Somewhere on the Supply Chain
Somewhere on the Supply Chain
(and a few sea stories)
After more than a quarter century with my current employer, it was obvious that I've spent a lot of time around order management and warehouse management software but, upon reflection, I've realized that I've always worked somewhere along one supply chain or another, even during both tours of duty in Vietnam.
My father was a Teamster and drove a wholesale milk truck most of my life. I knew about double clutching long before my own legs were long enough to actually disengage a clutch. I recall riding with Dad and, at one level, just getting the feel of it: the fluid rhythm of the motions - clutch foot, gas foot, right hand on the floor mount gear shift, and two fingers of the right hand hanging down to tug or push on the 2 speed rear end knob as needed - all to the sound and feel of matching engine and transmission speeds. At another level, I was doing the math [ 5 speed transmission times a 2 speed read end ] and asking him about the sequence of the 10 gear combinations. He said that one usually skipped some combinations and told me a story about a dump truck at a construction outfit where he worked in Alpine before the war. [I was born at a hospital in La Mesa, California, but the family lived in Alpine, on the other side of El Cajon.] The dump truck had two tandem 5 speed transmissions and a 2 speed rear end for a nominal 50 gear combinations. He said jobs were scarce at the time and guys would come in looking for work, claiming that they could drive anything. If the owner was otherwise disposed to give them a job, he'd use the dump truck to test their claims. If they could get it off the lot, they had a shot at the job. Anyway, Dad said that, even with skipping a lot of the 50 gear combinations, you could leave Alpine and still be shifting when you got to El Cajon.
My first tour in Vietnam was with the Military Sea Transportation Service Office in Saigon that was responsible for merchant ships bringing war materiel into Vietnam and for some sea borne distribution of supplies up and down the coast. (The Army had stevedores that did the unloading and, I suppose, also ran the warehouses for cargo that wasn't unloaded straight onto trucks.) There were also small MSTS outpost offices in Vung Tau, Nha Be, Nha Trang, and Cam Ranh Bay. Although we were disposed to quip "Whatcha' gonna' do, send me to Vietnam?", there was something they could do with you if you made someone mad: send you "up country" to one of those outposts. That's what happened to my buddy Steve Crocker (who now lives in Alabama) and to at least one other Radioman while I was there.
We had two URC-32 HF transceivers that we kept on "harbor" circuits 24 x 7, one for voice and one for Morse code (or "CW", meaning continuous wave). When the merchant ships got close to Vietnam, they'd come up on the CW circuit to check in. I'd graduated first in my class at Radioman "A" school in the last class before the speed requirement started to be relaxed. We had to do 24 wpm, I think, in order to graduate. As a prize for being head of the class, they gave me a "bug", a spring-loaded Morse code speed key. Despite a lapse of six months since I graduated without any significant Morse code use, I still thought I was something . . . until the first one of those merchant radio operators called in a blinding blur. I sent him the Q or Z code for "Send more slowly" and then sent it again . . . and again . . . until he finally sent, at just a few wpm, "D . . . O . . . . . Y . . . O . . . U . . . . . K . . . N . . . O . . . W . . . . . C . . . O . . . D . . . E" Who would have thought that one could sound that sarcastic in Morse code? Herb, an RM2 who'd previously been stationed in Antarctica and honed his CW skills spending many otherwise idle hours chatting with ham radio operators, offered to step in. Anyway, I got through it and, in time, got my own CW skills literally back up to speed. Herb had been in Saigon for awhile and knew a number of those merchant radio operators. After their formal check in, he'd sometimes come over and borrow my bug to casually chat with them at speeds that no one else in our radio shack could follow.
The command had a pretty high ranking civil service executive attached to it for some sort of liaison with the merchant crews. We'd get messages for him and I'd always get a kick out of delivering them to him 'cause he'd call me "Sparks" (respectful slang for radio operator). Every time he did it, I'd puff up like a Bantam rooster.
Saigon bound ships would initially anchor in Vung Tau harbor at the mouth of the Long Tau River waiting for instruction to make their way 25 miles or so up the river to Saigon. Throughout that difficult, winding trip up the river, they were exposed to Viet Cong attacks so they had to check in on our voice circuit at a half dozen or so mile markers so that we could track their progress. I recall the first time one of them failed to check in at one of the mile markers and no one in Radio knew what to do about it! It turned out that they'd been preoccupied with the difficult navigation and just forgot to call in but we didn't know that. For all we knew those poor bastards were under attack and we weren't doing anything about it. I was livid! "Calm down, Cole" the Comm Officer said. Eventually, someone found a command at MACV across town that could dispatch a helicopter to check on them. Well, "Calm down, Cole" or not, we knew what to do when it happened the next time.
Sea borne distribution was handled by a dozen or so USNS LSTs manned by Japanese merchant seamen. Several times a day, they'd send Saigon their status - which port, whether enroute, waiting, unloading, loading, etc. The radio operator on one of the LSTs would collect status from all the others and then call us. They'd check in on the voice circuit but, because English was a bit of a struggle, they'd immediately say "Go Charrie (no 'L' sound) Whiskey" so they could send the report via Morse code. I thought it would be decent for me to meet them halfway with voice greetings in Japanese so I asked our Japanese liaison officer on the first floor to teach me a few phrases. Oh, yeah, right. That was one of my earlier experiences with tonal Oriental languages kicking my butt. I'd repeat a phrase and he'd say "No, like this" and say it again with differences that were absolutely indistinguishable to my ear. Oh, well, my "konnichiwa" and other butchered Japanese phrases seemed to be understood and appreciated - and probably generated some off-air laughter.
My second tour in Vietnam was aboard the heavy cruiser USS Newport News CA-148 ("Thunder") on the first of her three deployments to Vietnam. We came south of the DMZ occasionally - for example, during the Tet offensive in 1968 - but spent most of our time off the coast of North Vietnam as part of Operation Sea Dragon interdicting North Vietnamese materiel headed south. Then - as now - most of the population and all of the transportation in Vietnam was along the coast: one north-south highway, one rail line, and boats along the coast. Besides striking WBLC's (Water Born Logistics Craft), if we got close enough to the shoreline, the cruiser's big 8-inch guns could reach inland to hit highway, rail, and warehouse targets along that supply chain. Choke points - for example, ferries where trucks had to queue up - were target rich locations. The effectiveness of Operation Sea Dragon in the north and of Operation Market Time in the south are presumably what drove North Vietnam to send not just troops but materiel as well through the Ho Chi Minh Trail that snaked it's way though Laos and Cambodia.
I did Teletype Repair aboard Thunder so my General Quarters station was in Main Comm with no outside view. When we weren't on a firing mission, we stayed over the horizon out of the reach of coast defense guns; When we went in close to fire, we were at GQ so I literally never saw the coast of North Vietnam until I returned in 2004. I said before that trip that I want to stand on the coast where I knew we'd taken counter battery and look out from the perspective of the defenders "with a quiet mind and an open heart". I was able to do that at Mui Lay (Cape Lay) and other places.
As well as I recall, we'd stay on station for 6 weeks or so and then make a port call, usually in the Philippines but occasionally in Japan or Hong Kong. Much of that is a blur in my memory: 12+ hour days doing teletype repair, GQ several times a day, frequent underway rearming, refueling, and replenishment. The Navy does those underway operations with practiced precision but they are not without hazard. One of the Newport News sailors that was killed on the third deployment was lost in a forklift accident during a replenishment at sea. I recall standing in the front of a line with my dolly for carrying 8 inch projectiles to the turret as the next pallet of projectiles was coming over on a highline. Just as the pallet was lowered, the deck took an unexpected roll upward and the pallet slammed hard into the deck. I was proud of the Boatswains mates and Gunners mates operating the highline, who immediately cut the pallet free and shoved it over the side but the probable truth is that, if it were going to go off from the impact, we'd all been dead before they cut it loose. Later, aboard a destroyer refueling from her carrier coming back from the Med, our bridge let us get behind the carrier's bow wave and we were sucked in so close to the carrier that, standing on the torpedo deck between the destroyer's stacks, I looked straight up and saw the grey painted steel of the carrier's hull that curved below her flight deck.
It's strange what little tidbits of memory stand out from that blur, like the nickel coke machine in the passageway outside the ship's gedunk. It was the old kind like theaters used to have that separately dispensed syrup, carbonated water, and ice in a paper cup. The problem was that it seldom get everything right; there'd be water but no syrup, water and syrup both but no ice, or all three but the cup upside down. Someone finally put a hand-lettered sign on it that read "Win a coke. 5 cents a chance."
I graduated from college in 1974, in the middle of a recession and the only really good programming job that I could find in my home town was with a major truck line, so it was just chance that brought me back into a supply chain related job. I started at corporate headquarters in an economic analysis department where I did an eclectic mix of things: helped with a freight line model that another analyst had developed, worked on the present value program that we used for lease-buy decisions, and had a simple add-microfiche-to-a-report assignment that escalated into completely replacing the company's online microfiche equipment with an offline facility [and designing the entire layout with gravity feed chemicals for the film processing, etc.] in order to improve quality control.
I moved to the company's data processing subsidiary and began working on the trucking company's online applications. Although primitive by today's standards, the systems were state of the art at the time, including a nationwide asynch network of KSR terminals for freight bills and truck manifests and a local network of 3270 CRTs for rating the freight bills. It ran on early models of the IBM 360 mainframes which had pretty limited capacities so we did all the programming in assembly language with which we could exploit the scarce processor, memory, and disk resources. That was before online TP monitors like CICS, so we did everything - multitasking, multiuser state management, loading subprograms, low-level disk io, etc. - in the applications themselves. Other people had already developed that architecture before I got there so I started just making application changes to what was in place. Later, I wrote a freight rate audit system that was similar to the existing freight rating application. I needed some functionality in common with the rating system but was reluctant to disturb the monolithic assembler code that was at its core, so I wrote a set of assembler macros to wrap the rating system and expose some of its functionality as discretely as I could. At the time, even structured programming was new and still somewhat controversial; object oriented programming and terms like "encapsulate" and "expose" were still years away from common use but the need and patterns existed even if formal language support didn't yet exist.
Eventually, I became responsible for programming support for all of the business with companies that weren't related to the parent company, mostly various small regional truck lines and household goods movers. One of the things we did was package software to run on Data General minicomputers. That hardware was not very powerful and the interpreted language consumed much of the capacity. My group had developed the freight line applications; another group did the movers applications and did a much better job than we did, with a rather straightforward design that suited the hardware's capability better than did our somewhat flashier design that caused us to struggle with scalability. Man, was that a lesson learned: Be certain that the solution and the tool are well matched.
I came to prefer working for outside customers who had a choice who to do business with rather than for sister subsidiaries that had no such choice. [In the local parlance, those were "inhouse" and "outhouse" accounts.] Also, to my mind at least, the Midwestern parent company was too conservative and too risk averse. After almost 9 years with that company, the search for a more entrepreneurial company whose core business was with software users who could chose to stay or not brought me to change my place on the supply chain.
Cambar Solutions began as a vendor of distribution applications targeted for a new market niche opened by IBM's new entry-level 4300 mainframes. Since platform capacities only went up from there, application were from the outset designed to be scalable to much larger organizations. Later, as new operating environments were introduced and the fortunes of various platforms changed in the market, the company began offering platform independent solutions for order management and for warehouse management. Over the course of those changes, we've operated on virtually every commercial operating platform (MVS and VSE mainframes with CICS, OS/400, various brands of Unix and Linux, and Windows) and major database (IMS DB and DL/1, DB2, Oracle, and SQL Server).
In time, we got pretty good at platform independence, learning when to avoid platform specific implementations and how to isolate and abstract any specifics that had to be present but that was necessarily easy at first. Soon after the first of the new platforms variations had been delivered, our President at the time joked that maybe we should market ourselves as the Baskin Robbins of distribution software with 31 flavors of platform. I gave him a sober look and observed that we'd damn sure done Rocky Road so far.
More recently, we've refocused to offer applications only on Windows and SQL Server. It seems that the more things change, the more they just come full circle. Similarly, the company, which began with order management and closely related financials, added warehouse management and embarked on expanding the suite with an EDI translator, a shipping system, etc. and various IT and business services, has come full circle to focus on a warehouse management sweet spot. One thing that I particularly enjoy is that throughout all those changes over the last quarter century, the company has continuously regained its entrepreneurial spirit, that confidence that we simply must distinguish ourselves and that we simply must ensure that we contribute to our customers' own business successes.
I've long said that companies have as much personality as do individual people and that's it's interesting to work with such a variety. While a warehouse management system (WMS) may be at the core of their business needs, there are several spectra on which they may differ: a manufacturer with a finished goods distribution operation or a classic wholesale distributor versus a third-party logistics (3PL) operator; a small to midsize business versus a large enterprise, an entrepreneurial company versus a very conservative one, a very formal and structured company versus one that's unstructured and informal, etc. One change over the years that I'm less pleased about is that modern technologies for code delivery and support mean there's less need for technicians to be on site at the customer's location so that increasingly I know users only by electronic contact.
Carl W. Cole
James Island SC
(The Center of the Universe)
Copyright 2004 - 2006 Carl W. Cole