Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Mentor Lost - Godspeed M J Madden

Although you know it was inevitable, the news of someone that was a huge influence in your life passing away is never easy to hear. M J Madden passed away July 9th, 2015 making me once again stop and recount my life, my blessings, and the opportunities that have made me what I am. M J made it to 84 years of age and was likely as busy as he could be until the end. He never seemed to stop getting things done even in the later years when I'd see him around town or at the post office and we'd get to chat or catch up.

He was actually just a bit younger than I am now when he hired me back in 1979 to be a draftsman. I was barely 20 years old, still in college for my Drafting and Design degree, and was looking for a "real" job. I happened upon a friend from the drafting days at votech, Glenn Burton, and when I mentioned I was looking he said to check in with MJ and his business Tel-Elec Consulting Engineers in Tecumseh as Glenn was working there and they needed help. I did, and the next thing I knew I was hired as a newly instated draftsman. The company was small, three owners, a secretary, and a couple of draftsmen, but it was new and exciting to me. 

I drew, and drew. The engineers would take field notes and rough drawings and the draftsmen would turn them into engineering drawings for review for Southwestern Bell Outside Plant replacement. In other words cable replacements in the field. Things were moving along well with good business and then things slowed way down. I figured I'd be laid off, but M J and the other owners kept us on even overlooking a few of us playing Frisbee behind the building when there was nothing to do. 

Soon however, business picked back up as M J and the other owners expanded the work and the area including work in Texas and before long Tel Elec has purchased an empty building on south Broadway in Tecumseh and fully remodeled it with individual offices, a big work area, kitchen and more. High times for a 20 something to have his or her own office back in the 80's. My work expanded as well, soon I was the one helping or even taking my own field notes as to what and where to place telephone cable and how to do things. The big push then was Southwestern Bell had to eliminate all their "party lines" where two or more houses shared the same wires and therefore were limited on their phone use. Amazing to think now that just thirty years ago that was the issue when today billions of people have their own personal mobile number. Times have changed. 

As the work changed new opportunities arrived and others faded away. One major project I'll never forget was here I was, a 20 something in Tecumseh Oklahoma leading the job to design and deploy the CHATLOS system for downtown Dallas and its urban areas. I'm can't remember if that was an acronym or a product brand but the short version is this involved computerizing the air pressure system for telephone cables in the underground manhole system in Dallas and some surrounding telephone exchanges. There were specs for where to place monitoring sensors and where to place monitored air injection points but the rest was for us to figure out, design, and generate the drawings to install all these pieces of hardware to make this work. 

Some other big projects that I could not imagine myself handing off to a 20 something draftsman was the LROPP, Long Range Outside Plant Plans for a lot of local and Texas SWB exchanges. These were bigger, deeper, projects with plant inventory, land use review and density projections, plant and  electronic "pair gain" planning and more. Each project took months and we did quite a few. Of course I was looking at how to automate all this paper generation back in the day and had setup several templates and forms on our DEC dedicated word processor system that stored all this on 8 inch floppy disks. It saved us typing time, made it all look uniform and more professional. I have no clue how well the long term plans worked out but I remember bits and pieces of the Shawnee plan we did and do remember projecting growth on the north side more than the south back then. Of course today it likely really doesn't matter much with wireless service and high speed digital electronic voice over IP traffic but it was crucial back then to have a plan.

M J and partners Larry Epple and Gary Vanmeter are one of the main reasons for my Information Technology career. As a side project Tel Elec purchased a Digital Equipment PDP 11/34 mini computer and had some big plans for selling time share and software services. Although in the long term things moved too fast to make this happened, we did end up with some steady customers for several years that hopefully at least made it worth while. It did for me at least as they gave me access to this new machine and I spent many hours behind a VT100 terminal learning how to code better in its version of User 11 and BASIC. I remember converting a program source code I found that would calculate the elasped time of a drag race car based on the parameters you input for horsepower, torque, traction, weight, etc and then plugging in numbers and waiting... and waiting... and waiting... as the machine crunched the code and gave the answer. I finally added some code to light up the little status LEDs on the keyboard as the code worked through its stages so I'd know how close it was to done. 

This was the mid 80s and the market wasn't clear as to which "PC" was going to rule the world but M J and staff knew the mini world was going away and the PC world was coming so we did buy a PC to start using. There were even big discussion on becoming a re seller for computers in our area so we purchased a CP/M 86 based system and I remember doing a few things on it. Shortly thereafter, the PC/MS DOS operating system was obviously the future and we picked up a Wyse clone 8088 system with 640kb of RAM and a whopping 10 megabyte hard drive... 10 meg, not Gig. I figured I'd never fill that much space up. That is about 1 or 2 of today's digital photo on your smart phone. 

I learned a lot about word processing, spreadsheets and databases on that machine. It was what I cut my PC teeth on and helped me move from the Sinclair, Vic 20, and C64 days of computers at home to a Commodore PC clone. The PDP mini still was the workhorse though and we hosted time share and software development for the City of Tecumseh and ran water billing for a local rural water district. 

In the late 80s the consulting business started slowing down and MJ had problems finding more work. He was traveling a lot in Texas but continued to find jobs to bid on and kept many other contract engineers busy. Most worked out of their house at that time so the office was pretty empty. I always wondered if the doors would be shutdown someday but even after I left in 1991 to take a computer based job at the city of Tecumseh after they moved off our billing system, M J kept the company running from what I know. 

M J never seemed to sit still in the years I knew him. Early on he was always on the phone, traveling, finding jobs or making contacts. Even in his years after shutting down Tel Elec I'd see him running around town, staying busy helping out his son-in-laws business or checking mail at the PO box in Shawnee. He was quite the inspiration and always had a positive outlook, even when business seemed slow and the future looked not so bright. 

Fortunately I did have enough common sense to tell him in the last couple years how grateful I was for his mentoring and the opportunities he provided to me over those early years of my career. How his influence gave me great confidence that I could do more than I may have thought I could. 

His response was honestly shocking. Intead of saying your welcome, he THANKED ME for what I did and told me I was key in keeping the company going in some of those lean years. Quite moving to hear that but I guess not surprising knowing his nature. 

Godspeed M J Madden, you will be missed on this side...