The Watertown Free Public Library, Watertown, Massachusetts
Early days and jobs
My first paying job was as a 12 or 13 year-old, mowing lawns in my neighborhood. I got a very pleasant surprise one day when I asked Dr. Otto Eckstein (who I did not know at the time was the founder of DRI, the largest non-governmental distributor of economic data in the world) about the speaker I spied in the corner of his garage. He explained it was an old mono loudspeaker he was no longer using as the days of stereo had just arrived and asked if I wanted it. I sure did! One of my best audio acquisitions! A bass reflex cabinet containing an Altec Lansing 603B speaker.
After getting my senior life saving certificate at age 16, I was offered the job of lifeguard at my neighborhood pool, for as I recall, the princely sum of $60 a week. It was great! I went on to two more summers of lifeguarding. which financing my trip around Europe and the Middle East after graduating high school.
Which leads me to my summer time jobs during college: carpenter’s helper, house painter, computer tape inspector, and last and decidedly least, janitor. (The computer tape inspector job was the night shift and after a month of that even being a janitor looked good, so long as it was during day light!)
After graduating college with an all but useless B.A. in psychology, my mother who was Legal Counsel to the Massachusetts Division of Mental Health. got me a job as an consultant at the Division of Drug Rehabilitation. That’s where I met my first wonderful boss, Dr. Matt Dumont. My co-worker Jim Mason and I had the job of conducting site visits of all the state’s drug rehabilitation licensees. Jim and I played a lot of basketball during lunch hours and had a great time traveling around the state. I still remember visiting The School We Have, run by Dr. Shep Ginandes. The School We Have was an arts-oriented alternative school in Concord, Massachusetts. Shep was very cool. Somehow in the days long before the Internet, I found out that he had put out several albums long before becoming a child psychiatrist. That impressed me a great deal, being a lifelong fan of folk, blues and rock and roll music.
A sojourn in the sound reinforcement business
And perhaps it was Shep’s influence that got me to quit my administrative job and decide to start my own sound reinforcement business, Real Time Audio. We had a very cool name, a cool logo, courtesy of a friend of mine, but there wasn’t much money doing the sound for local bands who couldn’t afford their own P.A. system. It was years before I learned the phrase “capital intensive business” – but sound reinforcement was one. So I decided that I needed to go work for an audio company rather than try to run my own.
This could turn into a very long post all by itself, as I spent about four years in the audio business. I did technically manage two other sound men for about a year. But my “management” consisted solely of hiring two friends and arranging our schedules so we could cover two music rooms, seven nights a week. It was a great job while it lasted, but The Performance Center went belly up after a year. Stuart Cody, a renowned documentary filmmaker, offered me a job doing film sound, but while I was flattered by Stuart’s offer, my interest in audio was purely as a medium for music so I regretfully turned him down. I thought my next step was to become a recording engineer. After visiting several studios in the Boston area and even being invited by one studio owner to mix a session in progress, I realized I didn’t have either the electrical engineering nor music background to become a recording engineer. And even if I had, I couldn’t stand the windowless, air conditioned studio environment, nor the repetition of doing take after take of the same song, or worse yet, the same musical phrase.
However, I did meet Dr. Gunther Weil, one of the more fascinating people I’ve met in my Brownian motion from individual contributor to manager to entrepreneur to mentor. I first met Gunther when he was running Intermedia Sound Studio (where Aerosmith did their first album. And in the every connected world we live in, I worked for Terry Hanley Sound Systems, who had the exclusive contract to do Aerosmith’s live sound in their early days. Glad to see Terry is still in business!). I next ran into Gunther Weil when he was the director of audio-visual services, a division of the library, at University of Massachusetts, Boston. Seeing Gunther’s 16 track recording studio, video equipment and enticing electronic sandbox inspired my next move. Decades later I was pleased to meet Gunther yet again, as he is now providing executive coaching to The MIT Media Lab. It only took me about nine years of mentoring at MIT to discover Dr. Weil was coaching on the same campus!
Becoming a “professional”
I decided to go to library school, get a Master’s in Library and Information Science then follow Gunther’s example and find an electronic sandbox of my own. But after gaining my M.L.S. in the late 1970s I was unable to find a job that was purely in audio-visual technology. So I applied for a position as Community Services/Audio-Visual Services Librarian at The Watertown Free Public Library. Thanks again to my mother, I had a great love of public libraries. I still remember the day she signed the form that enabled me to take books out of the adult section of the Cary Memorial Public Library in Lexington. I decided that 50% audio-visual was better than none and that I’d figure out the community services part if I got the job, which I did. It turned out that the director, Sigrid Reddy, was an exceptional librarian and leader. She had a deep interest in photography and in audio-visual programs. She had hired a very skilled photographer who had done an outstanding history of Watertown using two slide projectors and a small audio system, all built into a rear projection system he had designed and built, which ran at the touch of a button. After watching the program I thought, wow! it looks like I’ve got pretty large shoes to fill!
Though the Library’s budget could no longer support a professional photographer Sigrid Reddy was very well connected at Town Hall and soon learned about CETA – The Comprehensive Education and Training Act. CETA was a Federal program to train workers and provide them jobs in public service. Before I knew it I was tasked with writing CETA grants. The first grant Sigrid Reddy wanted me to write was for a photographer to develop a program about the Library’s services to run on our custom built dual slide projector system. Very quickly I had my first and only candidate. Will Stanton was an unemployed photographer, with an impressive portfolio and he was given the first of what turned out to be several CETA positions at the Library, all reporting to me. In the process of writing his grant I had come up with a script outline for the a-v program and I just assumed whoever we hired would execute that script. I have to say I barely remember it. What I do remember is Will saying, “That’s not the way to do it! That’s boring! We need to tell the story of the Library in people’s voices: the kids, the adults, the librarians, the Trustees, everyone the Library touched!” Well I was smart enough to realize that Will not only had the right idea, but he had the skills to execute it. He created a wonderful program that Sigrid Reddy, the Library Trustees, the librarians and everyone in town who saw the program thought it was great – they were thrilled! And that’s where I discovered the joy of management and the principle I always practiced ever since: always hire people who are better than you are. In short order the third floor studio space Sigrid Reddy had built out was humming with a film maker, who taught animation in the Children’s Department; a graphic artist; and yet another photographer, this one secured through a National Endowment for the Arts grant I wrote. Lesson learned: if you don’t have the resources you need find a way to go out and get them!
Sigrid Reddy taught me a lot – she lead by example. I still remember the day I started work. She was giving me a tour of the grounds of the Main Library, and stooped over several times to pick up pieces of litter on the ground. Sure, she had two full-time janitors to keep the three library buildings and grounds clean, but she wasn’t going to wait for a janitor to pick up that trash – she did it. And she lead, rather than managed. She gave me the direction: produce a program about the Library’s services and it was up to me how to do it given the CETA grant and a small budget to get the necessary supplies (film, recording tape, batteries, etc.)
I found it far more satisfying to hire great people, get them the resources they needed, set their direction and let them go. I was there for them to help when needed, such as getting an interview with one of the Library’s rather crusty trustees, but I learned that the job was orchestra conductor, not first chair violin.
I was promoted to Assistant Director and worked for many months with her and an architectural firm planning an addition to the library. That addition would house, amongst other facilities, our version of my long sought electronic playground – a photography-graphics-audio and film production studio.
Unfortunately in my fourth year at the Library we presented our plans and proposal to Town Meeting, where funding was voted down resoundingly. By that time CETA had shut down and I was responsible for managing children’s, reference, circulation, community, and technical services but very little in the way of audio-visual services. And equally sadly Mrs. Reddy become quite ill and I became Acting Director during her hospitalization and recuperation.
After joining the library four years before as an individual contributor I ended up leaving, and unforeseen by me, ended up riding a software development rocket called Software Arts, Inc the inventors of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. Without the management experience I had gained at the Watertown Library, learning how to get things done through other people, to get them the resources they needed, defining the goal, and then getting out of their way, except to provide occasional feedback and help remove any obstacles in their way. In those four years I learned I was a generalist. I did not have any particular skill, aside from a very good eye for talent, but I had learned to delegate. To do only those things that only I could do and leave everything else to those better equipped than I to do them. To clearly communicate what had to be accomplished, but to leave it to staff’s creativity to figure out how. My job description became simple: help my team succeed. Today as a mentor my job description is to help my founders to succeed.