Culture Clash

I first joined Digital Equipment Corp. in Chicago in 1981. Back then, I was a naive, skinny kid from Indiana. It wasn’t until later that I moved back to Minnesota, lost my hair and became a skinny bald guy from Minnesota.

Digital had a sales department, field service department, technical support department, engineering, marketing, finance, and, of course, lots of managers and managers of managers. I was the regional RSTS technical backup support person and (I can admit this now) barely qualified for the job. For those of you who grew up more recently with PCs, RSTS really was the best operating system available, and PDP-11s were really cool.

The people who supported RSX -- Digital’s other major PDP-11 operating system -- somehow weren’t quite the same. But at least they were technical and dealt with pretty much the same support issues I dealt with, so we got along OK.

The field service folks were different. Clearly, most support problems were hardware-related, so why did these guys always come to me and want me to cook up some magic software fix? I knew the technical solution to most problems was simple -- fix the hardware. Why didn’t these guys get it?

Now the salespeople, well, they were unbelievable. They were always preening, always trying to wear really nice clothes, and always trying to look and act important. Every time a sales rep called, he wanted us to drop everything and handle his personal emergency. One time, a sales rep even took our support machine out of the computer room and "loaned" it to a customer for several months. It came back missing some parts and we had to fight the bureaucracy for several more months to get it fixed.

Then there were the finance and admin people. I often wondered what planet these guys came from. I remember one guy who made a point to tell me my cubicle was a disgrace to the company because I had papers and books spread all over the place. Another time, an architect gave me an earful of grief because we hung cute little homemade signs all over the building we were using as a project development site.

And managers -- well, they pretty much just got in the way of the rest of us trying to do real work. Every once in a while, somebody from corporate would fly out to help and the managers would scramble like mad to tidy up the place and curry favor.

While I am exaggerating, I’ve seen variations on this culture clash at lots of places. The finance people are mad at the customer support people, who don’t like salespeople, who are down on managers. And everyone is mad at IS. It turns out, people from the rest of the world don’t think the same way computer support people think. In our world, all issues are black and white and we can handle any issue that comes up by applying deductive reasoning and working the issue to its logical conclusion. Anyone who thinks differently is messed up in the head.

A few enlightened managers at Digital recognized that diversity could make us strong, and they made all of us sign up for training to learn about it. I remember a major part of the "Valuing Differences" class, where they paired us up with a partner. One partner had to put on a blindfold, while the other acted as a guide and we walked around the building for a while. I was a little ornery that day and I walked my blindfolded partner up and down the stairs. The training was a joke but the message made sense.

Scott Consulting Corp. now has a marketing person and a salesperson on staff. I am constantly amazed at the way these guys think and the insights they offer. I don’t know how they do it, but they see the world from a different point of view than I do. I’m re-learning that diversity really does make us stronger. These guys are even earning the respect of our hard-core technicians.

Periodically, we should all look up from our keyboards and build a bridge to somebody in a different department. We’ve all heard it over and over again that IS people need to understand the world beyond the data center and I’m now convinced more than ever that it is true. Pick out the most technologically-challenged person you can find and become his or her friend. You never know where that bit of good will might lead. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at