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January 01, 2006

Full Ellipse

After fourteen years away, Mary and I became Vermonters again at the stroke of midnight EST last night.  Like most events in our lives, this was hardly planned.  But, as we stood in the moderate cold (only about 15 degrees Fahrenheit) and watched the New Year fireworks on the lower slopes on Mt. Mansfield, we were very happy.

In December 1991 we sold key assets of our software company, Solutions, Inc., to Microsoft. Part of the deal was that I became the director of the Connectivity Business Unit in Vancouver, BC.  Since it wasn’t absolutely certain that I would be granted a Canadian work visa (a computer science degree would have been a free pass but there was no such thing when I was in college), Mary and the kids took down the Christmas ornaments, watched our stuff loaded on a huge moving van, and bedded down in a Vermont motel as I tested the border armed with two feet of documentation about the investment Microsoft was making in Canada.

The immigration officials stamped my visa application without ever disturbing the pile of papers immigration lawyers had gone to such expense to prepare.  We lived in Vancouver for a year and a half not very happily even though it’s a beautiful and cosmopolitan city.  I had a hard time adjusting to having a boss even if he was in another country; Mary and the kids couldn’t work because they were foreigners; and we weren’t far enough from home and familiar American culture to put up with the hassle of being foreign for the thrill of the exotic.

A year and a half later a promotion took me to headquarters in Redmond and the family to Seattle.  Daughter Kate and I sailed our 24 foot boat down from Vancouver joined by my brother for the tough part where the wind and sea rushes through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

I loved being in charge of building Microsoft Exchange and the fierce battles with Novell and Lotus for email supremacy.  Microsoft, at least then, was basically a meritocracy and full of bright people who worked hard – close to nerd heaven.  The girls were at a wonderful high school.  Mary quickly had a marketing job at Attachmate where she taught them that the money in software comes from support and upgrades – not the initial sale.

But, another year and half later in 1993, I was on the losing side of the battle of Shumway Mansion – an offsite on what to do about the burgeoning Internet.  I thought we should delay the not-yet-released Exchange and Microsoft Network until we could make them Internet products.  Billg said, that these products were already late (true), that we product managers were always looking for new excuses for being even later (guilty), and so we should ship and worry about the Internet in the next release.  Wrong, thought I, also piqued by a reorganization which increased my span of control but pushed my organization down into Jim Alchin’s NT group, our bitter rivals in various internal battles.

When AT&T offered me a job described as “develop our Internet strategy and implement it”, I took it even though Mary and Kate had not been seduced by our recruitment trip on the corporate jet into thinking that they’d rather live in New Jersey than Seattle (Kelly and Jarah were now both away in college).  They were pretty sure we’d be living under an arch of pipe carrying deadly chemicals directly downwind from a noxious stack adjacent to the New Jersey Turnpike.

Actually, Princeton was a nice place to live once I was reintroduced to the idea that men wore things called suits on social occasions and got some ties.  I even bought my first tux (not counting prom rentals) since they were necessary at charity functions. The Institute of Advanced Study was and is a great place for being near and even talking to very smart people.  It was founded to be a refuge for Albert Einstein, then fleeing Nazis in Europe.  Mary said it was country club for nerds and got me a membership (when I wore a turtle neck there, I was mistaken for faculty which was fine with me).

AT&T couldn’t have been less like Microsoft as I’ve often blogged.  Surprisingly and much thanks to the support of Alex Mandl, I was able to define a lot of AT&T strategy, terminate products that were Internet-irrelevant, and introduce AT&T WorldNet Service which popularized flat-rate all you can eat, Internet access.  That and competing with AOL and MSN (now retooled for the Internet) were fun.

But Alex left for a startup and I got interested in the new technology of Voice over IP after I saw VocalTec’s first PC-PC voice software.  I couldn’t get AT&T to put more than $18 million (not enough to do anything there) into the budget for the new technology – “why should we invest in something which could cannibalize our voice business?”.  Just as bad, we “couldn’t afford” to expand our WorldNet beachhead into a serious fight for dominance with AOL because the quarterly EBITDA targets AT&T had “promised the Street” were in jeopardy.

I was listening to new job offers again and Mary said none of them were challenging enough. Pretty soon we’d started ITXC – our own VoIP company – and there were a bunch of people working at the kid’s abandoned desks in our house.  The pool table became a giant inbox and conference table.  We stayed in NJ because there were lots of smart telco people there.

Working with Mary at our own company again was great.  Kate and Kel both pitched in on college breaks to get us launched.  Jarah contributed some key math from Berkeley for a routing algorithm.  A good family night was a late night at the office – which had now outgrown our home.

We went public in 1999.  Stock soared and swooned with the expansion and collapse of the bubble.  Grew to be one of the largest international carriers of any kind thanks to the virtue of Internet technology and the great people who worked for us.

After ITXC was acquired in May of 2004, we thought we’d retire to the Jersey Shore.  We had a place there and I had a new sailboat.  But we spent a week back in Vermont at a condo.  Realized how many old friends we have here – some had even come back after following their careers out-of-state as we had.  We found you don’t make friends as good as the ones you raised your kids with.  The bonds forged at PTA meetings, town meeting (yeah, we still got that), school sports, and soccer practice are strong.  Decided we’d get a vacation home here.

The first night Mary and I and Sheba the dog spent here last fall before the furniture came, we slept on the living room floor.  There were no curtains.  The Northern Lights woke us with a fabulous display.  Since then everything’s conspired to tell us we are home even if we were too dumb to know it.

Mary’s on the Board of the local Red Cross and the Helen Day Art Center here in Stowe.  I’m on the Board of the Snelling Center which helps train the citizens who serve in the Vermont legislature and innumerable town offices.  We had a great St. Paddy’s Day party, house full of old friends.  Sometimes I think I’m seeing an old friend on the street who hasn’t changed a bit: usually it’s that friend’s kid.  But, other than that, we’ve stepped back into the triumphs and tragedies of each other’s lives “seamlessly”.

We’ve switched our health insurance.  This month we’ll switch our voter registrations in plenty of time for March Town Meeting.  And driver’s licenses etc. etc.

We’ve come full ellipse.  We’re home.

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