There one day, gone the next
March 30, 2006
It was about 10 AM on Thursday March 29, 2001. The night before was my first really late day at the office - I had to help one of the new employees install XSS on his computer. Microsoft Outlook alerted an incoming email: “Emergency GIS on Third Floor”.
In the year 2000, near the bursting point of what would later be refered to as the stock market bubble, I was ready for a change. I had been working as an environmental engineer for four years. It was fine but it was not something for which I had a passion. Several of my good friends had recently moved to a startup. They had left their jobs at Fujitsu, DSET and EDS to work at Xybridge, a telecom company in Richardson, Texas – better known as Telecom Corridor. They told me to come along. We all knew the number two person in the company – he had left a directorship position at Nortel the previous year to join Xybridge in at its start.
I thought; why not? It would be something new and it might be quite rewarding financially. They hired me as a technical writer – while I knew nothing about the telecommunication industry, I had spent a good portion of the previous several years writing reports.
Wednesday, November 29, 2000 was my first day at Xybridge. I had gotten a call a few days earlier inquiring as to whether or not I would be going to the Christmas party that Friday night – I said yes.
I got a corner cube – the first (and hopefully last time) that I had (will) worked in one. I started the day getting to know some of the folks in the office. I got the company coffee mug and pen. I went by the break room – we had every imaginable kind of bagel, fruit, soft drink, soup, etc. I saw one of my buddies here, another there.
Everybody was moving around with intent. There was a buz in the office.
I met the CEO and co-founder, Jawad Ayaz – a young man in his early thirties who had left Nortel to start this SoftSwitch company. The idea was to develop a new class of software that would do the job of circuit switches to control telephone calls, hence the name.
Xybridge had a considerable amount of venture capital money and was testing its software in Japan for the country’s largest mobile phone company, DoCoMo. At the time, Xybridge was the only SoftSwitch maker that was developing a mobile component.
I had a great manager. She had come over from Nortel and been there since the early days of the company. I got settled in. They other person in the writing team was nice as well – he started me on going through the software manuals. I got a seating chart – there were about 115 people in the company when I joined.
That Friday we had catered lunch at work and everybody got an official Xybridge jacket. The rumor was that we were about to be acquired by another company. And that night was, of course, the Christmas party on the top floor of the Galleria Wyndham.
I began to learn what seemed to be an infinite list of acronyms: SIP, H.232 (or was it H.323?), ATM, UBR, etc. I also had to learn FrameMaker, an Adobe desktop publishing product. I started reading up the telephone industry from its beginnings to VoIP - Voice over Internet Protocol.
Several days went by and it became official: we had a GIS – a General Information Session – on the third floor. According to Jawad, when a company is as good as ours, there are many “suitors”. I don’t remember if he said this but Motorola, whose seed money was behind the company, was one interested party. The Xybridge management team, however, had decided to accept a pure stock deal from Zhone – another startup headquartered in Oakland. Zhone was co-founded by Morteza “Mory” Ejabat and Jeannette Symons soon after they sold Ascend Communications. In 1999 Ejabat had masterminded the sale of Ascend to Lucent for $24 billion. . . “The Street likes Mory”, is what Jawad said.
Zhone would be going public not long after acquiring Xybridge and our stock options would be worth a great deal. As the days went by, there was some rumbling among the masses about what would happen; would they lay people off, what were their plans for our product, etc.
In January several executives of Zhone came for another GIS on the third floor. We saw a slick corporate video about Zhone set to Van Halen’s “Right Now”. They told us how the city of Oakland had named a street for them and now it appeared as an exit sign off of the highway. They told us how their current customers were saying that all Zhone was missing was a SoftSwitch component in their solution to the “last mile”. In telecom lingo the “last mile” is the distance from a telephone to a central telephone office – the bottle neck, beyond which, one is connected to high speed fiber optic, T1, T2, etc. lines.
They told us about their new buildings in Oakland and their corporate standard for office equipment in all their offices. They told us about their growth, organically and through acquisitions. They told us how Xybridge was the best in the class of SoftSwitch makers and the fact that Zhone was not just acquiring a company, they were investing in the people that made the company.
It was a great song and dance.
It snowed in Dallas that year. So much so that the office was closed for a couple of days. Actually it doesn’t take much snow in Texas for everything to come to a halt – no one really knows how to drive in icy conditions.
I was chugging along on picking up the edits on our user manuals.
Everyday I would have raspberry bagels and herb tea in my black Xybridge mug. And then I broke my elbow. I had been playing indoor soccer with my friends for several years. One night, in trying to break my fall, I put my hand on the ground to brace myself; my radius hit my humerus and both bones fractured slightly at the joint – I hate when that happens. That’s a story for another day but I found out while these bones heal pretty fast, the elbow joint will lock relatively quickly because of scar tissue build-up unless exercised.
I also learned that 800 mg ibuprofin, hydrocodone, and Vioxx do nothing for me. I was typing in the mornings with one arm in a sling and going to physical therapy in the afternoons every other day.
Mory and his people came in on a Friday for another GIS/lunch. I felt proud that day. Some twenty years after leaving Iran, I was working for Iranian whom Americans, Indians, Chinese and others practically worshipped. He had made others millionaires and we could be next. It made me think of eighth grade at A&M Consolidated Junior High. It was 1980 and in the midst of the American hostage crisis in Iran. We had just moved to College Station, Texas from Houston – my sister wanted to go to college at Texas A&M and my parents decided to settled there after emigrating to the US in late 1978. One of my classmate used the term “sand-ni**er” to refer to Iranians not knowing that I was an Iranian – I did not fit the stereotype, I suppose. I spent most of my teenage years to myself and probably seemed antisocial to others. Seeing Mory being treated like a Rock Star closed a circle for me.
The deal went through on February 16th, 2001 – 16 people got the axe that day. I put an X through each of their names on my seating chart. We all knew that the marketing folks would be gone, but Zhone took out a few more, including one of my buddies and my new friend on the technical writing team.
We had catered lunch that day at the Castle to celebrate the takeover. One of the executives, in from the Boston office, made the welcome speech at lunch. He started by saying that he knew that people might be concerned with what had just happened to our friends and former colleagues but it was something that needed to be done.
We all dug in . . . into the food.
The Human Resources (HR) folks would come in from time to time to talk about our stock options, etc. We all had our original Xybridge options and were then given more when Zhone took over. Our Xybridge option plan had a provision by which the period of vesture would accelerate by one year if the company was taken over and the employee was laid off – for some of our options, what that meant was that if I worked for Xybridge for four months, and I was laid off, I would be vested one year and four months. Then Zhone pulled its IPO application.
Every few days, someone would leave. One of my friends left to work for another telecom company. A few took voluntary layoff packages.
There were some organizational shakeups. Everyone was a bit paranoid. More whispers, fewer smiles. The break room was not stocked as before – Zhone had suggested Pizzas on Fridays instead. The buz, and the bagels, were gone.
We’d get frequent visits from the executive in Boston. He was taking turns having breakfast with small groups of employees – donuts and orange juice. He wanted to know what we were up to and told us what Mory was up to: Mory had just bought a private jet – one in which “one could stand up straight”. Mory had a pilot but Jeannette flew her own plane down to the airport in Addison on her visits.
In early March, our writing team was eliminated. My manager and I were moved to software testing. I don’t know all the details, but she decided to take a layoff package. I left one cube for another – one closer to the front door.
One day, we all got an email from HR; it was Zhone’s Employee Manual and Agreement. It had all the rules of the company plus some words to the effect that Zhone could change anyone’s work description at any time without notice – it was a little puzzling. I asked my boss about it but he thought it was standard stuff.
A few days later, we were told the HR folks would be in to take pictures for our new Zhone identification cards – then their trip was cancelled. On Thursday, March 29th, 2001, I saw the HR lady and the executive from Boston as I walked into the office in the morning. I thought cool, their plans have changed and it must be picture day - I hoped I was wearing enough cologne.
Two weeks earlier, we had taken a Xybridge company photo and went out for lunch on Jawad’s last day. Everybody knew that once the deal became final, Jawad would leave. He wanted to go back to Banglore and work in the other company in which he was an executive. Somehow I ended up sitting across from him .
The text of the email did not explain the reason for the "Emergency GIS". As we headed out to the hallway and towards the elevator, a rumor was spreading – our office was going to be closed.
There was a hush in the third floor conference room - there would be no joy in Mudville that day and Casey was no where to be found. And, yes, no catered lunch this time. The Boston executive started to explain how the market had gone sour and things that they had not expected had occurred. The gist of it was that each of us would be getting an email in a few minutes; some would be offered to move and take a position in Boston, the rest would be given a severance package – “two months” salary, the same compensation given to the previous laid offs.
One of my buddies walked in late – he had the stomach flu but his manager had called and told him that he’d probably want to be here for this. When I saw him walk in the room, I almost shouted, “We’re going public!”
People scattered waiting for “the email”. Each ethnic group reverting to its native tongue. The documents actually stated it was “one month and four weeks” – there is a difference. We could hang around for a couple of weeks in the office and use the facilities for our job search. In fairness, that was better than some other places – DSET gave its employees a basic “two week notice”.
Zhone had offered the software designers to move to Boston. Most were from India and on work visas, which meant that, if laid off, they had only one month to find another job. Otherwise, they would have to return to India. Most of them took the offer, moved to Boston in June and got laid off there in August.
The first person I called was my friend who got laid off in February – he was not surprised.
This was my warm reboot; I got to thinking, what the hell was I doing? I changed careers mainly for the promise of money, which was there one day and gone the next.
At first, being laid off by an Iranian stung, in part because Mory did not come to Texas to do it himself - that closed circle cracked a little. But in retrospect another, and perhaps more important, circle is now closed. I grew up to be what I always wanted to be; an architect. I have to thank you Mory, really, thanks, no “taarof” – that’s a Persian word for saying something other than one means out of deference to politeness.
Zhone, having purchased three or so firms before Xybridge, and four or five after, became public when it acquired Tellium and trades on the NASDAQ under the symbol ZHNE. I bought my vested options – I still think I was vested more than Zhone thinks I was but that’s history now. As of today, my $1000 investment in 2002 is worth about $50.
Saman Ahmadi lives in Houston, Texas and works for Kendall/Heaton Associates.