I sat and listened to Bob Beech describe to a potential customer my and others’ decades-long work as an “
oystering” process: Within a small, confined environment a problem is worked over and over until a beautiful object appears. Bob was a very good talker. As a boy, I’ll bet he was constantly in trouble for talking, and probably for not holding still too. As well as talkative and energetic, Bob was also very smart. He grasped something unique about the solution for a fundamental information systems problem, and could see its much broader application.
Bob was in the midst of trying to save his company from the ravages of the Internet bubble. His company had agreed to own and market this technology. I had worked with his small company for a month, trying to help them understand it and begin to build a market for it.
He wasn’t winning the war quickly enough. As I visited his office a month later, I sensed people problems between my team and his. I decided I needed to talk with Bob. Perhaps he didn’t understand enough about the history of the tool, or the ideas upon which it was created; as a consultant, those were things I was used to describing a lot. We sat down for a few minutes. It quickly became clear to me that Bob knew a lot more than I did about the state of things. The problem wasn’t the history or the technology. It was the finances of his company. After a few minutes, Bob excused himself to go to a meeting with all his employees. I went back to my borrowed cubicle to think.
The company cubicles were already more than three-quarters empty. The building was new, commissioned and leased by Bob’s company anticipating continued Internet heyday growth. The interior was painted in bold colors, with high warehouse-like ceilings and spaces for exercise and game rooms. A sign created by a design firm even explained the naming scheme for the conference rooms and cubicle groupings.
It was very quiet sitting in my guest cubicle. The quiet didn’t bode well. With only a whisper, how could this company sell the results of that oystering process? But I was still excited to have someone recognize value in the pearl, even if he was desperate for an idea to salvage his company.
While I sat and thought, Bob announced to his employees that he was taking drastic measures to try to save the company; including laying-off most of the employees and stopping work on all other projects except mine.
Later that afternoon, Bob stopped and asked if we could talk a bit more. Given our earlier discussion and the results of my cubicle contemplations, I decided I’d listen a lot more and talk less. Reflecting on it later, I think Bob taking this time when he must have been under tremendous pressure was one of the kindest things anyone had done for me.
Bob started the conversation by telling me what had led him to found the company. He studied medicine, but didn’t really like to stick people with needles. He also felt that practicing medicine was not a leveraged activity; it was basically one doctor, one patient. He hoped to have a larger impact. He said he viewed the future of medicine at the intersection between mechanical or bio-technical molecular and digital information. That was why he formed his company. I sensed a real passion when he said, “
No matter what happens to this company or anything else, this will be the problem I will be trying to solve.”
He asked why I had ended up doing what I was doing. I was surprised by my own reaction. I looked at the floor and realized, perhaps for the first time, or at least never that deeply, that I felt a sense of mission similar to his; a very deep sense of mission. After a momentary pause, Bob quietly suggested that if I felt so strongly, I should try to write the definitive white paper about the concepts. He said there are people that have spent their whole professional lives proving that what is expressed in one such short white paper is really true.
Because of Bob’s encouragement, a week later I took a day during my family vacation to visit my alma mater, Brigham Young University. I started by looking up an article a professor had introduced me to, by W. E. McCarthy, Ph.D. in July 1982 The Accounting Review entitled “The REA Accounting Model: A Generalized Framework for Accounting Systems in a Shared Data Environment.”1 I spent the day reflecting on what I really understood of the topic, and what insights I could add.
Now, multiple years later, I realize that I am more likely to be in the second group of people Bob described; the ones who spend their lives teasing out all the implications of a paper rather than creating one with a blinding flash of inspiration. This paper is really the foundation of my life’s work.
McCarthy’s papers generated a body of academic work over twenty plus years. People who hear about the theory say it makes perfect sense to them. It seemed there is something about it that could greatly simplify the business information systems architecture of the world. McCarthy’s disciples have seen this potential. Early proponents went so far as to call for a revolution in accounting systems architecture.2 There was a call to arms, but the fortress of accumulated lines of code and embedded business processes repulsed the attack.
After talking to Bob that day, February 8, 2002, I drove to the airport to fly home. On the way I was asked to join a conference call about a project that would be necessary to help save my own company, a very large company, from suffering the same fate as Bob’s. That project would put the theory, and the small team of people I have worked with who believed in it, to the test. It was the culmination of years of practical experience. It was a call to arms of a different kind, and would prove whether the pearl had any value or not.
But my story is getting ahead of itself. Let me attempt to first describe the pearl. Of course to understand a pearl, it is important to know that at the core of a pearl is an irritant—a problem—that causes the oyster to create a pearl. Let’s start there.
Next: Chapter 2: The Problem
Previous: Part 1: The Pearl
Parent: Part 1: The Pearl