Doing Google Before Google Did Google
It started with NOMAS
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 licence which meant it could use The Shell anywhere within the Bell organization without any further payments to my company Boreal Informatics.
The first Bell system to benefit from The Shell was NOMAS a small Human Resource Management System (HRMS). The Shell would allow executives and managers at Bell to query this miniature HRMS directly and produce reports without having to seek the assistance of support staff such as programmers and database specialists.
NOMAS was a miniature HRMS, a smaller and less capable application than its public, industrial-strength version PeopleSoft from Oracle. PeopleSoft was Bell’s primary HRMS.
NOMAS was dedicated to the management of part-time employees. It would have been a simple matter to make the management of such employees part of Bell's PeopleSoft HRMS.
Part-time employees are subject to far fewer laws and are not entitled to many of the benefits of full-time employees therefore it would have been child’s play for PeopleSoft to calculate their benefits and their pay.
Was Bell’s concerned that people who care about these things, such as employee unions, might find out how many full-time positions were being converted to part-time or being contracted out as part of its downsizing plans and strategy to reduce its fiduciary obligations to full-time, long-term employees. There was a greater possibility of this happening if this information was in the central PeopleSoft database?
The administration and programming of NOMAS was located in Guy Derasp’s shop. NOMAS was built using ZIM therefore their may have been some logic in this arrangement that had nothing to do with ulterior motives.
Guy’s operation at Bell, just like Dennis Podolsky’s at Indian and Northern Affairs, was a rogue operation. Bell management sheltered it because they knew that when a difficult problem needed to be solved and quickly they could count on Guy’s imagination to come up with a solution, and Guy’s imagination depended on ZIM to make these solutions a reality.
When I joined Bell Canada as consultant to modernize and extend the reach of their version of The Boreal Shell (the QNX version) the company was well on its way to transforming itself from a company that Canadians respected as an innovator and a good place to work to the shadowy freeloading company you have today.
The consultant who had convinced Bell Canada to purchase The Boreal Shell, was still at Bell when I showed up, NOMAS was his project and responsibility. He said I should have insisted on more money, that Bell had saved the equivalent of perhaps a dozen person years in salaries (that had to be an exaggeration) since The Shell had been made part of NOMAS.
He got the best price for his client. His first loyalty was to his client and I appreciated that in a colleague.
The next two and half years I would consult at Bell’s Montréal headquarters on a leading edge system which went by the name of LEGOS. Those two and half-years at Bell, at a turning point in the company's history, more than made up for whatever dollars I left on the table in giving Bell a bargain.
The benefits from my time at Bell I measure not only in terms of dollars and cents but also in terms of experience (it’s not every day that you get to build a system before Google did it that rivaled Google’s) and especially meeting people who provided a whole new perspective on the human condition.
There was some practical benefit to the nightlife I enjoyed while in Montréal; it made the purchase of an expensive South American cockatoo unnecessary.
Guy might have been a relaxed and informed boss but his reputation was made on delivering what he promised, therefore his staff, and that included his consultant, had to perform, and often under tremendous pressure. Changes to LEGOS, which were done by me where The Boreal Shell was concerned and Stéphane for most other modifications, were particularly nerve racking. A programming error had the potential of causing serious disruptions in the Bell telephone network.
Stéphane was the senior programmer on our team. He was in many ways your stereotypical late-twenties early thirties overweight pleasant looking computer nerd with a full well-trimmed beard that gave him a robust look that women should have found attractive.
Stéphane lived alone in a house he owned. When he came home after work there was no one to talk to about his day or more important, to change the subject.
His cubicle was next to mine. One day, he folded his arm across his keyboard, laid his head down and started sobbing uncontrollably.
Bell, worried that Guy’s entire team was about to experience a nervous breakdown, arranged for everyone, except yours truly, to spend a week with a psychologist at a resort in the Laurentians.
For a week I was left in charge of Guy’s entire operation.
When they return they had all been rigorously psychoanalyzed and everyone was 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 half right, 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, but away from work I was often what he said I was, “an eternal teenager”. When I was not at work but on my own, I was reckless, open to new ideas, to new 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 psychiatrist.
I decided that what Stéphane needed was a girlfriend. He owned his own house, had a good well-paying job, 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. We went a few times, but it did not quite work out. He did manage to hook-up with a girl whom he thought might be “a nice girl” but quickly broke it off when on the second or third date she called and started "talking dirty” to him on the phone and expected him to do the same.
“People actually pay for girls who do that,” I told him “count 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. Like I said, he needed a girlfriend.
His psychiatrist 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 birds 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 others company.
To be a successful consultant you have to be able to read body language.
Guy had the easiest body language to read. Whenever we had a discussion — whether it was at my work station or in his office — we would usually sit across from of each other; Guy would cross his legs, his left over his right; he would place one hand on top of the other and place both 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 way the discussion was going. If Guy took his hands off his knee and grab a hold of his shin that was the time to put away any objections or misgivings about what he wanted me to do and try to come up with a design to make that day’s vision a reality.
We had a lot of these vibrating discussions when it came to building his Google predecessor, making it a seamless part of The Boreal Shell and integrating both into 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 network in Ontario and Québec and 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 record in the same database what they had done to fix the problem and why.
The ZIM database and the ZIM language were what made LEGOS shine and Guy’s reputation. No other DBMS at the time could do 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 The Shell and give it Google-like text search capabilities.
With the Google-like enhancements, not only would my Shell allow users to search for information like Google, but unlike Google which makes an educated guess partly based on group-decision making theory as to the information you are looking for, the LEGOS-Boreal interface would allow searches to be much more precise.
Using only pop-ups and a text box, a technician in the field, using a portable computer, would be able to query in a matter of seconds an eight gigabits (a gigabit is a billion bytes) and growing ZIM database which contained all the notes ever recorded by Bell technicians as to how to deal with the problem he or she had dealt with since the Bell telephone network core went digital.
Perhaps more importantly, management would be able to easily query LEGOS. For example, a manager could quickly get information on what model of circuit board installed between such and such a date had experience such and such a problem, or combination of problems, and query notes left by the smart circuit board and the even smarter technician.
After more than two years Guy and I had achieved what I initially thought was impossible. Guy defined the problem to be solved and working together we solved it but it was not soon enough.
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 but asset poor in order to make the company more attractive to investors such as the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan which at the last minute saw through the subterfuge and backed away.
Two year before, Bell spun out Nortel Networks and got out of the electronics equipment manufacturing and advance research and development business. While I was there, it spun out its entire programming and software application development staff, more than a thousand employees to CGI, at this writing Canada’s largest computer consulting company.
This was another significant step in Bell’s effort to reduce its long-term pension obligations. Long-serving employees who went over to CGI were given some extra money to make up for CGI’s employee self-directed pension plan which was not as generous, or as secure as Bell’s.
CGI was not into research and development, and they did not do ZIM.
We almost managed to present CGI with a fait-accompli which would have made it difficult for them to abandon what Guy and I had accomplished.
One of the last component, a component that would give outside technicians (inside technicians, those who worked at Bell’s headquarters had already used it and were delighted) their first taste of the new LEGOS-Boreal/Google interface was due to be installed.
As usual, I showed up at Bell just after midnight Sunday morning. The last major upgrade of the Google-enabled Boreal Shell 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.
It was a planned outage so that if anything went wrong in the Bell telephone system i.e. a malfunction in a switch (circuit board) which Bell would not be aware of while LEGOS was offline, 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 you had made to LEGOS that night if you were not 100% sure that this was the case.
I had not finished my tests when 5 a.m. 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 the outside technicians got to use The Boreal Shell and its Google-like enhancements but it was better than introducing a system that did not perform perfectly. Unlike industry juggernauts Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, we might not get a second chance to make a good first impression. Better to wait a week.
A few days earlier before this planned key upgrade to LEGOS, Guy had 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 witch he would join CGI) and would be leaving shortly which meant that Ghislain, his second in command would be in charge.
Ghislain was everything Guy wasn’t starting with the way they dressed. Guy was business casual, a light coloured brown jacket and pants with a tie that more than made up for the bland suit; for Ghislain it was a three piece or a two piece black pinstripe suit.
Ghislain was the picture of the perfect 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 and 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, his management style to his prospective employer, CGI.
On Monday morning Guy was not in his office so I informed Ghislain 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 or tree gentlemen from CGI with much the same fashion sense. Ghislain told me to tell them what I had told him?
After I had briefed Ghislain that morning he said that he expected me to return next 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, the upgrade was too important to quibble about a night’s per diem.
After my repeat performance for the gentlemen from CGI, Ghislain standing proud, stiff as a rail in his black pinstripe ensemble, the only thing missing was a stovepipe hat, matter-of-factly announced to one and all “I have demanded that Mr. Payeur returned next Sunday to make the modifications to LEGOS at his expense and he has agreed to do so.”
This was the first time that Ghislain referred to me as Mr. Payeur, not Bernard — this was arrogance masquerading as excessive deference meant to impress CGI. In fact, his entire performance was meant to improve his standing with his prospective employer at my expense both literally and figuratively.
The upgrade to LEGOS that would have made Bell’s Google more widely known 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 be extended.
There obviously had been a change at the top.
Guy quickly came over to apologize for the misunderstanding and to tell 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, but also to many of the people I had met at Thursdays and which had made the whole Bell experience more than memorable.
Later I would learn that LEGOS had been put in maintenance mode by CGI, no more upgrades until an ORACLE replacement was ready. Like I said before, CGI did not do ZIM.
Google would have to wait for Google. Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE), until then Canada's leading high tech innovator, was getting out of the innovation business and setting an example for the rest of the country.