Baxter • Edwards - Irvine, California - After I left Rockwell the second time, I went to work for Baxter (Edwards Critical Care division), where I made medical instruments. I enjoyed Aerospace Consulting, the money was good, but I wasn't sure I wanted to be a lifer and just petrify as an automaton; I wanted to get out and try new things. I wanted to start migrating towards commercial development and medical seemed like a half step. Plus I'd helped with the killing people side (Aerospace), I figured I should balance the karmic scales by working on saving people (Healthcare). While saving lives wasn't as "interesting" or creative as building weapons systems to take them; it provided interesting learning experiences none-the-less. Like I learned some lessons about dating on the job, the costs of defensive medicine, and just the problems in the provider side of healthcare.
Baxter had just bought Edwards Life-sciences. Edwards made reusable medical devices like catheters, tubing, stints, artificial heart valves and stuff like that. Interestingly; while the money was in those "consumables", they often made instruments just to use their own consumables, and gave those instruments away or leased them below cost (waved if they bought enough consumables). This "consumable myopia" sort of biased the company on what they were, how they made computer instruments, and in fact most of the decisions; but that's not rare. Where companies come from skews their perceptions and directions, usually not for the better.
Baxter needed a low-level assembly language guy to do networking and device control. I figured that bio-med was a step closer to commercial, and it was certainly a change. It was going to be an easy interview; I had experience with Assembly Language, Networking, Device Control, and so on. Other things like a security clearance showed stability and reliability; so it should have been easy. It mostly was. I'd found out about the opportunity through my Mom; while I wasn't going to work for my Mom's company anymore, two jobs was more than enough, she was well connected and just hearing about opportunities was handy. However, they knew of my Mom, so there was a little extra scrutiny; but nothing I hadn't gone through before. Turns out it wasn't just working for my Mom's company, but even being in the same industry was working against me in some ways. I cut the cord completely and wouldn't get near a company that had heard of my Mom after that. But it did demonstrate that "who you know" can work for you, or against you; and often both.
There was a bigger barrier in the interview; I didn't have a degree. A degree may not mean much towards abilities, but it will get you past some idiots that require it. I'd had some problems with a couple interviews in a row, and it was getting annoying. This manager (Dave Chevlin) was a part time instructor at UCI (University of California, Irvine) and was one of the annoying ones: he'd taken the traditional path, so we all should. I played the, "degree pending" card, and mentioned I was likely to go back to University because no one could succeed without a degree, and his ego was assuaged. Still, I was interviewed by many on the team, and had to prove my technical abilities far more than most because of lack of pedigree (paper). And it's something I warn kids about; you can succeed without a degree, but it is a lot harder.
The irony is that while many companies will not hire employees without degrees, they will hire consultants without one. I found this out over and over again, and was the main reason I stayed a consultant for 10 years. It was ironic that over the years many of the best producers and consultants that I'd met and worked with, often didn't have degrees. Even companies that realized it couldn't or wouldn't hire them. Some of it makes sense, some not. Employment was more about what you could contribute to a company long term, so they were looking at diversity and pedigree (paper). This wider view of employees has all but been eliminated in technology companies since then; but that's how it used to be. Consultants on the other hand are about doing the job or work; so experience and abilities is what matters. And if producing is what you value, then you aren't as likely to put up with and survive the bureaucratic B.S. required to get a B.S. (or B.A.) - so many didn't have them. And you can't get rid of employees as easily as consultants, and so consultants have to produce and employees don't (as much); with the relative personality types gravitating or darwinianly evolving into each. Then companies can't hire consultants as employees, because who wants to go from being apolitical and having good pay, to taking a pay-cut so that they can be ignored more and get neck deep into the muck that is often corporate politics? It is an interesting system.
It turns out that once I got in, I bumped into a guy in another department that I'd worked with at Brunswick Defense (8 years before). That was an important lesson there; industries can be amazingly small - never burn bridges. I hadn't burned a bridge, and in fact if I'd known he'd worked there I could have used that to my advantage since we liked and respected each other. So the other side of the lesson is that it isn't always what you know, but who you know. So I should have worked my contacts more and made my life easier. I didn't learn this until much later. But it all worked out in the end, and I got the contract the hard way.
I was hired in for my low level networking, and did some stuff on that. But quickly, I'd noticed another problem; they had a really bad graphics. Just text based menus on a green screen and so on. The graphics system was also way behind schedule. I'd done some gaming stuff on my own (programming), and knew quite a bit about graphics; so I offered to help - but I stepped on some toes in the process. Hey, people's sensitive toes were not the forte of an early twenty-something turbo-nerd; it took many events before I learned the hard way that you had to have just a little sensitivity to the wetware (people and politics), and not just the hardware and software. Also in almost every job I've had, I was hired to do one thing, and ended up doing something else - the only constant is change.
Turns out that one guy said there was no way to do custom fonts; they were stuck with the fonts that they had. I didn't know that, someone else (a guy named Dave Bajaj) just asked me if I could do it when I mentioned something about graphics. I looked at the library, and it had a basic bitmapped display capabilities, so I could do anything if I just wrote it myself. I built my own font-manager and had a demo up in a day. There's something about the fearlessness of youth that empowers you because you don't know what you shouldn't be able to do. They were awestruck; they'd been working on it for weeks, and didn't think it could be done. Sometimes you just need a fresh set of synapses on a problem. But I'd accidentally shown up the old team, without knowing better. Over time I was sort of put in charge of graphics and people that were my seniors, again, which isn't really how things were done (consultants don't run things). I got over it, but I was never sure if they did; there's always more to getting the job done than just getting the job done. Baxter was where I starting becoming more aware of these things.
The problem wasn't just that Baxter didn't have good graphics; they didn't have a User Interface at all. They had some text menus and text pages that some laypeople think is human interface; but there was no real rhyme or reason applied to things. No psychology of the users or human factors. It was like DOS. This was 1986 and they were living with a text only and a few graphs? Welcome to the 80s folks. I'd done some Mac programming, read a lot of books, talked with a lot of people, done my own stuff, and it was time to really make this puppy fly. So on my own I did mockups of what I wanted it to look like and do. I revamped menus, graphics, all the fonts, and buttons; threw 3D effects at it. I just basically combined a little from Mac, NeXT and some of my own ideas. Hey, it was 1985 technology, it wasn't going to be lightening fast on an embedded 80286 processor, but it would work.
I demoed a HyperCard UI to marketing on Monday that I mocked up over the weekend. I had supporting demos on the machine. They were partly stunned, and mostly incredulous. How was I going to do all that? Easy, I'd just write my own graphics libraries; a Window Manager, a Dialog Manager, and Menu Manager (to go with the Font Manager I'd already done) - all pretty simple stuff. I'd build a simplistic Mac OS or Windows into a medical instrument; if Apple or Microsoft had done it, so could I. Doing it the first time is hard - the second time is easy. It was a different processor and design, but conceptually it was simpler. They recognized the value of such things, and so everything was approved.
I must admit, it turned out to be more work than I'd originally thought; but I blasted through it. I'd revamped the table processor on how screens were stored as well. I created a simple command language for each page; and had others creating all the screens using the libraries and commands I created. We got in ahead of schedule, and I had a great time.
Recently, I just bought myself one of those Instruments on the surplus market. Talk about memory lane; just what I need is a 50 lb piece of lab equipment to do Continuous Cardiac Output; but I still chuckle at the interface. It was called Monarch when I was on it; but right as it went public it became Explorer. Doing the UI for it, and other instruments was a good challenge. I got to work with marketing, users, doctors, animal testing (sheep), and do all the technical stuff. There were many good people in different groups, and willing or even excited to share information. Turns out, that no one had interfaced between the groups like that before. I enjoyed facilitating the communications and became this weird technical go-between that had no official power (I was just a consultant), but I had this incredible back-channel power because I was involved in all aspects of that project. The instrument did great and it won a bunch of awards for the best interface (easiest to use) by some various trade organizations and shows, and was successful. I was pretty proud of that. That was also the first project where I put way too much of myself into my work; and that workaholic trend has been something I've had to resist and keep some balances in my life. Something I still have to fight to this day.
|Costs of Defensive Medicine|
|Dating at work|
Hasta la vista, baby
Of course in the wisdom of the Company, they decided that the projects were done (there were a few others I was working on), so they didn't need the consultants, and let us all go. Lots of companies do a bulimic binge and purge with consultants. First there's the all employees cycle. Then things fall behind deadline as they often get mired in ego, politics and infighting. Then they bring in lots of consultants. Then when the project finishes, some companies get rid of all the consultants (and many of the employees), who take most of the domain knowledge with them. Then the company starts over on the next project. And the 80/20 rule sometimes applies (80% of the people do 20% of the work, and vise versa). When you slash, you need to figure out which people you are slashing. But many managers just see resources and bottom lines, and not the people and knowledge that goes with them.
Ironically, the company had managed to get rid of all the consultants and a few employees in one of those cycles they go through; myself included. It wasn't just me, but a few others as well. And many of the smartest ones left, also left out of disgust. That's how it works; the best and brightest are often smart enough to leave first. The majority of the domain knowledge walked out the door with them and us; and the follow-on instruments never got off the ground or cost them far more to make, because they were always starting over.
Never try to understand corporate business, it just makes your head hurt. The reasons are clearer to me now. Remember they didn't make instruments; instruments just sold consumables. So they were constantly in denial about software or hardware development and where knowledge resided. They saw their core as sales and manufacturing, and not in engineering - so sure enough, they wasted or eliminated their engineering expertise. Many companies suffer from these myopic or biased views of their own businesses, and they fail to see the bigger picture, and thus keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Since the mid 80s, companies are starting to catch on to how important technology and information is to their success, and now we have CTO's and CIO's to help balance the technology concerns. In a few more years or decades, they will be even more important. But that wasn't how things worked back then or in that organization.
Hey, I'd come in on a 6 month contract doing one part of the network analysis, had done that; managed to take over the UI for that project, and was also doing the Interfaces for a couple other instruments, I also did some catheter communication stuff, did IT for them (help them interface their Macs to their Vaxes and setup some source-code-control), been this uber liaison and communicator between many groups, and became one of their most prolific documenters (creating dozens of documents and prototypes for many projects). But 3 years down on another 6 month project, and it was time to move on. I had a really good time there, and they called me back a couple times for various follow-on contracts (support stuff), so it worked out well for everyone.