Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Life in the Boy's Dorm: My Career at Sun Microsystems Part 23

My last trip to Linlithgow.

In the early 1990's Linc Holland  moved his family over to Scotland so he could run the WWOP's business in Europe for awhile.

Someone had convinced him that this would be a great opportunity for him.  A real career-builder.

So, the poor misguided guy moved his wife, 4 kids and an elderly dog from Portola Valley, CA to the suburbs of Edinburgh to be a team player and to establish some international management credibility.  Poor sod.

Linc had just settled into his new house (but not really his new role), when our previous peer, and now new boss, John Shoemaker, thought the senior WWOP's team should visit Linc and hold our quarterly WWOP's organizational review at the facility in Linlithgow.

The trip to Linlithgow, Scotland from California was a bit of a trek.  You left San Francisco via British Air at 5:00pm on Sunday night, landing at Heathrow on Monday at 11:00am.  Then, you transferred to British Midlands from Heathrow to Edinburgh; arrived in Edinburgh about 1:00pm, and usually headed directly to the plant for a few hours of meetings etc.  If you could sleep on the first flight you would probably be ok for that first day...including the ritual first evening out with the Scotland boys.  But, knowing that jet lag was going to bite you in the arse sometime in the next 48 hours,  you always tried to make it an early night...hoping against hope that you would not awaken at 1:00am and face the next meeting-packed-day with the dreaded "dullness with a dose of nausea" that jet-lag creates.

My normal routine in those days was to try to sleep as much as possible on the British Air leg of the journey (this was perhaps my 20th time making this trip), so I usually took two dramamine, had two glasses of champagne, put on a sleep mask and ear plugs and told the flight attendant not to wake me until we were approaching Heathrow.

But, on this trip, I traveled over with Ron Lloyd and Kathleen Holmgren.  They were both new to the senior team, having been promoted when Shoemaker took command.  So, I took the dramamine and had the champagne...probably more than two glasses.  Ron, Kathleen and I chatted through dinner...and kibitzed about the relative size of our feet during the movie (we were all in the bulkhead row of Business Class and we were "shushed" repeatedly, the flight attendant actually approached us with her finger up against her lips).  We ate some Godiva's,  had some port or Baileys and really just had time for a quick nap before Ron was waking Kathleen and me up so we did not miss the breakfast service.  My routine was shot and I knew in the back of my mind that I would pay for it at some point during the trip, but it was fun to kid around with those two as we flew over the north pole.

The first afternoon in Linlithgow was fine. 

At about 6:00pm we went over to the hotel and checked-in to freshen up for the dinner festivities.  Shoemaker had requested that we all stay at the charming Airth Castle Hotel in Falkirk, which is just what it sounds like; a hotel that was once a castle.

As it happened Ron, Kathleen and I had rooms on the very top floor (we could have looked out of the battlements from our windows if the sun didn't go down at 3pm during the winter) down a very narrow hallway from each other.  I was at the end of the hall in a dimly lit room with a very high ceiling, a very tall canopy bed, and when I first checked in, a very dead bat caught in the very tall canopy.  I pointed the dead thing out to the bellman and asked for a new room.

The manager on duty came up and explained that the Castle was full and that there were no other rooms to be had.  Seems they didn't usually rent these rooms on the top floor, but it was the week of Robert Burns birthday and they were full-up.  So, he sent some folks to remove the flying rodent, along with the canopy...they also changed all the bedding as I turned circles in the tile bathroom, which was the only part of the room where the corners were well lit.  I asked for some brighter lighting in the room, but was told that the electrical system could not support bulbs with any greater wattage (this explained why there was also no TV in the room).  So, I asked them to shine a flashlight in all the corners to assure me that there were no more visitors in the room.  This they did, but it was not very comforting, as each time the bellman moved his flashlight to a new dark place in the room, he flinched as though he expected something to come flying at him.  There was also an occasional gust of wind that whipped through the room.  Upon closer examination I discovered that each of the west facing windows had a 1/2 inch gap at the top.

By the time I came down for dinner I had already had enough of the charming Castle.

My mood was also a little sour because I had been up for about 27 hours with only 90 minutes of sleep.  I was feeling the fatigue and vowed to turn in early and sleep all night.  We had a full day the next day.  You do not fly 10 people six-thousand miles for nothing.  We had important business to attend to.

We had dinner at another charming historic Scottish establishment in the area, returned to the Castle, had one drink at the little bar and then we all took the lift up to our rooms.  Well, Ron, Kathleen and I had to walk up another flight after the elevator hit it's final stop...we were in the rafters of this place.  We were to assemble in the lobby the next morning at 8:30am for a series of important meetings at the plant starting at 9.  Fair enough.

I got ready for bed and was reading about 40 minutes later when there was this buzzing-zipping-buzzing sound and all the dim lights went out.  I headed for the door and ran smack into Kathleen coming out of her room.  It was dark.

I was just beginning to curse Scotland and all of it's ancestry, when Kathleen said, "I think I blew a fuse."
"Did you plug your hairdryer in?"  I asked.
"No."  She responded.
"Well, what did you do?" I was getting impatient in the dark; wondering what was lurking in the corners.
"I thought I had the right adapter." Kathleen replied.
"What in God's name did you plug in?" I pushed.
"My breast-pump." she sheepishly replied.
Uh oh.  TMI.  Kathleen had given birth to her youngest child a few months earlier.  This was her first trip since the baby was born.  Apparently, she was no longer nursing the baby during the day, but was still doing so at night.  She had brought a portable breast-pump with her and when she plugged it in, she took out the lights in our wing of the Castle.

The lights weren't coming back on, but it seemed it was only our floor that was affected, I could see lights on when I looked down the stairway.  I tip-toed down to the front desk, woke up the desk-clerk and explained that the lights had gone out.  I did not tell them why. (I haven't ever told anyone why until now...sorry Kathleen, your secret was only safe for 16 years).  The desk clerk asked if we "needed" them on before morning.  I replied that yes, I really thought we might.

So, another Scottsman came grumbling up to our floor, flipped a circuit breaker, and dim lights flickered on.

Kathleen came out the door of her room with the breast-pump in hand.  The plug and cord were melted.

"I think the baby will be weaned this week." Kathleen said forlornly.  Hey, it happens to all of us sooner or later.

I did not go to sleep that night.  I read the book "Disclosure" cover to cover, listened to the wind whistling around the ill-sealed windows, kept a look out for bats and never closed my eyes.  At 6:30am I drifted to sleep only to have the alarm go off at 7:15am.  I got up and took a lukewarm shower in a freezing cold room, longing for the Edinburgh Sheraton, with it's bright lights, phoney Castle decor, hot water and CNN.

I felt hung-over, I had eyestrain from reading in the dim light all night and I looked like crap...I looked worse than crap...really, if someone had told me I looked like crap, I would have taken it as a compliment.

I had  gone too long with too little sleep.  I was dead tired and the sleep that eluded me all night was now calling to me.  But no, I would not be tempted.   I had important meetings to go to that day; the kind of meetings you fly 10 people six-thousand miles to attend!

We gathered in the lobby and went through the ritual questions about how each of us slept the night before (Sleep is a major topic on business trips.  No one ever asks you how you slept the night before when you are in your usual place of business, but the minute you check into the same hotel everyone becomes acutely curious about how much REM time you logged the night before).  Everyone had a story about how they had not gotten enough sleep; awaking too often or too early or like me, measuring their sleep in minutes not hours.  We made a few lame jokes about needing naps later in the day, probably during Shoemakers part of the agenda, and set off for the plant....looking forward to copious quantities of caffeine and some breakfast in the cafeteria.

I knew the day was doomed when we got to the cafeteria and it was closed.  Coffee was available, and of course tea.  But there was no food in sight.  Shoemaker went nuts.  He was stunned that the place could be closed at 8:45am.  In California our cafeteria was open all day.  John clearly believed the closed cafeteria represented a character flaw in the Scottish people and he made his feelings known to what appeared to be the most senior of the cafeteria attendants.

About this time, Linc strolled up (Linc has never moved fast in all of his life, I really do not know how he considers himself to be a basketball player...he literally strolls everywhere he goes) and explained that the cafeteria had been open since very early in the morning, like 5:30am until 8:00am...it closed for an hour or two to clean up and begin to prepare for lunch; but it would reopen at break-time for the plant employees, around 9:30am.

"This is a manufacturing plant," Linc explained, "and it was not set up to accommodate the executive lifestyle."

Shoemaker didn't buy it and insisted they open the cafeteria so the visiting executives could get something to eat. 

So, our boss and our host are bickering about breakfast before the meeting has even started.  Good times so far.

We assembled in the largest conference room in the facility, on a cat-walk above the cafeteria and commenced with the agenda.

The morning meeting was pretty normal; updates from around the room.  We broke at noon for lunch and reassembled at 1:00pm for the main event:  a discussion of the variety of tax advantages offered by different countries in Europe.

Linc had arranged for a presentation by one of the foremost authorities on tax incentives.  The guy had flown up from London.  He was an accountant/solicitor and a highly sought after consultant.  He was also the single most boring person I have ever encountered.

This humorless guy with a droning, "plummy," hard-for-Americans-to-understand-accent, whipped out no less than 85 overhead slides; filled with single spaced content in 6pt type and proceeded to read them to us.

I realized during slide 2 that I was going to be in trouble.  I'd had a hard time staying alert through the morning session...now, severely jet lagged, sitting in a darkened room, after a heavy Scots lunch, with a presenter that was the human equivalent of white noise...I was doomed.  I looked around the room and realized I was not alone.  Everyone who had arrived by plane the day before was struggling.

I decided that I would try to keep myself awake by having a little fun and started serruptitiously making faces at each of my jet lagged colleagues, trying to get them to perk up a bit.  I thought, perhaps if I could get them to smile we could rally our energy and get through this.  We had, after all, flown six thousand miles for this presentation and discussion.  There were about 20 of us gathered around a large U-shaped table; Linc's local staff was sitting up front near the presenter; the out-of-towners were in the back of the room; Shoemaker was sitting to my right, about 4 chairs from me.

By the time the presenter was on slide #16 or so, I'd made eye contact with each of the folks at my end of the table, Ron, Kathleen, Dean, Mel, Kevin Walsh, and others whose names have seeped from my feeble brain, winking or crossing my eyes and getting smiles and rolled eyes back.  Some of them pantomimed sleeping or snoring.  Twice I tried to make eye contact with Bob Coe but he seemed to be consciously avoiding looking at me.  I took this as a challenge.

At slide #31 or so we were well over an hour into the presentation and things were getting desperate in the back of the room.   I composed a short note and passed it to my left, with the instructions to read it and pass it along.  Ron Lloyd made a "shame on you" face at me, opened the note and stifled a laugh.  Kathleen took the note from Ron, shook her head at me, telling me she was not going to read it, opened it anyway and put her head in her hands.  She pretended to cough to cover a laugh.  Bob Coe had never looked in my direction, but when he heard Kathleen begin to laugh, he started to giggle.  The rest of us followed suit.   Now the back of the room was in a full-out case of the giggles.  Linc was shooting dirty looks at us, which made it even more funny.  The note continued to be passed through about 10 hands with the same effect, a beseeching look to me or a scowl, open the note, and then suppressed laughter.  Then as we were getting ourselves under control, the note was passed to Bob Coe.

Bob took the note and held it for a long time, never looking in my direction.  Then he opened it and read the following: "If you drive your pen into your thigh, it will help you stay awake."

Bob rose from his chair with the note in his hand and went to the very back of the room and leaned against the wall.  He was looking straight forward when I noticed a tear running down his face.  Then he turned around, leaned his forehead against the wall and I could see his shoulders shaking.  Coe had lost it.   We all followed suit.

Bob Coe, barked an "Excuse me" as he bolted out of the conference room.  Shoemaker declared a "bio break" and we all headed out.

Bob Coe was laying on the carpet outside the conference room on his stomach, laughing.  He could not catch his breath.  Kathleen, Dean and I made a bee-line for the ladies room, (laughter has that effect on women) and the rest of Shoemaker's "seagull" staff was bent over the railings of the cat-walk laughing and drying their tears.  I remember Bob squeeking, "I flew six thousand miles for this?"

The only people who were not amused were the presenter and Linc Holland.

We apologized to the consultant for our jet-lagged response.  And he was gracious...boring as hell but gracious. The absurdity of having us sit through that presentation on the second and notoriously most jet-lagged of days is something I have never let Linc live down.  It was so ill-advised, one would think my very smart friend Linc knew what he was doing and did it on purpose. 

The rest of the trip sorted itself out.  We went to a Robert Burns birthday party that night and all toasted to the "King of the Puddin' Race."  We drank a wee dram and each and every one of us slept well.  The next day and the day after that we conducted ourselves like the professionals we were.  We talked about tax advantages in Europe and outsourcing and supplier report cards and no one was in danger of wounding themselves with their Mont Blanc again during this meeting.  It ended up being a meeting worth flying 10 people six thousand miles to attend.

The facility in Scotland is long gone.  The meetings, the dinners, the pub-crawls, the drinks with no ice and the salads with too much mayonnaise are over.  I miss it all.

I left Sun a few months later to be the VP of HR at Gymboree.  It was a mistake.  Gymobree was so dull it made the guy with the 85 slides look like Chris Rock.