Saturday, December 06, 2008

Coming and Going

I have been very fortunate in my career.

The last twenty years I have worked for companies that I totally believe in. And for companies that have totally believed in me.

It has always been a mutual relationship.

I currently work for a non-profit health benefits company. The only one in Canada. The model of this company so unique that a bill was introduced and passed by the Canadian federal Parliament to allow the company to exist. It's called the Green Shield Canada Act.

And our mission statement's prime directive is to "Enhance the common good".

I have been with Green Shield Canada now for eight years. The projects have been high profile. The mission to enhance the common good most often achieved.

But it seems like only yesterday that I was working for my previous employer, PFW Systems in London, Ontario.

When I started, there were fifteen of us. Enough to form a softball team. And we were a pretty close group of employees. When I left, there were nearly a hundred employees. And I would like to think I helped achieve that growth.

My first boss at PFW was a fellow named Ross Atkinson. My assignment was to develop a suite of software to quote, order, and submit warranty claims for all Bobcat skid steer loader dealerships. Ross was a pretty great boss. He gave me a pretty free hand to architect, design, and construct this suite of PC programs called PC Dealer.

The very first version pre-dated Microsoft Windows. The program was launched by simply typing 'PCDEALER' at a DOS prompt. If you remember DOS, it looked something like this:

C:\> PCDEALER

Future versions were written to run in Windows, then use the Internet. Then at the prompting of our CEO – Bob Morton – we adapted the program to use the internet not only to submit orders and warranty claims for Bobcat skid steer loaders, but also to sell and support the program, but also to sell and distribute the software around the world.

The project was such a success that the Bobcat Company mandated all its sales locations around the world to use our software. I still remember midnight ICQ chat sessions with a Bobcat regional manager in Malaysia and another in Hong Kong – helping them set up the software suite to work in their region of the world.

Back then I lived to work. My job was my life. It was my sole identity. I would take my laptop on vacation and log into the office from the patio of a golf course in Florida. I loved that job.

And the people I worked with.

Ross and Bob and I had some very fun business trips. Only fun to me because of their company. Most often we travelled to Rochester Minnesota - home of the group that manufactured the AS/400, or to Fargo North Dakota - the head office of the then Bobcat company.

On one occasion I remember sitting in the lobby of the Bobcat head office with Ross and we coded and tested last minute ideas before walking into their boardroom minutes later to demonstrate them to the executives of the day. We would take their feedback and go back to the hotel and rewrite the code to meet their new needs. And we would demonstrate it the next day.

We were a pretty good team. And I learned a lot from them. They allowed me to grow to be the engineer and architect I am today. And I don't know if I ever really thanked them.

When I met my lovely wife Darlene, she was living in resort community south of Windsor in a little town called Amherstburg. As I spent more and more time with Darlene, it became clear that she was destined to be the new central focus of my life. I spent the next six months extracting myself from the responsibilities I had assumed at PFW.

And I started looking for a job in Windsor. That's where I learned about Green Shield Canada.

In October of 2000, I moved to Amherstburg. But I still worked for PFW in London. It was about a two hour drive every day to work. And another two hours home at night. As the winter descended on southwest Ontario that year, driving was treacherous on the 401 highway. There were many white-knuckled trips driving through blinding snow with tractor trailers surrounding me and slipping and sliding in the lanes on both sides of me.

With two days to go before Christmas, I made my final drive to London as a PFW employee. Halfway to London, two semi s jackknifed and blocked the entire northbound side of the expressway.

And I was about three hours late to work.

Almost as soon as I got to my desk, Bob called me into his office.

He was not happy.

I explained about the jackknifed trucks.

"Why didn't you call?" asked Bob.

"I was stuck in the middle of the highway!"

"Why don't you have a cell phone?"

"I never needed one before".

"That's no excuse", Bob continued. "You could have borrowed one from a car behind you."

"Yeah, I guess I could have – the thought didn't occur to me."

"That's irresponsible", said Bob. "You have a pregnant wife at home, you drive 4 hours a day to and from work, and you don't have a phone".

"Yes, I can't argue since you put it that way. You're right". And he was.

One thing about Bob Morton. The bugger was always right.

Bob's manner changed. He leaned forward to me and said, "You don't need to be here, Fred".

I looked at him.

"Go back to Amherstburg. Hold on to the laptop. I will keep paying you until you find a job in Windsor".

I had a secret. I was on the verge of signing a letter of hire with Green Shield Canada. I was supposed to close the deal and land the job the next day.

"You don't have to do that, Bob", I said. "I am going to sign on with Green Shield Canada tomorrow."

But I don't think Bob believed me.

"Just do it."

And I left Bob's office.

I packed up my desk, and I went around saying goodbye to everyone. With only minutes notice I was out the door and on my way home. After nine years of hard work, it ended in nine minutes. No long goodbyes. No farewell lunches or last few beers with the boys. Just a quick "It's been great…", and I was gone.

When I got back home, I explained what happened to Darlene. She started to cry. A happy cry.

The next day I signed the letter of hire with Green Shield Canada. I did it by email. I used the very laptop that Bob had told me to find work with before returning it to him.

And I started work with Green Shield Canada on January 2nd, 2001.

Bob paid me through February. This was a godsend, because Darlene gave birth to our eldest daughter Alannah only six weeks after I walked out of Bob's office.

In March, Darlene and I packed up our baby girl, and we drove to London. It was a Saturday. And Bob was at home on his farm in Ilderton, just north of London. He welcomed us in as friendly as could be. And we sat and we talked, and I gave him back the laptop he let me use. And Alannah lay sleeping in her bassinet.

I will always know the great debt of gratitude I owe Bob. For the opportunities he gave me. For the challenges he tasked me with. For the wonderful mentorship he provided. And for his sense of humor, which I have somewhat adopted as my own.

And for just being the best boss I ever worked for.

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