, involving hundreds of thousands of part orders, shipments to thousands of dealers, and local depot inventory updates every day.

This was the unsung realm of Ford Parts and Service. You hear about new product all the time from the big automakers. The jazz is all around the new releases, especially these days, with the electrics, connected this and that, and the move towards autonomous driving. But in the background is the parts business, where millions of parts are moved every day into service bays in thousands of dealerships across the country (never mind the worldwide business), a complex dance prone to supply chain disruptions and other disasters, like any major logistics operation. “Parts is parts” was a slogan before Wendy’s ran with it, and the steady income the parts business reaps is an effective recession hedge.

At this time, the Parts and Service IT activity had developed the ultimate systems development methodology, the Systems Development Life Cycle, affectionately known as the “SDLC.” At three volumes, it was an imposing testament to the rigors of waterfall development at a time when databases were impressive (IMS and DB2), and those who ran them and the applications that accessed them were lauded for their ability to ferret out what went wrong (when things invariably did).

Ted, who ran Parts and Service IT, decided to put Jim in charge of bringing the SDLC to the great unwashed of the rest of Ford IT. Ted was a charismatic, high-energy leader in a less-than-tall package, who had a way of convincing you that the work you were doing was the most important work in all of IT -- which is what he would tell the next person he saw, too. I still wonder what Ted said to convince Jim to take the SDLC on.

Jim was put in charge of a new department, the Systems Development Process Department (SDPD). SDPD attracted a bunch of brainy bees from around Ford IT. They called themselves methodologists, experts at defining how systems should be developed. In other words, people who were great at doing work about work, instead of the work itself. (There was even a joke that circulated about methodologists: “How can you tell the difference between a methodologist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.”)

When I joined SDPD, Ted challenged me with a John Kennedy goal: “Cut time-to-market in half!” (Well, OK, it wasn’t really the “man on the moon” speech, but work with me here.) Time-to-market was the buzzword of the day, and it meant the timespan that began when somebody in the business had an idea (oh, happy day) and ended when the idea could be launched as an IT solution invariably falling short of business expectations. Between these goalposts were endless meetings intended to clarify requirements but frequently resulting in business attendees wondering if IT people had been dropped on their heads when they were born (how could these bozos NOT understand what we’re saying, breaking it down as they do into itsy-bitsy pieces shorn of reality??) and IT attendees wondering if business folks had any idea of what a process was and how to do it (how can these bozos actually DO their business if they have no idea what they’re doing??).

Given all this, I had no clue how to achieve a 50 percent reduction in time-to-market(1). Meanwhile, the methodologists (or metaworkologists) were busy simplifying the SDLC, so people would actually USE it. They started with these three big SDLC volumes (back in the day when procedures were codified into these dinosaur-like artifacts known as Three Ring Binders, with Page Protectors and Subject Tabs). Midway through this effort, they had simplified the three binders into five. How you cut time-to-market in half when the rest of your department is increasing processes and gate reviews by 60 percent is anybody’s guess.

Around this time, it got more interesting. Marketing and Sales intervened. M&S executives, perpetually impatient with IT because we couldn’t deliver major campaigns at the drop of a hat, declared that IT hadn’t a clue how to execute for the business. IT didn’t know what the “big picture” was. (M&S pros are always “big picture” people, and marketing campaigns have a way of being long on spectacle and short on specifics, a toga-drink (2) philosophy that leaves detail-oriented people like IT folks and auditors doubled over in pain.)

M&S decided we needed help. This while agitating that all of IT should be sold. "Help" sounded more like "annihilation," not that comforting to us. M&S contracted a major consulting firm, paid them a bunch of marketing bucks (3), and these folks promptly swooped into SDPD and said, in so many words, “You’re doing it all wrong.” After all, why have scads of people in IT perfecting the development methodology — work about work — when you could just BUY the methodology as a package and use it?

These consultants unveiled an incredibly fancy methodology (I won’t name it), accompanied by an incredibly fancy price tag and an offer to provide ongoing integration services. In other words, a way to pay for their kids' college educations, with money to spare for orthodontics.

Meanwhile, the fancy methodology grew the volume count from five to twenty. You heard that right. Twenty.

While this was going on, SDPD defiantly continued down the road of developing what (by comparison) looked like a streamlined product. It was sort of like putting on forty pounds of extra weight and feeling a bit depressed by it, until your neighbor introduces you to a Sumo wrestler, and all of a sudden you don’t feel quite so bad.

Poor Jim presided over all this intellectual mayhem. I remember one time when he confessed to me that the place was so full of cross-purposes, political tugs of war, and confusion, he could not for the life of him figure out how to drain the swamp.

Jim was hard-working, down to earth, the kind of guy you gave a problem like simplifying logistics for millions of parts. But Jim was not the kind of guy who could yoke together the mules of perfectionists, intellectuals, political fighters, and all the rest and achieve the kind of cultural change that was at stake here.

When the consultants came in dragging their twenty-volume wonder behind them, I told Jim it looked as though we were polishing the locomotive of the SDLC, but it was sitting on shiny railroad tracks that only went a hundred feet before they vanished into the grass. What I didn’t have the heart to tell him was that, as he tried to sell the SDLC to the organization, he looked like that showman who’s extolling the virtues of the product he has, while behind him others have moved the backdrop scenery and there’s a whole new product on display.

I don’t remember how it all ended. IT at that time was going through a political crisis. Sound familiar?

What I do remember were funny stories. Plenty of these. They’re how I like to remember Jim -- starting with his fashion statement.

We had gone to “business casual,” the grand experiment in those days, and Jim had taken to it gladly, transforming “business casual” into an assortment of clothes that mostly remained untucked, John Madden style(4), a fashion statement we could only call “business Jim.”

Jim was masterful with concepts. What he couldn’t do was draw them that well. A dry erase marker in one paw, he would start in the middle of the whiteboard, with the first part of what he was describing. Then, as he verbalized relationships and supporting concepts, he would draw other things, connect them with arrows, make boxes, stars, underlines, and assorted other shapes, using different colored markers, until when he was done he had the IT version of a Jackson Pollack painting. I once asked a confident new college graduate if she would take a crack at modeling what Jim had drawn, and the look of horror on her face was so perversely rewarding, I haven’t forgotten it since.

I don’t think Jim played politics — or, if he did, he kept his hand well hidden. Still, people wanted to keep him up to speed on the latest intrigue. My colleague Sam(5) and I were in his office. Jim had a big Coke in a paper cup with a straw. As he was taking a long pull on the straw, another manager poked her head in the office and said, “Have you heard the latest?”

Whether Jim had or hadn’t, we’ll never know, because I think he tried to finish swallowing the Coke, hit a gas bubble, choked, or tried to answer — or even all of the above. In Sam’s words, “He exploded!” Sam and I exploded too, bursting out of Jim’s office in a fine brown field of Coke mist. When Sam next entered Jim’s office, it was with an umbrella, which Jim didn’t appreciate: ”That was funny. Once. Sam.”

I told the exploding Coke story at dinner to my wife and son Kevin, a toddler at the time. Oops. Months later, the family had a chance to visit Jim at work. Jim reached down (a feat) to pat Kevin’s head and make appropriate comments; at which point Kevin turned to me and toddler-stage-whispered, “Is this the man with the Coke who went booosh?” Aren’t kids cute.

Two other small stories, before I end with one of the more unusual stories from my long career.

On romance. I don’t know how we got on the topic, but I remember Jim saying “Want to see a picture of my baby?” I figured either a kid, grandkid, or his wife Barbara, a stylish dresser who counterpointed Jim's anti-style. Jim pulls out his wallet and shows me a picture of his new bulldozer. I must have made some kind of “Well I thought it would be...” remark, because he then said, “Want to see a picture of Barbara?” And he proceeded to show me a picture of the elegant Barbara — on the bulldozer.

On home projects. Jim did a lot of construction work (or possibly he just collected bulldozers), so it would be natural for him to take on major things around his house. Like replacing his roof -- almost.

Jim told us he decided to replace his roof, complete with tearing off the old roof. So he proceeded to remove all the old shingles, leaving the entire deck exposed. It was at this point, he said, “that I could see a line of black clouds on the horizon. So I ran to get tarps and cover the roof before the storms hit.” “Did you make it?” I asked. With a Santa-like twinkle, he responded, “Almost.”

I pictured it from Barbara’s point of view: she, inside, trying to relax, while Jim thudded above her head removing the shingles. Then a pause. And then a lot of heavy thumping all at once, as Jim tried to get those tarps down. She probably knew what was happening. You’re married that long, you just know.

Here's the last and craziest story involving Jim.

One day, our office was treated to a somewhat unusual new employee. This person came in the form of a six and a half foot tall, linebacker-sized Black woman with wavy orange hair and very few front teeth. Naturally this person was Jim’s new admin, provided by Kelly services. Back then, we called them Kelly Girls. (6)

The men raised eyebrows, shrugged, and went back to work. The women weren’t nearly as indifferent, regarding the new person with the same sort of regard, oh, say a field mouse might give a snowy owl. One Black woman, Shirley, refused to use the bathroom if she’d spotted the new person going in first.

Some weeks later, I was outside Ted’s office chatting with Linnie, his admin, when Ted's door burst open, and out came Ted, all five feet of him engulfed in loud guffaws. He came over, reaching up to put an arm around my shoulders, still puffing with laughter. I had no idea. When your boss’s boss’s boss puts his arm around you, roaring with laughter, you just wait.

Finally, between gasps, Ted said, “You know Jim’s secretary?” Of course - the whole of IT did. “She’s really a he!”

Sometimes you can just hear news spread. I was still standing outside Ted’s office and could hear the diminishing sounds of screams, near to far, as the women in the office became enlightened. They say a lie makes it halfway around the world before truth gets its pants on. I’m here to tell you, that news traveled much faster than any lie.

So why the unusual get-up? A secret thrill? What motivates a man who could be an NFL reserve tackle to think he could pull off dressing as a woman, day in and day out?

Desperation. This guy was wanted for passing bad checks. Somehow, he thought dressing as a woman and working in an IT organization would provide excellent cover. It didn't.

Thus to prison.

Today, we would (and should) draw different conclusions on race and gender and height and weight and so forth. As for Jim, he gave us a true leadership lesson in all this — a lesson of looking past appearances. When asked how he didn't see through the ruse of the person working for him, he simply shrugged and said, “She was a good typist.”

Reflecting these many years later on working for Jim, I realize now that Jim was someone who told you what you needed to hear, and not just what made you feel good. In his own way, he instructed us. “Business Jim” may have been a clothing style, but he wore what suited him, did what needed to be done, and at the end of the day helped us all see how tough problems could be solved if you put your back into it. He didn't care that much about his appearance, nor the appearance of those who worked for him. If you did a good job, that's what mattered.

It’s been many years since Jim passed away. He only had a chance to enjoy a precious few years of retirement, somewhere up in northern Michigan, before we got the word. Barbara brought his ashes back to town, and we held a celebration at the local Elks. There we all gathered, with Barbara, to celebrate Jim’s life.

It's more than that. I like to think that in his way, from wherever we go when we pass on, Jim celebrated us. He would have liked nothing better than this gathering of colleagues, friends, active and retired folks, feasting and swapping stories. These gatherings don’t happen much, unless we make special efforts. They happen less and less in a pandemic-influenced world. But there we all were, back then, catching up on things, laughing, sharing Jim stories. We won’t all gather that way again, not all of us, as numbers dwindle and people move on. But we did that day. Jim's day.

The point of all this fun and foolery is this. We did get a lot done, way back then. We ticked off our customers and got ticked off over them, we worked together, swore together, sometimes yelled at each other but more often knew that we needed each other and knew we needed to stay yoked together if we were going to keep these big systems, and with them, the Company, going. It’s the same in Manufacturing, or Marketing, or Product Development, or the staff functions, in any collective enterprise. The world may change around us, but the business of staying in business stays the same.

We believed the job could be hard and frustrating and challenging and fun, all at the same time. Deep down, we knew that each of our jobs had something to do with keeping vehicles serviced and customers happy. All of us have had our own negative experiences with dealers, dealerships, the automotive companies themselves — if only because we so depend on these four-wheeled metal beasts to allow us to work, play, and see new places. But the men and women who made up the operation while I was there never lacked for sincerity, drive or desire to see the job through.

So, Jim, Ted, Barbara, Sam, and all the rest — those days at Ford IT are to be remembered. Doubtless today’s folks are building their own memories as well. Still, with my ear to the ground, I don’t catch what I remember as just the right mix of intensity and fun. Things seem harsher, edgier, less secure. With intelligent everything and the insistence on the latest user experience feature, things also seem that much more shrill and strident, with cybersecurity ever ringing the bells of alarm.

I suppose that's just me, but I don’t know. There was a time when you drove your car to the forest, got out, shut the door behind you and became immersed in all that silence, grateful that the wider world wrapped around you, even as you may not have realized you were grateful for the car that could bring you there. While the constant hum of social media and interconnected progress may be a great thing, silence and meditation is greater still.

I’ll leave it at that. My memories are likely shared by some few who are still active in the company -- or active still, having left it behind. I hope you who've journeyed this long written distance with me have enjoyed these stories and, in time, will come to build stories of your own.

I know you’ll all work hard. But please, please, have fun along the way. Because it’ll all be over way too soon.


(1) This isn’t strictly true. After searching in the Sinai desert of technical solutions for a while, I eventually stumbled on what I thought was the obvious: The problem was that the business didn’t have time to meet with IT constantly, meetings got rescheduled, people went on vacation or called in sick or attended mandatory or optional training, key players moved elsewhere in the organization, new people had to be brought up to speed, the business dropped a crisis turd into the middle of the effort, people lost interest, technology changed, an asteroid got too close for comfort, and on and on. When I presented this (what I thought was) milque-toast finding to a key executive in IT, he thought “You’re really on to something here.” Which made me worry all the more about the profession I’d stumbled into.

(2) From several Dilbert cartoons, where an entrance to the Marketing activity read: "Marketing: Two Drink Minimum." As I recall, there were togas, too.

(3) I'm convinced that "marketing bucks" have about a quarter of the value of "you and me (average) bucks," and about a tenth of the value of "IT bucks." This is why marketing folks spray marketing bucks the way fish fertilize eggs, while IT folks are lucky if they can get management approval for a paper clip.

(4) John Maddon was the larger than life or, well, larger-than-most-anything head coach of the Oakland Raiders football team back in the day. During one televised Raiders game, the camera panned to Madden pacing the sidelines, shirt untucked, etc., prompting the sports commentator to remark, “Look at Madden pacing there. Kind of like an unmade waterbed.”

(5) Ah, Sam. My crazy work colleague. One time, I was facilitating a major two-week meeting with people from around the world. I'd drawn a huge, sprawing, detailed flow of information, using about half a dozen colored dry erase markers. At one point, while I was engrossed in keeping the various folks in the room from forming alliances, fighting, sidebarring, and so on, Sam quietly switched all the caps on the colored markers. When I went to draw what I thought from the cap was a red line, it came out blue. At which point, to impress all my global colleagues, I observed, "They don't make markers with the quality they used to," and garnered one of the bigger, certainly the most global, laughs at my expense of my career. Thanks, Sam.

(6) The term "Kelly Girls" gives you some idea of the workplace orientation back then. We've come a long way since then. We need the sensitivities we have today for people who are fine-tuning the definitions of gender and coming out in their individual ways. Thirty years ago, things looked different. I don't intend to imply with this story that we should turn back the clock on progress; nor do I wish to fan the flames of the debates on this topic. Human beings come in all shapes, sizes and orientations, and we should encourage the individual expressions of human spirit that have allowed people to come forward and share their heretofore hidden selves. But thirty years ago, it would not have been the norm for someone to appear this far off the appearance bell-curve without signaling a set of alarm bells. That's history, and we can't rewrite it, even as we may learn something from it.