1: View From The Top

Maynard W. Peckinpaugh II, the leader of his own corner of the free world, strained to review the details on his monitor, scrolling through the process reports for clues. The downpour pelting the office tower heightened his stress as he searched for answers to end the manufacturing dilemma that crippled SolaNox. Hours into the mess, he shoved the mouse aside. The eighteenth floor provided a dazzling view, but he longed for the heady days working in a drab university lab where he could concoct remedies by himself.  His employees lauded him as the technology master, though this beast had grown unwieldy. Investors on the board of directors touted his success, but horsewhipped him over production snags. The burdensome roles of founder and inventor had once seemed enviable.

He turned to look outside as rain battered the tempered safety glass. Maynard hitched back in his chair and scanned the horizon for a glimpse of the San Francisco Bay. At the edge of the parking lot, he eyed the SolaNox arrays that could power the building with sunshine and tried to decide if they represented his talent or his nemesis. A bolt of lightning licked the sky followed by the crack of thunder. Maynard wrenched at the sound.

He swiveled to face the desk, grabbed the handset, and dialed the supervisor tasked with dissecting the current stalemate. “Any idea when you’ll have an update?” He stewed.  “I’m in my office.” Maynard slapped the phone into the cradle.

At this juncture, SolaNox employed hundreds. As a teenager growing up in Palo Alto, imagining the glory of running a Silicon Valley start-up conjured late night, team-bonding, technical breakthroughs. The mundane reality of chasing errors and the pressing need to get the product to market had buried those inspiring scenes. The beleaguered CEO sighed. “I work in a shit pile of corporate bureaucracy.”

A knock sounded and Lois Fuller breached the doorway. 

His fingers curled to pull her forward. “Finally.” 

She strode into the office wearing a dark sweater and slacks. Her hair was in a low, sleek ponytail. 

“What do we have?” He focused his azure eyes on the young woman and raked his auburn hair with his right hand. He liked to seem impressive, even intimidating.

Lois cleared her throat. “The failure resides in the system and not the silicon, which is what I suspected.” A stack of paper in her hand served as her support. “We ordered the wrong part, based on an older design.” She let a tsk slide off her tongue. “A basic connector.” 

Maynard’s stress melted. “At least it isn’t the wafer.” He managed a wan smile. “We referenced an old schematic?”

She motioned agreement. “Yep.”

“And we needed two days of torture to figure this out?” 

“We saw intermittent failures, so it was hard to isolate.” She swayed on her feet.

He folded his hands together. “Who’s on testing?”

Lois shook a finger. “It’s not their fault. The quality team worked a twenty-hour shift.” 

Maynard stared at Lois, foisting a bitter scowl on his employee. 

She breathed deeply. “Trust me, I stood over them most of the day.”

“We’ve invested millions in Enterprise Resource Planning.” Maynard looked frayed. “How, in God’s name, does this happen?” 

She held her hands out mid-air. “Procurement, but it’s unclear they had the latest requirements.” 


She raised her eyebrows, quizzical. 

“Somewhere in this building there’s a person who didn’t submit or sign off or verify.” He snapped a pencil in two, leaving the remnants in the middle of his desk. 

Lois leaned forward. “I believe. . .,”

“Give me the name of the moron who can’t keep track of a parts list.”

Lois placed a protective hand on her chest. “Felix Hammond, or his team, supplied the latest design but forgot to log it into the system.” 

Maynard expelled a burst of air and glowered at his manufacturing expert. “Felix.” He pinched his lips into a tight knot and pulled one hand into a fist. When his breathing evened out, he spoke. “Where do we go from here? We return them and get replacements?”  

Lois met his gaze with wide eyes. Her heart beat quickened and her voice softened. “No refunds. They retired the SKU.”

“The supplier? Apply some muscle, how much business do we give them?” He looked dumbfounded.

“They advised us in advance.” She sliced the air with her right hand. “At least it’s an inexpensive component.”

“These are the Taiwanese?” Maynard pointed a thumb and finger at Lois. “Quantity?”

“Yes.” She nodded. “100,000 units.”

“Oh, geez; We can’t make mistakes in smaller lot sizes?” Maynard shook his hands mid-air as if strangling someone. “What’s the ASP?”

“One-dollar-and-eighty-nine-cents each.”

“Pffft.” He pulled his hand across his nose and chin. “I raised big bucks to create sophisticated multi-layered semiconductor devices to convert light to energy, but get tripped up trying to plug it in.” Maynard laughed but caught himself. “This feels like the third grader doing calculus on the white board who can’t tie his shoes or zip his fly.”

She inspected the carpet, sucking in air as she did. “The problem is,” Lois looked at his desk, “the trouble is, we have to keep assembly stopped for a few days, could be a week, until we receive the proper gear, and that’s expensive.”

He grimaced. “Any systems in the field?”

“No, the QA department halted shipments when they saw symptoms.” Lois motioned toward the ceiling. “Thank fortune.”

“You have a handle on the backlog?”

“I do. We’ll need your help.” Lois looked down at the papers, tapping along the list on the second page. “Maybe a dozen accounts.”

On Monday, he’d make calls to explain the setback to customers. 

There was a flash of light then a thunder clap so forceful, it startled them. Lois peered outside, as if the weather mattered.

She looked concerned. “This kinda shit keeps happening.”

 “Lois, This is how the startup world works. I, as Commander In Chief, get the privilege of being clubbed to death like a baby seal against the rocks of technology and manufacturing.”

She stifled a laugh. 

He glared. “Next time, I start a company without inventory.”

“You need anything else?” She craned her neck forward.

Maynard decided that this hired hand had a polished, East Coast air about her, classic as opposed to pretty. He concluded she wasn’t his type and rose to his feet. “You can leave.” He hesitated. “We’re set?”

“My people booked the correct item with the vendor. Still working on a price concession.” 

“Keep me in the loop. I want to know when manufacturing comes back online.” He focused on his desk then bolted his head up to look at her and threw one arm out her direction. “And the numbers, the final tally on the damages. I need a handle on cash flow.”

She nodded and left, heading toward the elevators. 

When he heard the elevator doors close, he called Justine. His wife was the prize; a lawyer with an incredible pedigree, beauty, talent, and grace. The marriage demonstrated to his concerned mother that he was not a social outcast and allowed him to be on par with the big boys of Silicon Valley. Successful men earned fine women. Voicemail picked up on the fifth ring. “Hey sweetie, I’m heading home soon.” He glanced at the time and tried the land line. Both their voices played on the recording at home. He thought to himself, She’s probably out to dinner with her buddy from Stanford, the literature professor Carmen.

When he could not score a reassurance from Justine, Maynard dialed Ida’s number in Los Angeles and waited, hoping she’d answer. “Hey, Aunt Great Ida?” 

He found friendly fire at last. Maynard poured his worries into the phone. His voice cracked. “I can’t seem to catch a break.” He plopped back into his chair. Maynard leaned into the palm of his hand and filled her in on the connector debacle. 

He sat still as she gave him advice.

“I hear ya. But I’d love to stop learning and just have something go smoothly.” He issued a soft whistle. 

He waited for her to speak then laughed, inappropriately. “It could’ve been worse. Had the fault been in the silicon, a solution might have taken weeks.”

The elder sage took over the conversation. He gave her a nod and an occasional uh-huh. By the time she finished, he looked relaxed. 

“I’m so tired I can’t think. I better get home to my bride.” They said goodnight.

Maynard stood. Strained by responsibility, angst seeped into his being. He lifted his toned six-foot frame and arms upward and then bent to touch his toes. With hands on his hips, he rotated, stretching cramped muscles. His office, with its modern furnishings set atop an antique, Serapi Persian carpet, satisfied him. He looked outward through the darkness, towards the SolaNox campus, flexing his shoulders as he did. 

With the aid of the twilight sensing street lights he could see the sharp edges of his solar panels set against the low rise manufacturing building. Rain pummeled the modules, as if a personal assault on Maynard, reducing his patented creation to an inactive stack of wet metal. Weather dictated if electricity flowed and, it seemed, if information moved inside the company. A lightning bolt emblazoned the sky and Maynard shrank from the brilliance. The thunder followed in an instant, with power, as if the menace inched closer, threatening.

The man yearned to lead a purposeful life. The oil economy would end in his generation and the entrepreneurs who captured the sun’s rays would emerge as the titans of industry. Abandoning altruism for entrepreneurial self-interest allowed technical experts to advance society. He plucked the 3D laser-printed model of the SolaNox panel off his desk and held it up to eye level, then ran his mantra through his brain: smart people do the tough jobs.

If anyone were listening, he could declare this issue as trivial, in the scheme of things. By God, he’d raised a billion-five and counting. What he’d accomplished at SolaNox was impressive. No competitor matched his innovations. 

Internally, fear dominated. Maynard never told a soul, but he longed for someone to tell him how to run the company. He dreamed of a business veteran who would declare Maynard to be the important industrialist of our era, and mentor him thereafter. Months ago, he realized the venture capitalists on his board didn’t intend to help him. His invention had shifted from sophisticated to complex and his anxiety had tripled.  Some days, he wanted to cry.

He had to rely on himself. He’d slow the cash burn until revenues hit full stride. Investors weren't supplying another nickel until he showed results. Next week, Maynard would call an all-hands meeting to preach operational excellence. Then he had to give Felix feedback. It’s all in the leader setting the tone. He grabbed his keys and headed out.