The Assembly Worker
Continued from previous page
In Gaithersburg, Kathy Mielke's hands are thrust deep inside a steel box of gun-metal gray on her workbench, like a surgeon in mid-operation.
She is adding brains, voice and heart to the box, turning it into a state-of-the-art computerized answering machine that can process 24 phone calls at once.
Microlog Corp., her company, sells combinations of these boxes to such customers as the Internal Revenue Service, which uses it to field taxpayer queries, and drugstore chains, to handle prescription requests. It pays five assemblers like Mielke between $30,000 and $45,000 a year each.
Mielke, 40, is a high-tech assembly worker a rare breed in the Washington region, which is known for creating technology with its heads, not hands. Out of more than 3,000 tech companies in the Washington region, only about 100 are hardware manufacturers.
Wielding a battery-powered screwdriver, she tightens a tiny No. 16 flat-head screw, securing a memory bank that will store the customer's personalized phone messages and call options.
To customize the system for each client's needs, Mielke must set small switches on a delicate computer board. "There's always something different so many varieties, so many configurations," Mielke says. But she's not complaining: It's part of what keeps the job fresh after 18 years.
When the boxes are finished, they must function perfectly. Mielke's final responsibility is to run the box through an exacting series of tests to ensure that it works. She won't learn the answer until the next day.
In his dining room, Paul Albert scans the mail as the sun sets on this cold fall day in Northern Virginia. It's the usual bills and shopping catalogues, and some transportation trade magazines.
There's nothing to alleviate the current problem that occupies the mind of the 36-year-old entrepreneur: how to recoup $150,000 of his own time and money and $250,000 from investors that went into an Internet venture he once was sure would succeed.
The idea behind RouteLink Inc. was simple. It would create Web-based software to provide a meeting place for the newly deregulated trucking industry, a virtual bazaar where truckers can learn of loads needing to be carried.
But every technology success obscures a reality: Most entrepreneurs are like Paul Albert ambitious, talented and ultimately unsuccessful.
Albert ran out of money in mid-year, after spending his last dollars on a fax promotion to 7,000 potential customers. He decided to try to sell the business and look for a new job.
"I started it with stars in my eyes," Albert says, sipping coffee at his kitchen table.
Albert flips through the papers and trade magazines, talks to a few headhunters about some job prospects and to a potential buyer for RouteLink.
He compares technology start-ups to sailboats: Some catch wind, some are dead in the water. The hardest part, he says, is the "uncertainty and ambiguity" of not knowing which kind of boat you have.
But still his mind churns, mulling opportunities. "I'm looking at a carpooling matching service," he says. A visitor suggests that organ donors and potential recipients have similar matching needs.
"Good idea," he says, and taps it into his computer so he won't forget.
High-Tech, After Hours
As traffic thins and workstations darken, Ed Motley reaps a high-tech windfall after hours. Known as "Big Ed," the bow-tied bartender darts behind the bar at Clyde's in Tysons Corner. Close to 80 percent of his patrons are twice-a-week regulars, and most of them work in technology. The crowds have swelled as new companies emerge all around. He'll make about $200 in tips on this Monday, and $300 on a Friday. Techies tip better, he says, than the real estate people who used to load the place not long ago.
Motley is one of the throng who don't work for tech companies, but whose income largely depends on them. He is a fluid study in drink-making and small-talking, moving perpetually from Happy Hour through "Monday Night Football" to closing (2 a.m.).
He prides himself on knowing his customers' names and their drinks. "Ed makes you feel welcome," says Lew Griner, a sales representative for Niacom, a Nebraska-based computer company. Griner, 50, travels often to Washington from his Georgia home. He wears monogrammed shirts, smokes big cigars and tells strangers that he's a "people person."
Tonight he flirts with Kim Willard, a 31-year-old marketing manager at Spaceworks in Rockville. (But, he tells a reporter, "I take my marriage vows very, very seriously.") Motley pours him a glass of Jack Daniels and water. Griner and Willard exchange business cards, and Griner bows to her.
"This is like a 'Cheers' for the technology set," says Willard, who lives in an apartment nearby. "And Ed is great," she says raising her Miller Lite in his direction. She then returns to a discussion on supply chain management software as the night wears on.
The Phillips Collection near Dupont Circle is hosting a most elegant dinner party, a "cultivation" event to woo wealthy potential donors. With Picasso, Braque and Bonnard brightening dark walls, the evening begins with cocktails and soft conversation.
It is a statement about Washington's new economy that the dinner honors "Technology Friends of the Phillips." Not politicians, real estate magnates or retail heirs, but high-tech entrepreneurs and executives, the region's new rich. Some are budding philanthropists, too.
Like Anne Crossman, chief executive of Completed Systems, a small Vienna computer services firm. "I don't want to wait until we're a Microsoft or an AOL to give back to the community," she says. Between sips of ginger ale, Crossman receives kudos from fellow executives. She was recently named Bloomingdale's Woman of the Year for raising more than $15,000 for the Leukemia Society of America. As part of her award, her face will soon adorn the sides of Metrobuses.
"Oh, you're Anne Crossman, I gave you money," says Mark Warner, managing director of Columbia Capital, a private firm that invests in start-up telecommunication companies. He asks questions about the charity and her company.
At 8 p.m., everyone is called into the Music Room for a dinner of stuffed loin of veal.
Laughlin Phillips, chairman of the board of the gallery, speaks briefly after dinner. He tells the guests that the Phillips identifies with the tech sector as a fellow non-government body in Washington. He makes no direct appeal for funds. It wouldn't fit the mood.
Throughout the evening, talk abounds on the day's big news: the prospective AOL-Netscape deal. AOL co-founder Jim Kimsey, one of the guests, receives repeated inquiries on the acquisition which as of that evening, had not been confirmed officially.
The evening ends with a tour of the "Impressionists in Winter" exhibit, guided by museum director Jay Gates. Along the way, Warner shakes Kimsey's hand and congratulates him. The deal is formally announced the next morning.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company