1982 — Our Mexican Adventure

(Audio — https://johnmac13.podbean.com/e/1982-our-mexican-adventure/)

(Note — These events occurred over 35 years ago. Since then, both the Global Economy and the Mexican Government have modernized a great deal.)

Our consulting business, McMullen & McMullen, Inc., was in its third full year when we had our first opportunity to “take it international.” At the close of a “Big Apple Users Group” (“BAUG”) meeting one evening in New York City, we were approached by two economists (one from Cornell University; the other from The New School For Social Research) who explained that they were performing an econometric study for the Mexican government and would need some computer expertise, as well as hardware and software — would we be interested? We said we would … and began our descent down the rabbit hole!

Some background — prior to the launching of our firm, I had held executive positions with a subsidiary of Control Data and Morgan Stanley and travelled throughout the US on business and Barbara McMullen, prior to our marriage and consulting firm had travelled throughout the world — Europe, Africa, and the South Pacific. Additionally, in the short time that we had been in business, we had done business throughout the United States — BUT we had never done business in a foreign country and, as we would soon see, there is a big difference!

The economists were consulting with the Mexican government’s Department of Finance in an attempt to generate investment dollars for the northern provinces of Mexico. As part of this effort, they wanted to enter demographic and business data into a computer system and be able to massage it in various ways. Our role would be to define the requirements, configure the necessary hardware and software, obtain it, install it in the Department of Finance’s offices in Mexico City, train clerical staff in the use of the system, and perform general consulting — the same activities that we had been providing for US clients.

We agreed on a business arrangement under which our client would be the Department of Finance, which would pay for our traveling expenses directly to hotels and airlines and pay our normal hourly consulting rates; it would purchase the equipment and software directly from our primary vendor, “Jonathan’s Apple” in Marleton, NJ, which would ship directly to Mexico City; and we would spend a week training upon its arrival.

The scenario went off initially as planned — funds arrived at Jonathan’s Apple; the configuration shipped — two Apple II+s with disk drives, monitors, printers, “VisiCalc” (the first electronic spreadsheet), “CCA” (a database product, later enhanced and renamed “VisiFile), and “Magic Window” (a word processor); our airline and hotel reservations were made; and we were off to Mexico City!

Things went well when we landed (although I was a little taken aback when I noted that the police, instead of sidearms, carried submachine guns on their shoulders; I hadn’t thought that banditos were active in downtown Mexico City) and the hotel was charming — small rooms but a very nice patio area where breakfast was served (the hotel was destroyed by earthquake six months later).

Reality began to set in the next morning when we headed off to the office. We left the hotel about 6:30 — the staff started work at 8:30 and we had to insure that the computers were properly set up. As we approached the office, I noted that, not only did the patrolmen carry submachine guns, an officer sat on the roof of the Presidential Palace, directly across from our office, manning a tripod-mounted machine gun.

Once in the office, we found that the computers and software were still in the boxes — so we began assembling them and loading software. We got our first understanding of Mexican politics when it was explained later in the morning that, although the boxes had arrived almost a week before, they had been held in Customs for the intervening period. At that time, there was only one leading (perhaps the only one) political party in Mexico and the President served for one six year term. In the year before his term ended, there was constant jockeying between the various interested groups to agree on a successor — and the interested groups included government departments and agencies, often backing different candidates. It was the luck of this project that the Department of Finance (our client) was backing a different candidate than the Customs Department and this political disagreement played over into some nastiness when conducting normal business — Customs had tried to extract duty on the computers until Finance was able to pull some strings and get them released.

We set the computers up, loaded the software, and were ready when the personnel arrived for training. Although the training went very well, the workday schedule took some getting used to — the employees worked from 8:30 to 11:30, then had a lunch break until 2:30 (yes! 2:30) and then worked until 7:30 pm. We would, therefore, have to be there about 7:30AM to get set up for the training and be there in the evening until 8:30 or 9PM, closing things down and winding down. We would then get to a restaurant and a leisurely dinner (more leisurely than we would have liked) and then get back to the hotel about 11PM — and start all over in the AM (To be in at 7:30, we had to be in the hotel dining area by about 6:30 — breakfast was also served on a “leisurely basis” and then we had a 10 block walk to the office).

It turned out that one of the disk drives was damaged in shipping so we called Jonathan’s Apple and arranged to have another one shipped down and we carried the broken one home in our luggage.

During our week in Mexico City, we had followed everyone’s instructions “not to drink the water” — this included having no fruit, no soda bottled in Mexico, and only having hot coffee or tea where the water had been boiled. All of the precautions did little for Barbara because she became very ill from the moment we could take the seat belts off on the airplane home — a condition that lasted for three weeks. Until January of this year, we thought that she had simply had a bad case of “Montezuma’s Revenge,” blood tests done for other reasons in January revealed that she most probably had actually had contracted Hepatitis-B.

Once back in our offices, we thought that much of the craziness was behind us — actually, it was just getting started. Customs was now prepared for shipments to the Department of Finance and, when the replacement disk drive arrived, it put a 25% duty on the drive — over $100 on a drive that listed for $525. Worse, it would only accept payment in cash! — this from another government agency. To compound the problem, the funding for the project had not yet come through and Finance had no cash and could not get the drive. The latter statement rang true to me as our consulting bills had not yet been paid; when I would call to inquire, I was always told that funding was “just around the corner.”

Soon, there was another problem; there were intermittent problems with the wide carriage IDS Paper Tiger printer that made it unusable. I called IDS (“Integral Data Systems”) in Natick, New Hampshire and, from my description of the problem, it was determined that the system had a faulty motherboard. IDS suggested that it send us a new motherboard and that we swap it out in Mexico City. Coincidently, that recommendation fitted nicely with our schedule as one of our employees, a recent computer science graduate named Carl, was about to go down to do some additional training. We received the motherboard from IDS, turned it over to Carl with instructions on the replacement, and sent him on his way.

Two days after Carl’s departure, we had a call from him in Mexico City. His luggage had been searched at the airport and, upon finding the strange looking circuit board, the authorities had hustled Carl and luggage off to a room, strip searched him, and left him sitting in his underwear for five hours while they determined which violations of espionage law under which he might be tried. Finally, an attorney from the Dept. of Finance had shown up to collect Carl, get him dressed, and take him and luggage off to the office.

Carl did such a good job getting the printer up and running that the office decided that they needed another printer of the same type. The plan originally had been to have one computer system equipped with a wide carriage printer and the other one with an inexpensive narrow thermal printer. The thermal printer had recently been giving them trouble and I had them ship it to me for repair. They now decided that they should have the same printer capabilities on both systems.

Here it got really strange! Finance had recently had a very bad time with Customs about the disk drive — they had finally resolved it by finding a Customs Broker who would pay to get the drive out of Customs — for which service, the Broker would be paid another 25% of the value of the drive when the project funding finally came through (an event that I was seriously beginning to doubt that I would see in my lifetime).

Finance instructed me to ship the new printer not to Mexico City but to an address in Laredo, Texas from which the recipient would smuggle the printer across the border and deliver it to the Dept. of Finance, a government agency (to repeat, a government agency instructing me to put the wheels in motion to have material smuggled across its own border).

I obtained the printer, held it until I received payment (it seemed that only the consulting bills required funding), and shipped it via UPS to Laredo. While all this craziness was in progress, the would-be smuggler apparently got second thoughts because, about 2 weeks later, I had a call from the Department of Finance asking what had happened to the printer as the Laredo person said that it had still not been received. I replied that this was “funny indeed as I had a copy of UPS’ delivery notice in front of me with his signature on it.” When confronted with his lie, Laredo admitted that he had the printer but refused to smuggle it across the border. Finance then called the economist from Cornell who was scheduled to drive down to Mexico City and spend six months managing the study. His itinerary was re-routed through Laredo where he picked up the printer and smuggled it across the border.

These folks were hard on printers — a few months later, I had a call that the new wide carriage had broken so I instructed the caller to send it up to me — and he did.

I got a call about a month later asking where the printers were. I countered with another question “Where is the payment for my consulting invoices?” When I was told that they still hadn’t been funded, I suggested that he call back right after he mailed the check. That was the last that I heard from him and, since then, sitting in the corner of my office has been a narrow thermal printer and a wide carriage IDS Paper Tiger.

This all happened thirty-five years ago and much has happened since then — Mexico has become more democratic but also, in the judgment of some, the “most dangerous country in the Western Hemisphere;” the “Global Economy” has dramatically changed the rules and processes of business; and the technology I refer to here is now considered of the Dark Ages. Yet we can hopefully learn something from the scenario:

  • ¥ Gather as much information as possible about a foreign country before agreeing to do business there — The CIA World Fact Book (https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html) is a wonderful reference about the culture, demographics, and statistical information of any country in the world.
  • ¥ Try to get relevant information about business practices in the country. It has been alleged that WalMart has bribed scores of Mexican officials to become the leading retailer in the country. Such practices may be the only way to do business in the country but it is also illegal for a US company to act in this fashion.
  • ¥ Know exactly how and when you will be paid — attempt to get money up front as in a retainer agreement. The fact that the client is a foreign government is no guarantee of timely payment or ethical behavior. We were naïve and considered that dealing with the Mexican government was tantamount to dealing with the US government. We were wrong!

Anyone want to buy a Paper Tiger?

Copyright John F. McMullen 2017