Thursday, January 29, 2009


A tale of two Steves

Early in my time at IBM, the group I was working in added two new members — both, as it happens, called Steve. One, we were told, had a fairly senior position, a higher rank than our manager, though in the technical track, and would be the most senior member of our team. The other was at a lower level, only a little above me in the hierarchy.

They were to arrive on the same day, and I was to present my part of the project to them. I felt uneasy about that. Not because I had any problem with public speaking or giving a technical presentation about my work, but because I worried that my little presentation about my petty project couldn’t keep the senior Steve interested.

When the day came and we all met in a conference room, I went to the blackboard — yes, chalk and blackboards, then, and overhead projectors with transparencies — and started my talk. I tried to make it interesting, and Steve T. stayed alert and asked lots of questions. He seemed to be getting it, and that was heartening. But, as I’d expected, Steve G. was all but nodding off. He sat wordlessly, holding his head up with his hand and looking quite bored.

No matter: as I said, I’d expected that. I was just finishing my first year there, right out of college, so it didn’t surprise me that what I had to tell them couldn’t hold the interest of someone with 15 years or more of experience.

But then I found that I’d mis-read the whole thing. It was Steve T. who had the experience and the senior position. He’d moved ahead by being alert and inquisitive, by taking everything in and analyzing it, by understanding every part of a project, even those parts that had been assigned to junior programmers fresh out of school. His experience had taught him to learn from everyone.

Steve G. wasn’t as young as I, and had been with the company for a number of years, but still held a junior position and probably always would. As I worked with him over the next months, I could see that. His carefree approach was reflected in his work. By not paying attention to all the details, he lacked the overall vision that would get him more responsible, more influential positions.

That was an important lesson to learn early on; the two Steves taught me something that I’ve relied on ever since.


W.M. Irwin said...

I've never found public speaking easy; I'm glad to see that you can handle it well. I remember your enthusiasm in high school with that "I hate grits" speech! Perhaps I need to take up public speaking as a personal self-improvement project. Or perhaps not.

It's usually been my experience when starting any job that those in management tend to show more interest in what I have to say than do the rank and file. And some of those in the latter category tend to be suspicious of any newcomers and often display an attitude of "benevolent rejection" toward them until they get to know them better.

Barry Leiba said...

Hm, I don't remember that one at all. I remember doing the George Carlin routine in speech class.

W.M. Irwin said...

It could be that you didn't actually deliver it (about grits). Our English classes were split up in early '73: when I had Composition, you had Speech (and vice versa). But I remember you discussing it as a "humorous" speech topic. And that you were pretty gung-ho about Speech (as opposed to my attitude of impending doom about the course).