So after glory on trips away, say in London as described last week in my post “ODD THINGS ABOUT TRIPS,” what was life like back in the office in Weehawken?
The following story sums it up.
One day in January¹ 1995, my Dad and Olcott International CEO Bernard Olcott came down to the second floor, where I was working at the time and insisted to Steve², the lead computer programmer that a granted European Patent be placed in a list (actually, a test database) of payable items as an “EPO item.” Now, please bear with me on the details that follow; they are important.
The problem was, once a European patent is granted and “goes national,” it is no longer payable as an “EPO item” – it becomes payable at each national patent office, like UK, France, or Germany as a British, French, German item or patent. Only as a pending application in the European Patent Office is it payable as an “EPO item.”
Just the kind of distinction Dad loved to make. He prided himself immensely on his profound, perhaps photographic, recall of such details for patent renewals among countries. After all, he wrote the book on patent renewals!
In this case, though, he was oddly off. It was unusual, bordering on the weird.
Steve dutifully reminded him that a granted “EPO item” was not payable and therefore should not be added to that list. Dad’s response was apoplexy, immediate and withering. He shouted at Steve “wrong!” and demanded that he add it, as demanded, shoving his finger in the air. By storming out of the room, he reiterated that this was a non-negotiable demand.
Steve, even though he knew better, acceded to the erroneous request and added the granted EPO item as a payable item. Maybe the law had just changed, perhaps?
But no, in reality, the law had not changed.
This should indicate the level of dysfunction in what was the called the computer programming department – the group tasked with writing the code for OIPMS (“Olcott Intellectual Property Management System”). This software package was one of Olcott International’s products 25 or so years ago, a complete lifecycle – cradle to grave – management software program for patents.
You see, as the 1980s stretched into the 1990s, it became increasingly apparent that future growth of the company would depend on offering such kinds of software. An efficient bulk patent renewal service could still be sold on its own terms. But this was increasingly rare. Corporate patent departments at the time were not demanding low cost, outsourced renewals, but software to help them automate their entire operation in-house. And not just the renewal part.
A run-down of the process will be helpful here.
The underlying invention for a proposed patent needs to be documented in a number of data fields like inventor, date, and references to some related previous patents (for gadget cred). Then, an application to the domestic Patent Office (in Washington, DC for US companies) must be composed and filed. Objections by examiners need to be tracked and responded to on time. If your application is granted in your home market, then you can engage in a filing program worldwide in maybe 30-40 other countries (more, if you are one of the world’s largest companies like E.I. DuPont de Nemours or Union Carbide). And so on and so forth.
Now that is a lot to keep track of. And through the 1970s and 1980s, it was all handled by paper files and folders. Filing cabinets jammed full of crinkly paper. Patent Departments wanted out!
So in response to market demand, Olcott International grudgingly undertook development of this kind of software to compete with the likes of CPA (Computer Patent Annuities), CPI (Computer Packages Inc.), and MDC (Master Data Center). These three had built up formidable market share since the late 1970s on the backs of their patent management software.
I say “grudgingly” because Dad, creator of the patent renewal industry, and like pioneers in other industries, couldn’t seem to get comfortable with this new line of business. In essence, Bernard Olcott, the tech disruptor of the previous generation, now faced disruption himself.
And, this common pitfall is easy to understand. (Especially in hindsight.)
Hiring coders cost money. And you had to keep them around for months (or, as it turned out, years) before you had a saleable product, validated with numerous testing cycles. My Dad, who grew up in the Great Depression, simply couldn’t spend a dime without inflicting pain on himself and those around him. Software development really seemed to aggravate this.
So back to the story.
Later that morning, Dad inexplicably returned to the second floor to look at the revised “payable item” list and somehow managed to “find” this incorrect item. Vitriol welled up in him like a volcano. “WHO PUT THIS THERE?” he screamed at Steve pointing at the offensive item. Steve stood there like a dead deer in the headlights, not sure if he really understood what was happening. For myself, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. My torso felt as if it were riddled with psychic bullet holes with toxic levels of stress spewing out onto the floor.
Steve suddenly snapped out of it and said plaintively, “you did Mr. Olcott. You asked me to place that EPO patent in the (payable) database an hour ago.”
“I DID NOT! TAKE IT OUT NOW!” Dad was raging; the volcano had blown again.
I couldn’t take it anymore and intervened on Steve’s behalf. “Dad, you were just here and asked him to move it to the payable database.”
“WRONG! WRONG AS TWO RABBITS!³” he screamed. “James, you’re fired! If you don’t like it here, go work somewhere else! Take that item off that list NOW!” And he stormed out of the room just as he had an hour before.
Dust fell from the air like crumpled dignity. The office tumbled into an embarrassed hush, as if an unspeakable event had just passed through. Steve and I looked at each other like slaves beaten together on the plantation.
It’s one thing to have a bad boss. But what if that boss was the man you admired? The one who had sung silly songs to you as a toddler? Walked with you up and down Fifth Avenue teaching you to throw snowballs at the Central Park wall? The one who sent you postcards from afar to send your imagination soaring?
The very same one who just crushed those very same imaginations into Ajax?
I was shaking, vibrating with alternating currents of shock, rage, and deprivation at this violation of my gentlemanly code of right and wrong. How can I fix this, and if I can’t, how do I get out of this hell-hole?
The author, years later, in Stuttgart.
And Steve? He was the guy I found shooting heroin into the back of his hand on the abandoned staircase up the hill (see my post “OF GIANTS AND DWARFS.”) He may no longer be with us today, but I am a witness to his profoundly undeserved pain.
¹ – The 31st, in fact. I started keeping a log of such occurrences as they became depressingly frequent.
² – Not his real name.
³ – Dad was given to peculiar expressions, like this one. It remains unexplained to this day as to the exact nature of the rabbits, the presumed error, and/or the significance of the number two.