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Friday
Jun212013

MCI Mail and the days of Crab and Corn Soup

Remember when you had to dial a special number before the long distance number you wanted to call, so you could get cheap long distance rates?  And cheap was somewhere north of a quarter a minute, and that was back in the seventies.

Little did I know how that process would affect my life.  And all of your lives, though you may not have realized it.

My first job in corporate america was for a little company called MCI (which eventually became Verizon). They were headquartered in Washington, DC and when I first moved to DC I got a job with them as a secretary.  

MCI was responsible for the break-up of THE PHONE COMPANY, which was how we referred to anything to do with telephones.  Shortly after this happened, they hired a group of people from some other walks of communications life, and brought them all together in a secret building, to launch a secret product.  

I didn't know what the product was.  I started hearing words like, "No it's not analog, it's digital."  I didn't know what that meant.

After several months of being in the dark, I got the secretaries together and approached the VP of Engineering to ask him to explain the product to us so we could understand what everyone was talking about.  

The VP?  To us, he was just Vint.  Vint Cerf.  Dr. Vinton Gray Cerf to be precise. And he agreed to do a weekly "brown bag" series for the secretaries to teach us about data communications.  Just him, and a white board and a marker pen.  We called it Datacom 101.

I was hooked.  I did everything I could to learn as much about the technology and the product as I could and eventually got myself promoted into a sales support position and my career took off.  

Those were heady days working at Downtown and M.  It was the 80's. Reagonomics. IRA's and the Magellen Fund. Michael Miliken (then an advisor to MCI), Miami Vice.  

And let's not forget the Jane Fonda Workout.

In a word:  YUPPIES.

(Young, Upwardly Mobile, Professional, in case you don't remember)

And the social life that was the downtown grid at lunch and after hours.  I never had so much fun working.  

One of my favorite places was The American Cafe.  It was the beginning of the food revolution.  It was the discovery of chicken salad with tarragon, and basil pesto pasta.  And Cream of Crab and Corn Soup.

It was also before the days of individual computers in our offices and homes.  I remember we got three Personal Computers in the office, and they cost $7,500 each.  And they had less computing power than the smartphone you are holding in your hand.  

The Product?  It was called MCI Mail.  Electronic Mail.  We had to explain to customers what electronic mail was.  And what you did with it.  We called it "application selling."  Today, its just an app. We thought the "first public electronic mail system" was going to change the world.  

It didn't.  At least not then.

MCI finally shut it down, but not before they had built "the world's most expensive internal electronic mail system" used primarily by them.  We were 15 years too early.

The MCI Mail Group?  We all went our separate ways, eventually, but most of us remained in technology and telecommunications.  

And Vint?  By all accounts, he is considered "the father of the Internet."  He recently received the Queens Award, by Queen Elizabeth.

We are all getting together this October in DC, for the MCI Mail 30th Reunion.  I was able to attend the 5th and 10th, and I'm really excited about seeing everyone.  And I want to thank Vint, Ray, Dave and Leslie for helping launch my career in telecommunication.  It's was, and still is, a wild ride.

Next time I'll tell you about the vision of having "a nationwide cellular network".

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