Fifteenth anniversary of 9/11 today... As with any dramatic event, certain memories are still clear for me, and others have faded. Still clear for me: the moment my secretary ran into my office to tell me that something awful was happening. I was CEO of a company called Previo (the descendant of the much better-known Stac Electronics). My secretary, Sylvia E., was also a good friend. Running into my office with a stricken look was something she'd never done before. It was early in the morning in San Diego, and our day had barely started. Sylvia came in when the second tower was hit, and the news reports were beginning to consider terrorism as a possibility.
When I left my office with her to see what was going on (we needed a TV back in those days!), I found a gaggle of employees already watching the large TV we had in our boardroom. I knew we had people in NYC (we had two salespeople covering that area), so I asked our sales VP to check on them. I then found out we had some technical people there as well (though not in the WTC); I asked our service VP to check on them as well. We could not get through to them right away, as the phones were overloaded.
Shortly afterwards we heard about planes being grounded, and there was word at all on when they'd be allowed back in the air. We had two teams in Europe, and several at various points in the U.S. Arranging ways for all of these people to get home took several days, and in some cases we arranged for employees to drive to far away cities to pick up stranded employees. The worst case was one of our U.S. employees on the way back from Europe, who ended up in Nova Scotia staying at the home of a local. The Canadian government had boats ferrying people to the mainland fairly quickly, and we sent an employee from Massachusetts up to New Brunswick to pick her up and take her back home to Chicago. All of this was arranged without any real trouble at all – our employees, like most Americans in the first few months after 9/11, were eager to help in any way they could.
As the day at the office progressed, it soon became clear that everyone (not just employees, but customers as well) was so distracted and distraught that no work was getting done. We had quite a few employees who were close to someone in NYC, naturally they were very worried about them. Sometime before noon, I decided to shut down the company for the remainder of the day. I arranged for a few people to stay on until we located our employees in NYC (whom we still had not managed to contact), and I sent everyone else home. I went home myself, shortly after noon. Most of the drive home (50 miles), I was on my cell phone talking with the folks trying to locate our employees in NYC. Just as I was about to leave cell coverage, they seemed close – so I pulled over and parked, and stayed on the line until we knew what was happening. Finally, after perhaps a half hour, the last of the employees was on the line: he was safe, and out of Manhattan. He'd been two blocks from the WTC when the planes hit, setting up for a presentation (which of course never happened). When I hung up and drove the last few miles to home, I remember very well the sense of relief that all of our employees were accounted for and unharmed.
In the coming days, we learned that several of our employees lost loved ones in the attacks. None of them were immediate family members, but there were three people who died at the WTC who were close to some of our employees, and one who died in the Pentagon who was the aunt of one of our engineers. To the best of my knowledge, those were all the direct connections we had. More distant connections we had many of, as did many other Americans.
The weeks following 9/11 were full of challenges for us as a business. In a couple of years, we'd declare Previo a failure and shut it down, and the business impact of 9/11 was definitely a contributing factor – I think not a deciding factor, however. Another clear memory is from a couple of weeks after 9/11, when my sales VP came to me with an idea for a promotion. He wanted to offer our product (a system for backing up laptops) as a response to 9/11 at a special price, with the claim that it would help protect against terrorist attacks. My clear memory here is one of feeling revulsion at the very idea of leveraging 9/11 as a marketing tool. I considered the utility of it, though ... and couldn't bring myself to believe that our product was really a useful anti-terrorism too. So I thought of a response: I told my sales VP that he was free to flog our product as an anti-terrorism tool, with a price tag of $0 – but that his salespeople would get credit for full price toward their commission. The condition was that in order for the customer to qualify, I had to have a conversation with a senior exec that would convince me that they genuinely wanted the product as an anti-terrorism tool. No such conversation was ever arranged, and my sales VP told me later that even though they presented the notion to several customers (including a couple of large ones), no customer ever was interested in pursuing it. Funny how that event sticks in my mind, all these years later.
In the years since 9/11, I've worked with quite a few people much younger than I, including many who had no clear memory of 9/11. Even people who were teenagers in 2001 generally don't seem to have had the event imprinted on them. I find this strange, because I have a few events that happened when I was younger very thoroughly imprinted on me: Sputnik, Kennedy's assassination, King's assassination, Kent State, etc. I'd like to understand why 9/11 seems to have had less of an impact on younger people. There are way too many I've talked with who seem to know 9/11 only as a remote historical event, and not as a matter of personal experience. Thinking about this makes me sad.
For me, 9/11 anniversaries will always be the day after my birthday...