Sometime around 1988 or so my boss at the time, and then president of the company, Ray Martino, decided that he needed to bring in a seasoned sales and marketing leader to help take Symbol to the next level.

We were just about to pass the $100 million revenue threshold, one of those milestones whose crossing often leads to failure for companies who don't recognize and address the challenges brought on by scale. In addition, we were about to expand into an entirely new line of business and acquire another company of equal size to our own.

I was responsible for marketing at the time, and would report to the newcomer, Paul Kemp, joining us as SVP, Marketing and Sales. Twenty five years my senior, Paul brought a wealth of experience and past successes in high tech.

While I liked Paul immediately (impossible not to — meet him sometime and you'll know why), I wasn't crazy about a move that felt like I was being pushed down in the organization, and one step further removed from senior leadership. And I was…

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Prelude to a Story

In late May of 1978, the day following my graduation from The State University of NY at Stony Brook, I joined a start-up company called Symbol Technologies, as its fifth employee.

I learned only later that, as of that first day on the job, Symbol had negative revenues for the year — the result of a customer returning a system shipped the prior year, and no new sales yet recorded in '78. I didn't know enough to be concerned by this fact. I was getting married in three months, and I had a job!

By the time I left Symbol, twenty five years later as its Vice Chairman and CEO, annual revenues had increased to over $1.6 billion, our team was 5600 team strong, Symbol was the acknowledged innovation and market leader in our industry and Wall Street valued us at nearly $4 billion.

There are many stories to be told about the years between those points in time. Some funny, some sad. Many instructive about what to do in trying to build a great company (I believe it's fair to say that we were), and what not to do (we came close to disaster on more than one occasion). Stories about technology, innovation, strategy and leadership yes, but mostly stories about people. People whose ideas and inventions led Symbol to be awarded the National Medal of Technology, people who our customers trusted to bring them the great products and ideas that would help them lead in their industries… and others whose failings nearly resulted in the company coming undone.

Symbol_logo_lg Perhaps these stories will cohere into a book at some point. For now, I'll use this blog to share a few of them with you from time to time. I hope that you'll enjoy my recollections, and perhaps take away a point or two of insight or even inspiration on occassion.

I have a great affection for Symbol still (though now it's part of Motorola), and especially for the people who worked there over the years. Many among them remain close friends to this day. Even though my career there didn't have a traditional Hollywood happy ending (we'll get to that at some point), my memories are almost universally fond ones. I'll try not to embellish or romanticize them however, though that may be tough… because, in the end, this is a bit of a love story.

First installment coming soon to this space. But first, tomorrow, a story about some long-ago advice, and a journey toward following it. It's not about Symbol, but it is about someone I came to know there, and how he touched my life, twice.

Reflections: 35,000 Feet

Open Question

How might it be possible to inform the great unwashed (first class) multitudes that it is impolite to recline their seats in a spastic lurch rearward, on a flight where the pitch (regrettably) results in their seat backs approaching the proximity of my nose with stunning suddenness, threatening to crunch my laptop (were it not for practiced reflexes) en route?

Lonely Outpost

Our driver to Kahalui Airport reported that the Krispy Creme we passed just before reaching our destination was the lone purveyor of that delicacy in the state of Hawaii. "Not Kaua'i, not O'ahu… nowhere by Maui. One dozen doughnuts are eleven dollar, ninety seven cents. One doughnut, one dollar seventeen. I see lots of people from other islands lined up every morning. They buy, and bring home. Once in a while, I buy one dozen to bring to my family (one dollar, seventeen). The owner is a rich man." For the full effect, enhance the preceding dialogue with your best attempt at Vietnamese. His name: Hai. His employers, Mai and Tai.

Where did THIS come from?

On biting down on the first cashew secured from the pre-drinks service on UA 34, my left jaw reported great distress, signaled with equal measures pain and immobility. No warning, other than a vague earlier sense that the overhead vent in the taxi may have been blowing a bit too cold, a bit too vigorously, a bit too long during our way to the airport. Paul Theroux would be pleased: badge of honor as a traveler, not a tourist. I fear dentists lie in my near future…

Tonight's Plan

Pick up luggage at SFO. Meet driver, who'll take us to Santana Row. Pick up luggage left there last week (on the assumption that we'd be spending the night in our apartment before heading to NYC tomorrow). Drive to Carmel Valley. Attempt to sync display-dead IPhone with MacBook Pro there. Take the Pro with me regardless. Unpack. Sleep (4 hours). Pack. Drive to Santana Row. Meet driver (same), who'll take us to SFO. Fly to JFK. Taxi to Manhattan. Check into Ritz Carlton. Walk to Apple Store on 5th and 59th. Genius Bar: replace IPhone and upload data from backup file (fingers crossed). Back to Ritz. Sleep. (More later.)

Respect Inversions

Vacations, perhaps especially on tropical islands, create inversions of our normal routines.

Instead of a steady block of workdays being punctuated by weekend breaks, we loll in continuos leisure, perhaps interrupted occasionally by the odd email or call that needs immediate servicing. Then, when the weekend arrives, it's time to head back home… and to work.

"Always on" is replaced by "I'm away".

Cocktail hour can start early and extend across lazy afternoons without one feeling a lush.

Travel far enough and time itself inverts from that held by our body clocks.

These inversions are the essential charm and character of vacations, and should be respected as such.

I came to think of this today when I found myself sitting in my poolside cabana, wirelessly connected to email, Facebook, Twitter, this blog, a mind-mapping program I've been using to capture thoughts on personnal planning and an idea database program I use to maintain my Getting Things Done disciplines… oh, and The Matrix was playing on the flat panel TV overhead. If my IPhone display hadn't failed the other day, I'm sure that I would have also been fiddling with a half dozen Apps.

Wait a minute!

Well, there's an App for vacation: close the laptop, turn off the TV, smile at your wife, laugh at yourself for getting sucked in, order a frozen refreshment and crack open a book. Worked like a charm.

A Small Step Forward

Idea for how students should be prep'd for the president's talk to them on Tuesday…

The teachers should say something like this:

We're a country built on ideas. Some of these ideas end up as laws that govern the basic rights, responsibilities and duties we have as citizens. Others shape how our money is spent, how we trade with other nations and when we go to war.

These ideas get developed, debated and ultimately decided on in the process we know as politics. It's often pretty messy and loud, and people (both professional politicians and the folks who elect them to office) tend to band together into groups where everyone shares pretty much the same ideas, and says the same things.

All too often, they stop listening to folks outside their group, and start just labeling them (sometimes with nasty names). Once this happens, progress in ideas stop moving forward, and our governing processes break down.

Churchill This is one of the reasons that a very famous man once began a sentence by saying, "Democracy is the worst form of government…". How he finished that sentence is pretty important however. Here's the full statement he made (after losing an election), "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Democracy only works well however when we all listen, really listen and try to understand, most importantly to what others who think differently from us are saying.

We can't really learn much if we only listen to others who think exactly like us, can we?

OK, so today, we're going to listen to what the President has go to say. And then tonight, with your parents, I'd like you to listen to a few news programs about today's speech, and what others are saying about it; some will agree with Mr. Obama, others will disagree.

What I'd like you to do is to write down as many of the ideas supportive of what the president says as you hear and think of yourselves, and as many opposing ideas you hear and can think of too. The goal is not to judge right and wrong ideas, only to listen for them, and to try and understand what they mean.

Judgement should only come later… after understanding. Understanding can only come through learning and thoughtful consideration. Learning starts with listening to others, especially those with ideas different from our own.

We'll talk about this more tomorrow. Now let's listen, really listen…

Coda: Now, who's going to prep the parents?

Changing Health Care: What’s the Challenge?: The Balance Sheet : The New Yorker

Not to beat up on David Brooks two days in a row, but his Op-Ed piece in today’s Times is a bit peculiar. Brooks’s argument in the piece is that instead of pushing for incremental reform, the Obama Administration should be pushing for fundamental reform, and particularly that it should be pushing for the kinds of reforms that can bring about serious cost control in the health-care industry. This is a reasonable position, even if I think Brooks is dramatically underestimating the difficulty of selling this idea to the American public, and even if he also seems strangely indifferent to the importance of helping people who are currently uninsured get affordable insurance (even in the absence of cost controls). What’s strange about Brooks’s piece, then, isn’t the thesis. Instead, it’s his assumption that the Obama Administration is somehow unaware of—or indifferent to—the importance of cost controls. So Brooks writes that if he were advising Obama before next week’s big speech on health care, he’d “ask Obama to go to the Brookings Institution Web site and read a report called ‘Bending the Curve: Effective Steps to Address Long-Term Health Care Spending Growth.’ ”


I like James Surowiecki. David Brooks too. But they're talking past each other in their respective pieces. Common malady.

Putting aside all of the specific policy pros and cons of the current debate, it seems to me that Obama is committing one fundamental error in his push for health care reform, compounded by another of near equal magnitude: He hasn't focused his proposal and supporting arguments, and he's run too far out ahead of the centrist majority whose support is critical to effecting any major change in how things are done in our country.

I think that this is Brooks' central point, although it's obscured by his less compelling specific assertions and opinions. And Surowiecki is quarreling with a straw man argument about Obama being in touch and listening.

My two cents:

Obama needs to say in effect, "I believe that there are many things that can, and likely should be improved about how we deliver and pay for health care in this country. But right now, I want to focus us all on one thing: [INSERT HERE: (1) We should be getting a lot more value for our money, or (2) We can't leave the 40 million of our neighbors who want and need health care out in the cold without an affordable way to get it, or (3) The system is stacked with too many unfair advantages in favor of powerful interests, and all of us are getting hurt and paying the bill as a result]. Further, I believe we know what to do about it, and now's the time to roll up our sleeves and do it. This is not about hoisting one agenda over another, or some big social engineering project. It's simply about fixing a problem that we need to deal with now, for our own good, and for the good of our children. Here's how…."

By allowing a smorgasbord of ideas, developed in Congress with minimal guidance from his administration, to bubble up as "his" plan, it was inevitable that it would lack focus (or even coherence).

By focusing his bully pulpit remarks almost entirely on the need to do something, RIGHT NOW, he's left many folks, (especially in the center, where they don't have animating agendas that pre-define their views on matters such as this), with the most basic of questions:

  1. What problem are we trying to solve?
  2. What are we going to do about it, exactly?
  3. If it involves spending more money, where will than come from?
  4. How will it effect me and my family?
  5. Why are you rushing to push something through, when the answers to 1 – 4 aren't clear? (I'm not sure I can grant you a "Trust me…" on this just yet — don't know you well enough.)

If you want to get something complex done, you'd better focus. And you had better make sure that when you look back at your supporters, most of them are still there, right behind you.

Dispatch from Maui

Some random observations from our time in paradise:

  • Peter from Westchester, discernible accent from one county to the south, golf partner, who commented on the first tee that he couldn't get over how beautiful it is here. Seeing it fresh through his eyes… he's right.
  • Mark, larger than life character with physical proportions to match, honeymooner from Atlanta, who tells everyone he meets that he's here on a mission to make a baby. (Told me that on his first night on island, further noting that his bride was in their room exercising to a "Buns of Steel" DVD.)
  • An older couple who, during our first chat, explained that they had just joined the Neptune Society, and were trying to decide whether to plan their end-of-life ceremonies in Oregon or Switzerland… and leaning toward the latter (because of the chocolate and red wine offered on the day).
  • A younger couple who consumes prodigous quantities of food at each and every available service in the Club Room; skinny as rails, hard edge to them; Meth?
  • The blank white screen on my IPhone, after it was swept to a hardwood floor by my gesticulations over some story or other. Related: the look of loss on my face when I confronted the reality that I would be IPhone-less for the next 5 days.
  • A pool attendant hawking CDs of his Hawaiian easy listening musi. We bought one. (It's actually not bad.)
  • Tears in my wife's eyes, while explaining that she felt badly about not buying an anniversary card for me (with me thinking that hers was an indescribably kind-hearted act, staged when she realized that I, once again, had committed that act of omission myself).
  • A sizable gash in my head formed by the abrasive action on my scalp of a sharp-cornered, ceiling-mounted DVD player in the SUV that transported us from the airport to our hotel. Brilliant design, thank you Lincoln.
  • Noting the great WiFi coverage throughout the resort, including poolside, while remembering a trade magazine editor in 1993 challenging me with the question, "but will wireless networking ever go mainstream?"
  • Resort traffic pretty slow overall, only 20% of lounge chairs around pool occupied… but 100% of cabannas with HD flat panel TVs, refrigerators, etc., booked out.
  • A horsedrawn carriage, in the rain, at sunset.
  • Erin, the Club room attendant, talking about the adventures she wants to experience before settling in to adult life.
  • The beautifuly arc of my Kapalua logo Calloway Tour-i ball as it drew gracefully with the trade winds and found its way to the middle of the third green on the Bay Course; the arc of the same ball as it sliced over the thick hedgerow marking the OTB boundary bordering the right side of the the 9th fairway. Golf.

Kapalua Bay


Yesterday, I wrote about introspection and pending career choices. Here's a first pass list of some of the things I've noted in the process so far, about myself and work life:

  • In my experience, laughter and success are almost perfectly correlated.
  • I do best when working around intellectually honest people entirely commited to winning.
  • I'm happiest when pushed to the max by team members better than I at what they do.
  • I'm more creative than I give myself credit for.
  • I get bored with routine a bit too easily.
  • Trust but verify — do your homework before buying, or joining a new venture.
  • When applying successful approaches from past situations, be careful to respect the differences between then and now.
  • Successful businesses make money by doing hard things well; beware however the power of tides and prevailing winds — go against them only after careful consideration.
  • I've learned over time not to complicate things too much. Corrolary: If you don't focus on the one or two most important things, you're dead.
  • Business is mostly about those warm squishy things called people.
  • There are times to look at the half full part of the glass, and others to see the empty part; know the difference.
  • Mistakes can be made from arrogance, and from weakness.
  • It's impossible to have too many smart people around you.
  • Once a team's culture is formed, it's exceedingly tough to change (for better or worse).
  • Immediately confront people problems that can corrode culture.
  • Knowing when to make a business decision is often as important as how to make it; my judgement in both is pretty good.
  • Fast progress is better than slow perfection.
  • Winning is a great antidote to most problems; success feeds on itself. (Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.)
  • I work best with people sharing a common sensibility (tests: Do they laugh at the same jokes as me? Do they care enough to get angry?)
  • To be happy and successful, I must have a deep and genuine passion for what I'm doing.

Abridged Version

Spend time thinking about where you’ve been before setting out for where you’re going. I have, and it’s working out, so far. Time for a Mai Tai.

Back to long winded version

Looking back to look forward…

[Skip to Abridged Version]

Socrates said, "An unexamined life is not worth living." My take on that observation: personal development is only possible via cultivated and concious self-awareness, and that without development and growth, life's not worth much.

It seems to me that one of the most important times to look inward at yourself, and backward over your past, is when contemplating new life directions. When setting new goals, and approaches toward their attainment, it's sensible to take a look back at past accomplishments (and failures), and to learn from them…

  • What made you happy, in genuine and lasting ways?
  • Which approaches worked for you, and which didn't?
  • What was it about the best times that made them so?
  • Which of your strengths really were, and which not?
  • In which circumstances did you grow, and realize best progress toward your potential, and in which did you disappoint?

Agree? Hold that thought… while I digress:

I enjoy discovering and using well-designed software, crafted with excellence in both utility and esthetics. I recently (via a Tweet by @GTDGuy) found an application fitting that profile. It's called PersonalBrain, developed and offered by TheBrain. (I know, branding may not be their strength.) While at first look similar to a simple mind mapping program, it's much more.

I've used MindManager for years as a personal brainstorming / idea development tool. It's great for that purpose, allowing a graphical / visual form of idea organization that seems to promote different modes of thinking than if working only with text outlining — which I also use regularly. When the web of relationships between the ideas you're working with becomes very rich however, MindManager and tools like it get cluttered and cumbersome, and simple outlining just can't cope.

Not so with PersonalBrain.

Its ability to handle very large, complex, and richly interconnected idea sets is outstanding. Add in its ability to further connect to external artifacts (web sites, files on your computer, email messages to name a few), and you have one powerful tool for organizing and analyzing information.

I believe that I'll find myself using it for many tasks. The first however brings us back to the point of this post…

I noted in various references its use as a means of organizing autobiographical information (people, experiences, places, life themes, etc.). So, when I downloaded my trial version (since upgraded to full license), that seemed like a good place to put the program through its initial paces. Not only did the program pass muster with distinction, I couldn't stop building on my autobiographical map. (I guess we all find ourselves interesting!) I recalled people and events not thought about in a long time. I found connections and themes I never realized existed. I had more than a few aha(!) moments.

That's when Socrates came to mind, and how just the kind of far-ranging retrospection made possible, and indeed even fun, by PersonalBrain might help toward the personal plans I'm now exploring and developing.

Snapz Pro XScreenSnapz001 While still early days in the process, I'm finding that recalling (often for the first time in a very long while) and exploring the events, themes and story lines of my past is providing an illuminating perspective on future alternatives.

We'll see where all this leads, but so far the journey itself is proving valuable. Socrates believed that it was folly, neigh dangerous (think Icarus, Adam and the apple…), to try to achieve "ownership" over the absolute truth, but that striving toward what is true (including about oneself) is the means of achieving our humanity and its manifold promise.

Enough deep thought for today. I am in Maui after all, and this is supposed to be a vacation too. Off to the pool…

[See here for handy summary form]