In 2001, I worked for the Pittsburgh office of a large financial-services firm. I was engaged in a straight-through processing project, attempting to pass financial information to all parties involved in a transaction without manual handling or redundant processing -- all in real time. I ended up joining forces with a guy named Joe Rankin. Joe, who had been with the company for more than 10 years, worked at the New York office, in a building connected to the World Trade Center by a walkway over Albany Street. Joe managed a group that processed customer account requests.
On 9/11, as the disaster unfolded, the Albany Street building was heavily damaged and everyone was evacuated. Joe’s people did what they could to help the others who made it out, but when the first tower collapsed, they had to run for their lives. As they were engulfed by dust and crashing debris, they pulled their shirts over their heads so they could breathe, yelling each other’s names to keep in contact as they ran. Somehow they found an empty van with open doors. They climbed in, and then realized it was an NYPD vehicle. When they communicated with a police dispatcher, she told them they could use the vehicle to get out of danger. Joe drove it out of the dust cloud with about a dozen people hanging all over it.
It took six days to make sure that all of Joe’s staffers were alive. After the group was accounted for, and ongoing rescue operations permitted, the front office directed them back to the disaster site to get the trading systems back online. They abandoned their families for weeks at a time, performing a series of miracles to get the environment back to a point of equilibrium. It took nearly two months of superhuman effort, working under very hazardous conditions. In my opinion, those folks are IT heroes.
Then, seven weeks after 9/11, Joe and his entire group were laid off. A Pittsburgh newspaper quoted a source inside the company who said that the company had taken advantage of the downturn in trading “to clear away some of the deadwood.” It was a particularly bad time to be out of a job, because the job market was nonexistent. It took Joe and his people a long time to get situated again. I felt slightly guilty about having kept my job -- until I was laid off myself a few months later. Joe and I laughed about it when he called with some tips for updating my résumé.
I don’t think competition causes companies to fail. Much more often, they rot from the inside. During many years of service to its customers and the community, my company had done some great things, but now it had turned its back on the very people who helped it recover from a terrible disaster.
Over the years, my wife and I have developed a way to cope with painful events like this. We buy a bottle of expensive champagne and chill it. Then we wait. Invariably, something unpleasant will happen to the people who acted badly: a takeover, a round of layoffs at a higher level, Eliot Spitzer …. When we hear about the karmic kickback, we take out the bottle and drink a toast to justice, however much delayed. Eventually I’m sure we’ll get to raise our glasses to the Albany Street deadwood.