The project in Iran was so immense that no single manufacturer in the world was big enough to provide all the planning, engineering, equipment and implementation services. So four telecom companies from different nations formed a consortium that won the contract: Page Communications Engineers from Washington, DC would provide the engineering, and the equipment would come from Siemens in Germany, Nippon Electric in Japan and General Telephone of Italy. Each manufacturing company had their own engineering department to ensure proper installation of their own equipment, but the task of coordinating the interconnection details fell into the laps of Page’s Interface Engineers, the department where I worked.
After I had watched Mr. Shababian solve the Meshkinshar problem, I was labeled some sort of pariah. I was assumed to have magical capabilities: that I could walk on water and see through walls. In my head, I felt I was working in a management vacuum that was motivated only by ego and greed, and that was the only barrier I could see through. So when I was assigned another project, I figured I could unravel its mystery using my most prized weapon, common sense.
The project had more than 600 telecommunications sites. About two-thirds of them were new and the rest, such as in Meshkinshar, only needed to be upgraded to modern technology. All of the sites had electrical power distributions systems that changed the commercial AC coming into the buildings to DC that worked in parallel with a battery arrangement to keep the equipment on-line in case of a power failure. Many sites also had a stand-by generator to keep the batteries charged during an extended power failure. Our engineering tasks included ensuring that the power systems were adequate for the amount of equipment on each site, and that the power was safely distributed through fuses or circuit breakers for protection from fire or other possible damage.
About two hundred of the sites used Japanese microwave radios, and they designed the power distribution for their own equipment. But Page was responsible for designing power distribution for all the other equipment at those sites. One of my predecessors had the responsibility of ordering the necessary electrical hardware from a German provider. However, when the technicians arrived at the sites to install the equipment, they found severe and crippling shortages. There was only one circuit breaker adequate to handle the total current of all the equipment, but noting to provide individual breakers for each device. Work at these sites would be delayed until the necessary equipment arrived. When I was assigned the task, my boss told me that my predecessor was an excellent engineer, and that he had not only provided exact details of what was necessary, he had presented detailed purchase orders to the German company. They had dropped the ball and it was my responsibility to prove it and get the necessary equipment, at the German company’s expense. But the only information he gave me was a list of the affected sites.
“Ok,” I said, “but what I really need are the design details of each site and a copy of the original purchase orders.”
He looked away from me. “Well, that’s what you have to find.” Then he directed me to four cardboard file boxes stuffed with envelopes and manila folders. “Everything you need is in there.”
I spent two days sorting through the files but couldn’t find any layouts for individual sites or any itemized lists of equipment. There were several unrelated drawings and documents, along with several copies of each. The only useful information I could find was a list of the equipment at each site that needed to be powered and the total current all of it would draw. I didn’t find a single purchase order. I thought that without a detailed list of what we had ordered, we wouldn’t have a case. So I went back to the boss.
“I can’t find a list of equipment or a PO anywhere.”
“Well, then, you have to make a new list of all the equipment we need and take it over to the Germans. Then you have to raise hell with them for not providing it.”
“So you want me to re-design the system all over again?”
“If you can’t find the old design, yes.”
“But what about the original purchase orders?”
“Yes, that is a mystery, isn’t it?” He dismissed me and focused his attention on the wall of his office.
I spent several days looking over equipment lists for each site and designed a new power distribution system for each, designating each breaker in each panel with a designated piece of equipment. Each site had five to 15 racks of equipment, and each rack needed at least two breakers: one for the main power and one for backup. I also made a detailed list of all the additional wire and connectors needed at each site. When I showed it to my boss he said, “Good work. Now take that over to the Germans and find out why they didn’t provide it.”
I called the German company’s representative and made an appointment. He was a pleasant and stocky fellow with a round, red cheeks, a short, spiky blond crew cut and a big red nose. After exchanging the normal pleasantries, he relaxed in his chair, speaking excellent English with only a slight German accent. “So… how can we help you?”
“There seems to be a shortage of your equipment at the sites where Nippon provides the microwave radios. We only have one main breaker at each site for that equipment, but we need lots more for the rest of the equipment on the sites. We seemed to have lost our copy of the purchase order, but I’ve made up a list of what’s missing. And I need to know why you didn’t provide this equipment.”
Without saying a word, he nonchalantly tossed about three pages stapled together across his desk. It was a copy of the original purchase order. Then he leaned forward and said, “You fucking Americans.” It was a statement I was getting accustomed to hearing. “I know exactly what you’re trying to do, and you’re not going to get away with it. You’re trying to make it look like it was our fault. But this is what you ordered and this is what we provided. The mistake is yours. The purchase order says it all.”
As I carefully looked at all the pages, he sat back in his chair and continued. “I believe your fellow was what you call a ‘short-timer.’ He needed to stay on the project for another month to get his one-year bonus. But he was fed up with the bullshit and spent most of this time in the pub. This purchase order is all he came up with.”
He leaned forward again and folded his hands with his elbows on his desk. “I know you’ve been told to make it look like it’s our fault. But we’re onto you. Your company has tried this kind of crap before and it has never worked. But, if you want to put this list of equipment that you actually need on a proper purchase order, we’ll be happy to discuss price and provide you with everything you need.” He sat back in his chair.
“How about I give you this list and you make a rough estimate of the cost. Once we have a starting point, I’ll ask the money folks to come and have a talk with you.”
“That’s an excellent idea. I’ll get on it right away.”
“Can I have a copy of this P. O.?”
“The one in your hands is yours. I knew you’d need it.”
When I showed it to my boss, he only said, “So you found it.” He looked disappointed.
“Well, yeah. Wouldn’t you expect them to have a copy? I mean they had to have something to provide anything at all. I’ve given them a list of what we actually need and they’re working on an estimate right now. But there’s no way I can stuff it to them. They’re onto us.”
“Look!” he was losing his temper. “I can get any one of those guys out there to make up an equipment list. But you’re the one kissing Shababian’s ass. You’re the one who needs to make this work. That’s your job!” He stormed out.
The next day the German rep invited me to his office to review the prices on the equipment list I’d left with him. The total came to about a million dollars. I took it back to my boss.
“There’s no fucking million dollars in the budget. You have to keep pressuring the Krauts until they give up.”
I made one more visit but he wouldn’t let me start talking. He just laughed and said, “All I need is a P. O. and I’ll get you your stuff. But you’ll have to pay for it.” He continued laughing and shaking his head saying, “You fucking Yanks crack me up! What is it you always say, ‘no free lunch?’” He laughed harder. I couldn’t remember being more embarrassed.
But from my point of view, there’s always a solution. During the course of looking through the site drawings, I had discovered that the Japanese had provided circuit breaker panels for each row of their equipment at all of the sites. Many of the panels had vacant positions in which we could easily install breakers to power the additional equipment. I went through all the drawings of the 200-plus sites, and found that most already had at least a few spare breakers provided, and many more had vacant positions available. Only a few needed additional breaker panels, but they would easily fit under the existing ones. Perhaps we could talk Nippon Electric into letting us use the spare breakers and positions if we bought the additional equipment needed from them. I made up a quick list for each site and checked prices. The total came to just under a hundred thousand dollars.
I took the information to my boss. “All we need to do is go over to Nippon and tell them the problem. I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t let us use their extra breakers and spaces, and I think they would be quite happy to sell us the rest, even though it’s only small potatoes.”
“Well, for the first thing, we never go to the Japanese. They’re the competition. If they want to talk, they come to us. The second thing is we don’t make mistakes. We’re the fucking experts and everyone knows it. Admitting a mistake could ruin our reputation. What’s more, I’ve never visited the Gooks before and I’m not going now just to kiss ass. You need to find a better solution. Period!”
So there I was in the presence of yet another guy who didn’t understand John Wayne, Roy Rogers or Lassie. Anyone who did would know that real Americans have the stuffing to admit their mistakes and are willing to make restitution. They also know that great power and intelligence comes with great responsibility. We’re supposed to be caring for weaker nations, not exploiting or cheating them. But then I began to realize that Page Communications Engineers was generally considered a “defense contractor.” They would ferociously defend their investors’ right to make huge profits at everyone else’s expense. I was among the same ideological mindset as in the Gulf of Tonkin, only here it was, “What the fuck do you care, they’re Hajjis, Krauts and Gooks.” And again I was in the face of a diplomatic challenge, fully aware that my greatest problem was the ego and fear of my so-called “leaders.” What was I to do?
I decided that I had a personal reputation to uphold, and I would prefer to screw the company that was making these stupid mistakes, rather than people who were actually doing their jobs. I felt no sense of loyalty to people who didn’t have the courage to stand in the light of truth. I decided to go to the Japanese alone. I made a big flourish of gathering all the papers for the proposal, putting on my jacket, adjusting my tie and storming towards the door. As I passed my boss’s office door, he called out, “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to the Japanese.” I think he knew he couldn’t stop me.
He grabbed his jacket. “I’ll go with you.”
Since it was our first visit, we were greeted with an avalanche of bows and smiles, along with tea and cookie-like things. The general manager of Nippon was overwhelmed that the Americans had at last come to visit, but he had no idea that we needed his help. When he found out the big boss of the interface engineers from Page actually needed his help, he was overjoyed with the very idea. My boss, of course, explained the problem as being an ineffective supply chain with the “Krauts,” and that he would be taking a loss because of them. He was the savior because he had ordered me put together a proposal under his direct supervision.
Back at the office, it only took me a few hours to get the purchase order ready and take it to my boss for his signature. But he said, “You’re pretty good friends with Shababian. Why don’t you convince him this is an unavoidable problem that needs a change order? Then he’ll have to pay for it.”
“Well, I think the Mohandess is a little too smart for that, but I’ll try,” I said with a chuckle. “I’ll give him a call right now.” He glared at me because he was still on Shababian’s shit list.
One of the other engineers, an Englishman, overheard this and asked me, “Are you going to call Shababian?”
“Do you think you can get through to him?”
“Sure, I talk to him all the time.”
“I’ve been trying to get him all morning, but I haven’t been able to. If you get him, would you tell him I need to talk to him?”
“Sure.” I dialed the number from the phone on his desk and said a few words to his secretary in broken Farsi. As she put me through, the Englishman was looking at me in shock. After arranging lunch, I said, “By the way, can you do me a favor? One of my guys needs to talk to you. Do you think you can spare another minute? Yeah. The Englishman. OK, thanks.” As I handed him the phone, he looked at me as if I had just made a desk disappear.
When he finished the call, he asked, “How the fuck did you do that? How did you get through to that asshole?”
“I pronounce his name correctly.”
“That’s got to be bullshit. His name’s Mr. Shababian. Everyone knows that.”
“Actually, that’s not his name at all. That’s like calling him a janitor or a gardener. He’s the chief engineer of the project, for Christ’s sake. You can’t address him like that.”
“Yeah? Well, then, what am I supposed to call him?”
“His name is Agha Mo hahn dess Shah babian. I can help you learn to say it if you like.”
“No fucking way. I’m not gonna kiss any fucking camel jockey’s ass.”
“Well then keep calling me when you need to talk to him.”
Later at lunch I said to Mr. Shababian, “We have a change order I would like to have you look at. We need some extra equipment at all of the Japanese microwave sites.”
“It wouldn’t be power distribution, would it?”
“How did you know?”
“I had dinner with the Japanese general manager last night and he told me. He was quite excited that your boss finally went to see him. I thought maybe you had something to do with it, and that’s why you invited me to lunch.”
“Well, yeah. It was my idea.”
“I kinda thought it might be. But the power distribution equipment should have been included in the original proposal. I don’t see any need for a change order. It’s clearly Page’s mistake.” His firm expression assured me there was no sense in arguing. As the lunch bill arrived, he snatched it and said, “I’ll get it. I know that no one at your end is going to admit they screwed up.”
While we were waiting for his change and finishing our muddy Turkish coffee, he suggested, “You know, you might want to get to know the Japanese general manager a little better. He’s quite a fine man and a really good businessman. And his sales team has some really good ideas. In fact, they’re starting to walk all over you Americans.”
“But I heard that they’re raising their prices and are now about ten percent higher.”
“Yes, but I think we’ll be glad to pay the difference.”
“Well, let me tell you a little story. Let’s say you’ve come into a lot of money… like we have with copper, gold and oil. You want to build a custom-designed house, so you put out the word to all the contractors for proposals. You all come along and say, ‘Look, we’re the Americans. We’re the best and everyone knows it. We have the best technology, the best engineers, the best resources and the best materials. If we win the contract, we’ll build you the best house you could ever possibly dream of. You won’t have to do a thing. And best of all, we’re ten percent cheaper than the Japanese.’”
“So what do the Japanese say?”
“They come with a flourish of bows and smiles and sit down with us. Then they put on a worried face and say, ‘We would really like to build your mansion for you but we have a very big problem.’ You say, ‘What is it?’ They say, ‘We really don’t know exactly what you’d like, so we’d have to spend a lot of time with you to learn your customs, your desires, your culture and your habits. Only then could we build you the perfect house of your dreams… exactly the way you want it. But we’re very sorry to say… we’re ten percent higher than the Americans.’” As he finished, he looked directly in my eyes and asked, “So which do you think you would prefer?”
“And I have tons of money?”
“I think I would go with the Japanese. It would take longer and cost more, but I would be involved with the construction and would get exactly what I want.”
“You know, I told that same story to your vice president.”
“What did he say?”
“He got mad and disagreed. He stood up and said, ‘That’s ridiculous! No one’s going to pay a cent more than they need to get what will serve their purpose!’ Then he stormed out and got into his Mercedes-Benz and drove off.”
“His Mercedes? Well according to his logic, shouldn’t he have a Toyota?”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about; the typical American self-centered double standard. You look only at your own goals but ignore the goals of your clients, then manipulate your standards to get what you want. The Japanese use simple, generic standards for all cases and look mainly at their clients’ needs and wants. That’s why they’re starting to take so much business away from you. And they’re going to get more… particularly from us.”
“Do you think there’s anything we can do to get it back?”
“Absolutely! All you need is a little consideration. Look at how the Japanese approached the project. Before sending their technicians here, they taught them enough Farsi and customs to get through their daily routine. But how much Farsi did Page teach you? You didn’t even know my name because no one at your company bothered to find it out. You just assumed you knew. And where did that get you?”
“You know, we don’t want to become a part of the US. We want to keep our sovereignty. But we do want to share some of your ideas. Many of them are superb. But we don’t try to steal ideas from you or force you to give them to us. We send students. Right now we have thousands of them in your country studying language, engineering, history, economy, sociology, religion . . . you name it, we’re studying it. If we want to get along, we need to learn how you negotiate. And from the looks of how this project is going, we’re starting to win.”
“Do you think if we’d have sent students instead of soldiers to Vietnam we would have gotten our way?”
“Eventually, you would have come to a mutual agreement, a win-win situation. As it is, you lost over fifty thousand troops, plus you destroyed most of their infrastructure, not to mention how many you killed. Think about if you’d sent twenty thousand students instead. Pick them from you finest. Put them on twenty year service contracts. Send them to learn language first, then history, sociology, law, customs, religion. After twenty years, you’d know enough to negotiate sensibly and you’d most likely come to an agreement.”
“Kind of like candy and flowers.”
“A bit, but we’re getting off the subject there. The point is, if you’re looking for cultural interaction – a blending of two societies – you’ll eventually come to an agreement. But that’s not what the USA is after.”
“So what are we after?”
“You don’t care about cultural interaction. All you want is economic dominance. You don’t want to give an inch to anyone. You think your ways are unquestionably perfect, and you don’t want to consider other people’s history or culture. You want everyone to change to your ways, and you want them to do it now. That’s what’s best for your so-called “economic interests. Courtesy costs money, so you don’t want any part of it.”
“And on your side. . .”
“Go back to the woman in the bazaar. Remember what’s most important?
“Exactly. The cultural interconnection is what we consider holy. To America, it’s the profit. There’s a strong irony to your addition of ‘In God We Trust’ to your money.”
“We’re the ones who trust in God. You trust in money. Money is your God.”
“Isn’t that a rather extreme statement?”
“Try looking at it this way. Let’s say you go into a bank in the United States and say you want a loan to buy a house. You’ll be instantly told that you need to fill out a loan application form. But you tell them, ‘No, I don’t want to do that. I just want to make an oath to God that I’ll make the payments.’ You know perfectly well you’d get laughed out of the bank. But here you’d be more likely to get your loan. To us, trust in God to us is infinitely more important than a credit report.”
“That sounds pretty radical to me. But I’m beginning to see the weight of the conflict.”
“And it’s getting worse. Those of us who want change are a minority. Seventy percent of the population wants the old ways, but they’re all willing to listen. If we present the changes slowly, they’ll see the benefits and come around. But the harder you try to force them, the harder they’ll resist. Going back to your ‘candy and flowers,’ it’s like comparing seduction to rape. The question is, ‘Do you give a damn about your victim?’ But Washington doesn’t give a damn about anyone, as long as the corporations make profit. In fact, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if one day you wanted to bomb us because our entire way of life is contrary to your precious ‘economic interests.’”
Click here for Chapter 4
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