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My Kronos badge, employee number 3I worked for Kronos for almost 25 years. Kronos president Mark Ain had previously worked for Digital Equipment Corporation ("DEC"), where employee badges bore a sequence number, indicating the order in which employees had been hired. That is, DEC founder and president Ken Olson had the number "1" on his badge, and as subsequent employees were hired, their badges were numbered "2", "3", "4", etc. Like a low numbered license plate on your car, a low numbered badge at Digital was a mark of prestige.

At some point in the history of Kronos, Mark decided to emulate Digital's practice. He had a list generated of the order in which Kronos employees had been hired, and when employee badges were first distributed, they bore those sequence numbers. When I was initially hired at Kronos, I was something like the 15th employee. But by the time badges were issued and sequence numbers were assigned, some of the early employees had left, and I was assigned badge number five.

Then we changed our badge technology, and new badges had to be issued for every employee. Those in charge of the project didn't understand what the employee sequence numbers were. They were not the numbers used in our payroll system. They didn't seem to have any meaning at all. So they were removed, and the badges were issued without them. Of course, this didn't make me very happy, as the carrier of the prestigious badge number five. But it was even more annoying to employee number one, the company president Mark Ain. In fact, he required that the numbers be put back, which meant that every single badge had to be re-issued.

In principle, I should have remained employee five forever. The rules of the Digital Equipment system required your number, once assigned, to remain constant (in effect, if you left the company, your number was retired). But in fact, on the occasion of the badge reissue, I was upgraded to employee number three, as you can see above, two more employees having left in the interim. And that number remained on my badge until my retirement in October of 2003. As far as I know, employee number one, Mark Ain, and employee number two, Joe LeLievre, are still at Kronos today, although Mark, while still Chairman of the Board of Directors, has retired from day-to-day operations.

Sample barcodeOur original Kronos badges had a barcode on the back, which our terminals scanned to admit you to the building. These codes were underprinted with a dense red rectangle, which made it impossible to photocopy them. But upon close visual inspection, the code could be discerned, so I simply reproduced mine by reading it off as "narrow-line, narrow-space, wide-line, narrow-space, ..." and so on. I then reproduced the code in a program called "PC Paint", and printed it on a card that I laminated with transparent packing tape, and carried in my wallet. This allowed me access to the Kronos buildings when I forgot to bring my badge from time to time. (The code above will not get you anywhere, as Kronos's access technology has now been changed to proximity badges (a non-contacting badge technology), my employee number is no longer valid, and that's not really my code anyway.)

Prior to coming to Kronos, I worked for the modem manufacturer Codex. The word "modem" is an abbreviation of "Modulator - Demodulator", and it's a device that sends data from a computer over a telephone line. Although inexpensive low-speed modems operated at the time at rates such as 300 bits per second, Codex made "high speed" modems that operated at either 4,800 bits per second or 9,600 bits per second. Note 1

Don't worry, I'll get back to badges eventually. Customers could purchase a modem from Codex, and attach it to a telephone line. But if a user wanted a modem from AT&T, he couldn't buy it. Rather, he had to lease it. So when AT&T came out with a competing high-speed modem, Codex promptly leased one in order to take a look at it. Since this was a fairly high-cost item, an AT&T salesman personally delivered it to our research lab. As soon as he left the building, we promptly took it apart, to see how it was built.

Unfortunately, the salesman later realized he had forgotten to bring us one of the manuals that went with the system. He showed up the next day with the manual, and walked through the building back to the lab where he had been the day before. He was furious when he saw his modem completely disassembled, the parts spread all over a large table. After all, Codex was only leasing the modem, and certainly didn't have a right to take it apart (although what did he think we were leasing it for, when we made one of our own?). He found an empty cardboard box, swept all of the pieces into it, and carried it back out to his car.

Of course, the engineers were rather dismayed by this, but they weren't nearly as upset as Codex president Art Carr. He was furious that an outside vendor had been able to walk into our building unchallenged, and then to walk out with a box of equipment without being stopped. We pointed out to him that our company had no security, and that we didn't even have employee badges. Art immediately decided to do something about this. He got together a committee to work on an employee badge project.

Naturally, this simple project took an entire year to complete, after which we were all issued brand-new employee badges. Someone then, of course, asked the question of whether or not it was the receptionist's job to check the identification of entering employees. After all, the receptionist was not a security officer, and the lobby was not set up in a manner that made it easy to challenge everyone who was entering. In the end, it was decided that this was not the job of the receptionist. Thus, at the completion of a year-long badge project, we ended up right back where we had been the year before - anyone could still walk in or out un-challenged.

I recall another receptionist related incident at Codex. OK, this one has nothing to do with badges - my mind wanders a bit. One day, the police arrived, arrested our receptionist, and carted him off to jail. It seems that one of the miscellaneous jobs of the receptionist, who after all sat around all day with nothing much to do, was receiving airplane tickets that had been ordered by employees. When they needed to travel for business, employees contacted our travel agency and ordered tickets. The agency ultimately delivered these tickets to the receptionist, who saw to it that they reached the relevant employee. Apparently, one day the receptionist had called the travel agency and ordered a ticket for himself. It was delivered along with all the others.

When this passed unnoticed, the receptionist started doing it routinely. It turned out that he was flying all over the United States, and the world, on tickets paid for by Codex. This went on for over a year, as there were no record-keeping procedures or any other means of checking whether the tickets ordered were actually for legitimate business travel. The theft was only discovered by a routine end-of-year audit. Auditors often spot check transactions to be sure they are actually legitimate. Thus, an auditor discovered tickets purchased for travel that didn't seem to match up with any travel expense report. Once this turned up, additional investigation revealed that all these tickets had been purchased by our receptionist for his own use. Codex turned him in to the police, and he was prosecuted for larceny.

Despite having retired in 2003, I still meet regularly for lunch with some of my old cronies (or should I say "kronies") from Kronos. One of them is still working there, and a few weeks ago, I took a look at his current badge. I noted that the employee "sequence numbers" have once again been removed from the badges. Perhaps this happened when Mark Ain retired from day-to-day operations, or perhaps it occurred when Kronos "went private" (having been a public company since 1992, Kronos was purchased in 2007 by the private equity firm Hellman & Friedman). Or maybe, like the first time these numbers disappeared, it was just an accident.

So I'll always treasure my badge number three.

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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted March 24, 2011

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   A modem converts a computer's data into a signal suitable for sending over a telephone line. At the other end of the line, another modem reconstructs the original digital signal. If you listen in on an extension telephone while a modem is operating, you can hear the sounds representing the data. You often hear such tones if you accidentally call a fax machine.

In the late seventies, the modem experts at Codex believed that 9,600 bits per second ("bps") was the fastest data rate that could be obtained over a voice-grade telephone line. In fact, their high speed modems required a special connection called a "C2 conditioned line". Nowadays, you can buy modems (called "56K" modems) that run at 56,000 bps over ordinary dial-up lines. I'm not sure why Codex was wrong about the theoretical limits on modem speed.

You can buy a 56K modem these days for around $25. But when I worked for Codex, a 4,800 bps modem cost $4,800, and a 9,600 bps modem cost $9,600. Even the 4,800 bps modem had an excellent profit margin. Most users were unaware that if you knew exactly which wire on the circuit board to cut, you could convert your 4,800 bps modem into a 9,600 bps modem (although you'd void the warranty). So on the 9,600 bps modem, an extra $4,800 was pure profit, right off the top.

These high profit margins were great for Codex for a very long time. But one thing I discovered from this experience is that once a company gets used to high profit margins, it can never become a commodity supplier and live with low profit margins. You'll notice that when modems became commodities, and got really cheap, Codex was not among the surviving manufacturers. They eventually moved into data communications products other than modems, and the company ended up being purchased by Motorola.  [return to text]

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