Service Over Self-interest, an Ameritrade Story

This story is going to sound a bit like a western, so my apologies for that.

You see, I used to run internet products for Ameritrade. I am the guy who brought the Company to the Internet. Maybe it was right place, right time, but, man, did I love that job. The tools that my team and I built for an initial audience of dozens grew to support millions of users by the time of this story.

True leaders measure success through the success of all of those they serve, including customers, employees, shareholders, and communities. And they live by a fundamental tenet, that service to others is the highest honor and greatest obligation of a true leader.

Henry S. Givray
Creator & Lead Facilitator – Leadership’s Calling®
Former Chairman, President & CEO – SmithBucklin Corp.

But wait. Some background is important for the rest of this story to make sense. Most companies have three different data handling departments: backend, middleware, and frontend. The backend is the customer and transactional databases. This story isn’t about them. The middleware determines what information can be shared, keeps the bad guys out, and directs the traffic. This story is about them. And the frontend delivers pretty applications and pages to users. Frontend. That’s where I worked.

And we were dependent on the middleware. Unfortunately Ameritrade’s middleware was really old by the time the internet came along. We struggled to work with it, but an application is only as good as its data. That middleware had to be replaced.

The middleware team was also long in the tooth. There had been few new requirements for years, and they had grown complacent. They resisted change on procedural grounds and were viewed as uncooperative. When the mandate came to rewrite it, they were not prepared for success. Deadlines came and went, attrition skyrocketed, and even the new requirements started falling out of date. The danger the company was in because of this can not be overstated.

This is where the story ties into the quote above. My team was terrific. Because we did the fun stuff, we could hire the best people, and many of the best technologists in the Company had chosen to join us. I realized our talent, our understanding of customer needs, and our productive attitude could solve the middleware problem. But I also knew that pulling my team off frontend development would temporarily hurt us in the competitive standings and direct a lot of negative pressure towards me – from the encroached upon data services teams, from the business units, and even from the financial press. Just so you know, I am the guy in the white hat here. Guess what I did?

Marshall Will Kane is not part of this story, but he’s still cool.

I offered up my best project manager and all my senior developers. But it got worse than I predicted when those folks were assigned to another VP. Not only would I lose their productivity, but I would not receive the spotlight of their success.

Following this, my options appeared limited. My crippled team was living off scraps, our competitors pulled away dropping us to dead last in some standings, and my once bright star was fading fast.

But as clearly as I knew my days were numbered, I also knew that I still had control of the future. Three powerful things were left in my pocket. First, my remaining team, having written the middleware requirements, knew what to expect when the project was finished. Second, my knowledge of the customers allowed me to predict what an industry leading application would look like in the future – even if I could not build it yet. And third, the rewrite had not taken my graphic designers, that creative core that turns good data into great applications. Together my scrappy band would design the application that the Company would need at the other end of this dark, 8-month, tunnel.

My professional capital fell far into the red. I had a terrific boss who tried to shield me, but there was only so much he could do. His boss, a man for whom I have great respect, chose a different path – which must have been very difficult for him. He knew what I was doing, and he got out of the way. He protected the necessary resources to ensure the success of our future knowing it might be the last thing I did with the Company.

And it was. But it was also a homerun. The data streaming through the new middleware coupled with our visionary application design put us back atop the competitive rankings and painted my team in great light. I left proud of what I had accomplished and knowing that my superiors valued my efforts. Ride off into the sunset. End credits roll.

So, here’s the lesson. For years I have viewed this story as me self-sacrificing a job I loved for the betterment of the Company. But through recent introspection I have reached a different conclusion which is made clear by understanding the true options I faced:

I could take on another department’s problem. I was confident my involvement would facilitate the best outcome for the Company but also understood it would lead me out the door. I could hope that the act would end with the Company back in its preeminent competitive position, my team – a group of people I loved – once again positioned to build fantastic things and maintain their position at the top of the corporate cake, and me exiting in a super strong position to go build wonderful things for another firm.

or

I could do my job and let the middleware do as it would. It was not my problem to fix, and my head would not be on the block if it failed. My team and I could still build new applications, but the opportunities for building groundbreaking things would continue to diminish. Ameritrade’s competitive advantage might slide and eventually turn us into a takeover target – at which point I would be viewed as an average manager, and either be let go or receive a position appropriate to an average manager.

You see, I was faced with two options and neither was perfect, but my genuine desire to serve others, to improve the standing of the Company, and to make my team successful, led me to the best outcome – for all of us, me included- even if it appears to have been against my self-interest.

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