The Nortel Days

What’s in a Job?

I have always joked that I could never keep a job.

I have gone from working with an independent telephone company to Bell, to the independent, to Bell, to the independent, to Nortel, to Bell, to consulting, to owning and operating an IT Staffing company. All the while, never missing a day of work amid all the transitions.

Maybe it was part of my “imposter syndrome” that I carried with me. I was always plotting my exit, before they discovered my incompetence. At the end of the day, I have been very fortunate to have had the career I have had. It has taken me to some interesting places, impossible situations and gratifying relationships along the way – many of which I still cherish to this day.

Having a chance to meet up with one of those people for dinner recently, made me realize that while we move on from careers, our relationships stay the course for the most part. Aversity builds character and also the necessity to bond with those around you for mutual support.

One of those people was Sharon Carson.

Sharon began working with me at Bell Canada around 1995. I was tasked with setting up in internal IT help desk, that serviced employees from across Bell Canada (Ontario and Quebec). Sharon was based in Ottawa and was asked to come to London for training on our new systems, so she could return home and address the local issues.

We hit it off immediately. A little sassy (well maybe a lot) and a quick study, she was a good addition to the team. She was a terrific worker and as it turned out a great friend. It also turned out that I had an influence on her career in a big way – unintended consequences.

Paralysis by Analysis


My role required constant travel between support sites in London, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. Frequent meetings, constant trouble shooting, managing political fallout – it was stressful but exhilarating for a young manager trying to make a mark. Sharon was a good sounding board.

After making an impression on my superiors in setting up the help desk, I was offered a new role as a project manager. Bell was going through a “transformation” – code word for developing software systems that would replace people – or as were often referred to “bums in seats”. I would lead one such project.

The pressure became intense, keeping me away more and more from family. Taking business calls at all hours of the day, seven days a week. At one point my boss in Montreal had me in that city for 17 straight weeks, Monday to Friday. I recall being in a nonsensical meeting on Valentine’s Day, where my boss and my boss’s boss could not make a decision on what I considered a simple yes/no inflection point for our project.

We sat in a board room in Montreal, around a conference phone and had the Bell Canada CEO on the line from his chalet in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. I stated my case – and to my surprise, the CEO simply said “Mr Wolfe is correct. Why did you bother me with this!” He hung up the phone.

My superiors were embarrassed,while I saw the writing on the wall. I felt trapped. It was time for me to do my Houdini act yet again.

Movin’ On

I toughed out the rest of the year but by late fall I was getting antsy. On Dec 5, I talked to Rosalee Kovelsky, my project’s financial prime and said I was thinking of leaving the company. “You are making a huge mistake. Don’t go”, she counselled. I weighed her words very carefully on the way home. By Dec 10th I had made up my mind and tendered my resignation. By Dec 19th, I was no longer an employee of Bell Canada.

One of the few times in my life I did not have a plan.

Over the holidays, a colleague that I had worked closely with on a project at Bell, called to say he heard I had resigned. Did I have plans? He was working with Nortel in Raleigh, North Carolina on a similar project to the one he and I had delivered at Bell. They were attempting to build a network operations centre (NOC) for Nortel, using the same switching software that he and I had deployed at Bell.

Dave Thompson was from Kitchener. A very methodical guy with an easy laugh and extremely detailed. Dave was as organized and tenacious, as I was spontaneous and scattershot. He was my yin to his yang. We complimented each other.

He and his lovely wife Lynne had just had their 3rd child and he wanted to take a parental leave to spend time with the new addition. Would I consider filling in for him for a few months on the ground in Raleigh?

Welcome to Nortel

Soon I was on a flight to Florida to meet the team at a conference in Orlando. We hit it off and a new career was about to take flight, though I had no idea the toll it would take on me and my family. I saw it as a way to get ahead and pave a better life for all of us. But oh, the sacrifices that were to come!

Soon I was in Raleigh most weeks. Nortel was booming, trying to take over the telecom space on a worldwide mission. I was responsible for setting up the NOC and working with the Nortel management team to make it run seamlessly.

Soon after, in a twist of fate, I met and became instant friends with Kevin DeLivera, an Aussie that was flown to Raleigh to learn how to build a similar NOC in Melbourne. We were like long lost twins. Instant chemistry. Would my next stop be Australia? The adrenaline was overwhelming. Surely the world was our oyster! The excitement was palpable.

There were warning signs that things were not well at Nortel. But no one wanted to see it.

Soon they offered me a chance to become a full-time employee and join the new telecom behemoth. My gut was telling me to step back, but the opportunity became too appealing. We agreed to terms, but only after I insisted that they include Dave Thompson and Sharon Carson on the same terms. We were now going places – together!

Soon Sharon, Dave and I were tasked with flying all over the US, evaluating potential companies for Nortel to buy. It was intoxicating. Wining and dining. Almost unlimited expense accounts. “Do whatever it takes” they said. New York City, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Denver. Late nights and early mornings.

Dave always said we were the perfect team. He was a night hawk and I was an early riser, so we had the entire day covered. Sharon was the voice of reason, often providing a dose of reality to our enthusiasm.

The Wild West

Chaos – More like the Wild West – No Structure

As was the Nortel way in the early 2000s, things changed quickly. Soon projects were popping up all over the place, and people were needed to run them. It was chaos. They were hiring hundreds of people every single day – growing so fast they were out of control.

I went from New York, to Denver, to Minneapolis, to New Jersey in the space of a few months. Finally, much to my chagrin, I was placed on “the project from hell” – in Eatontown New Jersey. The project was doomed from the start. Nortel had sold “vapourware” to a fibre optics cable company called Tycom. Their business was laying fibre cables across the ocean floor from North America to Europe. We promised them we could reduce the time to issue new orders from 2 weeks, to 45 minutes – without disclosing that we had no idea how we would do it.

Vapourware definition: software or hardware that has been advertised but not truly available, either because it is only a concept or because it is still being written or designed.

Basically Tycom was sold a bill of goods and we were trying to develop the solution on the fly without admitting that they had been hoodwinked.

The internal workings of Nortel at that time were like the wild west. There were people from every telecom in Canada, the US and beyond coming into positions of authority. Each one bringing their own corporate methodology along with them – after all that is what they knew and what had worked for them in the past – but Nortel had no methodology of their own.

We had all this disparate free thinking, but no process to tie it together. Even though Bell Canada and AT&T and Quest were all successful telecoms, they did things very differently. It was hard to get agreement on anything.

Couple that with so much internal movement happening – people were getting promoted, moved to different projects, new management, new ideas, evolving mandates – everyone was trying to make their own mark, losing sight of the big picture. It was survival of the fittest. There was no continuity in management, nor team construction.

(Blackberry went through something very similar closer to home just a few years ago. Grow too fast and get out of your lane of expertise? Sometimes it’s a recipe for disaster.)

Then the shit hit the fan. 911 happened.

Nortel’s Demise

Nortel was already thrashing and trying to keep their head above water. We were now being given ultimatums by Tycom to deliver or start paying massive fines.

I was leading the Quality Assurance (testing) team at the time. I pulled my team together and asked them if they would be willing to work 12 hour days for 5 or 6 weeks to get this project delivered and so we could all move on from this disaster. We were on site for up to 2 weeks at a time. While my intentions were noble, the plan was not.

The burnout started to be obvious after about 18 days of straight work. Sharon Carson had 3 young teenage girls at home in Ottawa. As hard as she tried, she could not cope with the pressure of both an intense work environment and the guilt of being away. She had to go home to Ottawa – never to return. The pressure was overwhelming.

Johnny Chao, a young Business Analyst on the team, came into my office and broke down in tears. It was too much. I felt responsible but had nowhere to turn. We were committed to deliver this project and get home.

Nortel was flailing. They were in the news daily in how they were fudging the books at the highest levels. People were scared. They had come to Nortel in good faith, often leaving good careers to do so. The money and the adventure was just too appealing. Now they were to be laid off. Progress was hard to achieve, as people spent much of their days commiserating with others on their own personal dilemma.

I recall being on my first flight back to New Jersey after 911. People were nervous – warily watching as each passenger boarded. It was deathly quiet as passengers like me were wondering if we could be next. A couple of eastern European men boarded and walked past me. Despite my logic telling me that it was fine, I started to look around for something I could use to protect myself and others if things went sideways. I could poke them in the eye with a toothpick – yeah that will work!! The beginning of racial profiling!!

These quiet flights allowed me time to get my head around my own dilemma. People I travelled and worked with were very worried about their individual futures. I was blessed to have my longtime friend Rick Seys in a position of authority at Bell Canada. He offered me a contract opportunity to work on a project he was directing back in Toronto. As it turned out, his project needed a number of people – I sensed an opportunity.

I started reaching out to my former Nortel co-workers and began to connect them to projects in need of specific expertise. They needed work and I had connections.

Reinventing Myself

Soon it became apparent that I had a gift for connecting people to projects and opportunities. Quite by happenstance, I began to build a business, by partnering with a local IT staffing company. I would provide them with contractors looking for work in return for a piece of their margin.

I started BBW (Big Bad Wolfe) Consulting, as a fledgling IT Staffing company to manage payroll. Within a year or 2, I had enough contractors working for me that I could stop consulting myself and focus on the staffing industry. Soon we had contractors at Rogers, BlackBerry, ScotiaBank, Northwestel, AT&T, Quest and others.

20 years later I sold my company.

I have been blessed to be in the right place at the right time – blessed to know and work with some amazing people.

There is a long list of people that had an impact on me personally and/or professionally from the “Nortel Days”. They likely have no idea how they have impacted my life or my thinking. I am sure I will forget someone, but a big shout out to all those that I continue to think about from time to time.

Kathleen Lewis, Joey Cirello, Sharon Carson, Jim Mapp, Lynne Poirier, Vita Windrim, Dave Thompson, Tom Calow. Kim Lee, Kevin DeLivera, Rick Gauthier, Rhoda Ghoodram, Ross Price, Carol Anne Oakley, Jim Wright, Gary Leitch, Norm Brooks, Bill Janssen. 

I never could keep a job!!

4 responses to “The Nortel Days”

  1. WOW! Those are some powerful & impactful expressions of how work & life can leave lasting battle scars. We are survivors of that evolving, demanding & stressful telecom work environment. I can’t help but visualize a innocent village of people existing in a valley below a river dam that unpredictably bursts & the floodwater sweeps away a path changing everyone’s reality.
    The once mighty Northern Telecom, a world leading business, pride a joy of Canadian business, tragically gone.
    9/11 reset out definition of what tragic means, but both are losses, only different degrees of loss.
    It can leave you bewildered & struggling to define “what really matters?”

  2. Thanks for the honourable mention. I think you should put your musings in a book and publish it
    You could have another career.

  3. Doc,
    Yet another great “musing”. It brought back memories of a long career, alongside yours. In reflection, it brings home the old adage: It’s not about the destination but the journey.
    I found that it was in the tough times that always had the greater learnings in the evolution process but then again, there were also some great bars out there…

    • Hey Big Guy,

      You are so right. And what a journey we have shared! A couple of small town boys surviving in the corporate world despite ourselves 🙂


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