The following events were reported in "Midway Between Ordinary And Hustle," Think, January-February 1972, pp. 41-44.
The unofficial IBM headquarters in Urbanna, Virginia (population: 500) -- a small town about 60 miles from Richmond -- turns out to be the home of Ray Rodgers. He's a calm, deliberate man of 48 who has been with IBM for 19 years, and is now a senior resident customer engineer (CE) for the Field Engineering (FE) Division. That means that he works out of his home rather than the official Richmond branch office. IBM has close to 600 resident CEs and they are based from Guam to Maine and from Alaska to Puerto Rico. Their job, like that of all CEs, is to ensure that every IBM customer gets the best possible service possible.
Field Manager Charlie Hewitt of the Richmond branch explains: "The nearer a CE is to a customer, the quicker he can respond to the customer's needs. And this means not only emergency situations but routine work -- preventative maintenance, for example. Of course, a resident CE has to be a special breed -- independent, self-sufficient, versatile and extremely knowledgeable."
Regular maintenance, claims Rodgers, is one key to problem-free accounts. Here he is checking an IBM 129 card data recorder to make sure that the part controlling the movement of cards through the machine is in perfect working order.
Rodgers is responsible for six accounts in a rural territory shaped by saltwater rivers that have carved a series of peninsulas jutting into Chesapeake Bay. Of these customers, three are computer users, two have System/370 Model 135s on order, and another is going from a punched card system to a System/3. The nearest customer to Urbanna is the Chesapeake Corporation, a pulp and paper mill in West Point, 20 miles away; the farthest is Tidewater Telephone, an independent, 40,000-station utility in Warsaw, 50 miles to the north. To keep all that distant equipment up and running, Rodgers navigates the pine-covered Virginia countryside in a 1968 Ford Ranchwagon that has logged 60,000 miles in two years.
One of Rodgers's accounts is Camco, a manufacturer of automotive parts, which uses a System/3 for a variety of applications. Here Rodgers chats with Jane Brooks to see if she has experienced any problems with the new keypunch which she operates. Miss Brooks says: "It works like a charm."
Rodgers operates far enough away from his home office so that the usual CE pager -- a little radio-like beeper -- can't be depended upon for communication. He tells the Richmond dispatcher where he'll be during the day and checks for messages as he makes the rounds. His wife, Phyllis, is a dependable message-taker, too, although you can't get her early in the morning or from 3 to 4 in the afternoon; she drives a school bus.
From Chesapeake's computer room, Rodgers calls home to see if any messages from other accounts or his branch office have been received.
Rodgers obtains the machine parts he needs by driving to Richmond or having them mailed from a distribution center in Washington or by having them sent to him from Richmond on the bus. He keeps in constant touch with his accounts and is always ready to nurse one through a difficult time. When Chesapeake added an untested printer to the IBM 1440 data processing system it used to have, Rodgers and his tool bag disappeared into the computer room for almost an entire weekend. Says his wife, Phyllis: "For days afterward he was like a doctor who attended a complicated birth. He'd keep getting up in the middle of the night to find out how the patient was doing."
Charlie Somervell, data processing manager at the Chesapeake Corporation, says there is no question that the type of service offered by Rodgers was a key factor in Chesapeake's decision (and his personal recommendation) to go from a System/360 Model 25 to a Model 135. "We were real close to signing up with another company," says Somervell, "and we felt there wasn't much difference in the black boxes. But I had to know those black boxes would work. That's why I went with IBM."
Despite a tight daily schedule, Rodgers manages to squeeze in some work for the community where he lives. Here he attends a special meeting of the Urbanna town council, of which he is a member, called to get a legal ruling concerning a dispute with a contractor.
Summing up his approach to his territory, Rodgers says: "I like it here. I've seen these accounts grow, and IBM right with them. The way I figure it, the customer is the fellow who pays my salary. And I'm going to do everything I possibly can to keep him satisfied."