I stopped in a local fast food restaurant the other day. As I was eating, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said “Excuse me, I think you dropped this.” And a hand was holding a discarded wrapper from a drinking straw. Huh? What?
I looked up to see the face of an old friend, Larry Koch.
Larry was the director of Data Processing which begat Management Information Systems which begat Information Technology for Methodist Hospital which begat Heartland Health which begat Mosaic Life Care. During this entire time, he kept the same name.
When I moved to this city in 1983, I was looking for a job. A friend wrangled me an interview for a job as a computer operator at Methodist. I was nervous, because I needed that job. I was 33 years old. I had a wife and a seven year-old daughter and a new baby on the way.
So that’s how I met Larry Koch. He sat in his office and bounced a tennis ball down to the floor and off the wall and back into his hand as he talked. If any of you have ever seen a movie called The Great Escape, this was like being in the cooler with Steve McQueen. He asked me a lot of pertinent questions about my knowledge of computers. I just kept watching that tennis ball and answering yes to all the questions, which was a damned lie. I’d never seen a computer. At the end of the interview, he caught the ball and stopped. He looked me straight in the eyes and said,
“You play softball?”
I let way too much time pass before I answered, but I said yes, and it wasn’t really a damned lie because I did play softball. Once.
Well, he hired me anyway. I think he knew I didn’t know anything about computers, but figured I wasn’t a complete idiot. I proved him wrong on that, and that’s what this story is about. I’ll get there in a minute. Sometimes, it’s better to hire someone who knows nothing. That way, they learn it your way. Sometimes hiring a smart person who thinks he knows everything ends up being a situation in which you realize you have hired a smart person who thinks he knows everything.
Within a year, I realized Larry Koch was one of the smartest people I’d ever met. And when I realized it, I started doing a lot of listening.
So when I saw him the other day, we did a lot of reminiscing. And I had the opportunity to tell him how many “Larry Koch things” I’ve adopted. I won’t list them here, but they are just really great advice for living and leading.
Thinking about Larry made me remember the night I proved to him that I was an idiot.
I was a new computer operator and I worked the third shift. For those of you who don’t know what third shift is, it’s the shift where you work all night and go home and put aluminum foil on the windows and rugs against the door so you won’t hear the baby crying and try to get some sleep.
The medical center computer operator ran the huge, mainframe computer—all night long. I had been trained, and worked alongside other operators, but the time came for me to handle it on my own. Alone.
I think I’d been doing the job for a month or two, without major issues. I’d gotten in some jams and had to call Joe Schmidt (my boss, who is another really funny guy and deserves his own story), but I’d never had to call Larry Koch (Joe’s boss).
Then, one night, something happened, that made me think we were having a problem . I was there all alone. In that place, if you were new and didn’t know everything yet, it could get stressful. I knew I had to keep that mainframe computer running. I had no idea what was attached to it or how. It was a hospital, right? So if this thing were to actually go down, maybe life support systems and oxygen and God knows what all would fail. And I remembered Schmidty saying “We don’t let it go down. That’s something we just don’t do.”
There was a room outside and separate from the computer room. It was where the backup power system was located. All operators had a key to it, but as Schmidty told me, “You don’t want to be in a situation where you have to go in here.”
On one entire wall of that room was a rack with about six million 12-volt car batteries, all connected. That was our emergency power. On the opposite side of that room was a huge thing that filled the entire wall. I don’t know how to describe it to you. It filled the whole wall. It had dials and meters and levers and gears and pulleys and lights blinking on and off and it hummed and rattled and buzzed and vibrated. This was not something you would want to touch. It was a huge something that I didn’t know anything about.
Right in the middle of this huge clicking, whirring monstrosity was a red button. When Schmidty showed it to me, he pointed out that the red button had a plastic cover over it. You had to lift the cover out of the way to push the button. It had three red labels above and below. The label above said DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON and the one below said DO NOT PUSH THIS BUTTON. There was a third label that said IF YOU PUSH THIS BUTTON, CALL LARRY KOCH. And Schmidty pointed out the cover and the labels and said “You don’t want to push this button.”
So I can’t really exactly explain how it got pushed.
It probably happened because I got all worried and panicky and thought maybe patients were dying upstairs as a result of my incompetence. Maybe I was a little upset. But here’s the thing: When you’re the only person around and the button is in a locked room and you have the key and the button has labels all over it telling you not to push it and a plastic cover that you have to lift out of the way to push it, well, you can’t blame anyone else.
You can’t say “I don’t know, somebody must have broken in there in a fit of rage and pushed it” unless you want to take a crowbar to that door to bolster your story; they gave you the key. You can’t say you tripped and accidentally pushed it. You can’t say you momentarily lost your mind, because they don’t want people who momentarily lose their mind to be running the computer, you see. And why were you in there anyway, supposedly tripping over things?
Methodist Medical Center no longer exists. The thing doesn’t exist, because the room is gone. And the room is gone because the entire hospital building is gone. Along with any evidence. All I can tell you, at this late date (and not being certain that the statute of limitations has run out) is that all the lights went out and came back on and that plastic cover was up and those six million car batteries started clicking and glowing and humming over and over again “You. Are in Big. Ass. Trouble.”
It was about three in the morning and of course that made it so much easier to dial Larry Koch’s phone number.
Well, Larry Koch answered the phone and came in at three in the morning, and never asked me how the button got pushed. Didn’t even lose his temper. In fact, he really didn’t mention it at all. He fixed the problem and went home. Maybe he figured I had already beaten myself up. Maybe that’s why he’s one of my heros.
Nobody died at the hospital, or at least not as a result of me, directly. It turned out that my fears were unfounded and the oxygen wasn’t connected to the life-support which wasn’t connected to the computer. A couple of business reports might have bitten the dust, but nothing more serious than that. I stayed with Methodist/Heartland for about ten years and went on to a really fun career involving, believe it or not, computers. I was promoted from idiot and was actually pretty good by the time I stopped.
I don’t see Larry often, maybe once every five years. But every time I see him, he’s always grinning and I am always thinking he’s going to say, “Hey, there’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you …”