S2 E69 — How Can You Tell Who’s an Engineer at a Party?

A few years earlier they had won Company of the Year honors like my team did in my “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission” company.

“5”  Steve Carrell, 57; Steve Martin, 74; Steve Wozniak, 69: You’ve known both introversion and extroversion and are currently an ‘ambivert,’ as some situations make you feel outgoing and others make you feel closed up.” Leo

Hi and welcome to Thursday’s Episode 69 in Season 2 of  “My Pandemic Year Natural Experiment” on this 25th day of June in the summer of 2020.  

“The Tau of Steves: What You Don’t Know Could Fill a Book”

Table of Contents

Season One and Two are a two-year examination of how bits of wisdom changed during the “normal” pre-pandemic and then in this unfolding pandemic year.

Previously in Season Two, the Pandemic Year

S2 E68Take More Breakthrough Showers;  S2 E67Here’s What I Didn’t Know That Will Help You; S2 E66The Romance of a Good Humor Man in Detroit

Related from Season One, the Normal Year

S1 E69Anniversary Trip of a Lifetime Deep in the Heart of Tuscany; S1 E68Overcompensating for Disappointing Results?; S1 E67Don’t Misunderstand Me; S1 E66Do Your Proposals Lead to Contracts?


This is the continuing story of how I learned important lessons from the school of hard knocks and an introduction for the second volume of books I described in the previous episode.

I had already changed careers and switched industries following the future brought to us by technology companies.

Founder’s Curse

I think it’s called the founder’s curse.  You hit a milestone — mature growth phase — and you build a headquarters to house your sprawling groups of employees dispersed and distributed in the local commercial offices.  And, almost a year to the day from when you celebrate with the ribbon cutting dignitaries your market shifts away from you and you free fall into a decline. 

During which they either sell or lease their building to other companies on the rise and distribute their workforce to smaller footprint buildings.

They fell into a decline.  I fell into unemployment. But I activated “Plan B” — becoming a consumer of outplacement at the firm that fired its founder a year or two earlier who, by the way,  received heart stents to keep him going. 

Small world.

Long-Term Retainer

Knowing how to go about finding work, an employer or as a client, within weeks I scored a long-term retainer with a life insurance and mutual fund firm.  It was the kind of mature organization that employed maintenance workers just to polish its each brick in its elaborate entry way.  

A few years earlier they had won Company of the Year honors like my team did in my “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission” company.  

Their challenge was asking if you can interject innovation into a century’s old mature company?  

I figured, why not try. 

It was a complex, complicated maneuver requiring tons of new knowledge and new ideas packaged in a way they could swallow without triggering an immune system response.  

I was free to add more clients, so I did — teaching reengineering and continuous improvement through the local university and collaborating with the Vice President of Human Resources at a headquarters of a medical laboratory to build out a Leadership Academy.  

But, to be honest I yearned to return to a more Paradoxy-Moron organization, the kind that thrives on high degrees of disruptive innovation, independence and speed. 

So much so, that I probably viewed the next opportunity through rose colored glasses.

Pursuit of a Paradoxy-Moron Organization

I didn’t mind the commute along the InFox coastline, which had grown in congestion but for a shorter distance to Sorrento Valley in San Diego.  

A smaller more manageable sized company of 200 employees generating revenues of roughly 200 million dollars required a full-time director of organizational development and training. Hot damn, that’s me.

It competed in the emerging multi-media projector business.  

A new CEO replaced the one who took over from the much beloved founder.  Most of the employees from day one believed they would always be in line for promotions. They wore so many hats in the beginning, surely they figured, when they hung up most of those caps in the closet they’d be entitled to freely move up the organizational chart and place their remaining hat on their office’s rack while claiming a position yet to be formulated.  

Instead, those positions at the top level went to people like me who had larger company experience, than they did. Nothing wrong with them,  but they had yet to experience by trial and error what would be required when the pace accelerated and risks grew exponentially.  We on the other hand could “parachute in” take a look around, size up the situation and move forward very quickly.

Still by Thursday evenings, the 1 hour and 15 minute commute wore on me and I didn’t look forward to the early Friday afternoon navigating the bumper to bumper traffic clogging the 5 freeway traveling north out of the city.  

De j’ vu, right?

Technology Distribution Company

Luckily one of the HR VPs who had received outplacement with me accepted a similar role at an Orange County technology distribution business, interviewed me and offered me a similar job but much closer to home.

Wow, it was great!  Except I failed to take off my rose colored glasses. Strike one.

And, strike two, I wished I hadn’t erased the voice mail message sent to all employees announcing the acquisition of our company while simultaneously assuring everyone that no-one would be laid off.  

Oh, and strike three, I wished I had asked just one more question in my initial interview with my VP buddy, instead of during subsequent working sessions with him as my boss.  

When it was too late during my orientation, I asked, “So what is the strategy to which I should tie my activities?” To which he responded, “I don’t know.”  The CEO kept those cards close to his vest.  

I did know the regional distribution company tried to first grow nationally and then internationally.  But, later they ran into complications with the technology required to translate currencies for product ordering.  Instead the acquirer from Europe already had systems in place which accommodated both different languages and currency types seamlessly.


Strategy, Talent Branding, Knowledge Creation and Innovation

I left to join colleagues which I had hired to sync up the distributor’s “internal brand” with their” external brand” to attract more sales engineers.  The engineers they sought weren’t the “straight A” top-of -the-class candidates, which I learned never had considered a technology distribution company in their top 5 to pursue.  

If we were honest, those sought after engineers had no clue about our company, or if they heard of us, we never cracked their top 25 list.  

But, that’s OK.  My eventual colleagues discovered we shouldn’t be pursuing them either. Our targets were the fraternity rush chairmen who happened to take engineering and technology classes, but actually had a social personality.  

The joke told internally was, “How do you tell who’s an engineer at a party?  They’re the ones looking at their shoes.  How do you tell who’s the sales engineer? They’re looking at your shoes.”

Once my time at the plate with the technology distribution company ended with a called third strike, I hooked up with the team I had hired.  We crashed our models together — learning and development, knowledge creation, media production, internet communities, advertising and marketing. 

From our studio in the corner of Laguna Canyon Road we continued internal and external branding with clients ranging from startups to the Fortune 100.  

I learned companies paid much more for branding campaigns than I was ever able to charge in the HR world.  

We pioneered a way of capturing the essence of a brand from interviews using digital video, searched through audio tracks for the touch points and reused portions of the interviews for orienting new coders hired at accelerated rates.  

Unfortunately we expanded too quickly like many mom-and-pop restaurants do by anticipating an exploding  market that never grew and eventually dried up forcing the two founding partners to declare bankruptcy.

Dot Com Bankruptcy

Three of us continued on our own and tried to make a go of our pioneering efforts to capture the new knowledge being spun off so it wouldn’t fall through the cracks for Paradoxy-Moron organizations.  But the market didn’t support it and we had to go our separate ways.

One of my colleagues from the training and development association and the Orange County Development Round Table that grew out of it, needed to conduct survey work.  I had just been introduced to a software startup that seemed to be the “Swiss Army Knife of Surveys” with additional functions and features that could fit almost any requirement. 

Best of all it could generate findings almost immediately instead of weeks which increased the probability that leadership development could be initiated right away. 

Swiss Army Knife Software in Search of a Problem

I joined forces as the “translator” to human resource executives  and provided professional services consulting to define the scope of implementation projects.

The guy in charge of their sales and I hatched a marketing scheme to use their software as a pre-Glassdoor application. We approached companies for permission to survey their employees and from that produce a ranking of the best places to work, first in Orange County, and then branching out geographical region by region. 

We needed sponsors. I met the marketing person for a consulting firm offering organizational consulting and outplacement at a breakfast networking meeting.  

She wanted me to pitch the idea to the guy heading up their organizational consulting.  I could tell he wasn’t buying the value proposition.  He said they had their own propriety software and besides he didn’t have the budget authority anyway.  

Dejected and walking on my way out near the reception area I bumped into an old friend  almost literally as he exited his well appointed office and who happened to be the general manager. He asked me if I’d be interested in becoming their Key Executive Advisor.  I learned I’d be heading up the region’s outplacement services for C-suite executives paid for by their former companies.

Clearly this was a major stretch for me.  Fake it until you make it, right?

Rose colored glasses again?  You bet.  I immediately envisioned a 360 degree opportunity.  


“4”  Steve Zahn, 51: “In uncertain circumstances, it is only human to rely on assumptions. Be superhuman instead. Let go of what you know and reserve judgment as you try to absorb the truth in front of you.” Scorpio

Isn’t this the lesson I keep missing?  The trouble of seeing the patterns emerging just around the corner and then pursuing opportunities in line with those possibilities is the blinders I wear relying upon those assumptions.

Random ones that make me want change my sign.

“5”  Steve Carrell, 57; Steve Martin, 74; Steve Wozniak, 69: You’ve known both introversion and extroversion and are currently an ‘ambivert,’ as some situations make you feel outgoing and others make you feel closed up.” Leo

So that’s fluid enough to satisfy the introvert in me, who chose public speaking in the form of facilitation, training and addressing membership audiences, as a path to my development.  

“5”  Steve Kerr, 54:There is little in life more valuable than the unconditional support of a true friend. You’ll experience the pure love of an exchange that is without motive or expectation of reciprocity.” Libra

Wow, I’ll say.  Dr. J brings a smile to my child in me as we remember ancient conspiracies we hatched.

“5”  Steve Aoki, 41: For most people, if they know how to start, then they’ll dive right in. Not knowing where to start leads to procrastination. You’ll have the opportunity and privilege of leading the way.” Sagittarius

Are you saying that the one thing I share with Leo da V is not knowing where to start which leads to procrastination?  If not, I will and it’s not my genius move.  

“4”  Steve Harvey, 62:Too many choices can be overwhelming, not enough is boring. You’ll find your own sweet spot of options, but don’t assume it’s the same for all. Some people can handle three, others 23.”  Capricorn

Boy you got that right.  I figure I have enough time to learn as much as I can for handling 23 options.  When you master the first twenty the remaining three leave me feeling bored.  

“5”  Steve Nash, 45:Some thought patterns are like riptides. It’s easy to get carried away and fighting them head-on can be futile. Relax and be carried. Wait for the break — it’s coming — and then you can swim to the shore.” Aquarius 

So, this has been a mantra of mine.  If you’ve ever been body surfing in Newport Beach, California and one of those big waves bears down on you, you have no choice but to dive deeper under it, wait until it spins you like a washing machine until it passes and then you pop up, quickly scan for another.  If there isn’t another you can relax and float awhile until you find one that will propel you back to shore.  That’s what disruptive change feels like if you don’t anticipate it.

What’s Going On

Literally Bottled and Set Adrift from KnowWhere Atoll 

    • @knowlabs followers of one or more of my 35 digital magazines organically grew from 3911 to 4073.




    • Saw the movie, didn’t realize that one of my favorite authors, Michael Connelly — his detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch book series and Amazon Prime series — also wrote, “The Lincoln Lawyer” which I just finished. Gotta tell you I can’t not see his lead character (Mickey Haller, Bosch’s half brother) as anyone else but Matthew McConaughey. 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by: Holiday Mathis – Creators Syndicate


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