A few months ago, Iris Classon tweeted a picture from Gothenburg, Sweden.

It immediately made me think of one of my toughest clients and why I admired him. He happened to be Swedish and from Gothenburg. I’m finally getting to blog about it now.

I met him while working on a large enterprise project to replace a series of mainframe systems with my company’s product. The system was going to be used across all business lines and geographies for a large petrochemical company.

He gained a reputation as a tough personality in early planning meetings with his constant focus on the needs of European users. I, along with many others on the project (including his US colleagues), brushed him off. But, as time went on, I started truly listening to him and realized that he had very valid points and concerns.

One time when he was visiting the US, he offered to come to my office and we spent a day discussing the project, the software, his business, and the needs of European users. It was a wonderful session. I came to understand that his passion for user needs in meetings came from his passion for the safety of employees and customers in the dangerous world of chemical manufacturing and industrial use. He had personally seen how failure to follow safety protocols could lead to explosions and in one case, a fatality. He knew the full business backwards and forwards and could easily relate it to software needs and edge cases. He had a great appreciation for the power of IT and he knew his existing system, while an old mainframe application, was perfectly tailored to the users’ needs. He took his time explaining all of this to a greenhorn project manager who didn’t even realize Europeans formatted dates differently. My respect for him grew immensely after that working session.

I also grew to love his smart sense of humor. At one point, he asked for a ballpark estimate for an enhancement. As a consultant, I was always hesitant to give an immediate, gut feeling estimate to a client. After hemming and hawing for a while, he said:

“Steve, if we can put a man on the moon, surely you can give me this enhancement.”

In a different meeting, he perfectly summarized the entire business of producing chemicals:

  • make big molecules smaller
  • make small molecules bigger
  • re-arrange the order of molecules

I loved that simple explanation and used it all of the time with my team.

If this post had to have a takeaway, I guess it would be: Listen to your clients/users, especially the loud and passionate ones. So, thanks Iris, for the trip down project management memory lane!