30 years of business change in one blog post

It all started with something like this.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of starting my first job in corporate America. I know. I don’t look that old. Right???  Thanks for humoring me.

So I have been a bit nostalgic about my career (so far) and the changes I’ve seen.  I rarely spend time on this blog looking BACK, but if you’ll oblige me this once, I’d like to make a few observations about the changing nature of work that may surprise you:

Technology

Of course this is the most obvious difference … and I’m not the type of person to re-state the obvious! But to set the stage, there was no:

  • Internet
  • Email
  • Voicemail
  • Mobile devices
  • Personal computers

My first corporate job was to be in the office by 6:30 a.m. every morning to create a global executive summary of economic, industry, competitor, and customer news.  I read paper magazines and newspapers, cut out the important articles with scissors and taped them to paper for photocopying. I typed summaries of the articles on a new-fangled device called a “word processor” which then printed the document so it could be faxed to corporate offices around the world.  The advent of personal computers and the Internet has been so profound that I could not possibly even cover it if I wrote for a month. When email was introduced, my boss fought it tooth and nail. You see, some things never change.

MadMen

I count myself lucky to have witnessed the tail-end of the “MadMen” period of business culture.  When I started my career in 1982, it was a white-skinned, starched-collar, chain-smoking, Ivy League, martini-swilling group of guys running corporate America.  I was taken to many business lunches to drink at the all-men, all-white private business clubs that were in every major American city.  I am proud to say that when the chairman of my company, Charles Parry, took his rotation as the president of the private club in Pittsburgh, he walked through the front door with our company’s treasurer, an African-American, and smashed that rule forever. I was so proud of that! Today, business is for everyone. But it was not that long ago that business was an elitist, blue-blooded sport.

Speed

The reaction time in business has accelerated mightily.  Back in the early 80s you had more time to think and gather your response because you could duck and hide behind the slow communication network.  If people wanted information from you, they basically had to call you on the phone. The OFFICE phone. So there was no ubiquitous availability like we have now. If a reporter needed information for a controversial story, there were endless ways to delay and turn the situation around in your favor. It was an important skill! Because of the relatively slow communications, there was a lot more downtime built into the decision-making processes.

Globalization

The political world was radically different then. Russia (USSR) and Eastern Europe were closed markets. There was little trade with China and certainly no China supply chain strategy other then British-controlled Hong Kong.  Other than Europe, America still had a very U.S.-focused market and supply chain. We still made stuff here.  The lack of real-time communication options was a big hurdle to global trade.

Flexibility

Company life back then was pretty rigid. I wore a suit and tie to work every day until around 1992 when “casual Fridays” started to loosen things up.  It was a 9-5 world. There was no working from Starbucks … I think you could make an argument that mobile devices created Starbucks. As a young employee, my first office had a leather couch and a globe. Yes, I’ll admit … that was cool. But there was a big trade-off. All this rigidity and lack of technology made for a real lack in …

Personal Opportunity

Here are the number of friends I had who started their own company in the 1980s — zero. To start a company then, you generally had to MAKE something. That meant investing in manufacturing assets — which also meant securing a bank loan, physical work space, employees, and a support infrastructure. To start something new, you had to have experience, money, and connections.

Compare this to my recent profile of Xavier Damman, the founder of Storify. He does not have a college degree and never worked for a company. Xavier wrote computer code in his apartment in Belgium, teaching himself how to create a start-up company by searching the Internet. After 18 months he had the foundation of his company in place to the point where he got $3 million in venture capital funding so he could move to San Francisco and build his company. Now that is cool.

Accountability

I think a major shift in work life is represented by the growing emphasis on personal accountability.

When you joined a company, you embarked on a “career path” that relied on building a personal network and gathering enough company-sponsored training programs to propel you to the next level. Companies viewed employees as long-term strategic investments. Honestly, this created a lot of dead weight in the company structure.

Today, corporate cultures are built on flexibility and viewing employees as interchangable parts. Employees are responsible for their own training and career path. If you don’t remain relevant, you will be jettisoned and replaced.

The bottom line

Other than being able to strategically hide from my boss through elaborate games of telephone tag, there is really only one thing I miss from “the old days.” Today we maintain business relationships through email, text messages, maybe even Facebook or an enterprise social media utility like Yammer. I have customers who I have never met.  Back then “team building” was a physical activity like golf, fishing, or dinner at a nice restaurant. Nobody has time for physical events any more and I miss that. It was a lot of fun and it created life-long friendships. You really could have relationship-based selling. I think those days are gone, for the most part.

Well, I have written nearly 1,000 blog posts and this is the first one about “the old days” and it may be the last. Obviously this could have been a VERY long article, but I kept it to a minimum and hope you found it mildly interesting.  What are some other major changes that you’ve observed in how business works today?

All posts

  • Hi Mark,

    I am a bit younger than you, but old enough to have put in 20 some years so I can relate to a lot of what you shared here. I used to have a secretary who typed all of my letters for me.

    Now I type everything. It is faster and easier to compose on the fly.

    Anyway, your paragraph about accountability caught my eye. I have worked for big corporations and family businesses. Every where I have been I have seen some employees get away with doing a minimal amount of work.

    Sometimes that was because they were family members and sometimes it was because they were just lucky. But what has bothered me at several of the companies was the feeling of being a cog in a machine.

    The smarter organizations found ways to help foster team spirit and a sense of support that made us want to work harder. Part of that was done by making it easier to train and educate ourselves.

    It was and is a great tool for improving the workforce and improving retention rates.

    Thirty years goes by far too quickly…

  • jennwhinnem

    What, no abacus??

    Just kidding. I had to use a typewriter at some of my first jobs!

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  • Hardee har har. You better be glad you’re a thousand miles away Ms. Whinnem! : )

  • This reminds me of another interesting aspect of business back then. I had a boss who traveled all the time. He would mail dictaphone tapes back to his secretary who would type them up and supply me with pages of to-do lists! Thanks Jack!

  • I think your blog post is “hitting home” – I tried 3 times to load from the twitter feed and twice from the facebook post – both timed out – so I think this blog and it’s compelling title – are reaching your audience! Of course, it’s also thought provoking . . . I was busy having kids and changing diapers in 1982, but I did have my electric typewriter – with the correcting cartridge! Then I “hid out” in grad school for 12 years starting in 1990 – so everything business escaped me. However, in the last 4 years alone so much has changed as far as marketing and sales strategies with the advent of social media. But I disagree that it’s no longer a contact sport. Unless social media marketing is backed up with face-to-face networking it is doomed to fail.
    Many thank yous for your post!

  • Cool story! I remember a little bit from those days, because my dad worked as a CPA in Chicago. Most of it was him coming home in March and April at 3 in the morning and also going to his office with him as he went through different accounts.

  • MMMuse

    Hi Mark:
    The “good old days” also consisted of stopping at the roadside gas station to make a phone call with a dime! Heaven help me if I was late for an appointment.

    How about the copy machine! Then the Xerox, great invention! Carbon paper and Liquid Paper!

  • Oh yes that correcting cartridge! I went through them like crazy! Thanks for the great comment Kristine!

  • “My dad” Sheesh. Just what I needed to hear Andy! : ) Ha!

  • Oh gosh yes. Probably safer though, wasn’t it? I remember driving around looking for a phone!

  • Amanda

    Ditto. I recently left the corporate world after many years to launch my own tech startup. I noticed a considerable decline in personal accountability and lack of drive and too much politics and conforming. I also hope the positives of social media and interactions will spill more into the enterprise sector.

  • Thanks Amanda!

  • I started 22 years ago, right after college. Entered a management development program in finance with about 20 other bright “kids”. It was an amazing social and learning experience where we would work, lunch (not at our desks), learn from & teach each other skills, play softball, have a few pops. I don’t know what changed more – work culture, life stages or greater sociological forces… but I’m with you, a part of the old school that you’re glad you didn’t have the “cliff notes” for.

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about this training aspect. How will the economy, businesses and leadership be different with self-directed training? I can see both sides of it. Thanks Bill!

  • Mark,

    I started in business about the same time you did in the early 80’s. As I was reading this article, I couldn’t help wondering what changes my kids (all in their 20’s now) will have experienced in the workplace when they look back 30 years from now.

    It would be fun to read your thoughts about what it will be like then. I can only imagine.

  • Whew. That is something to think about! It’s accelerating!

  • Your last section about the current system weakness for building life long lasting relationship could endup being one of the negative legacies of this era. There is an argument to be made that those who combine some old school relationship building techniques with online social media techniques might come up on top in the future.

  • Glad to be of encouragement!

  • Thank you Bill, and Mark for opening this conversation…

    I am an advocate of self-directed learning ever since I wrote my first self-directed learning curriculum for a curriculum class at the University of Pittsburgh.

    With the instructor’s permission, I took a group of high school students who were disenchanted with how, and what they were learning, and being taught.with me to the class.

    After consulting with the other graduate students in the class, the high school students designed, and developed a curriculum that was accepted by the superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public School, and the principal of their school at that time.

    Currently we are witness to the many options, and possibilities for the future of self-directed learning, and I am looking forward to what is in store for all of us with social media in businesses, homes, and schools.

  • More than an argument — perhaps this is critical for success? My view any way. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom Abdallah!

  • I will find a way to get you back. : )

  • thanks to you for writing insightful posts.

  • Ok, so you are a little older than I am. 20 years ago, I was in preschool and maybe couldn’t spell business.

    But I have seen my mom run a catering business from home and though she doesn’t run it anymore I have seen the change in 20 years. No phone calls to constantly nag her into changing specifications just one day before, no emails to worry about and definitely no blogs to manage! Once the customer has decided what they want and what they don’t the only way to change orders as 48 hours prior and in person, obviously! Mom said it kept it more sorted out. Once the email and mobile made it easy to keep in touch, it became tougher to “change the menu frequently”!

  • …and the letter writing. I mean actual hand written letters on stationary. I’ve written tons of letters in the late 80s and early 90s while in the Army. Then waited literally weeks for a reply (Army mail was a bit slow back then in the Middle East and Europe).

    You’re right, though, it’s nice to look back on occasion for a quick trip down memory lane. But now it’s back to the future. I just had 11 e-mails come since reading this post.

  • Good point. It is definitely “quieter” now without the phone ringing all the time!

  • Wow. That was just not that long ago, was it? Hard to believe how our entire way of life has been transformed. Thanks Frank!

  • This was a really interesting article! I love reading about personal experiences from before I was born to see how the world “really was.” I know one day I’ll be looking back on TODAY as the good ol’ days and that’s crazy!

    I like how you included the detail about your boss fighting email – I definitely can imagine EVERY new technology being opposed by many. I wonder what arguments he told you against email. I wish I could read really old journals about businesses fighting the telephone too.

    One thing’s for sure, change is constant.

  • James Ulvog

    Looking at where we were then
    makes me so appreciative of where we are now.

    One of the first major projects for
    a public offering I worked on as a staff accountant involved feeding thermal
    fax paper into the fax machine, hitting run, and waiting 3 or 4 minutes for the
    drum to spin as the information was printed on the paper. Remove paper, feed another just so,
    and wait another 3 or 4 minutes. Repeat for the 15 page transmission. Then the partner and I could crunch some
    numbers. Send changes to the underwriters using the same tech, and receive
    their response the same way.

    I much prefer having client
    faxes arrive as an e-mail.

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  • Gettysburg Gerry

    Lots of change indeed. I often think of my grandparents, being born in horse and buggy days, and later in life flying to Europe in a jet. When doing presentations I often drag out my “back in my day” story about writing school papers with a pen and paper, and getting my info from the encyclopedia!!! Oh the horror. I still own a full set of Funk & Wagnalls….

    What’s interesting is, as connected as I am, my adult son (29) still has no cell phone. Many times I wonder who has the better quality of life, at least I google the question from my smart phone. 😉

    Hope you Monday is going well.

  • I think employers realize that people have skills beyond what’s just on their degrees. I haven’t been around in the workforce long, but my mom is living proof of this paradigm shift. She graduated in 1988 with a degree in social work. After leaving that career to stay at home with my brother and me, she began her current successful career about a decade later by working a night audit job at a hotel. Without an MBA, my mom became a certified fraud examiner and a regional director for a major international hotel chain. The individual matters more than the degree.

  • What, no more golf??

    Us youngsters still like to golf you know! I just Instagram some things during the game =) I challenge you to a round someday Mark!

  • Trivia: I was a student in the first self-directed school curriculum in Pittsburgh. We worked through different boxes of cards. I flew through them like i was possessed but that darn Tammy Wyte was always one card ahead of me!

  • That story was really funny. You know why he finally changed? His boss (a vice president) called him one day and asked him why he wasn’t responding to his email!

  • Great story James. When I first started working at a newspaper, we would put columns of news print through a “waxer” so they would stick to a layout board! Thanks!

  • That’s great. More power to the gray haired ones my friend!!!

  • It’s a fantastic time that we live in to be sure! Thanks David!

  • Challenge accepted! You’re toast Reuss. Just watch out for the sideways drives. They’re my specialty.

  • customerspecs

    Great read: I graduated in 2002 and I saw the painful transition among my professors and first bosses, as the struggled to change their way of thinking.

  • I was graduated from the University of Notre Dame in May of 1982. The BUNCH companies were big. Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell. Wang was big in word processors. Cell phones and the internet were science fiction. Thanks for sharing.

    Jeff

  • Very interesting Mark! Thanks for sharing… What’s the name of school that held this title “the first self-directed school curriculum in Pittsburgh”?

  • So much of my own learning these days is self-directed or contextual – and I think in some fields change is so rapid, it’s the only way some organizations build expertise. I think smart biz will figure out how to enable both structured curricula to build foundational skills, and self-directed to fill gaps and fit context. If we aren’t learning… we’re not living.

  • It was in the North Hills school district

  • yes, i still see that!

  • You must have been a journalism major because i rarely see the proper use of “was graduated” as you have here Jeff : ) Good job!

  • Thanks Mark. I actually have a BBA in Marketing from the University of Notre Dame, but I also am proud of my writing (and interviewing) skills.

  • Good to know… Thanks Mark!

  • iancleary

    I’m based in Ireland which is a very small economy. What I love about what has changed is our accessibility to a global market. I can talk to people anywhere in the world to-day with a couple of tweets!

    I remember learning how to type years ago with one of those big old typewriters. I’m starting to feel old now. Thanks for that Mark !!!!

  • Happy anniversary Mark… I think. We actually had the exact computer from your picture growing up. Our whole business ran on Wang computers. Scary, huh?

    I remember learning spreadsheets and having to swap out floppy disks to finish the job. “Please insert disk 2 of 3” — that kind of thing. Some changes have definitely been for the better!

    Enjoyed the retrospective Mark!

  • I wrote my thesis on a typewriter. The first step on a computer was Cobol at university. I even remembered that we used batch cards to get the code into the machine and received long lists in return. My diploma thesis was made with a Sperry Univac editor.My doctoral thesis on a Commodore 64 (with no hard disk). I remembered also when my first Boss at Deutsche Bank walked proudly through the office showing his first mobile phone to everyone. Those were the times when we sent out telegrams to reach people quickly… Kind regards from Germany Hansjörg http://www.der-bank-blog.de

  • You are a great one Jeff!

  • My job is done here Ian. : )

    Think about how you and I connected. You found my blog, sought me out at BlogWorld and we became friends. We are now plotting an Ireland meet-up. Who knows where it will lead. This could not have happened even three years ago. What a revolution.

  • Oh my gosh yes. What a pain. Funny how quickly those things went away!

  • We are of the same vintage : )

    My first and only computer class in college (grad school actually) was completed on IBM cards. BOXES of IBM cards. Can you imagine today that your entire business plan and computer program could be jeopardized by dropping a cardboard box? Thanks for the memory!

  • If you think that today a mobile phone has more IT power than the computers used when landing on the moon ….

  • iancleary

    You’re right, without Social Media I wouldn’t have introduced myself at Blogworld. There’s lot of businesses that still have no idea of the potential!!! A meet up in Ireland will probably lead to some Guinness 🙂

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  • Todd Lohenry

    29 years for me, Mark, so I can relate to much of this! In my first job I had a secretary and a dictaphone. They promised us that one day there would be a computer on every desk. They were right!

  • Jack Silverman

    I regret now looking at the keyboard in typing class!

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  • Just thought I would let you know. It has been 18 days and you not have done it yet! 🙂

  • : ) Still do it!

  • My bark is worse than my bite. : )

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