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May 2008

Product Managers on the Road (eh)

So here I sit in the Toronto airport—YYZ to those who travel a lot—wrapping up my first business trip (if you don’t count interviewing trips) since I left iPass, and the first as part of my new position at SOMA Networks (; more about that in another post.

First, some Wi-Fi observations. Call it the residue of caring about this sort of thing at iPass…
- “Free” as a Wi-Fi business model continues to gain ground.
o While in the Denver airport (DIA… I hope there’s not an airport code of DOA) I was able to log onto the airport network, which was (ahem) ad-supported. OK, so I have to pretend to pay attention to the thirty-second ad before they connect me to the Internet. This is no worse that pretending to pay attention to the teacher’s boring stories in high school. What’s more annoying is that I discover that I have to use the DIA browser/search engine to get anywhere. You can log onto Google, but you never (and never is defined as something longer than 60 seconds) get a page served. It’s definitely on the far edges of what I’ll put up with for “free” access.
o Much nicer is the free Wi-Fi I get on the airport bus into downtown Toronto. You log in, and away you go. No ads, no nothing. And in the 30 minutes it takes to get downtown, I’ve been able to dispatch all the key e-mail and such.

And Toronto… except for airline connections, I don’t think I’ve spent any time in Toronto in ten years. “Skydome” is now the “Rogers Centre”. Condos are going up everywhere, so I guess there’s a lot of growth. It’s a long way since virtually my first business trip to the Toronto area (good for a future post), when I was upgraded to a suite at the Four Seasons.

Now I’m at the other end of University Ave. Actually, there and then west a bit, in the Chinatown district. There’s some sort of conference that has taken up all the hotel rooms, so my best offer is a room at the Super 8 Hotel (that would be “motel” in the states) for nearly $200 Canadian… which is probably more than $200 US thanks to our deficit-financed war. Except for the fleas, the too-short bed and the couple screaming (not in ecstasy) next door, it was fine. The good news was I was able to go out to authentic Asian restaurants—the kind that serve chopsticks by default—for some great dim sum.

There are some great non-chain coffee shops on the way to the SOMA Networks office, and it’s quite fun to hang with the university crowd sipping my coffee. This section of Toronto must be the fur district; there are probably a dozen furriers between my hotel and the company office. No spattered blood to be found, though it would be hard to distinguish from the ambient levels of graffiti.

The mix of cuisines is wonderful here. Across the street from the SOMA Networks office is an old-time (when was the last time you saw that poster of James Dean playing pool with Frank Sinatra and co., while Marilyn Monroe demurs in the background?) corned beef sandwich joint. Upon a recommendation, I opted for the Montreal smoked meat sandwich, which was great. And if you have to ask what kind of meat, you probably shouldn’t order it. Another time we go around the corner for falafel, every bit as good as the Falafel Drive-In in San Jose. And anytime you pass two Jamaican joints you know the cuisine is diverse.

And now I’m sitting in the airport watching the news clips of the Chinese group taking the Olympic torch to the top of Mt. Everest. Is Everest now that easy to climb, that we can use it for a photo-op? Good thing they’re not holding a Democratic primary there.

And by the way, Canadians are still crazy about hockey. There are all sorts of pre- and post-game hockey shows, even though Canadian representation in the Stanley Cup playoffs is absent. The Toronto radio people acknowledged that the benefit of having other Canadian teams in the playoffs (now that the Maple Leafs have been eliminated) is that you have someone to root against. Apparently, some people find the Montreal Canadiens annoying.

All in all, a good first trip. I can tell I’m a bit rusty (getting confused about where to check in being one example), and having been downgraded to “Premier” status by United (also known as “deserving no special treatment”) made things a bit different. But I got to exit onto the tarmac at San Jose, a quaint custom that will pass into memory before long as the airport modernizes. No doubt I’ll soon be off to other SOMA Networks locations around the world… bringing wireless communications and its attendant economic development to my “premier” brethren around the world.

Thank You, Bob

Virgil.  That was his middle name, the “V” in “R.V. Shaw”.  In all the years I knew Bob, I never knew that.  Not that I ever asked.  And had I known what the “V” stood for, I would never have dared to call him by that name—Bob would give you that piercing look that made you think you’d better not walk alone to your car after work, if you knew what was good for you.  Bob once described his job as keeping upper management (not the description he would have used) at bay so people like me could do our work, and that piercing stare came in handy in those situations.

I worked for Bob when I was just starting out in telecommunications, working for Bell-Northern Research; “BNR” as we knew it.  I had come to BNR from Allstate Insurance, and since Bob had worked for Allstate in the past it was one of the things we used to talk about.  Bob thought Allstate has been a good training ground for him in management, I would have to agree. 

In one of my first annual reviews, Bob asked me what I wanted to do with my career.  “I want to be a manager”, I replied.  I had no idea what I wanted to do, but figured that was the correct answer and blurted it out.  “Well, Danny”, said Bob (he was one of the few people I allowed to call me by that name) as he shifted that ever-present toothpick in his mouth, “do you want to manage things? Or people?  That conversation started a dialogue that resulted a few years later in my leaving BNR and going to MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  The tuition at MIT was very high (I had a penchant for attending schools with exorbitant tuition rates) and BNR’s graduate fellowships at that time were reserved for Engineering and Computer Science types.  But Bob came to my aid, calling up his friend at the Boston-area sales office for Nortel and securing a part-time position for me as a Sales Engineer.

And that was the kind of person Bob was.  He could be gruff.   He could be brusque.  He had trouble disguising his feelings towards those whom he didn’t respect, probably to his detriment.  But once you earned his respect and trust, he would go to battle for you.  He would do it without question and without being asked.

I still remember when Bob and Marilyn invited Crystal and I out to dinner, before we moved to Boston.  I think Bob knew how nervous I was.  I was uprooting my family for who knows how long so we could go into debt big time on the bet that it would pay off eventually.  It was at that dinner that I felt Bob took on the mantle of father figure for me.  I didn’t ask him to do that, but Bob knew that my father had passed away some years earlier, and I might need someone to talk to.  So he just slid right into the role.  From then on, Bob was always available to talk about anything—work, sports, family life—anything and everything.  I especially enjoyed walking over to his office across from Nortel’s Mission College plant.  We could talk about what was going on in the different parts of Nortel, how our kids and (his) grandkids were doing.  The President’s Awards in Bob’s office showed that someone was noticing his work and his positive impact on customers.

Bob passed on to his heavenly reward in January (here is where he’d bark  at me and say he got his reward every day he saw his family, and why was I using such flowery language anyway).  Marilyn’s statement to me at the funeral was direct and perfectly captured the feeling:  “we weren’t done living yet”.

I try to live my life without regret; “watch the doughnut, no t the hole,” to quote a favorite phrase from Sometimes a Great Notion.  When I took up golf, I told Bob we should play together sometime; I knew he loved to get out and play.  “Anytime” was his reply.  I decided to wait until I got better, which was foolish because (1) Bob would have teased me anyway, not matter how well I played and (2) me waiting to get better at golf would be like Sisyphus waiting to get that boulder to the top of the hill before he went out and had some fun.  So I do have a small regret that I didn’t knock the ball around with Bob.

Fortunately, I was able to make sure Bob knew how much I appreciated his advice and support.  And the best I can do to thank him is to continue to pay it forward, to help those who haven’t tired of my stories.  Could I do anything other than help others without expecting anything in return? We all know what Bob would say about that idea.  He’d take the toothpick out of his mouth, hold it in one hand, tilt his head forward while raising an eyebrow, and proclaim, “Danny, that dog won’t hunt”.

So thank you, Bob.  I hope I’m half as good to others as you were to me.

Irritations, Musings, and Other Fluff

  • Why do politicians (e.g., Mitt Romney) "suspend" their campaign? Doesn't that imply they're going to "resume" it? When would that be? when the devil hands out ice skates? If you're going to "suspend" it until (say) 2012, isn't that a do-over?
  • I want to thank the writers for striking, and the Hollywood types for forcing the writers' hand (so to speak) with their stinginess.  But not for the reasons you might think.  The writer's strike has pushed the networks to throw out (up would be a better modifier) all sorts of reality shows.  Some (Amazing Race) I've enjoyed but have become a bit sated.  Others (Big Brother) are wearing thin (even shock television has shown that there aren't that many interesting people to put in front of a camera).  Others are just--what were you thinking??  My vote for So American:  The Biggest Loser.  On the one hand, it's the ultimate feel-good story.  There's the potential for Big Brother-type backstabbing, but the contestants' hearts just aren't in it.  They're generally coming from severely obese backgrounds, and are amazed and grateful for the opportunity to change their lives.  The transformations are really amazing, and inspiring.  Of course, the cynic in me feels that it plays to the "hey, I'm overweight but not THAT much" feeling in us... in other words we're inspired but haven't quite made it off the couch as yet.
  • Then again, what might be interesting would be a "Modest Loser"... people with 10 to 50 pounds to lose.  The backstabbing is likely to be much more severe, and maybe we can all relate a little more to the contestants.
  • Fast forward to May 2007.  We've just had the triple whammy (at least it seems like that, since in our always-on, always-connected world we can now connect the dots on news items from around the world) of another round of tornadoes in the US, a catastrophic cyclone in Burma/Myanmar (fun fact, not at all surprising:  Myanmar has one of the most restrictive Internet access policies of any government), and a huge earthquake in China.  The tornado victims have been pushed off the front page.  The cyclone victims seem destined to suffer needlessly because their government can't allow the appearance that anyone other than the government could help the people.  And I hear on the radio that the Bush administration has promised $500,000 in aid to China.  Thousand?? I hope I heard that wrong.  Seems like a pitifully small amount to offer to a country that would actually welcome the assistance.
  • We have peacocks that roam the neighborhood.  Yes, I live on the set of Green Acres.  And this seems to be mating season for these birds.  The displays of tail feathers are nice enough... kind of a "check it out, ladies" statement.  What is hard to take are their mating calls.  You might compare it to the way "I love you" sounds in German vs. French (and apologies if you're German reading this).  One sound is a honk followed by a screaching kind of sound.  The reply (probably by the males) sounds something like "meow" and "mayo", with the emphasis on the second syllable.  When we hear it now, we all shout "pick me! pick me!".  We can't wait for mating season to be over...