Meaning Business

Preview: “January”

A new year was beginning, but I was still catching my breath from the one just ended. What a year it had been! My rookie season as CEO of Dining Software Incorporated had been an emotional roller coaster and the greatest thrill ride of my career.

Last January I had arrived to take over from company founder and longtime CEO Hank Liston. Hired by Parris Partners, the private equity firm that owned DSI, I had been charged with bringing version 3 of the company’s flagship Sunclear product to market after years of delays. Given how little I knew about software, I might as well have been charged with building a time machine. Yet, I had pulled it off. As a novice CEO, I had managed to sort out the people dysfunctions at DSI enough to allow the technical issues with the new software to be solved. Sunclear 3 had been released last July.

Nine long years had passed since the release of S2, so getting S3 out the door only seven months into my tenure had been a very big deal. Or so I had thought for about five minutes. There were bugs in the new product and the different parts of our company were out of sync with one another in the early months with S3. We struggled mightily with the first customer upgrades and no new sales prospects wanted to take a chance on the unproven new system.

My boss, Parris Partners Chairman Bud Spurlock, believed that sparing the rod spoiled the CEO. Throughout the fall, he had beaten me like a rented mule. Bud had been crystal clear that my continued employment at DSI depended on closing the first new S3 sale by the end the year. That first sale had come through on New Year’s Eve, sparing me by the slimmest of margin from getting fired. The whole first year had felt like a rodeo bull ride. I had hung on for dear life and somehow managed to last the full 8 seconds.

The last week of January, VP Development Tania Russo came to my office for a routine product planning meeting. We talked about upcoming minor enhancement releases for S3, mostly just housekeeping items that had gotten pushed out in the rush to complete S3 last year. Important stuff, but not terribly urgent. Looming over our discussion was the prospect of S4 somewhere in the not too distant future. The 10 years that had passed between S2 and S3 had allowed Menu-X to leapfrog DSI in terms of product features. Tania and I knew we couldn’t afford to let another decade pass without a major new Sunclear release.

Maybe it was the mundane meeting, but for once Tania was a bit off her game. She seemed not fully in the moment which was unusual for her.

“Hey, Russo. Is there something going on with you today? Did you switch to decaf or something?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“You sure? You seem…distracted.”

Tania put her pen and legal pad down and leaned back in her chair. I got the feeling she definitely had something on her mind and was considering how much of it to share with me.

“I guess I’m struggling a bit to get the fire lit again after S3.”

“I can understand that. I know S3 took a lot out of you.”

There had to be many layers beneath her opening statement so I wanted to encourage Tania to continue talking. I figured it would do her good to verbalize whatever was going through her head. And I was curious.

“You need a break? You want to take some time off and recharge your batteries?”

“No…it’s not that exactly.”

I stayed quiet and let the silence hang in the air. It seemed Tania wanted to tell me something and would do so when she was ready. So I waited.

“I don’t know, Paulsson. I keep thinking about last year and I just don’t feel the same. Last year was so freaking intense, the most exciting year of my career. This year is…not the same.”

“Nope, it’s not. I feel it, too.”

“When you promoted me last year, I wanted to prove to you, to myself, and to the whole world that I could do the job. You gave me this incredible opportunity and I didn’t want to blow it. Getting S3 out the door was a matter of life and death to me and we got it done.”

“We did. You did.”

“Well, now that I’ve proven I can do it, doing the same thing all over again just isn’t as motivating. It’s not the same challenge, it’s just a whole lotta work.”

“Yeah…”

“It’s like NASA going to the moon, know what I mean?”

“Not really…”

“Look, the first time they made it to the moon, it was absolutely amazing. The whole world stopped to watch it live on TV. My mom told me she watched in our living room and it blew her mind. It was unbelievable! The next time they went to the moon was also pretty darn cool but it wasn’t like the first time. Nothing again is ever like the first time. And pretty soon going to the moon became routine and boring. When Apollo 17 got there in 1972, only 3 years after Neil Armstrong, people didn’t stop whatever they were doing to watch it on TV. After that they stopped going altogether. Moon landings went from mind-blowing to pointless in 3 years. Going to the freaking moon!”

“OK…”

“So what are we doing here, Paulsson? Every Sunclear release is an enormous amount of work, it takes everything I’ve got to sweat all the details and make sure Development delivers on time. Doing that for S3 was the coolest thing I’ve ever done at work, I freaking loved it! S4 will also

be cool but it won’t quite match the excitement of last year. After that, I’m not so sure. Just keep going one release after another? S28? NASA stopped after Apollo 17… So what’s the point?”

“I don’t know, Russo. I guess as long as Menu-X keeps going to the moon, so do we. Not every product release is a giant leap for mankind but we still gotta keep doing them.”

My feeble joke fell flat and Tania got up to leave. Tania and I almost never left big matters unresolved at the end of meetings, but this time her questions were too big to be neatly resolved with a few post-meeting action steps. Whatever answers Tania needed, she would have to find them for herself.

Tania stopped a couple of steps short of the door and turned around to look at me.

“What about you, Paulsson? Why do you do it?”

I wanted to give Tania something useful, but I had no idea what she was looking for. Hm. Hard to go wrong with something motivational and up-lifting.

“For the challenge, I suppose. Like Edmund Hillary said when they asked him why he climbed Mt Everest: ‘Because it’s there.’ Well, DSI is my mountain so I climb it.”

I was pleased with myself for having whipped up that little motivational cup cake on the spot, but Tania didn’t react the way I expected. She burst out laughing.

“That is such a guy thing! Do something hard, say something cool. ‘One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ You men love that crap. You are such a guy, Paulsson!”

I was a little stung that Tania mocked my words of wisdom. They had sounded pretty good to me. Oh well, I was a guy and being called one didn’t bother me. I’d been called worse and didn’t think anything of it.

 

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