Context of Collapse

Not all of the 204 laureates from 26 nations who were honored at the Computerworld Honors Program in Washington in June were able to attend the event. One of those unable to make it was Sara O'Neill, senior vice president of global storage management at a company that was in the news last week. That company is Lehman Brothers.

It was a shame that O'Neill wasn't there. It's a spectacular event that honors contributions to the field of information technology and to those the field serves. O'Neill deserved to be there to be recognized for what she and her team had accomplished in the build-out of a new data center in less than nine months in Cranford, N.J., not far from Lehman's offices in Jersey City, where O'Neill is based. It was a model project that other companies are studying for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it incorporated technology that significantly decreased power consumption and cooling requirements.

O'Neill wasn't at the event in Washington because Lehman's management had banned what it considered to be nonessential travel. The short train trip from Jersey City to Washington to let O'Neill receive the honor on behalf of a team that had worked tirelessly on the project was not approved.

That just seemed wrong. So we brought the event to O'Neill.

On Aug. 14, I had the honor of traveling to Jersey City to present O'Neill with her Computerworld Honors medallion and to thank her and her team in person for their contribution. In the lobby of the building, with the Lehman Brothers logo as a backdrop and her team gathered around her, I presented O'Neill with the medallion. As I draped it around her neck, I spoke the words that are recited to every laureate who receives the award:

"On behalf of the Honors Foundation, the Archives and Academic Council, the Chairmen's Committee, and future generations for whom we hold these materials in trust, it is my honor to present this medallion in recognition of the quality of your work, and to thank you for your contribution to the history of information technology."

O'Neill just beamed. It was a happy day for all of us. Little did we know that just one month later, on Sept. 15, Lehman would collapse into bankruptcy.

I e-mailed O'Neill the day after the bankruptcy announcement to see how she was doing. Despite being in what had to be a tumultuous environment, she wrote back less than two hours later. Her response was brief, but it said a lot.

"It's not clear yet what's going to happen," she wrote. "Hope it's all for the best."

It struck me that O'Neill seemed remarkably responsive and upbeat, considering the circumstances, and I wondered how she managed to keep her poise. And then I remembered.

The Lehman Brothers building in Jersey City is just across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan. As I stood in front of it that afternoon in August, I gazed across the river to where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center used to be. I would find out later that day that Lehman had had offices on the 38th, 39th and 40th floors of the North Tower. The Lehman employees in Jersey City watched in horror, as the rest of the country did, when the buildings collapsed.

Thankfully, almost all of their colleagues were able to escape in time and survived. But neither they, nor employees like O'Neill, had the luxury of retreating into any sort of mournful limbo. O'Neill was head of Lehman's desktop operations at the time, and she had the displaced employees back online within a couple of days.

I'm not sure what the moral of the story is, or even if there is one. I do know that Lehman's collapse last Monday, seven years almost to the day after the collapse of those towers, needs to be viewed in some larger context. And I know that O'Neill and her colleagues will be fine. They've been through a lot worse than what happened last week.

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