Shooting the Messenger

Till Death Do Us Part

Doing Google Before Google Did Google

The federal government’s contribution to making Canada a bit-player in mainstream software application development and high-tech manufacturing may be the most significant, but others have to share the blame.

In the private sector, a large share of that blame must be assumed by Bell Canada executives who, to avoid long-term pension obligations and to make the company more appealing to potential buyers, not only severely downsized the company but transformed it from an innovator to just another fee-collector.

My first private sector customer for the Boreal Shell was Bell Canada Enterprises. Bell purchased a site license, which meant it could use the Shell anywhere within the Bell organization without any further payments to my company, Boreal Informatics Inc. The first Bell system to benefit from my shell was NOMAS, a small Human Resource Management System (HRMS) dedicated to the management of part-time employees. The person who negotiated the license told me that I should have insisted on more money, that Bell had saved the equivalent of perhaps a dozen years in employee salaries (that had to be an exaggeration) since the Shell had been made part of NOMAS.

After NOMAS, I was invited to customize a large, complex incident tracking system known as LEGOS. It required the Shell to automatically switch between a character base and a graphic interface depending on the operating system detected, among other things. Bell’s generous per diem meant that I could afford to stay at the only apartment hotel on Crescent Street, the affectedly named Chateau Royale.

Montréal's Crescent Street is where booze, beautiful women and bawdiness effortlessly mix. On cosmopolitan Crescent Street, it’s not just a cliché; you do meet the most interesting people. On one side of the street is a two-story building with two spacious outdoor balconies. One is the extension of a well-appointed dining room that takes up the entire top floor; the other, an extension of the first floor Cheers-like bar, only bigger. Beneath it all is a nightclub where, when I was there, disco went to die and found a new lease on life. The building, which encompasses the restaurant, the bar and the disco, is called Thursdays – in French, "Les Beaux Jeudis," though even its French clientele call it Thursdays.

Across from Thursdays and slightly to the right is Ziggy’s, a small pub where the late, great Mordecai Richler could be found. Then there is Sir Winston Churchill Pub (Winnie’s) just next to Thursdays, an establishment almost as famous but without the Cheers-like atmosphere or the intimacy of Thursdays’ disco.

I spent many an evening at Thursdays during my almost five years in Montréal doing computer consulting. I enjoyed letting my universe unfold in unpredictable ways on Crescent Street, as long as it did not interfere with the next day’s commitments. It made for the most pleasant and distracting evenings, as can be attested to by those who have read Love, Sex and Islam.

There were some practical benefits to the nightlife I enjoyed while in Montréal; it made the purchase of an expensive South American cockatoo unnecessary. Stéphane was LEGOS’s chief programmer. A programming error could impact the entire Bell network. Talk about a stressful job! He was, in many ways, your stereotypical overweight but pleasant-looking computer nerd in his late twenties or early thirties, with a full well-trimmed beard that gave him a robust look that women should have found attractive. He lived alone in a house that he owned. When he came home after work, there was no one to talk to about his day or, more importantly, to change the subject.

His cubicle was next to mine. One day, he folded his arms across his keyboard, laid his head down and started sobbing uncontrollably. Bell was worried that the entire team of about a dozen people was about to experience a nervous breakdown so arranged for everyone, except yours truly, to spend a week with a psychologist at a resort in the Laurentians. When they returned, they had all been rigorously psychoanalyzed and given techniques to deal with work-related stress according to his or her personality type.

For some reason, they asked their group shrink to analyze me. His analysis, based on my co-workers’ observations, was right about half the time. At work, I was an adult committed to doing a good job while not letting the job get the best of me; away from work, I was often what he called “an eternal teenager.” When on my own, I was somewhat reckless, open to new ideas and experiences of both the intellectual and sensual kind. I hope to remain, at least intellectually, an eternal teenager, like, forever.

Stéphane would continue to see a psychologist. I decided that what Stéphane needed was a girlfriend. Like I said before, he owned a house, had a good, well-paying job and was not unattractive, in spite of being overweight. Finding a girlfriend should have been easy. I started inviting him for a game of pool after work and later, for a drink at Thursdays. He joined me a few times, but it did not quite work out.

He did manage to hook up with someone he thought might be “a nice girl” but quickly broke it off when, after the second or third date, she called him at home and started "talking dirty,” expecting him to do the same. “People actually pay girls to do that,” I told him. “Consider yourself lucky!”

He decided that the bar scene was not for him (and it isn’t, if you are judgmental). Stéphane’s real problem was not work related; it was returning home to an empty house after a hard day’s work. His psychoanalyst decided that, until he found the right girl, an expensive South American parrot might provide the company he needed to sustain him emotionally until the blessed event. It seemed to do the trick. Stéphane now came to work with something new to talk about. Two-thousand-dollar parrots of the Cacatuidae family, I found out, are smart birds. You don’t train them; they train you. Pretty soon, Stéphane was coming to work with fewer and fewer bandaged fingers as he and his parrot learned to live together and appreciate each other’s company.

To be a successful consultant, you have to be able to read body language. Guy Derasp, the man in charge of both LEGOS and NOMAS, had the easiest body language to read. Whenever we had a discussion—whether at my workstation or in his office—we would usually sit across from each other. Guy would cross his legs, his left over his right, then place one hand on top of the other on his left knee. Whenever the discussion was not going well, Guy’s left foot would start to quiver. The intensity of the vibrations was an indication of Guy’s unhappiness with the course of the discussion. If he took his hands off his knee and grabbed a hold of his shin, that was the time to put away any objections or misgivings about what he wanted done, and instead try to come up with a way to make that day’s vision a reality.

We had a lot of these vibrating discussions, in part because of modifications he wanted made to the Shell that would also require making serious modifications to LEGOS. The Boreal Shell was breakthrough software but so was LEGOS. LEGOS “listened” for and alerted management and maintenance personnel about equipment failures or anticipated failures in Bell's new all-digital communication infrastructure in Ontario and Québec as well as parts of the Northwest Territories.

The key components of this digital network were circuit boards with built-in electronics and software that could communicate a malfunction or potential malfunction in text message form to LEGOS, which would record this information in its database before alerting Bell personnel. Whoever made the repair would then record, in the same database, what had been done to fix the problem. The ZIM database and the ZIM language were what made LEGOS shine and bolstered Guy’s reputation. No other DBMS at the time could achieve what ZIM was required to do.

When I joined Bell to integrate the Boreal Shell within LEGOS, I wasn’t aware that Guy intended to extend the reach of my Shell’s text search capabilities to rival the future Google’s—two years before the official launch of Google in September 1998—allowing searching on permutations of a search term (in addition to “sounds-like searches” already available in the Boreal Shell), meaning that misspellings did not invalidate your search.

After more than two years of work, integration of the dual (character and graphic) interface of the Boreal Shell within Legos was almost complete, along with its improved text search capabilities.

I had joined Bell at a crucial time in its history, a time when the company embarked on a strategy that would make it cash rich in order to make the company more attractive to investors.

It more or less started with a divestiture of its electronics equipment manufacturing and advanced research and development arm, which was spun out as Nortel Networks. During my last month at Bell, it rid itself of its entire programming and software application development staff, including Guy’s operation. A thousand Bell employees or more became employees of CGI (the same company that completely flubbed the launch of Obamacare); at this writing, CGI is Canada’s largest computer consulting and systems integration company.

CGI was not into research and development, and they did not do ZIM. I almost managed to present CGI with a fait accompli—and beat Google to Google—which would have made it difficult for them to abandon what Guy and I had accomplished.

One of the last components, which would give outside technicians across Ontario, Québec and what was then the Northwest Territories their first taste of the new LEGOS-Boreal Shell interface—inside technicians, those who worked at Bell’s headquarters, had already used the Shell and were delighted—was due to be installed.

As usual, I showed up at Bell just after midnight Sunday morning. The last major upgrade of the Boreal Shell/LEGOS was just over two hours away. At three in the morning, LEGOS would be disconnected from the network, i.e., taken offline, and I would have two hours to make the upgrade before LEGOS resumed its monitoring of the Bell telephone network. If anything went wrong in the Bell telephone system during this time, such as a malfunction in a switch (circuit board), Bell would not be made aware of it but the disruption in telephone service would be minimal.

After I made the upgrade, I began running a series of tests to make sure that everything had gone as planned. Every upgrade included an undo function, which allowed you to quickly remove all modifications made that night if you were not 100% sure that this was the case. I had not yet finished my tests when 5am rolled around and LEGOS was about to resume its monitoring of the Bell telephone network. I gave the undo command. It would mean a week’s delay before outside technicians got to use the Boreal Shell and its Google-like enhancements, but it was better than getting off on the wrong foot with a system that did not perform perfectly.

A few days earlier, before this planned key upgrade, Guy announced that he had reached an agreement with CGI—unlike regular staff, Guy’s management position and reputation meant he could negotiate the conditions under which he would join CGI—and that he would be leaving shortly. This meant that Ghislain, his second-in-command, would be in charge.

Ghislain was everything Guy wasn’t, starting with the way he dressed. Guy was business casual, wearing a light brown jacket and pants with a tie that more than made up for the bland suit. For Ghislain, it was a three-piece black pinstripe suit. He was a perfect picture of the punctilious bureaucrat of yesteryears. Every organization needs someone like him to keep the paperwork in order. If he had been more like Radar (Gary Burghoff) and less like Frank Burns (Larry Linville) of M*A*S*H fame, it would have been alright.

Ghislain, like the Frank Burns character, saw himself as a leader. Guy’s impending departure, and my decision to postpone the upgrade for another week, gave him the opportunity to demonstrate if not his leadership qualities, then his management style to his new employer.

On Monday morning, I informed Ghislain—Guy was not in his office at the time—about Sunday night’s cancellation of the planned upgrade. It should not have been a big deal.

Maybe an hour later, Ghislain showed up at my workstation with two gentlemen from CGI who shared much the same fashion sense. He told me to tell them what I had told him earlier. After I had briefed Ghislain that morning, he said that he expected me to return the following Sunday to make the postponed modifications at my own expense.

It was a given that I would return next Sunday; that I would not be paid for work performed was unusual, but I agreed as the upgrade was too important to quibble about a night’s per diem.

After my repeat performance for the gentlemen from CGI, Ghislain stood proud, stiff as a rail in his black pinstripe ensemble. The only thing missing was a stovepipe hat as he matter-of-factly announced to one and all, “I have demanded that Mr. Payeur return next Sunday to make the modifications to LEGOS at his expense and he has agreed to do so.”

This was the first time that he referred to me as Mr. Payeur, not Bernard. It was arrogance masquerading as excessive deference meant to impress his new bosses. In fact, his entire performance was meant to improve his standing with his new employer at my expense, both literally and figuratively.

The final upgrade to LEGOS that would have made Bell’s Google more widely available and beaten Google’s to the punch would never be made. My contract was up for renewal at the end of the week. I reminded Guy of that deadline when I saw him the next day. A short time later, I received an email confirming that my contract had been extended for an additional three months.

Still later that day, I received a copy of an email from Ghislain to Guy informing both of us that there was no more money to pay for my services, therefore my contract would not, in fact, be extended. There had obviously been a change at the top.

Guy quickly came over to apologize for the misunderstanding and told me to enjoy my last few days at Bell and in Montréal. Guy’s grace of a few more days (an employee or a consultant whose services are no longer needed is not expected to stick around) meant I could say a proper goodbye to my colleagues of almost three years, as well as to many of the people I had met at Thursdays who had made the whole experience memorable in ways I would only get to appreciate when I abandoned writing code to write prose.

Following my departure, CGI put ZIM-based LEGOS in maintenance mode. There would be no more upgrades until an ORACLE replacement was ready. Like I said before, CGI did not do ZIM.