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Monday, March 09, 2009

Let me tell you what I've done. (part 3)

In Part 1 I covered my work history from my High School days until I got a job offer at Specialty Records in the Spring of 1992.

In Part 2 I covered my time at Specialty Records from my hiring through my years as a Statistical Process Control Coordinator.

In this installment I will cover the transitional period from the CD / DVD split in 1995 to my acceptance of the role of DVD Asset Manager in 1998.


Things had actually begun to change at Specialty Records before I got there in early 1992. As a relative newcomer I am not as well-versed in the saga as some of the old-timers, but I believe the story goes something like this: Several years before I came on board Specialty Records had formed a business partnership with WEA Manufacturing, where the WEA stood for Warner, Elektra, and Atlantic. Collectively these three companies were a part of Warner Brothers, which merged with Time, Inc. to form a megacorporation called Time Warner in the early 1990s. This megacorporation had a controlling interest in Specialty Records, but had agreed to let the president of the company - the son of its founder - run it as he saw fit.

That changed a few years after I signed on. Gradually Specialty Records lost its identity. In time the entire company was rechristened under a new name: we were all WEA Manufacturing. But that wasn't the only change brewing.

New technologies were emerging. Research was being done, in our facility and elsewhere, to determine how to put full-length movies on CD. Most of the early tests that I saw were of low quality images, worse than a cell phone video uploaded to YouTube. But in time things improved. Things got more serious. The guy in charge of CD Pre-Production was leading the charge towards this new technology, whatever it would be. It went through several versions, and then one day it was finished. It was ready.

It was SD, the SuperDisc.

Around this same time other things happened. The guy in charge of Pre-Production became a Vice President. The President of the company, the son of its founder, suddenly retired - and was replaced by an outsider appointed by Time Warner.

A competing digital video format arose and went toe-to-toe with SD. In time the two sides, remembering the destructive battle between VHS and Betamax, drew up a compromise. Everybody pulled out their patents and slapped them onto the table to determine how much say the various members of the competing alliances would have in the design of the final product. The two formats merged, combining - mostly - the best features of each format into a new digital disc format that would be known as Digital Versatile Disc - or DVD.

A new sub-company formed, Warner Advanced Media Operations. WAMO. The guy in charge of Pre-Production became its lead. WAMO would focus on DVD production, to the exclusion of all else.

A team was chosen. About half of existing Pre-Production staff would join the new group. The rest would remain where they were.

I was not chosen. My partner was. Later, my former boss, now the VP in charge of WAMO, confided to me that it was because he had an Electronics Engineering degree, and I did not.

"I have a degree in Physics, you know," I said.

"Oh," he responded, taken aback. He had apparently overlooked this. I don't know if he reconsidered his decision in that moment, but in the end I remained behind with CD Pre-Production.

Things changed in CD Pre-Production, of course. The departure of our top manager meant a rearrangement of the management structure and a reconfiguration of the department itself. In the end most sub-managers remained where they were, and managers from other parts of the company were reassigned to the top positions.

The scope of my responsibilities changed, too. No longer focusing solely on Pre-Production, I was now responsible for keeping track of the performance of CD Stampers at Press throughout the facility - thousands of stampers running multiple tests with dozens of measured characteristics in each test in over a hundred presses scattered across a large factory.

The new corporate management was making changes, too. Statistical Process Control fell out of vogue. Instead a group called Andersen Consulting was brought in to redesign the factory. They knew what they were doing, no need to hear any comments from the bottom up.

I wasn't comfortable with the changes, for the most part. Not just because I am naturally suspicious of any change, which I am, but because I didn't like where my projections said things were going. Not just as a result of these changes, either. The whole music industry was in trouble. Sales were down, way down. Alternative Rock had mostly played itself out. Used CD sellers were no longer our biggest threat; now people were learning to copy CD's digitally onto CD-R's using their home computers. CD Piracy wasn't just for pirate factories in China and Bulgaria anymore. And there were rumblings that some people were simply creating digital files of songs and trading them over the Internet. Soon, some people feared, nobody would bother to even buy CDs anymore. I argued that people would always want to own things - that you couldn't hold and feel and smell a digital download, that you couldn't display them on a rack in your house to impress friends and burglars alike.

Then a naughty schoolgirl started dancing around while singing "Hit Me, Baby, One More Time", and the music industry was saved. For a little while.

But I knew it would soon be time to get out.

In the years that followed the CD/DVD split in 1995 CD Pre-Production, and Production as well, had suffered through several Reductions in Force. Personnel were shuffled, duties were rearranged. An attempt to revive Statistical Process Control through a select team of five people chosen from throughout the facility - including me, and the head of CD QC who had come with me to the SPC Seminar in Knoxville - had fizzled. New management strategies came in an endless procession. My duties veered more from conducting data collection and analysis to the nitty-gritty of keeping things running. I had done a few cool things along the way, automating the data collection system by having the testers reprogrammed to write their test results directly to a 3.5" floppy disk that I changed out once a week, reducing CD identification data entry errors by installing barcode readers on each tester and revising the stamper tickets to carry identifying information that could be scanned directly into the testers. The collected data was uploaded to two computers with 500 MB hard drives and analyzed using dBase III+. But now I was just as likely to be changing an ink ribbon on a barcode printer as I was to be analyzing the performance of a related group of stampers across the production floor. I was increasingly unhappy where I was, and increasingly hoping to get out.

The opportunity came towards the end of 1998. I had maintained good relationships with everyone in the DVD Pre-Production group since they had split away, and when an opportunity was going to be opening up in the group that they knew would be a good fit for my talents they gave me advance warning. The job would be DVD Asset Management. I would be in charge of keeping track of all of the physical assets that would be transformed into the digital content of the DVD. I would also be responsible for determining how those assets would fit together on the DVD once they were converted to digital files. Training would be provided; the person currently doing the job would work with me during a transitional period. The hours would be long, the work would be hard, and I would be working with some amazingly talented people. Was I interested?

I told them I had to think about it.

My grandmother had had a stroke not long after I started my job in 1992. She was hospitalized for several weeks, and was eventually rehabilitated to the point that she was able to come back to my mother's house. But there was no question of her living on her own, and I was no longer available to be a full-time nurse. But I was on a 4x4 schedule, which meant I was available for half of the time, four days out of every eight. Days that I was not available she would stay with one of my two aunts who lived up the street, unless it was a weekend, and then she would stay with my mom. Or my aunts or my brother could sit with her at my mom's house, some of the time.

In 1995 my father had a stroke, and the home care problem compounded itself. His stroke did not affect him as much physically, but left him with general weakness and some aphasia.

In 1996 my grandmother entered the first of a series of nursing homes. Her condition gradually began to deteriorate.

By late 1998 her condition had worsened dramatically. She had been receiving her nutrition through a Peg tube directly into her stomach for over a year. A series of urinary tract infections had weakened her considerably. I did not expect her to live through October that year. But she rallied, only to get another UTI in early December. She came back stronger than ever from that one.

I had been spending all of my free time with her during her time in the nursing homes. I would come home from work and go directly to the nursing home and sit with her until visiting hours ended. Weekends, too. Every Sunday we went to church together in the chapel at the nursing home. Could I really take on a job that would put tremendous new demands on my time?

On December 13, 1998 my grandmother died.

I told WAMO that yes, I would be their new Asset Manager.


Next: I become the WAMO Asset Manager. And then things change, and change again, and change some more.

1 comment:

whimsical brainpan said...

Wow, '98 was a hell of a year for you.