Saturday, March 14, 2009


Change happens.

My last entry on travel reminded me of a story. Back in the days of yore, when giants walked the
earth (OK, thirty years ago), I had just begun work at Shared Medical Systems (SMS - later acquired by Siemens) and I worked in the group that did 'Conversions'. In those days, SMS was growing rapidly, getting tons of new hospital customers all the time. Converting from one electronic system to another is a hard time for a hospital, most run on very thin margins and any disruption to their cash flow is very painful. So we tried very hard to get their billings moving again as soon as we could. And we did that by 'converting' their old files from whatever system they used to run on into the SMS file structure so we could do billings right away, in many cases the very next day after the conversion.

I was very pleased to be in this group doing that work because it was SO challenging. In those days, there were many more manufacturers of computers and many more proprietary file structures, some specifically built for one hospital. So every conversion was different and each was a little like forensic archeology. We had to pick the files apart and tease the information out of them and specifications were always poor because the company or group losing the account was never tripping over themselves to supply proper information. They were probably hoping we would fail so they could get another shot at the hospital. So we wrote our conversions in a language called PL/I (Programming Language One), which allowed us to manipulate data down to the bit level so we could actually change characters around if we had to. And we often had to. This is what coding in PL/I looked like:

It was such a strong language, we could decode bizarre 7-bit junk or data with arcane random buffer lengths or files that had another file to tell where certain data was posted (which was never included in the batch they sent us). But this is where I learned my love of forcing the system to do what I wanted it to even if it had no intention of giving me what I wanted. It was a real rush to pull a jewel out of a steaming pile of crap. The executives knew we were doing magic and were grateful to us and sent us letters of appreciation. But no money.

So, what's this got to do with travel? Well, the most money came in when we acquired a group of hospitals and that was fairly regularly. The deal maker was a Vice President named Mike Mulhall who had such commanding presence that his statements were regarded as stone fact simply because he had uttered them. These were not negotiations, they were pronouncements. It was amazing to watch. So he and I would travel to these places and meet with a room full of people and 'negotiate' what was going to happen. They would bring in their technical experts and I would question them about their file structures, aging decisions, financial codes, etc. etc. right in front of everyone. Then I would give Mike my estimation of the difficulty factor for the conversion and he
would apply it as one factor in the financial part of the deal. It was a little like the Pros from Dover had come to town and we were there to crack this kid's chest and get in a round of golf.

Only it wasn't golf, it was drinking. Mike drank more than any human I'd ever seen. On our fairly frequent trips, we would go the airport and into one of the many airline clubs he was a member of. I didn't sit in those cold plastic chairs at the gate for YEARS. When they called our flight, he called for another round. We only left when it was FINAL call. And then, when we boarded (always as the door was closing) he'd ask the stewardess for a drink so it would be ready as soon as we were in the air. At first, I tried to keep up with him, but that was just dumb. Mike was a studied, hardened professional drinker, but he never showed a sign of intoxication other than a reddening of the face as the evening (or day) progressed. There was more than one occasion when we would fly to our destination and go right into a meeting after drinking for hours! I have no idea how I pulled that off other than Mike expected me to, so that made me capable. It was a little worse when the meeting was first thing the next day because although he didn't feel it, I sure did.

Then my team and I actually had to DO the conversion and there was never enough time. But that's a story for another day. Imagine staying awake for three and half days straight and writing better code three-quarters of the way asleep than I did wide awake and rested. If I tried that now, I would be DEAD, DEAD, DEAD.

On the day of conversion, we didn't have any fancy file transfer, we had one of our guys hand-carry a set of tapes back from Michigan or Arizona or wherever. Timing was crucial as you can imagine. Between the day-end of the other system and the airline schedule, there was often a very tight timeframe. Our courier told the story once of his speeding across town in his rental car, squealing to a stop in front of the terminal door, jumping out with his case of tapes and as he ran through the door, he tossed his rental car keys to a cop standing there and said "Medical Emergency!" and just kept running. I can't remember if he said he made it through the airplane door as it was closing or it had already closed but either way there was no time for any rental car return.

We waited breathlessly for a ticket or bench warrant to arrive in the mail, but all we ever got was the rental car receipt. That means the officer may have personally driven the car to the rental car return himself and then had to arrange getting back to his post or made it happen some other way, but however he did it, we're grateful.

Can you IMAGINE trying a stunt like that now? We would be shot six times before we ever got through the first door. Traveling was different in those days.

Mike Mulhall died very young and it was a long time ago. He had a heart attack at the New York Athletic Club after a steam bath. I learned a lot from Mike, we traveled all over the country together, we were a good team. He is missed.

1 comment:

Dave said...


I really enjoy your blog.

I could particularly relate to your most recent posting re: file conversions. Still one of my memorable and rewarding jobs (even after all these years).