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Blindsided by Change

Making Disaster Work For You

And another year is gone like that. And not the way it was supposed to.

You know what I’m talking about. 2021 was supposed to be the year of getting back to normal. The pandemic should have been in our rearview mirror months ago.

Yes, in some ways, we’re almost there. And in an ironic sense, technologically ahead of schedule in the way that remote work and communications have been accepted as viable alternative options. I’d heard that it was projected to have taken us at least ten more years to reach that point.

But by and large … no, in real life, we’re still restricted in too many ways. The pandemic continues, with omicron now the variant du jour. We’re nearly two YEARS into it, for crying out loud. Raise your hand if you’re not sick and tired of the whole thing by now. No one wants another lockdown, but the numbers are rising, albeit of symptoms that are less severe overall. Mask mandates are still with us in many areas of the country, vaccination cards a must to show in New York if you’re going to dine out or see a show (and Broadway has closed down again, as of this writing). Covid continues to rule.

Maybe 2022 will finally see us emerge from under the pandemic’s shadow. Taking a long view, we know that this WILL pass. Eventually. We’ll look back and see where we did some things right and how in others we could have been far more effective in dealing with this pervasive virus.

When you do look back over the decades, it’s almost funny to note how we’re so good at predicting some things and absolutely clueless about others. I used to subscribe to the Futurist magazine, published by the World Future Society, because I worked in tech, enjoyed reading science fiction, and liked to see what real world futurists thought would actually come about within my lifetime. Some speculated that personal computing devices would come into their own in the early 21st century. I don’t recall many warning that a global pandemic would blindside us and derail the world economy.

Lesson here: Expect the unexpected.

We’re not going to see everything coming. Especially out of left field, like a global pandemic. But even in a field like the computer industry, where we can foresee new technology taking shape, certain developments can surprise us. And when they do, we’ll often look back to discover that we had bet on the wrong horse and now have to scramble like mad to catch up. If it’s not too late, that is.

Apple Computer wasn’t too late. Barely. When Apple was near bankruptcy in 1997, due to expensive products that were poorly aligned to what the market wanted, very few investors foresaw Apple rescuing itself (with help from Microsoft, its arch-rival!) to become incredibly profitable within a dozen years. No one, except for Steve Jobs himself, saw what was to come: the iMac, iPod, iPad, and iPhone revolution.

While I haven’t had the pleasure of working for Apple, I did work for a few companies that learned this lesson of change – and our human unwillingness to embrace it in time - the hard way. Rev up the “way-back” machine for a trip to the late 80s/early 90s.

I was an IBM sales rep, charged with selling “big iron.” Management was pushing mainframes, while my customers were more interested in exploring distributed networking and smart terminals, later referred to as personal computers. IBM had its own line of PCs that it wasn’t quite sure what to do with. They were very highly successful at the time, but expensive. IBM still thought of itself as a mainframe company with mainframe pricing. The benefit to customers was in the “value add:” systems engineers and support, plus consulting services.

My customers, however, were primarily interested in lower-cost alternatives. They read the trade magazines, where the back pages advertised mail-order PCs. Ha! “Big Blue” management scoffed. What business in their right mind would risk their operations on cheap machines made by amateurs? Especially by this guy Michael Dell somewhere in Texas. Never heard of him. Right…. Well, we all know how that worked out. IBM finally sold off its failing PC line to Lenovo in 2005.

Here’s another lesson in learning from your customers. Or at least paying attention to what they’re saying. They are the marketplace, after all.

A few years after the IBM story, when I was working for a database company, I received a call from a customer in Research Triangle Park, the North Carolina think tank area where so many innovations were coming from at the time. And still are, I believe. My customer wanted to know if my company was on the Internet so that he could research our product line digitally. Huh? He didn’t want a handy-dandy brochure like everyone else? What a concept.

I’d heard of a network that the government and certain universities were using but that was about it. He said he wanted to know our address on the world wide web. The world wide what? I asked around the office. No one knew what he was talking about. I called headquarters in California to talk to the engineering department, figuring they’d know something. They’d heard of the web, but that was about it. Not a priority. A flash in the pan, they said. Wouldn’t last.

What didn’t last was the database company. Gone soon afterwards because they were market-deaf. Run by some top flight engineers who really knew their stuff and built the best technical product, but couldn’t market their way out of a paper bag. They should have listened to my customer. Within a year, everyone knew exactly what the world wide web was and was scrambling to get on it. And tech-savvy customers decided that the web was where the true leading edge tech companies announced their latest products. The ones they would partner with to automate their operations.

A seriously missed opportunity.

But it’s not just businesses that are resistant to change. People are notoriously slow to do things differently, especially when they’ve had success with them.

I’ve worked alongside colleagues with serious tunnel vision. They held a rigid view of what worked and what didn’t.

And now we come to what it was like for a woman working in a traditionally male-dominated field. I was often the only woman on my team, especially when I was with small startup companies. Fine with me, I always liked running with the boys and proving myself.

One such company was staffed with guys who were absolutely sports-obsessed. They used sports metaphors for just about everything. Their idea of taking a break during the work day was to hold a vertical jump competition. I’d just watch from the door with a bemused smirk on my face. At 5’3” and sporting a narrow suit skirt and pumps, I wasn’t about to start jumping. Not a contender for any basketball team, nor was I interested in trying to be. These same guys would repeatedly tease me that I had to talk sports, and football in particular, if I was ever going to break the ice with a sales prospect. Uh, no. Sorry. Not my thing.

And I didn’t talk sports. Didn’t have to. I found something better, something these sales prospects (mostly men) were happy to talk about. And probably rather relieved that they could talk about something once in a while that they truly cared about that was NOT sports-related. I talked family. And kids. Especially their kids.

Hey, play to your strengths, even if it is a bit stereotypical for a woman to talk about family. These guys would break out with the biggest smiles when I asked about their children. Out came the photos and the stories. I actually found my biggest success when I was pregnant and visibly showing. Truthfully, I think it flustered a few of these guys; the older ones were certainly old-school and a bit protective towards women. They couldn’t bring me inside their offices fast enough, urging me to sit down, and concerned that I wasn’t overdoing it coming to talk with them. I never sold so much software and services so quickly. I think they were afraid that I might go and have that baby right then and there in their offices if they didn’t sign.

So the greater lesson, besides the advantage of selling while visibly pregnant, is to just take things as they come. After all, what else can we do? Our predictions take us only so far. Best to assess every situation as it comes up, see where things are going, and take appropriate action, rather than hide our person or business heads in the sand. Be flexible and look for the positive in every detrimental situation.

One of the benefits I found during the pandemic was the opportunity to take my favorite workout classes from home from my favorite instructors who had migrated on-line. No travel time, minimal equipment investment, and they offered “on demand” classes to play when no live class was scheduled. As someone whose high energy level needs to be channeled through daily exercise, it’s been a boon. I can even take my favorite classes with me when I travel!

2022 will be an interesting year. In a positive sense, I hope. When we return to fully “normal” operations, I hope business will realize and take advantage of the benefits that DID come out the pandemic, like of the ability to work well remotely. Let’s hear it for the hybrid in-person/remote work option! So convenient for so many people and an opportunity for businesses to hire great employees outside of their local areas.

As for me, I’m planning for a great year. I’m an optimistic realist, so I’m also preparing backup plans in case the unexpected throws me off course. And keeping a positive attitude throughout.

Happy New Year! And all the best to you, your work, and your family!