Fear and loathing in Milwaukee

Adventures at GE Medical Systems

My first job out of school, as I’ve said before, was for a medium-sized startup called PinPoint Corporation. We made active RFID tracking tags and I worked on the suite of software for managing and tracking said tags.

We struck an agreement with GE Medical Systems sometime during my second year, 1999. I don’t remember the exact details of the deal. Maybe it was rebranding our stuff or maybe they were going to resell it.

That year, GE Medical held an internal trade show at their headquarters in Milwaukee and asked us to come out and set up a booth. This was a huge deal because then-CEO Jack Welch would be attending the show.

I was 20 years old and this was my first trip out into the field. It was exciting at first but the novelty wore off in a hurry. Since I wasn’t 25, I couldn’t rent a car and PinPoint wouldn’t pay for me to take taxis everywhere. That meant I spent most of my time waiting around for one of the sales guys to pick me up (for some reason, I was at a different hotel than everyone else).

On the plus side I was able to get back a large portion of my food per-diem back in cash because I never spent the full amount.

We had a couple of days before the show to do setup for our booth. This meant hanging antennas and running cable around the warehouse. We were completely dependent on our GE contact to get access to anything. We often spent an hour or more waiting outside the building early in the morning because he hadn’t showed up.

We wasted half an afternoon trying to copy files from a computer with network access to the computer we were using for the show. In the end, we had to split a .zip file into segments and copy them onto 3'5" floppy discs because GE IT blocked everything else.

The show was in a huge warehouse space packed with people. GE people from all different departments gathered for their shot to show off their work to Jack. People had been killing themselves for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Most of the demos involved medical devices but I do remember one product that was a precursor to todays Smart Board.

Our demo went well despite some initial glitches in the beginning. The main configuration service went down hard just before the show was about to start. I was the only one there who knew how to fix it but our GE contact refused to let me into the room because I was wearing sneakers. I had to stand outside the door, give him instructions, and then he’d scuttle into the room and try and follow them. After about 10 minutes he gave up and let me in, despite my footwear.

Here’s the rough timeline of how the show went down (to the best of my recollection):

6:00pm — The show starts. Jack Welch is arriving any second

6:30pm — Any minute now!

7:00pm — He’s delayed but he’s on the way.

7:30pm — Jack arrives. He looks at one, maybe two, booths right at the front of the room.

7:40pm — Jack announces that he has a previous engagement and heads out.

I saw people cry out of frustration over the wasted opportunity.

Jeff Immelt, then-second-in-command stayed behind and went around to every booth. He was polite, intelligent and went out of his way to talk to everyone.

A small consolation prize for everyone who had worked so hard.