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. His finger dragged across the screen as he squinted, hoping for an answer to end the manufacturing dilemma that crippled his organization. Hours into the effort, exhausted by the futility, he pushed the mouse aside. The executive suite provided a dazzling view from the eighteenth floor but he hearkened to the exhilarating days working in a drab university lab where he could concoct remedies with a voltage meter and a screwdriver. His influence over the product had dimmed. Yet, he remained the sage, whom employees sought for guidance, and the guy in charge, whom the board horsewhipped over production snags.

He blinked twice, closed his eyes for a moment, then turned to look outside where an angry storm whipped against the tempered safety glass. Maynard hitched back in his chair and searched the horizon for a glimpse of the San Francisco Bay through the distorted lens of raindrops. At the edge of the parking lot, he spied the SolaNox solar array that powered the building during sunnier times. The watery blitzkrieg reduced his patented creation to an inactive stack of wet metal. A bolt of lightening licked the sky followed by the sound of thunder, rumbling in the distance.
He rotated to face his desk, grabbed the handset, and dialed the manager tasked with dissecting the current stalemate. “Do you have an estimate on when you’ll be able to give me an update?” His back arched while he spoke such that he looked up, at the ceiling. “Ok. I’m upstairs, waiting for you.” Maynard set the phone in the cradle and exhaled deeply.

At this juncture, SolaNox employed hundreds. In his youth, to imagine 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 supplanted those inspiring scenes. 

A knock sounded and Lois Fuller breached the doorway. 

He motioned for her to enter. “Finally.”

Wearing a dark sweater and pants, no shoes, and a professional aura topped off with plum lipstick, she strode into the office.

“We’re going barefoot, are we?” 

“I am.” The woman had pulled her hair back into a sleek pony tail. She tucked a wisp behind her ear. “Long day.”

Her red toenails attracted his attention. “What do we have?” He presented a flat affect. Emotions betrayed, and he wanted to appear calm.

“The failure resides in the system and not the silicon, which is what I suspected.” Lois stabbed at a sheet of paper in her hand. “We ordered the wrong part, based on an older design.” She lifted her eyebrows and let a tsk eke out of the corner of her mouth. “A basic connector.” 

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

“We’re exploring that, trying to reduce the chance of doing it again.”

“The chance? And we needed two days of torture to figure this out?” Maynard held his breath and looked aside.

 “We saw intermittent failures, so it was hard to isolate.” She pointed. “We have version control to avoid this. So In theory, it can’t happen now.”

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

“It’s not their fault. The quality team worked a twenty-hour shift.” She checked his response. “Trust me, I stood over them most of the day.”

“We’ve invested millions in Enterprise Resource Planning software and hired people to manage it. How, in God’s name, does this happen?”  

She expanded her lungs, held her hands out mid-air, palms up, and raised her shoulders. “Procurement, but it’s unclear they had the latest requirements. We have safeguards, but no one caught the mistake.” 


“What do you mean?” She waited. “Who what?”

“I’m sure there’s a person who didn’t submit or sign off or verify. Whom might that be?” His voice tinged with impatience.
“I feel as though. . .,”

“Give me the damn name.”

“From what I can tell, it looks like Felix Hammond or his team supplied the latest design but forgot to log it into the system.” 

Maynard fixed on his manufacturing expert, trying to assess her role in the ordeal.

“They’ve had adequate training. There’s no excuse.” She shook her head. “It sat between departments. So the purchasing folks argue that they ordered based on the most recent data.”

“Now what? We return them and get replacements?” He leaned his body to one side.

Lois met his gaze. “They retired the SKU.”

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

She sliced the air with her right hand. “Non-refundable. They advised us in advance.”

“These are the Taiwanese? Quantity?”

“Correct. 100,000 units.”

“Oh, fuck; We can’t make mistakes in smaller lot sizes?”

“It's an inexpensive component.” She shrugged.

Maynard sat erect. They had been shipping systems for a month. “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 devices in semiconductor technology to convert light to energy, but get tripped up trying to connect to the grid. We can do everything but attach the power cord.” Maynard laughed but caught himself. “This feels like the third grader doing calculus on the white board at the front of the class who can’t tie his shoes or zip his fly.”

She tightened her lips and scanned the carpet. “The problem is,” Lois pulled her head up to make eye contact, “the trouble is, we have to keep assembly stopped for a few days, could be a week, until we receive the proper gear.”

“Any systems in the field?”

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

“You have a handle on the backlog?”

“I do. We’ll need your help.”

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

Lois peered outside, as if the weather mattered. A loud thunder clap startled them both.

Maynard stewed. A lousy commodity part closed the factory because some nameless employee in a cubicle hadn’t received the change-order. Tomorrow, a heated debate would end with no resolution on culpability and no solution to avert future disasters. They owned 100,000 obsolete units. 

“We can absorb this but it’d be nice to avoid further stupidity.”

“You’re telling me?” Maynard flung a pen over his shoulder with such force that the sound against the pane made Lois jump. “With a myriad of technical hurdles looming,” he cleared his throat, “a $200,000 screw up is the good news.” The scientist-turned-executive rolled through an index of product deficits in his mind and confusion over a standard fastener didn’t make the list. His concern centered on atomic layer deposition, custom additions to capital equipment, research on materials for reflective coatings and protective sealers, and methodologies to simplify installation. He had a shitload to do and needed anyone who worked at SolaNox to step up and handle the minutia.

She looked somber. “We’re in agreement.” There was a long pause. “I, I’m thinking we need a voice of authority among the ranks. This kinda shit keeps happening.”

“This is how the startup world works, Lois. 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 suppressed a laugh. Maynard glared. She straightened herself, still maintaining a sly grin.

“Next time, we start a company without inventory.”

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

Her boss sat silent, with his elbows on his desk, staring. 

Lois folded her arms across her chest.

Maynard decided that this wise employee had a polished, New York air about her, classic as opposed to pretty. He rose to his feet. “Get home. I’m right behind you.” He hesitated. “We’re set?”

“My people booked it with the vendor. Still working on a price concession.” She nodded and left, heading toward the elevators. 

The CEO watched her walk out of the office. When he heard the elevator doors close, Maynard dialed Ida’s number in Los Angeles and waited, hoping she’d answer. “Hey?”

The phone line loosened to a cacophony of support. His demeanor warmed. 

“Yep. One of those days. I need a dose of my Great Aunt Ida.” He plopped back into his chair Maynard leaned into the palm of his hand and filled her in on the connector debacle, nodding in response. “I hear ya. But I’d love to stop learning and just have something go smoothly.” He issued a soft whistle. “You’re right.” He listened intently. “Last time we spoke, I told you about the fancy control software we installed.”  Maynard chuckled, punch drunk tired. “You can’t make this stuff up. Did I tell you the volume?” He recounted the documentation stranded between teams, the massive number of units involved in the mistake, the obsolescence making them waste material. “And, we shuttered the line for another week.” He laughed so hard he had tears running down his cheeks. “It could’ve been worse.”

Great Aunt Ida took over the conversation. He gave her a nod and an occasional uh-huh. By the time she finished speaking, he looked relaxed. 

“It is, indeed, the best remedy. I’m so tired I can’t think and I need to call my gorgeous bride.” They said goodnight.

He pointed at Justine’s framed photo and brought his finger to rest on her cute nose; capable, kind, intelligent, lovely, Justine. Even his parents liked her. Successful men earned fine women. Maynard hit the top button on his cell. Voicemail picked up on the fifth ring. “Hey sweetie, I’m heading home soon.” He glanced at the time and dialed the land line. Both their voices played on the recording. He thought to himself, She’s probably out to dinner with her buddy from Stanford, the literature professor Carmen, and ended the call.

Saturated from a fourteen hour exposure to fluorescent light, he massaged his tired eyes. Maynard stood. Strained by responsibility and the burden of management, angst seeped into his being. He stretched his toned six-foot frame and arms upward and then bent to touch his toes. With hands on his hips, he rotated, lengthening cramped muscles. His office, with its modern furnishings set atop an antique Serapi Persian carpet, gave him satisfaction. He looked outward through the darkness, towards the SolaNox campus, flexing his shoulders as he did. 

From his vantage point and with the aid of the twilight sensing street lamps, he could see the sharp edges of his solar panels. The light reflected from the glass and silicon surface to cast a  murky blue haze onto the stark white office tower. Rain pummeled the modules, as if a personal assault on the inventor.  Weather dictated if electricity flowed in his invention and perhaps if information moved inside the company. A lightening bolt emblazoned the sky and Maynard pulled back from the brilliance. The thunder followed immediately, powerfully, as if the menace inched closer, threatening.

Maynard 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.

He decided this issue was trivial, in the scheme of things. By God, he’d raised a billion-five and counting. What this local hero had accomplished at SolaNox was impressive.  No competitor matched his innovations. 

The nuances of leadership, however, were far afield from his engineering studies at Stanford. Maynard never told a soul, but he longed for a coach, a thesis advisor, his mother, Great Aunt Ida, or someone with cajones to step forward and tell him how to be a CEO. 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 that the venture capitalists on his board had neither the expertise nor the intention of helping him run the company.

The person to rely on was himself. The thing to do was 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 reinforce the need for operational excellence. Then he had the fun job of giving Felix feedback. It’s all in the leader setting the tone. He grabbed his keys and headed out.