In the early days of personal computers, companies were as wild as the wildest West, and lawless management frequently ruled as pioneers. Our most illustrious leaders were often freewheeling, free dealing, and not necessarily sane. I had a close encounter with one such operation.
At the time, I was fresh out of a job and looking for adventure. I longed for the big city, so I drove up to the state capital to answer an ad.
Based on the information in the newspapers, this company seemed to be on the way up. It made an all-in-one computer -- the latest riff off the Apple II and TRS 80. It looked like a standard CRT terminal, but inside was an 8080 processor and a small hard disk.
The company had recently come to town, with good buzz: big investment, lots of jobs, wonderful innovators, and all that. (Back then, I was too young to understand how one could drum up publicity, but now I know that any startup can send out a press release announcing the Next Insanely Great Thing and get great ink.)
On site and on guard
I had some trouble finding the building, and I certainly didn't expect the company to be located on the outskirts of the city in an abandoned shopping plaza with weeds growing in abundance from the cracks in the parking lot. It had taken over the space formerly occupied by the anchor store. About a dozen cars huddled near the main entrance. It was quiet and eerie.
Inside the front door was a small, sparsely furnished room. No one greeted me. I sat in one of the two chairs and waited for someone to appear. Several minutes later a woman came through the vestibule door and approached me with an annoyed smile -- I took it she was required to be happy. She explained the application and interview procedure, then handed me a clipboard and a pen. For the next 10 minutes, I filled out the application. After I gave it to her, she smiled that smile again.
On the other side of the vestibule door was a vast, open room. She ushered me down one side of the room, and I soon found myself inside a small office.
A man quickly appeared with a small calculator and a set of stapled sheets. “Take this test. I will come back when the time is up.” He took my watch, then left. How long did I have? There was no clock on the wall.
Nevertheless, I dove in. The questions were math problems in electronics. I raced through, sometimes using the calculator provided. Many of these I could solve in my head. So easy!
I was about two-thirds done when the man came back. He returned my watch, picked up my papers, and left, with no explanation.
I sat there alone in an empty room for perhaps half an hour. As I was about to leave, a tall, well-dressed man came in. He introduced himself as “Mr. West,” the company president.
What followed was the weirdest interview of my life. He started by selling me on the company and gave me a tour of the plant. I smiled all the way through, but I could see that the plant was in horrible shape and not really functioning. There were few employees and a handful of computers being built, and they were nowhere near ready for delivery.
Back in the interview room, Mr. West shifted into bully mode. He criticized my test results and found flaws in my background. He wrapped up his speech by offering me a job for a shockingly low hourly rate.
I’d already decided I didn’t want to have anything to do with the situation. A lowball offer from a bully was not inspiring in the usual sense, but it moved me to get up out of my chair and head for the door right immediately. This was a game I could win only by not playing.
"Where are you gonna work? Where?" Those were the last words I heard Mr. West shout before I walked out.
I left the parking lot determined to find a job before going home.
A better situation
I drove down the main drag and stopped at the first retail audio shop I saw. "High-End Hi-Fi" looked to be the sort of place you go if only the best would do. Maybe the crew needed a technician?
Inside, the bustle was a welcome contrast to the ghost town shopping plaza. "Tom," one of the sales guys, put me at ease immediately and gave me a tour of the awesome listening rooms. Yes, they were looking for a tech in-house. “Mike,” the owner, wasn’t in, so I got a phone number and time to call and dropped off a copy of my resume. One phone call later I had an interview; one week later I had a job.
The gig was fun. Running tests on possibly the best audio gear in the world was a privilege, and the pay was better than what I would have made at Wild West Computers. Living well is indeed a sweet revenge.
One day we saw a sports car pull up. "Uh oh," Tom said, "It's that guy again." Behold -- Mr. West in a red Lamborghini. "Boss says no credit for him, and we can't take a check. Cash only. And he never has cash."
I did not want to talk to Mr. West again, so told Tom I’d explain later and left through the backdoor.
What goes around comes around
Mike, Tom, and I compared notes after Mr. West left. Mike described Mr. West as a bully and a scammer who at first seemed like a decent customer. For his initial purchases, he paid with checks, and they cleared. However, the latest check had bounced. He eventually covered the cost, but only after Mike threatened to take him to court.
Mike got me up to speed on how he wanted us to handle Mr. West's requests -- which were always in the form of authoritative demands. Absolutely no business rules were to be bent for Mr. West. We would go strictly by the book. He wanted us to handle it ourselves unless Mr. West insisted that he get involved.
The next week I was in the local parts distributor picking up my order. I knew the rep well and could see something was bothering him, so I asked what was going on. His story was almost identical to Mike's: Mr. West placed a small order and paid up front, placed a second order that he paid within two weeks, but with the larger third order Mr. West still hadn’t paid -- and it had been three months. The rep was blamed for the lost money, and the boss had taken away some of his accounts.
I tried to console the rep with my own stories about Mr. West. I don't think it helped much. I was too late.
The next time I saw a newspaper article about Wild West Computer Company, the firm was on the verge of bankruptcy. The reporter had called up the Better Business Bureau and newspaper where the company had originally been located; sure enough, there was a trail and a tale of woe. Mr. West moved away.
I drove by that old plaza on the way home one day. Grass was growing taller than ever in the cracks in the empty parking lot. I thought I saw a tumbleweed rolling into the pines.