The View From the Bottom

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Dot-coms were in bloom as everybody saw opportunity online, but no one could figure out how to make money out of it. Of course, that didn't matter. Not to telecom and data equipment providers who had fiber to lay, switches to build and broadband to connect. After all, the Internet was growing at a mind-numbing rate of 1,000 percent a year, or at least that's what the experts were saying. What was needed was faster, better, smaller and more of it, so phone rates could come down and customer demand and stock prices could go up.

"There was this euphoria in the marketplace," Kroder says, "and it made executives think, 'We don't know how long this is going to last, but we have to take advantage of it. We have to grow. We have to add sales force. Everything is pointing up.'"

MCI was a magnet for the Telecom Corridor, attracting within its field telecom equipment companies that built out the rapidly expanding networks of telecom service providers. "What typically happens when an industry expands is that all the players want to be near each other," says Dr. Bernard Weinstein, director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas. "It may have been a historical accident, but we wound up with the largest cluster of telecom employees in the country." The Richardson Chamber of Commerce might argue the corridor grew more by design than accident because it was largely responsible for promoting the benefits of the city to the rest of the world. From Canada came Nortel Networks, from France came Alcatel and from Japan came Fujitsu Network Communications.

Ted Woods became an installer at Fujitsu, tearing out antiquated copper lines and replacing them with fiber-optic cable. Much of what he learned, he learned on the job, which was fine with Woods, who considers himself a hands-on guy who drove himself harder than any boss might have demanded. "Because I didn't have a college degree, I had a lot to prove," he says. "I would work 15-hour days. Since the military, I've never needed much sleep." Driven by changing technologies and the thrill of competing within a Japanese corporate culture that honored structure as much as he did, he worked his way from installer to technician to engineer, from $8 an hour to $15 an hour to $80,000 a year. On the job by 5:30 a.m., he ate three meals a day at his desk, mostly fast food from the nearest Sonic. He gained nearly 100 pounds as his weight ballooned to 270.

The life had its perks, most of which came in the form of toys. Not ready to buy a house, he says, he spent his money on a new Lexus for his wife, a new Ford pickup for himself. Then there was the bass boat and the flat-bottomed boat and the Jet Ski and the motorcycle and the dirt bike. And the sophisticated home office that kept him wired to work. He stored his whole business life on his laptop, every e-mail and voice mail, every work order and memo. "I guess you could say I am obsessive about detail," he says.

Headhunters would call him almost daily, searching for engineers to fill the burgeoning demands of the boom. They tried to lure him with the promise of stock options and salary hikes at companies such as Enron and Qwest and WorldCom. But for him, it was always about the work. "I was the happiest I have ever been at Fujitsu," he recalls. "I wanted to stay there the rest of my life."

Fujitsu would have other plans.

No matter that Fed chairman Alan Greenspan had warned as early as 1996 that an "irrational exuberance" had seized U.S. markets and inflated stock prices. No matter that the Internet's rate of growth peaked in 1999, never realizing its predicted exponential expansion. No matter that the Dot-com bubble burst in March 2000 after Wall Street realized that e-commerce was not immune to the laws of profit and loss. A month later, Walter Jenkins would sign on with Nortel Networks, despite its ambitious commitment to the Internet. "There were still a lot of dot-com millionaires out there," he says. "Nortel [like so many] was betting the farm that the Internet would be the way to do business in the future." With service providers borrowing heavily to build out networks, Nortel stood ready to provide them with all the bandwidth they needed.

Jenkins had been working as the chief operating officer for a small telecom-consulting firm, but took a pay cut to join Nortel. "I figured I would be exchanging dollars for job security in a large company." He came heavily credentialed and thick with experience, working in the Dallas IT industry since his first job at Texas Instruments in 1980. "I moved here for a girl [whom he would marry and divorce], and computer programming was the only job I could find where I could make a decent wage," he says. Jenkins was making far more than that--$145,000 a year--at the consulting firm, building a comfortable life for himself, his second wife and children ("Three of mine, two of hers, one of ours," he says). His four-bedroom home and three cars were modest by Plano standards, but they created enough debt for him to jump at Nortel's offer after the consulting firm closed its doors because of irreconcilable differences between its partners.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald

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