What is the craziest thing you have ever said to your boss, without getting fired?

I have been asked to tell the following story many times, and it became so famous that I was even asked to record it for NPR.

I worked for a high-tech company when high-tech was just starting to make an impact on the world. This was before the internet, even before everyone had PCs. We had one IBM PC for the entire department and it was a thrill to use it. I say this just to give an impression of how things have changed since then.

Our company made high speed modems, but the fastest anyone could do in those days was 9600bps, and you paid 10,000 dollars a piece for each modem — and you needed at least two of them, one for each end. We had invented a mechanism that would double that rate to 19,200bps, which was like lightning at the time. The benefits were immediately apparent and every major company wanted them, damn the cost. Unfortunately, the techniques we were using were in their infancy and had lots of bugs. Even though we were selling them like ice cream on a hot day, they didn’t really work as advertised.

A huge oil company bought a massive amount of product. Their plan was to link all of their gas stations across the US to the their central site and have the managers report daily sales to the home office. This previously had been done by mail or phone and was slow and inefficient. With a modem system they could know what their revenues were to the penny overnight, or even several times during the day. They did some cursory testing on the devices and rolled them out. But they didn’t work.

Our engineers worked day and night to fix the issues but it turned out to be intractable. There were grave concerns that we might never solve the problem. Our salesman for the company was a brave and confident expert with years of experience but he was becoming increasingly despondent. The customer was agitated and angry and threatening to return the product. This would have been a huge setback, possibly a death blow to the company. They were by far our biggest customer and by far the biggest sale we had ever achieved. And the salesman would not get his commission.

I was the manager of the business unit, newly promoted into the role at the age of 26. I thought I was something special, and to be honest if not modest, I was a world-wide expert on these technologies and frequently flown around the world to solve problems. But what I didn’t know was that behind the scenes the senior managers of this customer were now DEMANDING a reckoning with our company. Our management knew it was the end if we did not have a solution, and we had no solution.

The salesman set up a meeting with the Senior Vice President of this oil company, a man who probably had the power to overthrow third world countries or have people killed. Suddenly, the President of our company had pressing business in Europe. So did every other executive down the line until, casting about, they looked at me. I was to be the sacrificial lamb they would send to the slaughter. I was told to go “make nice” with the customer to buy more time. I was unaware of the political issues behind the scene. If I failed, I would be unceremoniously fired as a token of good faith. The salesman knew it. I did not.

Thinking this was going to be yet another triumphant visit, and with a swelled head, I went out, bought a new suit and briefcase and flew from Boston to the West Coast. I didn’t even have anything to put in the briefcase except a pad and pencil since I wasn’t given any progress report, possible solutions or any token that might mollify them. Management was so certain of disaster that they thought it best I go completely in the dark.

I was picked up by our salesman in his new Jaguar , along with our field engineer, both of whom knew the gravity of our situation and how dire things were. I was cheerful and humming in the car as I took in the sights. I was surprised by their gloomy silence until we got to the customer’s campus. I had never seen anything like it before. Oil money can buy anything, and this building was modern and massive, the lobby was an art museum with original paintings by the Masters.

We didn’t even have to wait. As soon as we announced ourselves we were shown to a conference room. This is when I really got scared. The room was huge with an impossibly long conference table surrounded by the most expensive leather chairs money could buy. There were tuxedoed waiters with white gloves bringing crystal glasses for the pitchers of water. There was a stenographer with a real steno machine to take the minutes. The room was already filled with executives and lawyers speaking to each other in low voices and grim expressions. I knew then that I was doomed.

Finally the door opened and the SVP came in. A hush fell over the room. Here was a man that everyone in that room feared and respected. You could feel the power and electricity coming from him as he strode in. He sat directly opposite me. I blinked stupidly as the sweat rolled down my sides. Next to me our salesman was gripping his Mont Blanc pen like a drowning sailor clutches at a piece of driftwood. On my right the SE sat stoically. No matter what happened, he would be safe — unless the company went broke because of this debacle.

The SVP opened the meeting as if it were a legal proceeding, reading a summary of the problem and all the actions taken to date, emphasizing our failure to solve it. As he got into it he became angrier and angrier. He started pounding the table and he got red as he spoke of how much time and money had been wasted and spoke of “fraud” and “malfeasance” and “misrepresentation”. All of this vitriol was directed at me. He was further insulted that our company had the nerve to send me, of all people, not even a VP. Finally he pointed at me and said in a harsh voice, “If you can’t fix this problem today, right now, around town your name isn’t going to be worth squat!”

And then he sat back in his chair. I can still hear the leather creaking. There wasn’t another sound in the room. Every eye was on me now, and what I would say next. I had nothing.  I didn’t even have anything in my briefcase to fumble with for time.

And then, without even thinking, I said, “Around town it was well known that when they got home at night their fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them within inches of their lives”

I couldn’t believe my own ears. I couldn’t believe I had just said that. To my left, our salesman looked at me in horror and tried to pull himself away from me in his chair. The SE had his mouth open. So did all the important lawyers in their suits and suspenders. Even the stenographer looked up from her machine at me. I was well and truly fucked. The SVP wound up to scream at me and I flinched.

Then he stopped.

“Wait a minute,” he said, “I know that line…”
“Yes,” I whispered, “It’s from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ album.”
He said, “I knew that. You like Pink Floyd?”
“Yes,” I said, “It’s my favorite group.”
“Mine too,” he said, suddenly smiling and getting up, “I saw the ‘Wall’ concert in LA in 1980. It was fantastic! I even caught one of Gilmour’s guitar picks. I have it framed in my office with the ticket stubs. Come on, I’ll show you!”

And he got up and walked over to the door. I numbly followed. My ears were ringing and I knew I stunk of sweat and fear. The people in the room were dumbstruck. Everyone had their mouths open or were looking at us in absolute amazement. No one said a word.

As we left the room, the SVP smiled and said to the room, “Oh, we’ll give them a few more weeks,” and he waved them off and we went down the hall. The rest of the visit passed in a blur.

The salesman was pounding the wheel and laughing out loud on the trip back to the airport. “We gotta get you a great big steak,” he said, “You know, you can only get away with that once in your career.” The SE didn’t say a thing except, “I like Pink Floyd too.”

When I got back to the office I was the hero of the hour. The salesman had called and related the story to everyone he could reach, and I was called into a meeting to recount the adventure. Everyone was laughing and slapping me on the back. It felt good to be the hero for once: tomorrow I would once again be the goat, I was sure. Over the next few weeks we had a dramatic breakthrough in Engineering and the problem was solved, the situation resolved, the customer saved. They went on to buy many thousands more modems. Pink Floyd saved the day.

Jay BazzinottiSeeking my destiny; 4 patents, 3 books, 2 degrees, 24 countries, 46 states

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