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Leaving Jamaica for Ithaca, NY, USA (1984)
At Cornell, the engineering school was one of the most difficult, and we were told that many of us wouldn’t be around at graduation four years later. (This turned out to be quite true — others left the university, graduated later or changed majors to escape the constant pressure to perform in the engineering school.)
The “OR&IE degree” was a four year program, but with my extra credits from passing GCE A’levels, I was able to gain a full semester. That was a plus.
Moving to Ithaca from Kingston, however, came as a culture shock in many ways. It was sobering to go from being the “big man” on a high school campus, to being an insignificant speck from a small island, on a major college campus. I met quite a few students who had perfect SAT scores, had traveled all over the world, and had already accomplished great things. And I had come from a school that didn’t have enough desks and chairs, and had a family of rats living around one of my classrooms!
Also, I found the standard to be much higher than I expected, and the room for error to be much less than I was accustomed to. Whereas the GCE A’ Levels had a passing grade of 45, our grades in engineering school were based on the mean of the class.
One of my formative moments came in Computer Science-100, when I scored 85% on the first exam. I wasn’t feeling bad, but when I told my roommate the mean, he exclaimed “WTF! — that’s only a C+!” I learned from him that everyone scoring above the mean, received a B- and better, while everyone below it received a C+ or worse.
In addition, the emphasis on “one shot” external exams in Jamaica meant that one could cruise for most of the year before buckling down in the last few months for tests that carried 100% of the grade. In the semester system at Cornell, the first exams came three weeks into the semester, and they carried up to 25% of the grade. There was simply no time to relax for much of the year, as I could back home.
The environment was intense, and it well known known that Cornell had the highest suicide rate in the history of tertiary mankind… or so we believed. In addition to studying, I needed to work part-time in order to make ends meet — it was a requirement of my financial aid package. The first job I got was a janitorial job, which I quit before the first day of work, after finding a job requiring PC skills in a computer room on campus. It was a very quiet office facility in the Agriculture School, and as a room monitor to mostly graduate students, I had access to a PC, plus lots of time to study. I was also earning more than I would as a janitor — my parent’s investment in that TI 99-4A was paying off.
I quickly learned that the pace of studying and working was unforgiving, and for most of the year the climate was very, very cold. I learned to walk faster, move more quickly, think several steps ahead — all in order to keep up with the pressure of academic and financial obligations. I learned to focus on using my limited time to study, and to earn money and on little else. Being casually late, the way we always were in Jamaica, was out of the question, especially after missing some key appointments.
My goal was to graduate in one piece, as soon as I could.
I used a scheduling method I had developed when I was sixteen — with time slots set aside to study different subjects. In my curriculum, there was no formal course of study for individual time management, even though there were multiple courses in how to schedule factory production. Where we were taught techniques for optimizing an individual’s productivity while working at a piece of equipment like lathe, the productivity of knowledge workers was completely ignored.
A cursory glance at the OR&IE ‘s school curriculum today shows that little has changed. There is not a single course in professional time management, and there appears to be no research being conducted in that field within the engineering disciplines. Hopefully, I’ll be proven wrong one day. (One big change has happened… Industrial Engineering has been replaced by Information Engineering.)
The irony didn’t sink in at the time – every single professional on the face of the planet must manage their time, and the subject is neither taught nor researched at the highest levels. Yet, I knew one professor who, presumably, due to the demands on his schedule would not answer the door when someone knocked. (We students figured out that he would answer his phone so we learned to innocently ask the secretaries in the OR&IE office to call him!) He taught a very well regarded course on “Optimization.” Hmmm… Other gaps in my education were to show up later.
During my school years, I got the opportunity to work for almost nine months on a Co-op internship program at Pitney Bowes Corporation in Connecticut. There, I found the going easy, and nowhere near as stressful as life on campus. Most employees I met were not remotely interested in working as hard as we engineering students were used to working, a fact that I knew from summers working in Jamaica.
But, I should qualify that by saying that few college students were interested in working as hard as engineering students at a highly competitive school. During a trip back home for the holidays I visited my friends on campus at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, which was still in session. This was an eye-opener, as the pace was nowhere as intense — it felt like a high school pace to me, having adjusted by then to Cornell’s demands.
When I returned to school from the Co-op program, I decided to increase my course-load. I didn’t have to work as I had saved enough from the job in Connecticut to get by. Instead, I poured my energies into an attempt to graduate in three years, and to complete a
Master’s degree in the four years. One of the deans of the Engineering School caught wind of my break-neck schedule, and told me that it “can’t be done that way”. I eventually graduated in 4 1/2 years with both a Bachelors and Masters. In one piece, but wondering at the end whether or not the intensity of Cornell was truly worth it or not. The idea of a PhD didn’t enter my mind after getting wind of the un-professional and backward ways in which graduate students were being managed.
I got married shortly after finishing the masters, and went to work at AT&T Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, one of the top research facilities in the world.
New Jersey Years (1989 – 1997)
I joined the ranks of internal consultants at AT&T Bell Labs, and my job was to assist in making process improvements in the company’s operations. My initial work project were based in Shreveport, Louisiana and Montgomery, Illinois. I eventually worked in many other parts of AT&T, but not before I began to realize that the “optimization” techniques I had learned at school were sadly lacking.
Everywhere I turned as a consultant, I found that internal politics, company culture and lack of communication were much more of a factor than all the rational, mathematical techniques I had learned in school. Getting people to agree with each other, was much more important than getting them to use a reasoned approach. I would help them streamline their processes, but the greatest value I created was in just listening and bringing people together who could not communicate.
After a few initial near-failures, I decided that this “people thing” was critical to my success, and I started to take as many courses as I could to learn what it all meant. I also realized that I had no long-term future at AT&T, given my total commitment to return to live in Jamaica. This had been established in my mind as soon as I accepted the offer from Cornell.
While I was at AT&T Betsy Morgan and I published an academic paper on the topic of concurrent engineering, which I presented at the ASME Conference in 1992. It’s listed in the library of time management research materials and addressed, not surprisingly, attempts by teams to save time. New Mental Models for Improving New Product Introduction has been cited by a few papers since its publication.
I ultimately decided to leave AT&T to start my own management consulting business as a way to transition my family back home, but not after attending a number of personal development courses offered by “gurus” such Tony Robbins and Les Brown, and devouring books and tapes by authors such as Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer and Stephen Covey.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey’s first big hit, was my bible for the longest time, as I found him saying things about living a productive life that no-one else was saying at the time, and he did so with great clarity. His focus on working effectively, while looking to accomplish a big life vision life resonated with me.
It was not until I left AT&T, however, that I did the Landmark Forum on the advice of a client and experienced a major turning point. The creators of the Forum had found way to delve into the improvement of people’s lives with the rigor of an engineer, never falling into the wishy-washy logic I found in some books I had read. It was the spark, a change in the way I thought about the “people-stuff” I had first snobbed as an engineer. This helped me later to understand that time management is not just about engineering, but is also about people’s psychology, and even includes their beliefs about the purpose of their lives.