Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Life in the Boy's Dorm: My Career at Sun Microsystems Part 10

 Standing on the border of the future with "One Cheek in Italy and One Cheek in Austria"

In 1989 Crawford Beveridge decided he needed a VP of Human Resources to report to him.  Crawford's background was in HR but at this point at Sun he also was running Facilities and IT.  He needed someone who could focus just on HR.  I don't blame him; HR was a handful.  Crawford ran a process for selection of this new VP by collecting feedback on three internal candidates:  Dick McQuillen, a Brit who had worked with Crawford in a past life; David Lietzke, an Oklahoman we had hired from Apple; and another Brit friend of Crawford's whose name escapes me (I do remember that he insulted the crap out of me one time by pointing out what nota bene meant....uh, excuse me, I went to Catholic school....I might not be able to curse in English, but I know my Latin, bardus!)

When Dick McQuillen was promoted to VP of HR, I was pretty upset.  David Lietzke, my friend and mentor, decided to leave Sun at that point.  I was suspect of Dick.  He had spent only a little time as the Director of HR in Europe for Sun.  He was from DEC, not an HR organization for which I had a lot of respect (way too many rules and much to much process), and he was so quiet...I never knew what he was thinking.  He also seemed, at first, to be a mini-me of Crawford.  We had a Crawford.  I thought we could use some alternative thinking.  So I behaved badly. Dick and I circled each other cautiously...well he was cautious, I was a pill and a smart-ass and in retrospect it is shocking he did not fire me.  When he and Crawford took back-to-back vacations and some decisions were postponed because we could not get them both to sign off, I posted a note outside my office asking the question:  "Attention HR:  would you rather have a Crawfordless Dick or a Dickless Crawford decide?"   A few months into his new job Dick took some time off and asked me to fill in for him.  It was a generous thing to do, he was reaching out to me; someone who was bent on being disrespectful to him.  I was rethinking my opinion when he made the mistake of sending an email to the EMG and all of HR referring to me as his deputy.  I could not resist and I wore a hat, a star and called myself Deputy-Dick all week. 

One day in late July 1990, Dick came to my office and in his beautiful English public school accent asked if I would be interested in participating in the inaugural executive development program at Sun.  "Excellence @ Sun", was a new program for high-potential Directors and VP's.  It was an honor to be chosen to participate and I was happy to tell him yes, but rather surprised that he had recommended me.  Then Dick said, "I will be going as well.  It is going to be in Obergurl, Austria, much of the program will be outside on a mountain.  And, Nancy, we either come back friends or one of us is going off the mountain."  Well, I guess I was wrong, I guess I did know what he was thinking.

I arrived in Munich very early on a Sunday morning September 2nd, 1990 with a guy from Sun that I did not know well, Walt Brown.  We were so early....the rest of the participants were due to meet at the airport in 5 hours and then we would all travel to Obegurgl by bus.  Walt and I needed to kill some time.  There are two things open in Munich at 7am Sunday; Churches and Beer-Gardens.  We decided to alternate, first a church, with it's Rococo gilded-wedding-cake interior then a beer-garden with wooden tables and big beer steins, then a church, then a beer-garden.  Let me just say this.  Walt Brown is a great guy.  There is no one in the world I would rather get liquored-up and visit churches with.

We all finally assembled at the airport.  24 of us.  22 men and 2 women.  Kay Hart, a woman from Marketing whom I did not know well, and I were the only female participants.  We boarded the bus and I felt this horrible sinking feeling....not just because of all of the "church visits" I had managed that morning coupled with the diesel fumes were making me a bit queasy, but also because it was dawning on me how competitive this week was likely to be.  24 VP's and Directors from Sun, 22 of them men.  The smell of testosterone was stronger than the diesel fumes on the way to Austria.

Munich airport is a long way from Obergurgl. At the halfway point, Dick McQuillen insisted that we stop at an Inn and toast to the reunification of Germany.  I was beginning to like him more by the moment.  The first competition was a discussion of German wines.  What was interesting is that the Californians dominated the conversation....the poor guys from Europe, including a couple of Germans....never got a chance to voice their opinions.

After a couple of glasses of wine we reboarded the bus and made our way to the facility where we would spend our week.  I say facility because we were staying at the Austrian Olympic Ski Team's training center.  We are not talking 5 star accomodations.  This is not a 3 star venue.  This was a lovely but very "monastic" school for athletes.  The men were shown to dormitories with communal bathrooms.  Kay and I shared a room with a private bath.  It was late afternoon/early evening...most of us had been sleepless and traveling for many hours.  We were ready for dinner and all trooped down to the dining room.

The little bar was closed which did not surprise us...it was Sunday night and we were the only guests.  A buffet of salads was waiting for us so we helped ourselves to the first course.  Some lettuce, some cold cuts, nice fresh rolls and then we all were chatting about what to expect from the next day, when we noticed that the salads course was being put away and the kitchen was closing.  Seems what we thought was a salad course....was dinner.  Oops.

The team looked around for our guide and facilitator, an amazing man named Horst Abraham.  Horst explained that given the rigors of the coming days our menu had been chosen for maximum nutrition and rapidity of transit time (yes, that is just what you think it is).  In other words: dinner was over, get over it.
There were cries of protest.  A small group decided to hike into town and eat at one of the restaurants.  Horst intervened and reexplained that the work we would be doing, dangling off the sides of the mountain the next day might be impeded by a rich, calorie laden dinner tonight.  Suddenly you could see a little bit of apprehension set into the group.  What had we gotten into here?  Most of us thought this was another Sun Boondoggle and had not really done the prep work (including a three week physical activity prescription to be accomplished before arriving)....we all were beginning to wonder if we had made a mistake.

The next day was an eye-opener.  We assembled early.  Maybe 6:00am.  We walked about a mile to a river bank (a group Horst dubbed the "rabbits" ran to the river bank) where we were taught to begin the days with some Tai Chi.  We did all of this in silence.  No talking on the walk, no talking during Tai Chi, no talking on the walk back to the school.  You could talk when we got to breakfast.  Breakfast was granola, milk and some whole wheat baked goods.  No eggs, no bacon, no muffins.  The group was now beginning to panic about the food situation and I believe that at this point a couple of the guys from Sales were plotting an escape.  We did some classroom work that morning on creating a vision for ourselves and then we were given a sack lunch, fitted with mountaineering garb and went outside.  Another walk/hike to a meadow situated between two cliffs...a big one, and an enormous one.  If you were experienced at ascent and abseiling, you headed to the enormous cliff.  If you had never seen a caribiner before, you stayed on the "bunny" cliff.  I was in the bunny group.  The instructors gave us the verbal rundown of what was to come and then they demonstrated how to just sit-down in mid-air off the face of a cliff and remain in a sitting position bouncing your feet off the side of the mountain while your guide controls the ropes that lower you.  I now understood the wisdom of the light meals and rapid transit time...without it I am sure I would have needed a change of underwear at this point.  I was scared spitless.

So, let me explain why I volunteered to go first.  I was a 5' tall woman with a weight problem surrounded by a bunch of competitive Sun Mircosystems male colleagues.  I had to go first.  I could not let the men know I was afraid.  I would never regain any status or respect if I wimped out.   I went to the top of the cliff, turned around, and with the guides holding a labyrinth of ropes, spread my arms out from my sides and simply leaned back off of the edge as far as I could in a sort-of backward swan dive.  When I was perpendicular to the cliff, I bent up from the waist and proceeded to bounce down the mountain.  The truth is it was not a very big cliff.  It was small.  But, 25% of all mountaineering deaths occur abseiling down a cliff less than 30 feet tall.   I bet I did not take a single breath on the way down.  

Getting back up the cliff was a bit more taxing.  Finding hand holds and toe holds, not using your knees to climb...tough work for a chubby girl.  That night I was bruised from head to foot.  I was bruised by the harness, I had used my knees to climb, I had bumped a shin on the way down and torn-up my elbow on the way back up.  Good times so far.

Each day Mon - Wed was the same.  Silent mornings at the riverbed, classwork and small group break-outs on a variety of leadership topics, some feedback on our style and then afternoons outside taking longer hikes and doing the up and down the cliff action a few times.  We were preparing for a trek up the glacier into Italy, where we would spend the night in a hutte and hike back to our ski school the next day.  We were beginning the trek right after an early breakfast on Thursday.  We would take the ski lift up the mountain and when we got off the lift, we would continue up the glacier for some hours, ascend a sheer cliff and continue to the hutte.  It was expected to take the better part of the day...and we would do some sight-seeing along the way, dangling down into the cravasses to get a better view of the deep blue color of the glacier.  Thursday we assembled in our hiking gear.  This time we were given a substantial sack lunch...sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, cookies, veggies.  It looked like a last supper to me.  I was sick with worry about my ability to make this trek.  

I was worried about the wrong thing.  When we finally got to the glacier, we added crampons to our hiking boots. They broke us into two teams: 11 men and 1 woman on each team.  Then, they did the funniest thing, they tied each team together at the waist.  We would spend the next 6-10 hours tied at the waist.  Ok.  Fine for the guys...but let me ask you this:  how does one pee with discretion when she is tied at the waist to 11 men?  Several guys saw the issue immediately and offered to lower me down a cravass for privacy.  Really, there was no way I was going to let them lower and hoist my fat-cravASS anywhere.  One of my rope-mates had thought this might be an issue and produced a one person tent from his knapsack that he offered as my own personal-potty during the trip.  I declined and decided to manage this dilemma in a different fashion, I simply stopped drinking anything.  The guides had driven home the need for fluids on this trip, but that was silly...there was no way I was going to risk a full bladder until I was in Italy, in a hutte with plumbing.   

So we headed south-east over the glacier toward the Italian province of Bolzano-Bozen.  

We discovered very quickly that I was not an asset to the team.  Out-of-shape, short of stature, taking small steps, breathing too hard from the altitude.  I am lucky they did not throw me down a cravass.  I think George Reyes had to be talked out of cutting the rope and leaving me for dead on the glacier.

We finally reached the sheer cliff that was the border of Austria and Italy.  We did not really have to do the ascent thing....there was a path and a wire guideline to hang onto as you made your way up the stone wall.
When you reached the top you were straddling the border of the two countries and each of us took our turn showing off "one cheek in Italy and one cheek in Austria."

As I stood there, in the Austria/Italian Alps with one cheek in each, in the company of some of the smartest and most accomplished people I have ever known, all I could think about was my parents.  My folks died when I was pretty young.  They never really had a glimpse into who I might grow up to be.  I am certain that they assumed I would grow up and marry a man who would take me to Europe on his arm.  They could no more have imagined the experience I was having than they could imagine me traveling to Mars.  It simply was not in their world view.  And, so, I said a little prayer as I stood there and asked that they take a peek back at Earth to see what their baby-girl was up to.  It was one of the most moving moments in my entire life.

My rope-mates and I arrived at the hutte at least an hour behind the other group.  They beat us by that much even though Kay Hart fell into a cravass when a snow bridge gave way under her. ( Luckily, the engineering of the tied-at-the-waist arrangement worked and as the guys all just sat down where they stood, up popped Kay from the cravass.  It was a thing of beauty.)  I had held the team up.  I was pretty embarassed by this and was not feeling my best as we stored our outer-wear and put on slippers to wear in the hutte.  We assembled for a meal and ate what I believe was the best soup and spaghetti dinner ever.  Afterward we each took turns entertaining the group.  Highlights for me are Walt Brown reciting a risque poem, Dick McQuillen singing the Irish lament "Four Green Fields" and the adorable Gerry Dube's beautiful tenor voice blessing us with "Ave Maria" in that warm, snug hutte on the top of an Alp.

I was sick all night.  Seems not staying hydrated exacerbates altitude sickness.  I had achieved my goal of not having to pee on the trek up.  But I was paying for it very dearly.  I spent most of the night laying outside the bathroom on the cool wooden floor thinking I was going to die of a headache.  The next morning, one of the guys from Germany gave me some fennel pills....I felt better almost immediately and I felt much better as soon as we descended to about 7,000 feet.

We trecked down off of the glacier, and hiked back to the ski school the next day.  The whole trip was probably 20 miles round-trip.  But we had all traveled much farther than that.  I got blisters on the way down.  I remember Walt Brown and a couple of the other guys wrapping my foot in mole-skin and then deciding I should not walk the last mile back to the school.  They sprinted ahead and came back in a jeep for me.  My heros.

That Friday night the bar was open at the school.  We drank a bit.  Dinner was not as spartan as earlier in the week.  Some of the guys hiked into town and kept the party going into the wee hours.  We all felt we had accomplished something special.  We had bonded over fear, meals, vision exercises, Tai Chi, feedback, bunnies and rabbits, trekking and laughing in the Alps.  We parted that Saturday morning different people than we were when we arrived. At least one of us decided to change their career and life during that week and when we returned to California, Dick McQuillen, who was now my dear friend and a role model of living your values, decided to leave HR and do some work in Asia.  Wouldn't you know...just when I decided I liked the bloke.


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  2. Nancy

    I loved Excellence @ Sun and Managing @ Sun outings too. Desert Survival, The Ropes Course, we did the Appalachian Trail one on the east coast once too.....all turn out the same, you figure out who can manage and how to deal with each other, and have a new found respect for diversity (in a Sun way: Sales; Engineering; HR, etc.)

    Roy Sardina