Thursday, February 11, 2016

Article 10: Michael Edward Cowan



Mike and I are brothers.  We have the same father but different mothers, and he is ten years older than I am.  He grew up with his mother's parents in Detroit, and I did not even know about him until I was almost ten years old.  When my sister, Sue, and I were told that we had an older brother, our first question was, "Where is he?"  I think we greatly surprised our parents when we expressed unbounded excitement about having a brother; we wanted to meet him right away.

Soon after we were told about Mike, he came to visit us in Rockford, Illinois, on Labor Day weekend of 1959.  I do have a vivid memory of us going to Comiskey Park in Chicago that weekend to watch the White Sox and Indians play.  The two teams were in a tight pennant race, and we sat along the third-base line on a sunny day to watch a great game, won by the Indians.

Over the next few years, Mike would visit us every year or so, and we would write letters to each other.  We admired and worshiped our older brother; everything about him impressed us.  I remember playing baseball with him at our grade school's blacktop playground one time.  The gymnasium of the school had an all-brick wall, save for two small windows, a couple hundred feet from the playground's home plate, and Mike managed to break both of those windows in one weekend.  Man, could he hit a baseball.

Mike went to the University of Detroit, majoring in management with a minor in economics, and then he served in the U.S. Air Force from 1961 to 1965, primarily as a contracts officer.  He spent a year and a half in Greece, followed by almost two years in Turkey. After his military service, he worked at LTV Aerospace in Detroit as a contracts administrator, but he moved to California in 1967 to take a job with Lockheed, where he initially wrote and managed large construction projects.  I often wonder how my life would have been different had Mike and I grown up together.  Would I have gone into the military?  Would I have moved to California sooner than 1976?  Would I have followed in his footsteps in other ways?

I came to a crossroads in my life in 1976, when I decided to move away from Illinois.  It would either be a move to New York City, to be near my sister, or a move to the Bay Area in California, to be near Mike.  I wrote him a letter about a prospective move, and he phoned me immediately.  He had just started his own software company, International Data Applications, and he wanted me to come to San Jose to "interview" for a job with IDA. By the end of my ten-day visit, I was very excited about the company, had already found an apartment in Los Gatos for me and my dog, and knew it was the right move for me.  Mike went out of his way to not pressure me into working at IDA, for he even set up interviews at other companies.  After the first one, I decided that IDA was the right place for me.

I actually worked at IDA three separate times (1976-1978, 1979-1982 and 1987-1990).  We did a lot of software applications together, in international banking, real estate trust banking and property management.  The two of us visited banks all over the country, and in those years of working together, we made up for all of the years we missed by growing up separately.  Mike was a multi-engine, instrument-rated commercial pilot as well, so I'd often fly in the co-pilot seat next to him on trips.

I can easily say that Mike has been the most influential person in my life.  I have gone to him for advice many, many times, and he has helped me in countless ways.  Although he literally changed the path of my life by inviting me to move to California, I didn't need much of a push to do that.  But there are three areas in which Mike went out of his way to change the course of my life.

Mike pushed me to finish projects. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Mike, based on one discussion we had in about 1980, is that I should not only have the mindset for starting projects, but for finishing them.  Mike asked me to head IDA's software team when I returned to the company in 1987, partially because he knew I could finish projects that I started.  When I first began working with IDA in 1976, I couldn't do that.  After my return in 1987, Mike didn't push me to finish things; he would tell me what had to be done, and he knew I'd do them.

Having the discipline of finishing projects that I start has influenced every part of my life.  I probably got in the habit of not finishing projects in the 1970's, when it was easy to start a song and not finish it or work on a never-ending, tedious project.  Mike changed my way of thinking about projects, so that, to this day, I will not start any type of project without having a goal, a plan, a clear start and a clear end in mind.  The alternative is having all sorts of unfinished work cluttering my life.

Because I am so project-oriented, it is not a surprise that Mike has so much influenced my professional career, but I am not alone.  When my last company, Quartet Systems, grew to its largest with eight people, five of us had started our careers at Mike's company more than 30 years ago.  Mike always looked out for his people, and he provided the work environment, corporate culture and support for a lot of good systems analysts.

Facebook has the words, "Done is better than perfect," painted on their walls.  Mike pushed me to adopt that policy in life long before Mark Zuckerberg was born.  Beyond being organized and creative, having the discipline to finish things has probably benefited me in life more than anything else.

Mike pushed me to write concisely.  As a contracts officer in the Air Force, Mike learned how to write very important, detailed documents.  Unlike anyone I've ever known, he could write a complete business contract off the top of his head.  (Sometimes he thought that he should have been an attorney, because his contracts were at least as good as any attorney could write.)  He also wrote a lot of technical and user documentation for Lockheed, Memorex and, most recently, Oracle.

When I began writing documentation for computer software systems in the late 1970's, I wrote like a novelist or songwriter.  My documents were twice as long as they had to be.  Mike pushed me to write in a much more concise fashion, without the use of a lot of adjectives and run-on sentences.  (My writing style in these articles is not the same style I use in my technical writing!)  Technical documents need to be clear and concise, unlike almost any other form of writing.

Mike gave me a phrase about presentations--both verbal and written--that he learned in the Air Force.  I think it's an invaluable guide in technical writing.  He said, "Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them."  Translated, it means that your presentation should have an introduction, a body, and a summary that all holds together.  Countless times I've edited my documents to be more concise, thanks to Mike's influence.

Mike pushed me to be responsible with money. Mike was the first person to urge me to be a saver rather than a spender.  He used to tell me, "Pay yourself first."  He helped me set up my first IRA and stayed on me until I'd contributed the maximum amount each year.  More importantly, he pushed me to have a "saving" philosophy, rather than a "spending" philosophy when I was young, and that has served me throughout my life.

Part of being a saver, rather than a spender, is to learn how to invest wisely, while minimizing risk.  Except for a couple of financial advisers, I really have spent very little time discussing investing with people other than Mike.  During the 2008 and 2009 recession, he was the voice of reason among the many voices of panic.  He taught me to recognize opportunity rather than fear loss.

I remember one phone conversation in 2008 with Mike, after the Dow had dipped another 500 points that day.  His initial greeting was, "Well, did you buy or sell today?"  Few people really have the discipline (and time frame) to "buy low and sell high," but we discussed market dynamics frequently, and he did not let me panic.  As a result of our investing talks and approach, my wife and I regained our losses within eight months of the initial 2008 crash.

Maybe the greatest lesson I've learned from Mike regarding investing and saving is that I should always be mindful of different types of risk.  As socially liberal as we both are, it is amazing that we are both fiscally conservative and always have been.  Mike really pushed me to be that way, and it has made a great difference in my life.

And Finally....  Mike retired a couple years ago and lives near South Lake Tahoe with his wife of 42 years, Sumaye.  We don't get to see each other often, but we talk frequently.  There is no one I would rather spend a day with than Mike.  He is one of the very few people who can always make me laugh.  His wit reminds me of a couple of the old comedians, like Mort Sahl and Jackie Mason.  Subtle, but not without substance and bite.

When discussing one business associate, Mike once used the line, "Down deep he's pretty shallow."  Sadly, that perfectly described the person.  It's a funny line, but you have to think about it.

And then there was the time in a Philadelphia bank's conference room when Mike and I were surrounded by a roomful of bankers.  One banker joined the meeting late, announced that he'd just found out that he had conjunctivitis, and received no response from anyone.  He then spent the next two minutes explaining what conjunctivitis is (we all knew), at the end of which Mike said, under his breath so that only I could hear, "Oh, I thought it was too many run-on sentences."  I nearly died laughing, and no one in the room knew why except Mike.

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