A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

15 June 2012

The ARCTIC Summer

Back at the ranch, we got down to the work of turning "56K technology" into a brand and a product line.  We needed to generate a bunch of "education sell" material -- visually appealing and quick-to-read handouts that would explain the new technology succinctly and simply, while emphasizing why the end user would care.

Our goal was to be ready to go on a particular launch date with an aggressive ad campaign that would appear quite literally overnight.

During this time, the stress in the office was palpable.  Most of us were there by 7:30 AM, and most of us didn't leave until 7:30 PM or later.  As the date drew nearer, this became a six day a week schedule. We all felt the pressure to get everything done, and we felt it both from our individual roles and also from those of our colleagues.  The engineers were testing, revising, fine-tuning, testing again, and scratching their heads over various bugs in the code.  We needed modems that did 56K out of the box, and we needed an upgrade path for every version of our product that our customers already owned.

The newer modems could be "flashed" over their internet connection lines.  Slightly older ones could do a chip swap.  Older than that but new enough to qualify for the upgrade would need a full product replacement.  In all three cases, we decided the price would be the same.  The logistics of figuring out which modem you had, what upgrade you needed, and how to get your upgrade fulfilled were going to be a spectacular nightmare.  But we were committed to doing it for our customers, and making it as easy as it could be.

The factory didn't require a huge amount of retooling -- after all, the form factor of the devices wasn't changing; just some key parts of the guts.  But we would need to come up with some sort of forecast to determine what to manufacture and in what amounts.  Internal, external, a different model for Mac computers vs. Intel machines.

Then there was the head-end.  We needed to be ready to upgrade the ISPs so they could start advertising that they supported the new technology.  We wanted to be able to say some ISPs were live with it as soon as possible after the announcement, so end users would have a reason to buy the things. But we couldn't tell them about it until the launch date.

In sales and marketing, we had volumes and volumes of *stuff* to produce.  Data sheets for the products. Explanations of the upgrade process.  Inserts for the product boxes that would ship from launch day forward, explaining the upgrade path.  Cards for store shelves and other in-store media.

And, oh, by the way, a brand name.  We decided it would be called "x2 Technology(TM)" A logo emerged, and a general look and feel for all the new packages and supporting media.

Generating this stuff took months of work from hundreds of people.  The amazing thing was, everybody was having a ball.

Don't get me wrong.  We were stressed and exhausted.  In turn, each of us "hit the wall." And you've never seen so much caffeine ingested by one group of people in one day (My personal best was 12 cans of Diet Coke in 10 hours).  But at the same time, we were kids on Christmas.  We had an awesome new technology that was going to change the market.  We had total clarity on what we needed to do.  We were all in it together, and we knew it.  Even when we doubted we would ever pull it off in time, somehow, we never doubted we would pull it off in time.

Next up: Hell week.

13 June 2012


At a National Sales Meeting in 1996, a guy named Burk (he'll show up again in this story later) stood up in front of the entire PCD sales and marketing organization and worked his way through a slide presentation about a new technology, code name "ARCTIC."  It was absolutely imperative, he said, that no one in this room breathe a word of this to anyone.  We had gotten our hands on a technology, he said, that was going to allow us to double the speed of internet connections -- to achieve 56K on an analog phone line.

Yeah, I know.  From your seat at the gigabit ethernet workstation in 2012, you're not impressed.  But if you have been around long enough to remember, you remember that this was a very big deal.

We later decided that ARCTIC stood for "a really cool technology, introduced Christmas," that being the time frame when we were likely to be ready to go to market with it.

Looking back on it, I don't know if everyone in the company was as excited about it as I was.  I'm prone to passion -- when you tell me it's a big deal, I tend to believe you.  And it was pretty clear that we had the jump on our competitors with this, and that we had a unique capacity to deliver it that most of our competitors couldn't touch.

You see, in order for 56K technology to work, the modem you talk to with your modem must also speak 56K.  And the technology to do that at this point was proprietary.  Buying a 56K modem for your computer wasn't going to help you unless your Internet Service Provider could speak the same 56K language.  And unlike our competitors, we had an entire division (Corporate Systems, later renamed Network Systems) that built ISP head-end equipment.  So odds were good that the modem your modem was calling was built by U.S. Robotics.

And the crowning glory was that this technology would, for most of the head-end equipment and even a handful of client-side equipment (client-side being you, the average individual customer) would be "flash upgradable" -- no new hardware required.

At the time of this meeting, we had all arrived there feeling a little discouraged.  The modem was becoming commoditized, and we'd said everything there was to say about it that was interesting.  The market was softening and it was tough to defend the premium price we were asking in the retail marketplace.  (U.S. Robotics modems were the most expensive on the shelf.  We built them in Skokie, Illinois, USA, and we paid for a ton of independent lab testing and quality assurance work that our competitors tended not to bother with.)

Needless to say, this rekindled the fire in a big way.  We couldn't talk about 56K, but we could talk about current products that were flash-upgradable, and we could talk about the "end-to-end solution" that meant you and your ISP were using the same brand of modem.  If it's good enough for your ISP, then it must be pretty good, right?

We came out of that meeting ready to conquer the world, understanding exactly what we would need to do to become utterly dominant in the modem marketplace.  Our goal was a clean, world-changing launch of ARCTIC in time for the holiday shopping season, and from there, we were shooting for 60% market share.

Next up: The ARCTIC Summer

06 June 2012

The Story Begins

Once upon a time, people used a device called a "modem" to connect their computers to the internet. Hard as it is to believe, the internet has not always existed, and it has not always come into every home and commercial property automatically, quickly and seamlessly.  It used to be that you had to "dial up," using a modem and a telephone land line (remember land lines?) to connect your computer to your internet service provider.  At the time our story begins, this phone connection, depending on how new and how expensive your modem was, afforded a data transfer speed up to 28.8 kilobits per second.  (The most seasoned computer users among you will recall when it was much slower even than that.  This is not that story.)  These days it is hard to imagine any of that, but at the time, it was the best technology we had.

The year is 1995, and I am working for a temp agency.  The agency has placed me at a company called U.S. Robotics for a two or three day data entry gig.  I detest data entry, but my temp agency has always been good to me and they are desperate, so I agree to the gig.  It is an awful experience, underscoring all the reasons I hate data entry, and I tell them I never want to go back to that awful place.

Months pass, and the agency calls me, again desperate.  They need someone to go to U.S. Robotics.  They offer to pay me a higher hourly rate than they've ever paid before, and they promise that if I hate it, I need only stick it out to the end of the week and they'll find someone else.  I reluctantly agree.

I go to a different building from the one I went to before.  It turns out my previous gig was in the "Corporate Systems" division and now I'm going to the "Personal Communications Division." I report to a lady named Christine in a department called "Channel Marketing."  And I get to work.

A few weeks later they offer me a permanent position, and I enthusiastically accept, because in this department of this division of USR, I have found something unlike anything I've ever seen before.  This group of people is smart, dedicated, professional, and at the same time is so much fun to be around that the hours at work just fly by.  The company makes modems, and I quickly learn that they are the number one selling computer modems in the world, with more than 50% market share in many of the segments in which they compete.  They are working on technology to accelerate modem speeds to 33.6 kbps, and working with resellers to push more and more modems out into the world as the internet's popularity is skyrocketing.

The pace at USR is relentless, and yet it is just plain FUN to be there.  We work hard, arriving most mornings between 8 and 8:30 and frequently staying until 6:00 or 7:00 at night -- especially on Fridays, which is an aspect of that culture I still don't understand to this day.  The department I work for seems to be responsible for a lot of internal communication among the sales and marketing functions, helping the salespeople understand the products and the promotions as they change and develop over time.  And in time, I become a key player in that game, personally creating and delivering a lot of information for the sales force.

This culture is exceptional.  There's a story that everyone in the company knows -- that at any time, the CEO, Casey Cowell, might ask you to state the mission of the company (a rather long statement about being the number one data communication company whose products "meet the needs and expand the capabilities of business and professional clients worldwide").  If you recited it correctly, Casey would hand you a $100 bill.  I never met anyone who personally had this happen to them, but I did talk to a number of people who claimed they remembered it happening to a coworker.  It may or may not have actually been true, but I am here to tell you that everybody in that company knew the mission statement.

More importantly, everybody LIVED it.  I consistently found every person I worked with to be friendly, helpful, and great at what they did.  We all knew why we were there, and we got stuff done.

My first six or seven months with the company were really good.  I loved it there.  And then something happened that made it even better.

Next up: ARCTIC