Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Paul S. Cheng 1932-2015

Paul Cheng Obit

I felt compelled to write something given the swirl of emotions recently.  When a mentor passes on, how can one not?  For most the 1980's, I worked in an IBM Advanced Office Technology group in the Washington DC area.  This was an amazing growth opportunity for me in several ways.  This was a small group that basically wrote our own rules and determined to a high degree what we worked on.  The leader of this group, basically was running a startup within IBM.  The early 80's was the boom time for IBM PC and applications.  This group had produced a best of breed dictionary technology.  All the IBM platforms wanted this, but we couldn't "sell it" to them, but, they could sponsor headcount and that would be used to supply the technology.  So, we would ask for like 4 headcount, but it would only take .5 to do the work.  So, suddenly, we had this extra headcount to work on, well, stuff.  Unfortunately, when the first PC crash happened in the mid 80's, we found out those authorizations weren't worth the toner used to print them.  Funky accounting in IBM, headcount only mattered at the end of the year.  So, using these authorizations, we could push the books during the year even with our core division gave us 10 headcount and we had 20 working.  But, when the books closed, the numbers had to balance.  When the books closed, the other divisions, especially PC, refused the authorization, and basically ended up with, can you spell audit?

We were doing touch screen hardware, advanced graphics, image decoding, and of course our bread and butter, linguistics. As they grew, I was a bit of an experiment for them.  I was the only one without an advanced degree, and the only one with a lower IBM title at the time.  But, this was the arena where I did my first real professional growth.

Ironically, our management chain was the group that produced the old mainframe terminals (3270's for all those with real morbid curiosities), and since they were kind of our boss, and they could see the future with PCs, they were fighting tooth and nail to preserve their business case (and I was the one without the advanced degree?)

So, in another great pursuit, we were instructed to produce an application that would showcase our technology and exploit the features of  every terminal, scanner, printer, etc in their arsenal.  The result, we produced a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processor for these devices.  Never mind that we really couldn't do this explicitly, but we did a really good job and our print previews were stellar.  We also supported every font, and had image and graphics when most pc's had neither the hardware, memory, or applications support for these.

So, a small cadre of us were starting this up and then one day, this guy shows up (Paul) and after a few repeats we understood he was our new boss.  Things were never the same.  To this day I still don't know how he was found or found us, but it was to our advantage.

Paul had been around the block with IBM, and he know how to exploit (re circumvent) every IBM process known.  He fit right in, and we learned a lot about how to get things done with a minimal staff doing things this way.

Paul is the only person I ever met who said they were from Formosa (look it up).  He never really lost his accent, so it was a bit before we all really understood each other.  Took even longer for us real tech types to get the hint on how he could work the politics. But that was one of our advantages, and disadvantages.  As I said many times, the best thing about Paul is that he could go into a meeting with a bunch of execs who might not have been real happy, and they left thinking they heard exactly what they wanted to hear.  The disadvantage, Paul could go into a meeting with a bunch of execs who might not have been real happy, and they left thinking they heard exactly what they wanted to hear.

For those who have worked with me over the last 20 years, you may have wondered where all my absurd sayings came from, it all started with Paul.  His best one, which he repeated many times was on strategy.  He compared it to how a China-man (there were lots of China-men examples) eats from a rice bowl.  He doesn't have the bowl on the table, he brings the bowl up to his mouth and pushes the rice in, while all the time looking beyond the bowl to see what else in on the table.  Always look to the future, have you next move ready.

Chinese new years was always a special time. He would round up a large group and we would meet a some obscure Chinese restaurant.  He would order, and we didn't have a clue, but the staff sure did and they hopped on like he was a general in the military.  He was at the height of his game, you could see it in his face.  Those were the moments I saw where he enjoying on what he had built of his life, and that was the moment, family, friends, and success.  Not bad for a guy from Formosa.

I had to leave the DC for personal reasons in the late 80's and lost touch with Paul.  Not too long ago, thru the joy of Facebook, his wife and I became friends and started communicating again.  By this time, Paul was rather ill and as said, recently his time came.  Even thou it had been some time since we last talked, when the word of his passing came, I felt the loss inside of me, a part of me was always with what he gave me.  And as such,  I felt compelled to write something given the swirl of emotions recently.  When a mentor passes on, how can one not?