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Talking Thai Food with Mr. Morley

September 10, 2010

At my first company me and a few other engineers were lucky enough to get the opportunity to spend a day/evening discussing engineering philosophy with Mr. Richard Morley, the "father of the PLC". I like to tell people I discussed engineering with Morley but it was really me and the other guys listening to him tell stories.

They guy is great story teller, as in one of the greatest I have ever listened to. Its not so much that he has a great speaking voice or style its just that you could see all the detail and realness behind the stories when he told them. After that day listening to him I spent the next week asking myself why I was wasting my time. I was convinced I should quite my job and start my own company that week. I thought "he isn't any smarter than I am, why not?" Then I realized he had two things I didn't: the guts to try and the experience and connections to make it work. So I went back to toiling away in the lab.

Anyway, one thing I quickly picked up on throughout the day talking to Morley was that he used the stories as his main form of communication, especially when he wanted to zing you.

The Thai Food Story

At one point he briefly started talking about one of his current projects. As engineers the group of us, especially me, could not help but try to pick it apart. He humored us for a few minutes then seemed to change the subject by telling us that he owned and operated a couple of high-end Thai restaurants. He started telling us a story about that once people knew about his Thai food connections, whenever he went on a business trips his host would inevitably try taking him to a local Thai place. It drove him nuts as most of the places they tried to take him to were Thai in name only.

The point he was making: I have done what you are first attempting to do hundreds of times so don't bother critiquing my ideas quite just yet.

The 13% Story

One of the first stories he told us was about the huge number of start-ups he had either directly worked for, invested in, or had been on the board of. I remember him saying something like "the average success rate for start-ups is 10% but I managed to hit 13% with my companies." I remember my immediate thought was "why would he brag about that 3%?"

Later the real point he was making sunk in: you are working for a start-up, there is a 90% chance you are going to fail, get used to it and get to work.

The Gate Guard Story

He told another story about a defense contractor he was working for that had really high security. He didn't go into specifics on the job but he told us about the involved process to get into the building. First you had to check in at the desk to get an access card to the main door. At the main door was a big, burly guy with a machine gun that would watch you slide the card through the reader to open the door. About the tenth time through the security gate he was carrying a bunch of stuff with him and was fumbling around trying to get the door open while not dropping all his stuff. Eventually he heard the security guard say "for Pete's sake let me do it" and the guard buzzed him through on his personal card. The point of this story I thought was that all the pomp and circumstance wasn't really for security, otherwise the guard would have never helped him through the door. A big part of it was for impressing customers and other visitors to the company. The image is what really mattered.

The Post Office Story

One story stuck in my head because it was something my parents, especially my dad, had spent years trying to pound into my head as a teenager: when you are given a job, do what you're told. Morley told a story about one of his adopted sons (he has adopted over twenty or so kids). This particular person was adopted when they were older and at one point the kid had a job at a post office.

The kid was getting frustrated at work because he had thought of a better way to do some function around the office, but the managers were really not interested in changing how they operated. It got to the point that the kid's frustration was getting in the way of the everyday work he was supposed to be doing. Morley explained to him that the post office didn't hire him to figure out a better way to do things, they hired him to work.

The general point I thought he was trying to make was employment situations are basically take it or leave it arrangements. You do the work you are asked to do, keeping a good attitude along the way, and you get paid. If you don't like it find a new job. Its not personal, its just the way it works. Trying to change that by force of will while not getting done what you were asked to do leads to nowhere.

Morley used the phrase "be a permanent contract worker" which crystallized the concept my parents taught me back in my teen age years. Also in saying this, Morley was not discouraging free thinking but quite the opposite. Right after telling that story I asked him if that attitude discourages innovation. He answered that if you think you have a good idea and your told not to work on it, work on it anyway then put it on the shelf. When the time is right present the idea or better yet start your own company around the idea and prove to everybody you were right.

That visit with Mr. Morley was several years ago. I will never be anywhere near his league as far as story telling goes but ever since then I have tried to at least be a somewhat entertaining and animated story teller.