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Earthquakes, chili and ejection Part two – true tales from an ex-IT support man Episode 21

Galvanised by the trip to Chico, I proceeded to write a suite of reports that gave management and statistical information from each of the systems using the software embedded in the product, and we were getting more sales and gradually growing the business, but Norman was eyeing bigger targets. He tried contacting Blockbusters at the headquarters in Teddington, Middlesex, to speak to their technical director about getting a meeting set up to demo our product, as it was superior to theirs and was far less labour-intensive to maintain and develop.

Now, one thing you need to understand about technical directors of large corporations, which Norman failed to do, is that they have an empire with large budgets, large teams of developers and an aversion to having their boats rocked. This meant that the UK technical director, whom I shall refer to as Morgan, studiously ignored Norman’s advances on several occasions – after all, why would he want to give up his empire to use a pissant little application like ours? This, naturally, annoyed Norman but, being a dyed-in-the-wool salesman and being, in equal measures, ignorant and stubborn, he kept on pestering Morgan to the point of relentlessness, all to no avail. Knowing the effect that was having on Norman, and ultimately on the rest of the firm in the UK, I decided to do a bit of research, found a suitable contact in the parent corporate headquarters and convinced them to set up a meeting with the reluctant Mr.Morgan. We received a call from his PA setting up the meeting at the Teddington Offices a few days after my call.

The Blockbusters UK HQ was an impressive building – all blue glass and steel, open plan and typical of the time. We reported to reception and, shortly thereafter, Morgan came down to reception to take us up to the conference room. As we started up the stairs, we noticed a Zoltar machine, like the one in the movie,, Big, at the foot of the stairwell. Norman took a coin out of his pocket and deposited it in the slot, at which Morgan asked, frostily, what he thought he was doing, and Norman said he was hoping for a positive outcome and wanted confirmation from Zoltar. Error number one.

We went into the conference room and, waiting for us, were the lead developer in the UK and one of the sales execs. Norman started his spiel, but I could see that Morgan was determined to be unimpressed (having been torn a new one by the US TD to force him to see us). About ten minutes into the hour-long meeting, Norman then started bad-mouthing our competition (error number two), at which point I could see the hackles rising in Morgan, so I whispered into Norman’s shell-like that he should perhaps ease off and let me do some techie-talk to diffuse the situation I perceived was developing, but Norman, who would never back down, just carried straight on, even after Morgan expressed his displeasure at Norman’s disparagement of the opposition as “not something he would have expected” during such a meeting. Morgan then scooped up his paperwork and folders that had been on the table in front of him and said he had another meeting to go to.

Anyone with an ounce of commercial awareness would have understood that was code for “Go away, you nasty little man, you’ve shot your bolt and missed” but, Norman being Norman, he just carried on talking and stood up and started following Morgan out of the room. It was at this point that security was called and we were physically ejected from the building and out into the car park – to this day, still the only ever time this happened to me. I am sure I could feel the swing of the boot of one of the security guards and he chucked us out.

We drove back to the office in silence, Norman grinding his teeth during the journey so, to try and take his mind off what had happened and to drown out the grinding sounds, he turned on the news on the radio. We were shocked to hear that there had been a major earthquake in San Francisco and that the Bay Bridge viaduct had collapsed next to the Embarcadero Center, which was also destroyed, and which was where the company US HQ was sited. We got back to our offices and a reassuring call later informed us that, by some miracle, our unit was unscathed and everyone was fine. A couple of days later, Mike released the new version of the application, which I expected to be version 4, but when it arrived it was version 7.1. Odd, I thought, so I called Mike and asked him what happened to versions 4, 5, 6, and 7.0. I mentioned before that Mike was a bit “off the wall” – he’d decided to name the version after the Richter scale reading of the earthquake magnitude.

The Blockbusters meeting was the start of a rapid decline in the fortunes of the company, with Norman brooding over his failure at the exclusion of everything else. I hadn’t been paid for a couple of months and I was effectively supporting the company out of my own pocket. I recall one incident when I had turned up, suited and booted in preparation for a night out with friends, and driving on the way to the event the car phone rang. It was Norman.

“Are you going to an interview, then?” he asked.

“No, I’m just going to help out a friend with their PC, and then we’re out to dinner,” I replied.

“Good, because you know what would happen if you tried to leave the company, don’t you?” he said, threateningly.

“Yes, Norm, you’d have my knees broken,” I said.

“No, you’re wrong. I’d do it myself,” he growled.

He ended the call. I’d been doing the books that day – naturally, he had two sets: the real ones and the ones for the company. So, having already seen the writing on the wall, I had taken a backup copy of each set as an insurance policy, having discovered Norman’s “connections” earlier in my time working with him.

It was clearly obvious that the company was in a downward spiral. Even Jeff (the Sales Director) had left to concentrate on setting up another, high-end retail video outlet as he was not receiving any money for his work in our enterprise, and my savings weren’t going to last much longer. Fortunately, I was contacted by Tony, the chap I had worked for at JCB (episodes 14 & 15), asking me if I was interested in working with him in the City of London, again. Good timing, or what?

I accepted the offer, and then told Norman, over the phone, that I wouldn’t be coming in again and that he owed me about £9,000 (which at the time, was a very large sum of money) in back pay and expenses, to which Norman replied that not only could I “do one” but that he’d be round to inflict the aforementioned damage on my knees. I told him I had a copy of both sets of books (my insurance policy), and asked again for the money, at which he shouted some expletive down the phone and said he'd rather go bankrupt than pay me, and then slammed down the phone.

Nice chap.

Never saw the money he owed me, but at least my kneecaps are still intact!