1992-1994 American Zettler
German Innovation with American attention to detail.
75 Columbia Way • Aliso Viejo, California 92656
I was kind of considered an expert in Medical Device Interfaces, and I was shifting more to Mac Development, so a company called Zettler (American division) had created a Nurse Call system (Sentinal): for managing Hospital administration and nursing staff to allow patients to call for nurses and track their responses. They had a Mac based system that was having problems, and I came in and fixed their UI and programming problems, went on site to many Hospitals and worked with their staff to figure out issues. I was able to extricate the company from lawsuits, hire Engineering and Quality Assurance teams, and turned the product from legal disaster to cash cow.
This was a complex system for monitoring patients requests, administration activities, and logging events (e.g. Real time data-acquisition system and device control). Basically, a patient could push a button, open a communication line to the central administrator (either floor, wing or hospital administrator), who could page a specific nurse with what to bring to that patient. All while tracking everything for Hospital regulatory compliances and quality control.
Sentinal was once a separate company (now a product), but it had used a ton of the parent companies (Zettler Germany's) relays, switches and lights, and was wired up to hospital specs (contracting and installation). Since they were a big customer of Zettler, that's why Zettler had bought them: to augment their American sales with American solutions.
German companies can be weird: their Corporate management a bit inflexible, arrogant and not very willing to listen. (There's the German way and the wrong way... even when the wrong way works better in America or the rest of the world). I've noticed the same from Japanese and Korean companies as well. They're good and efficient at consensus and incremental improvements, but not so much at major shifts in direction, or getting that the customer wants to be right (and not to fight the customer when they're using it in a non-approved way). They also didn't understand the idea of rock-star individualists who can save their bacon, but also aren't afraid to take credit for it.
There was nothing hostile between us -- I just noted the differences between their structure, and my willingness to cowboy solutions that would save sales (and appease customers), even if that's not completely the way that Corporate would have done it. The Germans are not a fast and loose, shoot-from-the-hip, kinda people... but when you're in the startup world and fighting against bigger customers, that's kinda what it takes to win. So I knew they weren't going anywhere. Not really out-of-business soon, but they were going to keep losing to bigger or more adaptive players over the long run. It's part of why you don't see a lot of successful German startups, and they do better in older and process oriented (more incremental improvement) industries.
What I Learned
I enjoyed the working with people in a smaller company and having to be responsive to customer needs. I got to use my older side-gig consulting skills, to just go and talk with them and listen to their problems and brainstorm solutions. The fact that the company was sending someone out who knew the system from top-to-bottom was a solution in itself, it let the Hospitals know that they were being heard and we would work with them to get things to their standards.
While I respected them, and treated them accordingly, context helps. We joked (internally) at the time, that you could lock a nurse in a padded cell with 2 steel balls for 15 minutes, and when you came back, one ball would be broken and the other one missing... and she wouldn't know what happened to either of them. This was the context I dealt with. I had a support call that consisted of me remotely diagnosing the problem to someone (unknown who) had 3 hole punched the mouse cord, so it was no longer a wire, but a series of them... and the staff wasn't sure why the computer wasn't responding. Seriously.
But it was relatively fast paced (early on), and I got to do a lot. But after a couple years, I was bored as things had gone more into maintenance mode. And it was time to move on. I left on good terms and a couple of people I'd hired or worked with there, became friends that I intersected in the future.