A More Humane Company

One of my colleagues, an editor at Tymnet, had moved on to another data communications company, Tandem.

Kim called me, encouraging me to join her, There’s a Senior Writer position open in my group. I think you’ll like it here.  They have a Philosophy department…

They have what?!

Yes, she continued.  I’ve taken some interesting courses.  Not just technical stuff.  And we have beer busts every Friday.

It sounded more like a university campus.  Perhaps, it wasn’t as laid back as all that, but it was dramatically different from Tymnet.

They were the first company I knew where you could earn as much money and respect rising in the ranks as an individual contributor as you could by becoming a manager.  They even gave individual contributors nicer offices with windows.  We had large offices, not cubicles. Two individual contributors shared the room, but it was large enough that some people brought in additional furniture like sofas. Managers received smaller, private offices without windows.

Jimmy Treybig, the CEO, was willing to talk to anyone.  Not long after I had started working there, Treybig stopped me one day as I was walking in the corridor and asked, in his warm Texas drawl, How are things going?

He succeeded in giving me the impression that he actually cared what I thought.

Treybig also starred in a monthly program that was broadcast on a Tandem internal television network and included skits, modeled after Saturday Night Live.  The skits were educational—explaining some aspect of Tandem technology so that even non-technical staff could understand–and surprisingly entertaining.  My documentation group was in the building next to the studio, so we tried to be part of the live audience whenever we could.

We still worked hard.  But my workday now included time for other things.

I had been assigned to lead some cross-group projects that required me to give presentations, which led me to join Tandem Toastmasters.  Toastmasters helped me to get control of my fear.  Participating in the Tandem club had an added benefit.  I was meeting and becoming friendly with members from Development and Customer Support, which also improved my business interactions with the people in those groups.

One summer, I learned how to do free-style swimming in the company pool.  I had learned how to swim as a child.  But for some reason, we did more breaststroke and sidestroke.  At Tandem, I learned how to breathe properly so that I could successful do laps of free-style.

After five years, I got a paid 5-week sabbatical.  My manager was switching to another type of job and suggested that take her place.

Her suggestion was tempting.  I really liked Tandem, felt ready to try management, and would have been happy to stay—except that my husband and I wanted to move back to Israel.  So I let myself be recruited by another company that would fit into that plan.

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10 Responses to A More Humane Company

  1. lipbein says:

    Remembered some other things that I liked about Tandem.

    1) They cared what customers thought, too. They sent me on business trips to customer sites, so I could see how people actually used our documentation and encouraged me to run focal groups to get customer feedback. This was back in the early 90s. So it wasn’t very common.

    2) They supported a very popular Tandem-only forerunner of Craigslist, which we could use to buy and sell stuff, rent a vacation cottage, etc.

    At that time, email was used primarily for exchanging email between employees of the same company. I remember how excited we were when another writer figured out a way to exchange email with someone who was from a different company… Sounds like ancient history, doesn’t it?

  2. pwesling says:

    I thought I’d discuss two points of the Tandem philosophy. First: “Err on the side of the employee”. If there was concern that something had gone wrong, and a particular person might be to blame, then FIRST trust that person’s recollections. S/he was usually closest to the work or the decision, so it was appropriate to place most of the trust there. This comes directly from the HP Way: “We have trust and respect for individuals.” (Tandem continued many of the ideas espoused in The HP Way — http://www.hpalumni.org/hp_way.htm.)
    Second: “You can’t say anything bad about a new idea for 5 minutes”. If I bring up some hair-brained or unusual idea in a meeting, it isn’t fair for others to shoot it down immediately — it needs to first be fleshed-out and discussed for at least a short time, to see if there might indeed be a way that it can be implemented, or to see if it spawns other ideas that COULD be useful in providing insight, solving a problem, expanding a product definition, closing in on a solution, etc. The opposite reaction — to immediately say “That can’t be done because …” — will keep smart, dedicated people (the kind we hired at Tandem) from speaking up again, for fear of embarrassment.
    These two rules (and other experiences at Tandem) led to one of my touchstone sayings: “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission”. If an employee sees something that ought to be done, then s/he should gather a few people to discuss and improve it, and then get it done. In most cases it’ll work out fine; if you get a reprimand or a cease-and-desist, then take it gracefully and move on. We should make every failure a learning experience.

  3. Glenn Story says:

    The two general things I liked about Tandem were its technical innovation and its caring for employees.

    The most memorable example of the latter was an occasion when an employee had leukemia. The only thing that could save him was a bone-marrow transplant and the odds of finding a matching donor were millions to one. Yet Jimmy authorized dipping into our corporate insurance money to pay for the preliminary screening blood test for for any employee who cared to volunteer. It was over $100 per test which seemed expensive back then. (You can’t even get a cholesterol test for that price today.) Unfortunately no one matched, but it added probably several hundred donors to the national data bank for marrow donors.

    For multiple examples of technical innovation, see my own web page on the subject: http://glennastory.net/cm/tandem.html .

  4. Bob Croft says:

    Ah, mail wars. The more crazy the subject got, the more people that jumped in, didn’t it seem like we were having a better quarter? Bob Croft, Network Support

  5. dan says:

    Your article is a great start. BTW, the sabbaticals in the U.S. were 6 weeks off every 4 years, even better than you described.

    I loved Tandem, the best company I ever worked for. The people were great and the company was amazingly progressive. Much of the credit for that goes to Jimmy Treybig. I think the key to what was so wonderful is actually pretty simple: they treated everyone as an adult and expected them to be responsible. And people responded to that.

  6. Len Fishler says:

    Whenever I try to explain to people what it was like to work for Tandem in the 80s, when it was still considered one of THE places to work in the Valley, I always end up telling stories. Like the time when I was a freshly minted manager, in the mid-80s, with my group being responsible for developing a key dependency of a VERY high priority/visibility/pressure project. It was a time when Tandem was going through it’s first salary freezes and forced vacations. A special beerbust was being held, in honor of a beer-making customer (can’t remember the name anymore). During this, one of my key developers got INTO a LOUD “discussion” with Jimmy about the handling of the freeze, etc. In the midst of this argument, the developer in question told Jimmy that he (and his direct reports) should have taken a symbolic pay cut, as a gesture of solidarity with the employees. Jimmy and the developer both had been loosened up by beer drinking, and Jimmy really took exception to what was said. Angry words were exchanged, and at this point I kind of inserted myself between them and pulled the developer away. I sweated the whole weekend, expecting a phone call. Even worse when I came into work on Mon., expecting to find out that my key developer had been fired, and maybe me along with him. Not the case. Nothing happened. In fact, the next beer bust where the two of them attended, Jimmy made a point of coming over, and shaking hands with the guy and said no hard feelings, good fight. Tandem was the kind of place where you COULD have good fights, even with the CEO, and the next day bygones, and let’s get back to work and succeed. When I tell this story to people, it is almost always instructive to see how they react to it. Usually it is with incredulity, unless they actually worked at Tandem, then it’s, oh, of course. When I told this story, after the HP merger, to one of my counterparts in HP, his reaction was, oh, that guy should have been fired, at HP you’d never get away with that. Can’t say whether that was always true at HP, but surely it was different by the time I got there. For sure, Tandem was the best place I ever worked, and a culture that was the best I can imagine. I wonder whether it would be possible to have such a culture in today’s less kind, less gentle IT business. I never saw a bunch of people more dedicated to the group’s success who didn’t have a huge financial stake in it.

    • lipbein says:

      Thanks so much for sharing that story with us. I’m so happy that I started blogging about Tandem. I’m going to see if I can share this post and the responses with Jimmy Treybig. I’d like him to know what a positive and lasting impression he made on all of us.

  7. Ray Walker says:

    Absolutely the best company I have worked at, but for me I was given the opportunities to work at many locations. Kuwait, Uxbridge UK, NY Stock Exchange, Hong Kong, Singapore, ICON – CA, Product Management with Bill Heil, Sydney Oz, back to Cupertino, then Plano. So got to view the company from many angles. Many many stories, from a meeting with HSBC Pete Peterson and Jimmy, where the HSBC guy was a little upset with Pete, and Jimmy said, hey our employees are empowered to make mistakes, so long as they don;t make too many!

    I think empowerment was what Tandem was about. Empowering every employee to do the best for the company, to have the authority. I recall a couple of stories from Jimmy, one I’ll just give the start too. ‘Two bulls at the top of a hill looking down on a field of cows, son (bull) says to his dad, lets run down the hill and screw us a cow. ……….. This reminds me of another one of Jimmy’s questions to employees “How long have you been working at Tandem, not counting tomorrow!”

    Then of course there was TOPS! I cannot think of a better was to compensate employees! I was fortunate to be nominated to two, but only attend the Vancouver Canada! Fantastic event, made you feel like a king!

    The Compaq takeover was not so much fun, just think what might have been if we had made the decision years earlier to Buy Compaq when we had the opportunity!

    Lots of fun memories, ServerNet, 16p, CLX-H plus, Toucan, Himalaya!

    Most of all, proud to have met such a great family of people that worked at Tandem all over the world. Hope that someday will have the opportunity to visit each place again and meet up with old friends.

    In the mean time, have a seed company to get off the ground, looking for investors!
    Ray Walker – 817 23 yrs

  8. Vince Cooper says:

    I had the honour of meeting Len in Cupertino a few years ago, when Neoview was in it’s infancy. I was involved with a Neoview implementation in the UK, and Len was keen to discuss some of the practical issues we were facing. I happened to be in town on a training course, and Len offered to buy me lunch. That to me sums up the Tandem culture. It was a close, connected company where seniority, years of service, or even the Atlantic Ocean were no barrier to person-to-person discussions and relationships. Sadly it was only a year after I joined Tandem that the Compaq takeover happened, and it has been a slow but inexorable downhill journey since then. Working for Tandem was the absolute high point in my IT career and I am very proud to have a Tandem Employee number.

  9. Len Fishler says:

    I assure you, Vince, the honor was all mine. Neoview was the last major project I worked on for NonStop, before moving “up” to a BCS-level position (from which I “retired”). It felt a little like the old days, a lot of excitement, especially when the initial installation for internal HP IT ran into trouble. I got put in charge of getting it back in business, sent on a plane down to Austin and told to stay until it was back up. The project had backing all the way up to Mark Hurd, and I remembered the old Tandem maxim ” ’tis better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission”. So when I ran into bureaucratic obstinate-ness (I can make up a word, right :-)) anywhere in the course of fixing problems I would tell whomever it was giving me a hard time that the next phone call they’d get on this would be from Mark Hurd himself. Not that he knew me from Adam, but the bluff always worked, Hurd’s reputation scared the ()*&()* out of folks, I just figured I’d take advantage of it (;-)). It was too bad HP never figured out how to sell Neoview, and that other HP divisions actively tried to sabotage sales.

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