By John Cowan
While working on another project I focused for a bit on Sheldon Tart, in the early ‘80s the General Manager of Control Data’s Division that tailored CDC computers for specific unique functions. For instance, a different data processing approach with special software was necessary for each and every power plant we sold computers to. Power plants differ from one another in the sources of their power: gas, coal, water, sun, wind and in the field to which the power is deployed: a city, small towns, farms, heavy industry, and the terrain that they are in: mountains, sea shore, desert, cities.
And that is just power companies. Every customer they had involved a new start from close to scratch to the last screw tightened. An exciting, challenging paradigm. They made a lot of money for Control Data by solving these problems. Therefore this division was located in a distant corner of the metropolitan area and I know for sure this division’s top management considered it a day in hell when they had to show up at corporate. I know this because as a corporate type I spent lots of time at corporate, did not really mind it, and expressed surprise to the G.M. when I saw him in the hallway. He told me he considered it a day in hell and he hoped I would never see him there again. Nor did I.
Sheldon was short and fat and looked like a greying middle manager heading for the end of a lackluster career. But Sheldon was not. What he was… Well that is what I ended up writing about in a review on a completely different subject. I stopped my self there, and I have cut and pasted the words here:
p.s. I loved Sheldon. My years in business introduced me to many really great people and Sheldon was one of them. I stopped by his office about six at night and there sat Sheldon with a cup of coffee and a huge map paper with myriad lines with arrows. “What you working on,” I said. “Software?”
“Nope,” he replied, “the golf course water system. I am on the board and their engineer asked me to see if it made sense.” I said, “What do you know about water in pipes?” He said, “It’s pretty much the same as information on a wire.”
I should have told him a Zen story of an old monk who was an expert on selecting horses. The local king called him in and asked him to select for him a white stallion, perfect in every way. The old man demurred, saying age was slowing his energy and this would mean kicking around the kingdom too much for him but he had a young monk who was even better at this than he was. So the King settled for the young monk.
Two months later the horse arrived. The king was horrified. It was a grey mare. He called the old man in and complained about the selection. The old man said, “I told you that kid is already beyond me in comprehension of horses. He can see a white stallion where I only would have seen a grey mare. The king in frustration accepted the grey mare. The first time he rode her he realized she was perfect, in every way.
And that is why I loved Sheldon, he could see stallions where others saw grey mares. I was on a project for him, developing an orientation course. He saw me in the hallway and asked, “How is my sales brochure coming?” I said, “Your confused, I’m working on an orientation course.” “No, I know that. The prospect of taking that course is going to pull in lots of young programmers looking for a company that will give them a good start instead of dropping them in the deep end of the pool. Your course is my brochure. ”
Sheldon died while I was on the job. A little later, when I was an independent consultant, I commented to the world on Sheldon, regretting the fact that a Sheldon dying was worth only a couple lines in the corporate newsletter. I got a reply from one of his immediate staff telling me I was not quite correct. They shut the division down for an afternoon for a secular, corporate funeral complete with tears.
I mean how would you, a freshman programmer, feel after you went to your boss and told him that you and Sheldon had decided that you needed to change direction and your boss said “Prove it.” And an hour and a half later he said, “O.K. You and Sheldon are correct. You go girl!”