Making the Numbers Work

Posted on 11/29/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

Cold War Story #6 Excerpted from Cold War Short Stories

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Making the Numbers Work

Jim Fowler settled down in his corner office with his first vending machine cup of coffee. The coffee was bad, but the only alternative was bringing a thermos. The corner office with a door represented a measure of his success as a longtime employee of the Data Action Corporation, commonly known as DAC. It had taken a while, over twenty years, to reach this position. Fowler started out as a mechanical design engineer and was eventually put in charge of all program management for all space systems programs. DAC had a reputation for highly reliable, lightweight, miniature yet capable computers for use in space by its government customers. Business had been good with President Reagan promoting his Star Wars missile defense system, but that could change; the Berlin Wall had come down a month previously.

A lot of pressure came with the job, and Jim attributed his overweight condition and loss of hair to the stress. He thought about exercising, maybe jogging. Trouble was he should lose some weight before he tried jogging. It was one of those chicken and egg things. There wasn’t much that could be done about the expanding bald spot on the crown of his head. Combing what hair remained over the bald spot wasn’t much of an improvement.

Despite the pressure, Jim liked his position as head of program management in space systems programs, with a staff of a half dozen working on proposals, program budgets, and scheduling, plus four program managers in charge of seven multimillion-dollar programs between them. He made more money and wielded more power than he ever could have as a design engineer, and he thought he had a talent for the job. He had a reputation as a good negotiator and was liked by the customers, prime contractors for the most part, like Lockheed and Boeing. He was also known as a demanding kick-ass type by his program managers and the department managers who supplied the engineers, technicians, assemblers, and support people who worked on the programs. Like most DAC managers, his background and training had been technical, not people oriented. As a result, the company largely depended on self-trained or gifts-from-God type of managers. Jim suspected he had been born with above-average management skills.

Jim’s phone rang. He hesitated to answer it. It was likely Gerald Blackstone, director of the Government Systems Division, calling about an overrun on the Eagle One program that had shown up in the previous monthly financial report.

Gerald growled, “Good morning, Jim.” Gerald’s voice didn’t sound like it was going to be a good morning.

Gerald continued. “Say, Jim… That Eagle One program is over budget, behind schedule. What are you doing to fix it?”

What Jim heard wasn’t news to him and shouldn’t be news to Gerald Blackstone. Alex Jorden, the program manager who prepared the Eagle One proposal, had instructed all the departments preparing the estimating to bid it skinny. The procurement would be fixed price and competitive. A potential for follow-on programs added value to the current procurement. The system would be used for satellite surveillance, something not likely to be cut from defense spending. Last, but not least, the division backlog had been shrinking, and without new business, there would be headcount reductions.

Alex Jorden had negotiated and cajoled the department managers to cut the bid to the bone, and then division management cut the already low-ball estimates by twenty percent. They were rolling the dice, betting that other division programs could make up any Eagle One losses so the division would be able to post an acceptable profit and level of business during the coming year. Now division management wanted to know why the program was running over budget. It was likely due in part to other programs not taking up the slack, and division profit margins were suffering. As a result, division management was under critical scrutiny by corporate management.

Jim hesitated. He didn’t want to say what he was thinking, which was, You dumbasses—what were you expecting?

“Hello, anybody there?” Gerald prompted, after waiting a while for an answer.

Jim faked a small cough to let Gerald know he was still on the line. He was trying to think of ways to stall or dodge the question. No doubt Gerald Blackstone was under pressure from corporate to show a division year-end profit to be rolled into the corporate annual report. Jim began fabricating an answer to Gerald’s question. “We are working the problem,” he said without going into any detail. “I’ll have a work-around plan on your desk Monday morning.”

After discussing several issues with other programs, Gerald signed off, reminding Jim that he looked forward to seeing the work-around plan on Monday.

Jim rocked back in his desk chair after he hung up and stared at the ceiling. He didn’t want to work this weekend on the “plan.” For one, it seemed to be an exercise in futility, and two, he had better things planned for the weekend. He dialed Alex Jorden’s office, located several doors down the hall. “Alex, you got a minute or an hour or so to talk about the Eagle One program?”

When Jim called, Alex Jorden, manager of the Eagle One program, was in the middle of preparing the customer’s Eagle One monthly progress report. It was good timing for him. He grabbed a couple Eagle One binders and headed for Jim’s office.

Alex had a boyish face and a full head of hair, which made him look young for a man about to turn fifty. A lot of activities with his two sons, nine and eleven, helped him stay in shape. Alex, like most managers in the company, had a technical background. Trained as an electrical engineer, he loved design and was good at it. Like many good design engineers, he had been rewarded with promotion to a manager of other engineers. It took Alex some time to realize he didn’t like managing people, particularly egotistical engineers.

The problem with leaving management and going back to computer design was that technology evolved at a fast pace at the design level, and a person who was away from it for couple of years could become obsolete. Transistors were packaged individually in cans when he was designing; now they put thousands on a microchip. Instead of applying logic at the transistor level, they were doing it at the microchip level. Sure, he could do that, but it would be like starting over. He worked around the problem by going into program management, where he had to understand the nature of the technology changes but not the nitty gritty of implementing them. In program management, he didn’t manage people, he managed things, like proposals, budgets, and schedules, and was the primary customer interface. He could handle that.

Jim waved Alex to a seat at a side table where they could spread out program data. “Here’s the problem,” Jim said as an introduction to what they had to accomplish today. “Division management wants to know why Eagle One is overrunning its budget. Apparently, they don’t want us to tell them what they already know. We bought the program, an investment that will pay off someday in the murky future. Apparently corporate wants the contract to pay off today, to hell with the murky future. So, we have come up with a plan to show how we can make a profit from a contract we bought with a bid that we estimated at twenty percent under cost. How do we do that?”

Alex looked at Jim. “Are they serious?”

“We are supposed to come up with a work-around plan by Monday morning.”

“We can give them the plan this afternoon,” Alex replied. “It’ll be a note that says it can’t be done. We have technical problems we don’t even know how to solve. A twenty percent overrun could be a low-ball estimate. I’m hardly charging the program. I keep haggling with the department managers to keep the cost down. We have put as much pressure on the vendors as the law allows. Some of the vendors are betting on the follow-on, just like us.”

Jim, who had been scanning a printout of charges on the Eagle One program, looked up. “That’s interesting,” he said.

“What’s interesting?”

“Are you doing any work on Eagle One?” Jim replied. “Doesn’t look like you are charging hardly any time to it.

Alex didn’t like what Jim was implying. Mischarging on government contracts was a big no-no that could result in heavy penalties for the company and individuals. Alex managed two phases of the Eagle One program, one a fixed-price contract to develop a new computer and a related but separate cost-plus program to manufacture a dozen satellite computers of previous design for use in an NSA program. The production program had been negotiated a year earlier as a noncompetitive cost-plus contract. The government had little leverage, as no other suppliers had the technology or interest in competing for the business. As a result, DAC Space Systems loaded up the contract with costs, and the prime contractor was only able to negotiate out some of the most egregious charges. The result was a contract with a lot of padding, and Jim understood damn well what Alex was doing.

Alex replied to Jim’s question. “You know time is charged to what you are working on—a program, a proposal, overhead, if you are on vacation or sick leave. That’s what I do.”

“Hey,” Jim said, “it’s no big deal. We all fudge project funds given opportunity and need. Maybe that’s a solution, doing something like this on a bigger scale.”

What Jim had just said scared Alex. “What are you saying?” Alex asked, hoping maybe he had misunderstood Jim.

“Well, you have two programs, one starving and the other fat. Same prime customer, same government agency—you just balance things out between the two of them.”

Alex was aware of these kinds of shenanigans with cost-plus programs, where there were two contracts within the same program and two buckets of money. How you filled them didn’t make much difference in the big picture, if they didn’t overflow. But two programs, one cost-plus and the other fixed price, was a different story. People got fired, companies were fined and received black marks when those kinds of strategies were mixed. Alex had invested over twenty years in DAC and didn’t want to risk it in order to make management happy. He pointed out these obvious problems to Jim.

Jim wasn’t impressed. “There’s more than one way to get fired,” he replied. “The quickest way is to mismanage your programs. If you are given an impossible program to manage, you need to figure out how to manage it. I’m in the same line of fire as you are. I see a way to fix the problem so everyone will be happy and none the wiser.”

Alex felt the pressure. Jim evaluated Alex’s performance during annual reviews and made salary recommendations. Those evaluations went into his file and stayed there forever. A bad evaluation in his record could affect his future in DAC in a bad way. Besides, Alex was not sure how they could accomplish what Jim implied. How could they manage the timecard information? Alex couldn’t think of a subtle way to ask, so he laid it out on the table. “How do you intend to modify the timecards?”

“Hey, Alex, as far as we are concerned, this conversation never took place. I expect you will work out the details. I don’t want to know how it’s done. We’ve accomplished what we needed to do today. You should get busy working on the plan. Complete it by Monday.”

After leaving Jim’s office, Alex felt a migraine coming on. He had been looking forward to a weekend of canoeing on a nearby river with his two sons. They planned to leave Saturday, camp overnight, and return Sunday evening. Now he had this problem hanging over his head, impossible to solve in any legitimate way.

Alex hadn’t been asked if he agreed with the scheme Jim had come up with. Jim had decided what to do and told Alex to do it. That was Jim’s style. So, Alex knew he would be in trouble with Jim if he didn’t do as directed, and he would be in trouble with the customer if they found out what was going on. There were no good scenarios.

Alex decided he wouldn’t let his work problems spoil the canoe trip with the boys, and they went as planned. The first day they headed downriver, the current helping them. They stopped often to observe the river’s wildlife. They caught a couple nice walleyes that they roasted on a fire for a shore dinner that evening. They did some more fishing from shore that night and caught a few small sunfish that they returned to the river. They got into their sleeping bags early because they would be paddling upstream to return to their put-in spot the next day.

The following day, they didn’t take many breaks because they were working against the current. The day was devoted to rowing. The boys took turns in the bow position. It was evening by the time they made it back and tied the canoe onto the car’s luggage rack. Driving home, Alex was exhausted but felt that he had done a good day’s work. The exhausted boys were soon sleeping in awkward positions in the car.

During the fun weekend with his boys, Alex had mentally worked out a plan to satisfy Jim’s order to fix the Eagle One program. The scheme Alex concocted involved collecting timecards that were turned in by noon on Friday. He would then close his office door, select the cards to be modified, and replace them with timecards he had altered. He would forge the employee’s signature on the altered card by studying the genuine signature and duplicating it as best he could. He had tried to think of better ways but using white-out or cross-outs would be too obvious spotted.

Alex had also decided during the canoe trip that he would begin looking for a new job. The twenty-plus years he had invested in DAC had lost their importance after his meeting with Jim.

He discovered that the defense business job market had tightened. The USSR was collapsing, the Cold War ending, and technology people were exiting the defense business, crowding the rest of the technology world. Alex spent a month chasing leads, contacting every local business that might need his skills. He didn’t want to move out of the area. He and his family had put down roots that would be hard to extract.

A month passed. The next Eagle One budget report showed remarkable improvement. Jim congratulated Alex on managing to improve the program’s performance.

Alex began calling former associates who had left DAC recently to find out what they were doing and if they knew of any opportunities. He called Frank Dawkins, a sharper than average engineer who had been lured away from DAC by a startup. Alex learned that Frank had left the startup after three months.

“They didn’t know what the hell they were doing,” Frank said. “So,I decided to start my own company. Have you heard about a thing called the internet? It’s starting to go commercial. I’m looking for C ++ coders. Know any?”

Alex said he didn’t know C ++ but he was looking for work.

“What happened with DAC?” Frank asked.

“Short story,” Alex replied, “I’m still working but looking to leave.”

“Hell, Alex, you used to do FORTRAN. You can learn C++ like nothing. But you know I can’t pay you like a program manager at DAC. You will be digging in the nitty gritty.”

Frank described what they were doing with the internet, sounding more excited as he talked. The idea began to appeal to Alex. And he liked the nitty gritty. It wouldn’t be hardware, but programming was the same kind of thing. “The idea is appealing,” Alex admitted. “I can handle a pay cut as long as it doesn’t last forever. How about some stock in your little enterprise in lieu of a big salary?”

Frank laughed. “All our professional people have gotten stock. Doesn’t cost the bottom line anything, and we can all get rich together.”

They agreed to meet the next day to talk some more. As a result, Alex signed on for a substantial cut in the salary he made at DAC and twenty thousand shares of the new company’s stock.

The next morning Alex gave Jim the required two-week notice: he would be leaving the company. Jim looked shocked. “You can’t do that!” he yelled. “You know damn well you can’t do that.”

“I did it,” Alex admitted.

“Stay another year. You’ll get the best raise you ever had.”

“If you’re worried about the timecards, I’ll brief you on the process. I’ll help you with it for the next two weeks.”

“Dammit, you know I can’t assign another manager to either program. I’ll have to manage them myself. That’s not going to work. I’ll get you a promotion.”

Alex had been focused on his own problems associated with leaving DAC and hadn’t lost much sleep worrying about the problems he might be causing Jim. But being made aware of some of Jim’s problems wasn’t giving him any heartburn either. He made his best effort to sound sympathetic to Jim’s concerns while suppressing a satisfied smile.

Alex soon became immersed in his work in Frank’s new company, and it didn’t take him long to realize the thing called the internet would be transforming the communications world. Frank’s little company was growing as fast as it could hire engineers, programmers, and staff. The stock that had no value when Alex joined the company six months previously now traded on the local market at ten dollars a share.

Through contacts Alex maintained with former DAC associates, he learned the government was conducting an audit of the Eagle One program, an event that only occurred when something seriously caught the government’s attention. A couple of months later, Alex had lunch with an engineer he had worked with at DAC. The engineer reported that Jim had suddenly left the company and the whole division was shaken up, with a half dozen directors being demoted or fired. He heard that Jim had been manipulating timecards. “Can you imagine anyone being so dumb?”

Alex shook his head. “Yeah, I can imagine it.”

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