Looking back on my 20 years in the industry (so far)
By Scott Harkless
It hasn’t completely sunk in yet, but I just celebrated my 20th anniversary with Alcorn McBride. To celebrate the occasion, my colleagues surprised me with an amazing brunch that included authentic stone-milled grits. As I was sitting there enjoying my bowl of “Georgia Ice Cream,” I was hit with a few questions I wasn’t fully prepared to answer. What was the best moment? Craziest trips? Favorite projects? Perhaps that was the point; to ignite some 20-year-old neurons and see what shakes loose. Though it’s certainly a long time to stay with one company, the things that came to mind made it obvious why I’m still enjoying the ride after all this time.
Most memorable trips
In 2001, we launched a PC-based High-Definition video player we called the DVMHD. In hindsight, it was a cutting-edge product that hit the market years before HD really took hold in the industry. Unfortunately, the PC-based aspect of this product made it a bit of a challenge to work with, so I traveled all over the world wearing my tech support hat. One of the most memorable of these trips was the 2005 World Expo in Aichi Japan. It was my first experience visiting a World Expo, and the hospitality of everyone staffing the event was unforgettable. I was working on the Holland pavilion, and the fridge was always well-stocked with Gouda cheese and Heineken beer. There were over 120 countries exhibiting at the Expo, and every night after the show closed, a different country would host a party for the entire expo staff. No borders, no political tensions, no conflicts. Just a diverse group of people being brought together by this incredibly unique event and getting the chance to really learn about one another.
Then there was the time I went to St. Paul, Minnesota to program a themed A/V experience in a CT Scan room at Gillette Children’s Hospital; something designed to soothe patients during stressful procedures. After one day of working hard in a fabrication shop while listening to a colleague sing Journey at the top of his lungs, I was winding down at the hotel bar. Not a soul was around except for the bartender. Suddenly, a group of at least 50 well-dressed boisterous people poured into the place and surrounded me. They all worked for a local accounting firm, and they were in the mood to celebrate because it was the end of Tax Day. The best part is that they were absolutely convinced that I was one of their co-workers named “Norm,” so what was I supposed to do? Of course, I played along and had an unforgettable time hanging out with them. Whenever someone in the group would get suspicious enough to say something like “So… Who are you again?” the others would interrupt and say, “Hey! Leave Norm alone!”
The best programming job was the Pro Football Hall of Fame theater when they upgraded to our newly released V16Pro show controller and Digital Binloop HD. From a control standpoint, the attraction itself is a real challenge to wrap your brain around since it involved a two-screen, rotating theater with continuous guest flow – and ancient equipment in need of some reverse engineering. Also, the content for the show was incredibly well done by the NFL Films crew. There’s a point in the show where the music is pumping, and the announcer’s booming voice says something like “TWO TEAMS…VYING FOR A PRIZE…ONLY ONE…CAN WIN!!!” I’m not much of a sports fan, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so pumped to write a show control script! Most of all though, it was just a cool “full-circle” moment since I grew up in Canton, Ohio. It was incredibly fulfilling to work in a place that I’ve been visiting since grade school, and a place that my family and friends in Ohio have all experienced.
The scariest trip was my first one. It was a traveling, Hiro Yamagata art exhibit that was coincidentally being installed at my former workplace; COSI in Columbus, Ohio. Although I gained a lot of experience with Alcorn McBride products while working for COSI, I had never programmed a V4+ show controller or LightCue in a real attraction. I was terrified that I would screw up and look like a complete idiot. It didn’t help that lots of things were wrong with the installation when I got there, either. I remember troubleshooting and rewiring serial connectors, repairing light fixtures, and jumping through more than a few programming hoops to satisfy the project director. In the end, I felt a bit silly for being so nervous. Although it was partially a trial-by-fire, it was also a lesson in how professional and collaborative the people in this industry can be. The relationships and experience gained from that project made it that much easier to walk onto the next jobsite.
During my time as an engineer on our development team, the product that I was the proudest to work on was the Alcorn McBride Video Binloop (DVM7400). At the time, the company was struggling a bit in the video category. Our staff were pulling their hair out manufacturing and supporting three PC-Based video products: the DVM4, Information Station, and DVMHD. I was responsible for the DVM4, and it had reached a point where we were no longer able to get our hands on the PCI decoder cards needed to build them. To keep the product alive, we were evaluating an alternative PCI decoder card. The only problem was that we were growing weary of building PC-based products, and none of us really wanted to go that route. Thankfully, there was a cool prototype of an embedded video player design sitting in a box under my desk that was screaming to become a real product, so we took a chance and went for it.
After a year of obsessing over code, documentation, cut sheets, and video encoding tools, we were shipping the Video Binloop and the DVM7400 products. Not only did this allow us to retire most of our PC-based server products gracefully, but the Video Binloop became quite a hit in the industry. At the time, there was simply no easier way to synchronize multiple channels of video playback. Within a couple of years, much of that same work was carried forward into the Binloop HD (DVM8400) and allowed us to end our PC-based video server nightmare once and for all. It took time for it all to unfold, but this felt like a defining moment in our company history, that shaped our design philosophy into something that worked better for both Alcorn McBride and the industry.
The most impactful thing I’ve learned during the past 20 years is the power of relationships. When I first joined the company as a Design Engineer, I subscribed to the philosophy that if we just built great products, people would naturally buy them. After more than a few years of working alongside some great mentors, a switch just flipped in my head, and it hit me. People work with us because they like us, trust us, and know that we want them to succeed. Designing great products is an essential part of the equation, but the reason we do that in the first place is the reason we’re still in business. We build cool stuff to help our friends and partners succeed, and they feed us work because they want us to keep doing that!
What’s great is that this same realization applies within our company too. We often hear about people jumping from one job to another because they weren’t satisfied with their role, got a better offer somewhere else, despised their bosses, co-workers, etc. What makes Alcorn McBride truly special is that everyone who works here wants to build cool stuff, make this a better place, and push the industry forward. The camaraderie and sense of accomplishment that come with that shared mentality offer a sense of fulfillment that paychecks, fancy titles, and corporate ladders can never replace.
Without a doubt, my favorite moment for the past 20 years was Steve Alcorn’s 60th birthday celebration. As many people know, Steve was highly involved with the construction of EPCOT, so we thought it would be fitting to have our very own “Food and Wine festival” where we celebrated the things that Steve loves (and hates) with 18 stations of themed food and wines. For that one afternoon, productivity at Alcorn McBride came to a screeching halt as we flipped the phones to ‘Night Mode’ and polished off at least 30+ bottles of wine and homemade treats in a matter of hours. I will never forget Mike Polder’s ballroom dancing display, where he was hugging everyone underneath a disco ball in his fancy tuxedo and telling us all how much he loves us.
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
— Steve Jobs
After all this time, I still love coming to this place because I love my co-workers (right back at you, Mike!) I love the customers we work with, I love what we do here, and I love the positive impact that our industry has on so many lives throughout the world. Period. Everything else is a bonus!
The last 20 years have been the wildest ride, and I’m looking forward to riding 20 more with all of you!