CEO Reflections

Big Red Car here in the ATX feeling a little cloudy — ooops, that’s the weather. Me, I feel marvelous. Let’s talk about the first time CEO, shall we?

So, I catch The Boss talking to a pal the other day. They were Second Lieutenants in a combat engineer unit in the Republic of Korea back in the early 1970s.


The Proper Young Lieutenant

The proper young lieutenant, having just landed in a rice paddy fertilized with “night soil.” If you recognize those “soiled” boots as Corcoran Jump Boots, then you have a sharp eye. Stroke of good luck, landing standing up, because of the aforenoted night soil.


It was a dicey time and they were both platoon leaders. Both of them would end up as Captains within 18-24 months, which was pretty damn fast even for those days.

“So, when did you first think you knew what you were doing?” asked The Boss’s compadre.

“I’ll get back to you when that happens.”

They laughed.

The first time CEO

When you are a CEO for the first time, you will be amazed at what you do not know and how the world has gotten along just fine with your not knowing it, but now it would come in quite useful if you knew some of that which you admittedly don’t know.

Back in the day, The Boss was a platoon leader in Charlie Company, 2nd Engineer Battalion (Combat), 2nd Infantry Division, II Corps, ROK. The draft was on and when a new lieutenant reported in with his shiny jump wings and Ranger tab — huge shortage of lieutenants in those days — he got a platoon with 48 combat engineers.

With the draft running strong at the time, it was quite likely one would have a few college grads amongst the troopers holding the 12B MOS (combat engineer military occupational specialty). The Boss had a young trooper who had a Yale degree, so what does The Boss do? Makes him his Jeep driver.

[Note: One of the absolute coolest things about the combat engineers was they gave you a Jeep and a driver the second you reported in. That Jeep could take you to the DMZ or the Naija Hotel in Seoul (strictly forbidden, mind you) where you could find companionship amongst the English-speaking Sheilas of the Australian and New Zealand embassies who professed to “adore” Yanks.┬áBit of alright.]


Road building in the mountains

Cold day up at the DMZ overlooking North Korea in the background. The radio in that Jeep could reach all the way back to the battalion headquarters more than thirty miles away. It was raw and The Boss was looking for a way up a mountain to build an artillery and GSR (ground surveillance radar) site. Finally, he had to blast a road using tons of C4 and dozers. Fun.


In a startup, the first time CEO may find himself in a similar predicament, having to supervise folks who are more experienced in their specialty or with more years of experience under their belt. [You will not get a free Jeep. Sorry.]

That first year

When The Boss was a platoon leader, he was blessed with a saint named Sergeant First Class (E-7) Carter. He was a big, black man from the Mississippi Delta and he was a force of nature. When he sweated, he turned an iridescent blue and, no, the troopers did not call him “Sergeant Blue” because they feared Sergeant Carter, as did The Boss.

Carter had played football at Mississippi State before deciding, on the heels of an ACL injury, that soldiering might be something he could use to channel his natural aggression. Carter was The Boss’s platoon sergeant, that position of sacred trust which is based on the notion that a good sergeant can whip a mediocre bit of human flesh, escaped from VMI (Virginia Military Institute) or West Point (the VMI of the North), into a credible platoon leader. [Good luck with that.]

The high point of their relationship was when Sergeant Carter — holding a bottle of Jack Daniels in his fist in a dug-in Quonset hut on the side of a mountain — said to another platoon sergeant, “My lieutenant is starting to get his shit together. Of course, he has me as his platoon sergeant.”

You may not realize the most important thing in those two sentences is when Sergeant Carter used the words “…my lieutenant…” indicating The Boss was now worthy of being owned and recognized by him.

It takes about six months for a salty platoon sergeant to work the bugs out of a new lieutenant. Sadly, not everyone makes it. There are some lieutenants who never become competent platoon leaders. The Boss had an advantage as his father was a career soldier.

There are folks who never become competent CEOs, though the frequency is quite rare.

In much the same way, the new CEO is going to struggle with that first year. Do not allow it to spook you. Find Sergeant Carter — haha, that’s a joke cause he’s probably long gone by now and he never really knew anything about high tech startups, though he knew how to build a raft or a bridge to cross the Imjin River.


Crossing First Tanks to Far Shore

Having seized the far shore, the combat engineers now build a raft to float M60 tanks across the Imjin River to hold the far shore against enemy counterattack. It takes less than two hours to complete this. This one was built by The Boss’s platoon.


No, find a mentor, a CEO coach, a professional organization (YPO, TAB, Vista, local group) or ask your Dad. Get help cause it’s hard out there for an inexperienced CEO.

The payoff

The Boss didn’t remain a shavetail second lieutenant for the rest of his time in the Army. Soon, he became a clueless Captain and got to command almost two hundred men in four platoons. Once his unit was so overstrength — war in Vietnam had wound down and nobody knew what to do with all the draftees — he had six hundred men. That’s another interesting story. Nice command for a twenty-six year old, no?

When you look back with a full year under your belt, you will say, “Who was THAT guy?” “That guy” being the green CEO who founded the company a year ago. That would be you.

YOU CAN DO THIS and, then, you can go buy your own Jeep.

Help me out here, Big Red Car

Sorry, old boy. There are no shortcuts. You stick your stake in the ground. Get the business cards which say, “Chief Executive Office, Founder” and you suck it up.

The secret? There is no secret. Sorry.

Worse, no Jeep. No FREE Jeep. You can go buy your own Jeep, but it’s hard as Hell to find a good driver these days.

And, there you have it, dear reader.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Be good to yourselves and lay off the fake news. Be skeptical about … everything, but be good to yourself.Most recent pictures 035



7 thoughts on “CEO Reflections

  1. Spot-on, BRC, as usual. Having stuck the stake in the ground, etc., I learn a bit more every day what the role entails. First lesson, so far, is that I have good ‘peeps’ working with me, and one of my main jobs is to take care of my ‘peeps’, and let them do their good jobs on my behalf.

    OK so far?

    • .
      Be brave and hire good people. Be earnest and make good plans. Take care of your people and they will take care of you, but there will only be one CEO.

      Vision, Mission, Strategy, Tactics, Objectives, Values, Culture — in writing.

      Do your best with what you have and don’t lust after what you do not.

      In a year, you will not recognize yourself. In three years, you will be a real CEO.

      Be natural and find your legs and voice. Never be afraid to ask for help.

      You got this.


  2. Well, I’m a CEO now because I have my own startup, and if it works then I will be a first time CEO in any significant sense.

    Or, if I want a job, then it should be better for me to create a good job for myself than to hope someone else will do that for me, gather the money to pay me, etc.

    At times I’ve been the respected leader of something or other, a project, a group of people, an informal leader as a respected expert, etc. That was always because I was doing well at doing something others, even the whole organization, really wanted done and was essentially the only one present who could do that. So, I was, call it essential. Too soon I discovered: (A) If one is essential for something enough important people care about, then can get a lot of respect and cooperation within the group that cares, hostility and jealousy from others close enough to see, and get away with a lot of socially awkward behavior. But (B) otherwise, e.g., if not essential,etc., then have to be exquisitely socially sensitive and diplomatic, able to walk on lots of eggs all the time without breaking any, and still can be seriously attacked.

    So, net, be essential. If have some good, potentially valuable ideas, then do a startup, name yourself your own CEO, show that the ideas are valuable by making money, and forget nearly all the exquisitely sensitive stuff.

    War Story: As can sometimes happen, my wife got into a lot of stress and, then, depression in her Ph.D. program. So, our core financial planning was shot in the gut, and I basically dropped out of my Ph.D. program for three years to support us. I took a job in a think tank doing applied math and computing for some strategic projects for the US Navy. This was when such computing — basically scientific-engineering computing, was done via time sharing on a mainframe. Too soon we were doing too well with the computing, that is, spending too much money. But this was also the days of the super mini computers, and then we could just buy a computer and get a lot more computing for 18 months of our time sharing bills. The guy who led that effort had me as second in command, and when he left I inherited the computer as the local system administrator. So I was beginning to be “essential”. We were in a group of 45 people in a company of 300+ and were also, mostly as a favor to others, selling time on our computer elsewhere in the company. Then the rest of the company want such computing as their own, too. Then it was clear that I was the only one in the company of 300+ with the relevant experience to select and advise on what computer to get, became more “essential”, and was the technical lead on a selection process. So, I called in all candidate vendors plus some and got updates.

    About then I got my Ph,D. and, to help my wife get well from the stress of her Ph.D., took a job relatively near her family farm; the job was as a prof in a Big Ten B-school. No way did I want to be a college prof, but I wanted my brilliant wife to get well.

    Well, that think tank was not the only organization struggling with what to do with computing instead of old mainframe computing, and the B-school wanted a new MBA program with much better computing. They had a college Computer Committee that had no clue about what to do or by. So, two weeks after I arrived on campus, there was a faculty meeting with a presentation, hopeless, from the Computer Committee, headed by an accounting prof who didn’t know a bit from a byte. I stood and gave a proposal in one sentence: Gee, I’d just come from being a system administrator and serving as technical lead on a selection!

    In days after the meeting, I explained informally to others. Soon the administrative Dean asked me for a proposal and gave me colleague, a full prof of economics (adult supervision?). So, again for vendors I called in, visited, all the usual suspects and made my recommendation.

    At the same time, I discovered that my ability to get typing done, especially for math, was worse than awful. If I wanted to distribute class notes, then about all I could do was write clearly with black ink on white paper and distribute photocopies — total bummer. Well, there was a central campus academic mainframe with some more or less decent word processing. And, with the right daisy wheel printer, I had a chance to do well at getting good typing of relatively simple math; for that, for the super- sub-scripts, I wanted the mainframe to send some special, tricky control codes. So, we were back into the issue of the mainframe’s EBCDIC character coding and a daisy wheel’s ASCII coding. So, I wanted to see what special characters I could get the mainframe to send. How to know I was receiving a special, non-printable character? Sure, see if I could get the bell to ring on my ASCII terminal — wanted to know this before asking for a daisy wheel printer (like I’d used in typing my Ph.D. dissertation on the computers I’d been managing). So, on the mainframe, I wrote a little PL/I code to send my terminal all possible 256 bytes and see if the bell would ring. It wouldn’t I talked to the experts at the mainframe site, explained what I was doing, and asked for a copy of the translation table between EBCDIC and ASCII.

    I was told that the table was “confidential”. That evening there was a high end cocktail party, and the head, then the longest sitting in US higher education, a stiff guy, of the mainframe shop told my Dean that he had a new prof trying to use the mainframe to ring the bell on his terminal. I was being sabotaged! My Dean called me in, and I explained.

    But the selection process continued.

    So, I’d need to buy at least one hard disk drive. Then Control Data sold a Storage Module Drive, 300 million bytes on a removable disk pack, 14″ in diameter, 750 pound shipping weight, $40,000 or so. I was supposed to get the disk drive from my computer vendor, maybe DEC, Prime, Data General, etc. but wondered if I could save money buying directly from Control Data. So, I called them and get their technical and engineering documents. Naw, I decided that the prudent thing to do was to buy from the computer vendor, not directly from Control Data.

    Soon I got a call asking if I could come to the Dean’s office. There were no more details, but just in case I got a stack about 1 foot high of papers relevant to the selection including the engineering documents from Control Data.

    At the Dean’s office was the head of the mainframe shop, the guy who tried to attack me about the bell.

    The head was very much against anything like the computer I was selecting. In particular he was against the “high density” disk drive I had in mind and the comfort instead of computer room A/C I was planning (had done well with such A/C in the system I’d administered in grad school). The A/C he claimed was necessary alone cost nearly as much as the whole computer I was planning, several times as much as the A/C I was planning. The A/C he had in mind had very accurate control of both temperature and humidity.

    [“High density”, 300 million bytes in something the size of a washing machine, 750 pounds, when now we can get 14 trillion bytes in a little 3.5 inch package? WOW!]

    I responded with my experience that what I was planning worked fine for many months in the installation I’d managed. The Head responded that I was just “lucky”. I responded that the A/C I was planning was fine according to the environmental specifications of the computer vendor. The Head responded that the computer vendor was wrong. I explained that the disk drive I had in mind was from Control Data and was popular in the industry, and the Head concurred. Then I said: “I happen to have with me the official engineering specifications for that drive directly from Control Data, and their environmental specifications are more liberal than the computer vendor’s except on one point; Control Data wants no more than 15 F temperature change in an hour.” The Head again claimed that the drive would not work, but it appeared that the Dean was starting to believe me.

    So, the Head was working hard with my Dean to cut me off at the knees.

    So, I was being attacked out of jealousy or whatever.

    I got the computer, and it was wildly successful for years.

    Soon after the computer was working well, the Head retired and I was on the committee to pick another campus academic CIO and was appointed Chair of the college computing committee. There was a really good staff to run the computer, and I never called a meeting of the Computer Committee and dropped the whole issue.

    For my typing, at home I got a terminal, a dial-up modem, and a daisy wheel printer, and much of my typing problems were solved.

    So, as in the pattern, within the B-school my essential expertise carried the day, but outside of the B-school I got attacked.

    Lesson: So, for being a CEO, having essential expertise can solve lots of other problems; not having essential expertise can leave one vulnerable to attacks from wherever for any silly reasons or no reasons. Net, have some essential expertise.

    Maybe another example: At standard ad rates, the traffic Matt Drudge has long been getting at his Web site Drudge Report by now should have him nicely wealthy. And Snap Chat looks like a big thing. But, really, there is no good reason Zuck and Facebook could not clone both Drudge Report and Snap Chat so that, really, neither of those two has any “essential expertise.”

    Hmm …. Looks like if want to go live on the Web, should have some essential expertise not easily duplicated or equaled!

    Or, having some essential expertise can be one heck of a security blanket, problem solver, and suit of armor; not having that can leave one vulnerable.

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