In the Bullseye Breach incident, Jerry Barkley diagnosed how Russian mobsters stole millions of credit card numbers from Bullseye Stores over the internet. During the MOA incident in Virus Bomb, Jerry uncovered the largest cyberattack in history and shut down a biological attack that could have killed thousands. But Jerry and adversity are long-time acquaintances.
A bear of a man, who looked every bit like the legends about him, company founder and CEO, Ken, “KO,” Olaffsen strode to the podium at the October, 1991 Global Field Readiness meeting at a hotel in Nashua, New Hampshire, and extended a meaty hand. “Great presentation, Jerry. You and your group gave us a lot to think about.”
Jerry Barkley, presenter for this special early morning session, smiled and shook KO’s hand. “Thanks. And we all wanted to make sure you know we didn’t ask for stock just to be selfish. We brought it up because we all want a stake in the company’s future. We want to help make this company grow again. We meet with customers every day. We can help you keep in touch with what’s going on.”
“I know. And leadership like what you showed today is what we need to get back on track.”
And then it was over. Jerry took a breath, stretched, and sat in a chair in the front row as the last of the KO entourage left the room and most of the hundred or so other field consultants from around the world stretched and went out for water. The adrenaline flowed from Jerry’s fingers and toes right out onto the floor. He closed his eyes and wiped sweaty palms on his pants.
The field consultants had chosen Jerry to deliver the presentation, and John Wisniewski and Jason Bates had stayed up with Jerry most of the night to help put it together. John was from Dallas, Jason was local. Others had wandered in periodically through the night, offering suggestions and feedback. Jerry had slept for maybe one hour.
“Great job, Jerry.”
“You nailed it, man.”
“Not bad for a bald guy from Minnesota.”
Jerry laughed. “Thanks. I think I’ll go get some water.”
Jerry stretched again and then headed out the back of the room toward the hotel lobby. Reza Rajavi caught up with him. “Jerry, can I ask you a question?”
“If you got laid off by a voicemail, what would you do?”
“I just checked my voicemail and the message said I’ve been laid off. I guess that means I’m not going to the Excellence Awards with you next week. Should I fly home right now, or what? And will the company pay for the plane ticket and hotel while I’m here?”
“Wait a minute. Your manager sent you here and then left you a voicemail and laid you off?”
“Well, no, my manager is on vacation in Australia. The message came from our acting manager.”
Jerry stopped dead in his tracks. “You gotta be kidding me. That’s not right. C’mon.” He led Reza back into the presentation room, where the next speaker was setting up. Jason and John were in opposite corners of the room and Jerry motioned for them to come over.
“What are we gonna do about this?” Jerry asked, after Reza shared his story.
“What can we do about it?” John asked. “It’s not like we can stop the layoffs.”
“But a layoff by voicemail? We can do something about that,” Jason said.
“The first thing we’re doing is writing a letter. Give me a couple minutes to compose it,” Jerry said.
“And then what?” John asked.
“And then we deliver it.”
“You mean, mail it from here?”
“No. We don’t mail it. We deliver it. Personally.”
“Wait a minute. We just march into the Mill, find KO and hand this to him?”
“KO’s personal secretary’s name is Ann Jenkins. Did I tell you guys I know her personally?” Jason smiled.
“I’ve talked to her a few times,” Jason said. “Living here has its advantages. She’ll meet with us. And she’ll give him the letter.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
The letter was ready as the next speaker wrapped up. Jerry strode to the front of the room and grabbed a mic. “Hey everyone, don’t leave yet. We need to talk about some things.”
Jason and John joined Jerry in front of the group. “Let me read you this letter first, and then we’ll to talk about what we’re doing about it.”
Jerry picked up the printed copy. “Dear Ken. First we want to thank you for visiting with our Field Readiness Partner group this morning. It was a privilege to offer you feedback on what we believe are workable solutions to our company problems. After you left, a new issue came to our attention, and we need to bring it to your attention. This morning, an acting manager in the Washington, D.C. office laid off one of our group members – who was scheduled to go to the Excellence Awards next week – with a voicemail.”
The room erupted.
Jerry set the mic down and stood on a table. “Hang on. Let me finish. Because you guys are gonna tell us if you like what this says.” The room quieted. “Here’s the rest. And while we recognize the company needs to take unpleasant actions to survive a crisis, surely a company that claims, ‘do the right thing’ as a core value can find a better way to lay people off then by a voicemail to an employee on the way to the Excellence Awards from an acting manager while the permanent manager is away on vacation in Australia. We need your help to right this wrong.”
Questions and comments came from everywhere.
After answering a few questions, Jerry continued. “This is what we’re planning to do about it. We’re signing this letter – and anyone in this room who wants to sign is welcome – and then we’re putting it in an envelope and we’re hopping in a car to hand-deliver it to KO’s personal secretary. Is everyone okay with this?”
The room roared.
“Sounds like a yes to me. Anyone who wants to sign, come on up and sign this and then we’re heading out.”
Ninety minutes and forty miles later, Jerry, John, and Jason, dressed in sweatshirts, blue jeans, and tennis shoes marched through the front door of the headquarters of the world’s second largest computer company in a converted textile mill in Maynard, Massachusetts. Jerry carried a manila envelope with the letter and dozens of signatures. His signature was the first and easiest to spot.
“May I help you?” the receptionist asked.
Jerry spoke. “We’re here to see Ann Jenkins and we’d like to deliver a letter to her.”
“Um,” she looked Jerry up and down, “Ann isn’t available at the moment, but I’ll be happy to take to her.”
Jerry glanced at Jason and John. Both shook their heads, no.
“We’d prefer to deliver this ourselves.”
“But as I said, she’s not available.”
“Do you have any idea when she will become available?”
“I’m sorry, no.”
“Okay, if that’s what you want. There are some chairs along the wall. Please have a seat.”
Jerry smiled. “I think I’ll stand if it’s all the same to you.” He stood five feet from her desk and surveyed the room. Three people in suits stood around a low table, talking quietly. Jerry recognized one of them. Dan Zaluski, wearing a red tie. The global customer service vice-president. Jerry’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s boss. Another one was the corporate HR Director, wearing a yellow tie; Jerry had seen him in videos. The third was a stranger with a blue tie. Their standup meeting broke up and they moved, single file, toward the receptionist desk and Jerry. Jerry turned to face them.
Zaluski stopped in front of Jerry and looked him up and down. Jerry nodded a Minnesota Midwestern hello nod and looked him in the eye and smiled. Zaluski strode away. The other two did the same, one after the other. Jerry’s heart pounded, but he made sure to hold their gaze as long as they wanted. Both looked away first, before walking away. I’ll bet you guys are dying to know what I have in this envelope. Maybe you should ask.
Ann Jenkins appeared a few minutes later. “May I help you gentlemen?”
Jason stood. “Hi Ann – I’m Jason. We’ve met a few times.”
“Yes, Jason, so nice to see you again.”
She doesn’t mean it. She probably thinks we’re terrorists. “Hi Ann, I’m Jerry Barkley. And this is John Wisniewski. Ken met with us this morning and something came up after he left you need to know about. Is there somewhere private we can talk?”
She directed them down a hall and into a conference room. “You gave our receptionist quite a scare. These are tough times and we never know who will walk through that door.”
“Sorry about that. We didn’t plan on driving into corporate headquarters this morning, but, well, here, we wrote it down in this letter.” Jerry handed her the envelope.
After everyone took seats, Ann opened the letter. The more she read, the more red her ears became. After finishing, she looked up, cheeks flushed. “I promise you, Ken will see this letter. Today. I would bring him in here right now to meet with you, but he’s in an analyst meeting and I can’t pull him out. But I will show him this letter as soon as he’s out of that meeting. I promise.”
“Thanks Ann,” Jason said.
“No. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I promise, we’ll do something about it.”
Excellence Award winners usually earned a company-paid trip to a luxury overseas resort. But not this year. Not when the whole company convulsed with layoffs. This year’s Excellence Award winners, at least the ones from the United States, traveled to southern California and spent a week at a hotel with an outdoor pool.
As Jerry swam laps Tuesday afternoon, somebody grabbed his arm in mid-stroke. It was Jason. “Jerry, did you hear? The layoffs stopped.”
“They stopped the layoffs. There were people in little meeting rooms all over the country and the phone rang and the layoffs stopped. Cold. They’re suspended for thirty days.”
“How do you know?”
“Because three people just called me and told me about it.”
“There’s more. From now on, layoff notices have to be face to face. And if you’re laid off, you get five days to settle anything in the office you need settled. No more security guards at the door on Mondays. And no more voicemail layoffs.”
Jerry was back at work the next Monday morning. “Jerry, would you come into my office, please?” It was Pat Benson, Jerry’s manager.
Pat closed her office door and moved behind her desk. “Have a seat.”
Jerry sat in front of her desk.
“I heard about the stunt you pulled at your little partner meeting.”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“The presentation we did? Or when we found out one of the guys in our group got laid off with a voicemail? You know, they stopped the layoffs across the whole company because of what we did? I’m still amazed. That was so cool, they listened to us.”
“You didn’t influence anything. They had that planned for months before you pulled your little stunt. You should have followed the chain of command.”
“What chain of command? Last time I checked this was a business, not the army, and it’s supposed to have an open door policy.”
“You made me look bad and I’m gonna remember this, Jerry. There will come a time when you won’t have your precious Ken Olaffsen to protect you. Now, get outta here and get to work.”
One year later, Jerry Barkley shook his head at the latest corporate memo. Ken Olaffsen had retired shortly after that fateful meeting, officially “to pursue other interests.” Unofficially, according to numerous sources Jerry knew, the board of directors had fired him. The Twin Cities field office had shrunk to less than half the people from a year ago. Office hallways that used to be light and lively were now dark and cavernous.
The memo was a masterpiece of corporate-speak.
We are pleased to announce our new field organizational structure. This new structure will exploit a window of opportunity to maximize our impact. By leveraging synergies between the consulting and customer services groups, we will achieve maximum efficiencies while minimizing overhead.
No wonder this company is in trouble. What does this crap even mean? And signed by not one, but two company vice-presidents. They must have leveraged a bunch of synergies to put that together.
Another employee walked by Jerry’s cubicle, also holding a copy of the memo. “Hey Marilyn, how many vice-presidents does it take to change a light-bulb?”
She laughed. “Happy Monday, Jerry.”
“How much you figure they spent to send this out to everyone?” Heads popped up in cubicles. “I’m guessing it’s one dollar each for the envelope, printer toner, and paper, plus postage to send it everywhere. Times fifty thousand people still here; that could pay for some lights around here.”
A few people laughed. Gallows humor.
“Jerry, can I see you in my office for a minute?” It was Pat Benson, again. Meetings in Pat’s office were never good.
“As you know, we’re reorganizing, and I find my department no longer needs your services. And so you’ve been reassigned to the customer services team, effective immediately. Your new manager, Mychaela Kay, is expecting you downstairs at your earliest convenience. Your first day in her group is tomorrow.”
“But what about the rest of the technical presentations you wanted me to put together?”
“The one you delivered recently was the worst presentation I’ve ever seen. Going forward, other people will clean up your mess.”
“Huh. Ya know, Rick told me they were the best he’d ever seen.”
“Why am I not surprised, you tried to go around me again? What is your problem with the chain of command?”
“I didn’t go around you. He was sitting right there in the presentation next to you. He told me in the hallway it was the best he’d ever seen. Now you tell me it was the worst you’ve ever seen. You guys can’t both be right.”
“We spoke afterwards. He agrees with me now. But it’s irrelevant. You don’t work in this department anymore.”
“Whether you like it or not, there are a bunch of people counting on me finishing the rest of those presentations. Why don’t we do this big switcheroo after I get that done?”
“Jerry, you don’t seem to understand your situation. So, I’ll do you a favor and spell it out for you. If you refuse this transfer, today, you’ll leave me with no choice but to consider it a resignation. Since you’re resigning, there will be no severance package, no five days in the office, and nobody to rescue you. Someone will escort you to the parking lot. Immediately. You have two choices. Accept this reassignment, or leave. Right now.”
Jerry paused for a few seconds. “Wow, so this is how the nasty politics works, huh?”
“You’re a big boy. You rub elbows with CEOs. What’s your decision?”
Jerry leaned back and interlocked his hands on his stomach. He pursed his lips and then leaned forward, smiled, and nodded. Never let ’em see you sweat. She holds all the cards.
“Well, since you put it that way, I’ll accept your generous offer.”
“Get outta my office.”
Jerry stood and walked out, laughing. He put a hand in his pocket and extended his middle finger.
Six months later, Jerry found himself attending yet another post-layoff survivors’ meeting.
Jerry got along fine with his new manager, Myke, But the first Monday of every quarter sucked.
By now, after two years of this, Jerry and the rest of the company survivors knew the pattern well. First, the mysterious offsite managers meetings. Then, hushed, informal gatherings in darkened hallways trading rumors and speculation about who was getting the axe this time. And then Monday morning, when managers called employees into little conference rooms and delivered the news. The next Monday opened with survivor meetings, organized by what was left of the HR Department, where managers gave presentations with assurances this was the last one and this time they really meant it.
Today’s speech was typical, with memorable lines like. “We know change can be uncomfortable at times. But we’re here to help.”
It was time for questions.
“How may people were laid off this time?”
The HR representative flown in from corporate to help answered. “I wish people would stop characterizing it that way. We know that change can sometimes be difficult. We carefully considered market dynamics and resource requirements, and we found we’re in a transition phase. We’ll need fewer and different resources going forward, and that’s why we’re offering a generous transition financial support option, or TFSO, to all employees chosen to transition away from the company. We’re not laying people off, we’re helping people transition to a new phase of employment.”
A few people laughed. Lots of eyes rolled.
“What’s the company supposed to look like once we get through all this?”
Rick, Jerry’s former bosses boss took that one. “We don’t know.”
It was the only honest answer in the whole meeting. Jerry shook his head and walked back to his cubicle. Listening to somebody from corporate treat the professionals in his office as if they were Epsilon semi-morons in Brave New World was too much to take. He busied himself with a support case. And lunch.
After the meeting broke up, Myke stopped at Jerry’s cubicle. “Jerry, when you finish your lunch, I have a project I want you to work on. Is that tuna?”
“Yeah. Want some?” He held out half a sandwich.
“Thanks, yeah, that looks good.”
Jerry cleared a chair and Myke sat. They shared a paper plate on the corner of Jerry’s desk.
“This case you’re working on looks interesting. Any ideas yet on what’s going on?”
“Not yet. It could be a bad memory module. Or it could be a kernel bug. We don’t know yet.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You know we’re seeing more and more cases like this. Hardware is software and software is hardware and we don’t know how to tell the difference any more. The world is changing and we have too many hardware technicians and not enough software expertise. I need your help to fix that.”
“How can I help?”
“You’re the software expert. You grew up with it. But most of our people are electronics techs. They’ll need different skills going forward. I want you to organize a training curriculum. I want our techs to learn how to troubleshoot software problems. Think you could take on a project like this?”
Jerry took his last bite and smiled. “Yeah, I like that idea. Let me give it some thought.”
Five days later, Jerry laid out his plan in Myke’s office. “You know I’m working on my MBA at the University of St. Thomas.”
“Well, the guys at St. Thomas are hungry for students and they’re willing to put together customized classes for everyone in the group. This could get college degrees for all the techs here.”
“Yeah, this is really cool. We’d use the company tuition reimbursement plan, and everyone who wants it could sign up and earn a Bachelor’s degree in software engineering or whatever makes sense. It’ll take a few years for everyone, but it’s a real education. And it could be a model the whole company could follow.”
“That’s awfully aggressive.”
“You wanted education. Here’s the way to get it.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a five-day training class about Windows.”
“Yeah, I know. But if you want these guys successful in this new world of small computers where everything is software, they need a complete education. You said yourself, nobody will need electronics technicians in a few years. Here’s a way to get our guys ready.”
“But if everyone’s in class, how do we do field service?”
“We’ve been working on that. Everyone would go to one or two hours of class a couple times per week, staggered. So a few are in class while others are covering customers. Myke, this really could work.”
Myke smiled and then nodded. “Yeah. I like the concept. When you fill in more details, keep me in the loop.”
Jerry smiled. “Thanks. This beats wringing our hands and waiting around for the next layoff round.”
“They’re not layoffs, they’re . . .”
“Yeah, I know, TFSOs. Don’t drink too much Kool-Aid.”
Myke laughed as she walked away.
It all died five months later.
“Jerry, I have bad news” Myke said. “Your training program won’t fly. The company’s cancelling all tuition reimbursement. The only training we’ll pay for is training directly relevant to the job. College degrees aren’t relevant to the service techs’ jobs and we can’t afford to pay for it.”
Jerry’s jaw dropped. “So that’s it, the company is chopping off its own future?”
“I wouldn’t characterize it that way, no. We just can’t afford unnecessary expenses right now, and this training is unnecessary.”
“You’re kidding, right? A high-tech leader is saying that education is unnecessary?”
“Oh great, what now?”
“Your MBA training. It’s not relevant to your job, so we’re also stopping reimbursements for that.”
Jerry plopped back in his chair. He closed his eyes and shook his head.
“Look, if it’s any consolation, I went to bat for you. I lost. Maybe they’ll put the program back when times get better, but right now we just can’t afford it.”
Jerry looked down. He sat on his hands to keep from doing something stupid. Mychaela was a good manager and Jerry liked her. She did the best she could with what she had – and right now, she had nothing to offer and they both knew it.
“And so I’m supposed to, what, just cancel my classes and wait for them to change their minds?”
“It’s only temporary. They’ve already paid for this semester, so finish that up as normal. You’ll miss next semester, but maybe they’ll start back up in a few months when things get better.”
Jerry leaned forward. “It’s been almost three years. When do things get better? Nobody even knows what the company’s supposed to look like.”
He paused, fighting tears, and shook his head. “They’re cutting their own throats. Thanks for going to bat for this program and for me. I appreciate it. But if this company doesn’t want to support educating its own employees, I don’t want to be part of it anymore.” It was like the words spilled out on their own.
“Jerry, I can see you’re upset. Why don’t you go think about this for a couple days and then get back to me?”
“You’re right Myke. I am mad. But I’m not gonna change my mind. That tuition reimbursement program is the only thing left keeping me loyal to this company. If they won’t pay for my tuition, I’ll find a way to pay for it myself, and when I’m done, I won’t feel any loyalty to this organization. When the next layoff round comes, lay me off and keep somebody else here who wants to keep a job. I’ll use the TFSO money to build my own life.”
“There aren’t any more layoffs coming.”
“You and I both know better.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Yeah. I’m sure. And I’ll tell the group I’m sorry our education program didn’t work out.”
Two months later, on Monday, January 31, 1994, Jerry woke up with a fever, chills, and a sore throat. He picked up the phone to call in sick. But then he realized, there was nobody to call – everyone in the office who might answer the phone had been laid off. He left a hoarse voicemail for Myke, rolled over and went back to sleep.
The phone rang around 10 A.M. “Jerry, I need to see you in the conference room in one hour.”
“Myke, can we do this over the phone? I think I have strep and I shouldn’t be around anyone today.”
“No, you need to come in.”
“Are you laying me off?”
“Let’s talk about that when you get here.”
Jerry showered, dressed, and made his way to the office.
Myke escorted Jerry into a little conference room where an HR representative flown in from corporate waited.
“I should wear a surgical mask or something, so I don’t infect you guys.”
Myke gave Jerry a look and then recited what she was supposed to say. “The management team has determined that your contribution is no longer consistent with the direction the company needs to follow. Therefore, the company needs to initiate an involuntary separation. Recognizing that this is a transition, the company is offering you a transition financial support option equivalent to one week’s pay for every year of service with the company. If you wish to take advantage of this offer, please initial each page that you agree and sign at the appropriate spot at the end.”
With the HR representative watching and taking notes, Myke next took out two copies of a multi-page document filled with sentences in teeny tiny print and placed it on the table. The document relieved the company from any past, present, or future legal liability and prohibited Jerry from a long list of behaviors the lawyers apparently thought should be prevented. It had “I agree” in a larger font on the top right corner of each page with an underline next to it for initials. It also had a sentence in large font at the end that said, “I agree with the terms and conditions as set forth in this document on _________(date)” with some white space and underlines for Jerry’s signature underneath his typed name next to the word, “employee.”
“Nicely delivered,” Jerry said.
The HR representative spoke next. “Take your time and read it thoroughly before you sign. But the next meeting is in fifteen minutes, so we’ll need to wrap it up by then. If you are experiencing emotional issues, we have complimentary tissues available for your convenience.”
Jerry laughed. “Tell your lawyers, I like the tissue part. Kinda gets ya right there.” He put his hand over his heart. “Complementary, huh?” He took a couple and stuffed them in his pocket. “Never know when you might need a good tissue.”
“Thank you,” Jerry mouthed silently to Myke. She gave a barely perceptible nod in reply.
That was the last time Jerry ever saw her, but he carried a debt of gratitude to her for finding a way to honor his wishes. He used the TFSO money to start Barkley IT services and finish his MBA degree.
By now, nobody used overhead projectors and plastic presentation slides any more. These days, everyone used laptops and portable projectors. Ken Olaffsen had died recently and the great company he founded was now a Harvard University case study in spectacular business failures and no more than a footnote in history.
The garage door rumbled downstairs. That would be Jerry’s wife, Lynn, coming home from the grocery store. The entryway door opened a few seconds later.
“Jerry, help me unload the car. I bought you some dark socks so you’ll look presentable in your customer meetings. And you’re getting a different pair of shoes.”
Jerry chuckled as he looked at the last slide from that presentation so many years ago. “We want to be part of the solution.” He packed it in its original manila folder, carefully placed it back in its box on top of a couple of unused tissues, and put it away in the closet.
“Be right there, Lynn. I like my tennis shoes and white socks just fine.”