Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In praise of Bill Gates © by adrian

Back in the late seventies I was the operations and personnel manager of a large chain of camera stores. No, really I was.

Dun and Bradstreet, among others, would often hold seminars and training sessions for personnel managers that usually cost three to four hundred dollars a pop and I just loved going to them. Other attendees would generally be personnel managers that looked after a staff of three to a half dozen employees. In those days with my long hair, goatee (don't forget the earrings) and wearing a suit I was certainly an incongruous sight at any Dun and Bradstreet function. The other much neater and shorter haired clean shaven suits (male or female) that were in attendance would always slide away from me as I sat down with them in any of their groups. Eventually, whoever was the bravest, had lost the bet, got the shortest straw or whatever would ask why I had come to a function like this, as I didn't quite look like I was in personnel. I always assumed that as far as they were concerned, I didn't quite look like I was even employable.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with Bill Gates? Well,
you just keep watching and I promise you I will manage to slip him into this fluffy little story before I'm finished with it. In fact, you stick with it and I promise I will even slip in a cute little squirrel picture.

I would explain that I ran forty-five stores and managed a staff of over one hundred and twenty people and five supervisors to operate them. I was responsible for hiring all the store staff and then would personally run a five day training class to get them up to speed. I would oversee all the staff operations, salaries, appraisals and eventually termination if that was necessary. We used to call it firing in the good old days, somehow that still sounds more humane to me than termination. Termination always suggests someone strapped to a gurney waiting for an injection whereas firing is mostly just a case of "I'm sorry, but this is not working out, give me your keys to the store, get your belongings, and get out." I appreciate that to the person being fired it can pretty well feel just like the gurney experience, but that's what I worked at for a period of my life.

These were all large walk in stores that had same day photo finishing. They were double staffed and open twelve hours a day, so there was quite a lot involved in the administration of all this. My lifelong friend Bill ran the photo-finishing lab, and I ran the stores. We both made an obscene amount of money for the times, but we also earned every penny of it. Whenever I've worked for other people I always made oodles of money (far more than I ever came close to when working for myself) but there was always something missing, let me think for a moment... Oh yes, I remember now, it was my soul that was missing! That business about owing your soul to the company store fits doubly when you are the upper management of the company store.

Part of my administrative duties was being keeper of the keys. With one hundred and twenty people, the staff often rotated around to various locations as they traded shifts and sometimes stores. On occasion we would also get a call at head office from a customer wondering why a particular store wasn't open and then we would discover that some disgruntled staff member had quit and forgot to mention it to us. I would locate an available employee and dispatch them to the store and then usually go there to meet them. I would open up the store and then be the counter clerk until the replacement arrived or just stay and work the shift if no one else was available.

One of the keys to making this all work successfully was in fact, the keys. We used a numbered security key system in the stores that had locks with an interchangeable key core made by the Best Lock Company. The keys could not be copied by regular locksmiths and could only be duplicated by the Best Lock Company using special security codes. I could change the lock in a store in moments by simply inserting a special key, pulling out the core and then slipping a new core with a different security key code number into the lock cylinder. Whoever then had legitimate right to be in the store would be issued keys with the new code number.

Somewhere along the line a maintenance company we hired lost a complete set of keys and so every lock in all the stores needed to be replaced with new cores and key codes. The replaced cores and remaining keys came back to head office and all their corresponding key codes were cancelled. About thirty years ago the photo-finishing company Bill and I worked for went out of business and I inherited the discarded keys and cores and have used them in my various studios ever since.

So, enough with the background already, I will now finally get to the point of this little meander...

A few stories back I wrote about the cottage my bride and her sister bought from their parents
Little Adri’s big adventure © by adrian) and that I had inherited the maintenance of said cottage. During the forty years their parents owned it everybody in the local area as well as friends and many people no longer remembered had ended up with keys to the cottage. It also seemed that anybody that had ever gotten a key had made a copy and given it to somebody else. So I decided that the easiest way to regain control of the "key situation" was to switch the locks at the cottage to the Best Lock Company system, get a bunch of extra keys made and distribute them as needed. This way we would always know who had a key and we would also be the only people able to have copies made.

I soon discovered there was just one tiny flaw to my plan. The Best lock Company was no longer in business (lord, you just look away for thirty or so years and the moment you look back, everything is different). So I started that web searching thing on my computer that many of us seem to spend a lot of time doing these days. I found out that what was left of that company had been acquired by the Stanley Lock and Tool Company many years ago.

I now needed to find out if the new company (Stanley Tools) had records of the secret key codes for cores that had been cancelled and completely removed from service thirty five years ago, for a company that was no longer in business, from a company that was no longer in business. Oh yah, they would also need to be able to verify or have on record somewhere that I had the authority to get the codes and new keys cut.

I couldn't imagine a more bizarre and potentially ridiculous communication. So I couldn't wait to give it a try.

I phoned them up and was switched to the security section and within a minute or so of answering a few questions only I would know the answers to, the helpful lady I was talking to had everything I needed up on her computer screen.

If you're still awake, this is where I get to the Bill Gates part. It seems lots of people can't wait to denigrate Bill Gates, are envious of his success and angry at how pushy Microsoft is. As far as I'm concerned if it wasn't for Bill Gates' driving ambition we could potentially still be using punch cards in big mainframes instead of everybody with computers on their desks and laps.

Imagine that within thirty seconds or so a stranger who likely wasn't even born when both those companies closed down is able to punch up codes and information about me and others she named that could have access to this information. Think of how long this could have taken if she needed to search various scraps of paper to find this. Would anyone have bothered to keep slips of paper recording codes from a key system no longer in use, for a company no longer in business? Somewhere along the line thanks to Bill Gates and of course many others the codes were entered into a computer and were still sitting there available for use, casually waiting to be called upon. A couple of keystrokes later and I had an order for a few hundred dollars worth of new keys paid for and I could pick them up in three days or have them shipped out if I wanted.

Now old Bill Gates didn't personally have a hand in my saga, and I realize he's not likely to invite me to his house for dinner and dancing, but if he ever gets down on his luck and needs a vote of confidence, he's sure got mine!

By the way, remember that cute little squirrel picture I promised to slip in this story? Well, what I really meant to say was that I would slip in a picture of cute little squirrels.