So Long And Thanks For All The Fish

To my colleagues and friends at Merck and on the Internet,

Due to a corporate realignment, my last day with Merck is the 9th of May.  I thought I’d take a few minutes to reflect on my career at Merck.  In the over sixteen years at the company, I have grown, both professionally as well as personally.  To those who are reading this blog post, whose paths have crossed with mine in real life, there is no doubt that I learned at least one thing from you.  When I started at Merck I was a mere twenty six years old and realized that there is a lot to be learned.  Starting at the old Technology Support Center (TSC) I got to meet some great people who have become more than co-workers, but friends as well.  Working at Merck has been a truly wonderful experience for me.  Professionally, I learned so many great skills.  I learned about proper help desk methodologies in an industry that was still young and developing.  I’ll never forget the “tap taps” I’d get from Cathy Wilson when I misclassified a ticket in Vantive.  Who can ever forget the evening staff meetings after working a long 8 or 10 hour shift?  Merck was not always about work.  I remember playing indoor golf or video games as part of our weekly team building events.  The beeps of the SYMON board when the queue got high will forever be ingrained in my brain as well as how quiet the phones got on September 11, 2001.  Christmas at the help desk was always a fun time.  We had the support team of Cohen and Bernstein (yes, it does sound like a law firm) waiting for the phone to ring.  This gave us practice for Y2K when absolutely nothing happened and I mean nothing.  I think we were on “ready” for 90 minutes before a call came in and it was a minor issue with some obscure Oracle database in China.

I developed so many new skills and found ways to make good ideas better.  I remember how David Wilson‘s Techtionary (aka “technical dictionary”) was a giant, 100 page Word document that was printed out every few weeks.  Oh, how I would frantically flip through that thing to find out what app the customer/client/end-user was calling about just so that I can sound reassuring on the phone that I knew what they were talking about.  I then made it easier by introducing the new Techtionary and as a result, my skills in MS Access, IIS, Oracle (and thanks to Jason Victor‘s expertise), JSP grew.  I admit, that it was one of my greatest “claims to fame” at Merck.  Yes, at this point I was still not known as the “Outlook guy.”

Not all of my development at Merck was technical.  There were a lot of personal growth and “new chapters” in my life.  In 2005 I took a major leap of faith and bought my first home (well, a condo) and went through all the stress of construction delays, lawyers, inspections, mortgage approvals, etc.  In April 2006, I became true to myself, my family and my co-workers and told them I am gay (see my post about that here).  Thanks to a supportive family, friends and co-workers, this opened up a whole new world for me and I embraced my true self wholeheartedly.  With the encouragement of my family and my best friend Neil, who is like a brother to me, I became a member of GLEAM, legacy Merck’s LGBT employee resource group.  This opened up a whole new world of Merck people in my life.  I got the opportunity to get out of my “IT silo” at Merck and work with other people from the business side of the company.  As a result of this, I made some new friends like Shari Johnson, Brian Bernstein (no relation), Eric Thalasinos (via Schering), Dean Hancock, Kar-Chan (Casey) Choong, Alex Kelly, Rachel Feller and countless others.  Thinking to myself that GLEAM’S web site could use some work, I decided to run in a contested election for the Technology Chair.  To my complete surprise, I won the election and became a member of their Steering Committee.  It was the only time I ever won a contested election.

2005 was also an interesting year in my Merck career.  I remember getting a call from Lorraine DeBrodi on Valentine’s Day.  I knew something important was going on because a director never calls me, much less at home on a weekend.  Apparently a VIP was having a remote connectivity issue.  This led to the establishment of the Expert Help Desk (EHD).  Without so much as an interview, thus began my second job at Merck.  Being a founding member of the EHD brought new challenges and new experiences.  I now wasn’t so tied to phone metrics and was afforded the flexibility to be on new and interesting projects.  I handled the tough tickets and got those we could not resolve to the right folks who could.  I got to interview people for the first time.  This was new for me, after all, I have had lots of experience being the “interviewee.”  My role at the EHD allowed for some personal growth and adventure as well.  I flew by myself for the first time and it was an international trip to Canada.  I got to provide in-person EHD support to the Australia help desk located at Ajilon in Montréal.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Schering-Plough.  While I am considered a legacy Merck employee, my career started at Schering-Plough, first in Union and then in Kenilworth as an intern doing deskside support.  The merger was an interesting and exciting time for me.  Despite the world becoming smaller with the Internet and social networking, seeing “long lost” Schering colleagues was a bit like a high school reunion.  I don’t know what they got in the water over at S-P, but I swear none of them aged in the intervening years.  This merger gave me the opportunity to be involved in integration activities.  I got to be part of “day 1” hyper care support.  I remember needing to test “Merck Today” with a corporate vice-president to see if it worked with people at various levels of the company but I was a little afraid to “annoy” a VP with a “friend request.”  Luckily George Llado was sitting next to me and I got to “annoy” him with my friend request.  The merger also allowed me to take my first trip to Mexico and meet some truly wonderful, dedicated and hardworking analysts of the Americas Help Desk (AHD).  I had the opportunity to provide integration support for when the AHD started providing support for our new co-workers from Schering-Plough.

The merger afforded me the opportunity to work with new colleagues from the Rainbow Alliance Network (RAN), Schering’s LGBT employee resource group.  Due to my role as Technology Chair, I got to work on integration activities as we merged GLEAM and RAN to form the Merck Rainbow Alliance (MRA).  A new web site was created using SharePoint which allowed for prospective members to electronically join the group, plus each chapter got its own web site which allowed for more member engagement.  Eventually I would go on to be the New Jersey co-chair of the group, which allowed me to have new opportunities.  I got to learn leadership skills, organization, and planning.  I got to meet new colleagues from other companies and industries thanks to participating in the Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Los Angeles, Dallas, Baltimore and Minneapolis.

The merger brought new management for the Expert Help Desk with Mike Landsman.  His new way of doing things lead to a more engaged and cohesive group.  The mix of Merck and Schering cultures had a good synergy that made our team a successful one.  As we moved away from Expert Services and the Hands on Helpdesk, I got a new job (again without so much as an interview) as I learned Service Management.  My role evolved from being an incident manager, to a problem manager.  This is where my ITIL certification and Six Sigma Yellow Belt training really came into play.  I got to learn how to find solutions to prevent them from happening in the first place, sort of like putting out the fires before the first spark.  I got to learn a new way of thinking and analyzing and as result; my skills with PivotTables have never been stronger.

As I look back at my career at Merck, I also look forward.  No one can predict the future.  Who knows, perhaps my path will someday intersect with Merck again.  My Merck experience has truly been a wonderful time in my life.  I know there are lots of people I didn’t mention who have been so influential in my Merck career, but they’re playing the music and it’s time for me to get off the stage.  I have often wondered what I would write, when the time came for Merck and I to part ways, though Markella Saliaris mentioned it first and wrote about it in her own farewell statement, the video below pretty much is how I feel.  Be positive!  Always look on the bright side of life!  Most importantly, be well.

Contact me at mbernste at gmail dot com

Out & Equal 2013 Trip Report

October 27-November 1 Minneapolis, MN (Workshops October 29-October 31)

I attended the Out & Equal Workplace Advocates Summit which took place at the Minneapolis convention center in Minneapolis, Minnesota during the week of October 27th, 2013.  Approximately 2,000 people from 41 states and 27 countries attended.  I was one of 15 people from the Merck Rainbow Alliance Employee Business Resource Group (EBRG) to attend.

On October 28th the MRA had its opening dinner at the Skywater Restaurant.  Members of the MRA which came from all divisions of the corporation, including field sales introduced themselves and explained what their job is with the company.  For the first time we had representatives from Corporate Recruiting who participated in staffing the booth we had in the exposition hall.

On October 29th, the summit opened with the first plenary.  First to speak was Selisse Berry, the founder and CEO of the Out & Equal Workplace Advocates.  Her remarks focused on encouraging equality in the workplace for LGBT employees in all companies as well as passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).  Following her remarks, Robert Hanson, the CEO of American Eagle Outfitters discussed his coming out experience both personally and professionally.  The third speaker at the plenary was Janet Mock, the editor-in-chief of the online version of People Magazine.  She discussed what it was like to be a transgender person in the corporate world.  The plenary’s entertainment was from Steve Grand who performed his hit, “All American Boy.”

After the plenary I attended a screening of “Out of The Shadows,” a documentary produced in 1970 by KNBC.  The workshop was sponsored by NBC Universal corporate parent, Comcast.  The workshop started with a brief video about being gay at Comcast/NBC Universal.  The video highlighted some of the shows and movies with LGBT themes as well as other groundbreaking shows featuring diversity (e.g. Nat King Cole special in the 1960s).  It also highlighted shows from Friends, The Office, etc. that had firsts when it came to portraying aspects of LGBT life (e.g. “Friends” was the first program to show a same-sex wedding).  It also showed members from NBC Universal and Comcast’s EBRGs, Out@Comcast and Out@NBCUniversal.  The panel explained that NBC Universal was the first major media company to provide domestic partner benefits and Employment non-discrimination in 1992.  They then showed a trailer for their upcoming movie, “Dallas Buyers Club” starring Matthew McConaughey which is about an HIV+ individual who smuggled non-FDA approved drugs in to the US to help people with HIV/AIDS (based on a true story).  The one hour documentary examined the gay subculture in 1970’s Los Angeles.  Topics included gay marriage (as a farce of hetero marriage).  It contained profiles of both male and female same-sex couples in committed relationships.  The documentary covered the many gay bars that existed at the time in Los Angeles and how LA was the “capitol” of the gay community.  Regarding the transgender community it explained how the laws were changed in the early 70’s to allow men to dress as women provided that no other laws were broken.  The discussion afterwards focused on the difference in attitudes of the 1970’s, the inaccuracies and some of the prejudices that existed in the documentary.

The second workshop I attended was part of a global series sponsored by the presenting sponsors (IBM, Disney and Thomson Reuters).  The workshop was called, “Virtual ERGs–Connect Your Global Membership Using Social Media.”  The session started with a video of employees from Thomson Reuters discussing what being part of their EBRG (called Pride At Work) means to them.  The panel consisted of members of the organization from around the world.  One member is the Intranet lead whose role is to make sure members are using all of the IT tools to engage the membership worldwide.  They explained the evolution of their corporate portal and the missteps they made along the way.  The Corporate portal started with a site called “The Link” in which Pride At Work was a sub-site.  The portal was a link farm, similar to MyMerck.  It was very hard to find content and the search was too broad.  It was also very difficult to add content to the site.  The ability to update content was restricted to a small number of people and information was outdated quickly.  Also the information tended to be very specific to region of the editors who created the content.  To address some of these issues a newsletter was created alongside “The Link.”  The newsletter improved discoverability but everyone was a publisher and lead to information overload and people didn’t read it.  To address these issues, like Merck, Yammer was used.   The problem with Yammer is it is text based and has limited features.  An additional concern with Yammer is concern over control of the content and off-loading it to someone else’s server.   The replacement to all of this was something called “The Hub.”  With “The Hub” you have a group (similar to a Team Space).  The Hub consists of blog posts from various members.  Anyone can post stories to the site.  Readers can “like” the posts similar to Facebook as well as add comments, similar to Merck’s communities.  Posting comments lets you tag other individuals, similar like you can do in Facebook comments.  The technology allows you to share photos and videos.  You can create streams to follow different groups in The Hub.  New features planned for The Hub–push notifications and something called “gamification.”  Gamification is rewarding people for participation with things like badges for a person’s profile (similar to Foursquare).  Winning a badge could be for getting a lot of likes for a post or for participation.  People can even earn badges for being members of EBRGs.  If a thread gets a lot of hits on a sub-part of the hub, it gets auto-promoted to the home page of the corporate portal.  This allows for awareness of the EBRG and the topics and permits greater employee engagement and membership in the EBRG.  As a result of these “engagement enablers,” the content was updated daily and their group has seen year over year membership growth of 23%.  The Hub platform is powered by a system called Jive and the team is around 5 people.  The Intranet team is part of Corporate Communications.

October 30th’s session began with a workshop titled, “Executive Sponsors – Use ’em or Lose ’em.”  The panel consisted of the executive sponsor and chair/president of the LGBT EBRG from Ernst & Young, PepsiCo, Raytheon, and Thomson Reuters as well as a moderator.  The format was that the moderator would ask questions of both the sponsor as well as the EBRG head.  The first question was how did you become the executive sponsor?  In all instances it was a voluntary position, except with E&Y they went through a formal interview process.  Other questions asked were, what your job is for the ERG? What is the most useful strategy in leveraging your sponsors? What are the unique challenges sponsoring a LGBT organization? What is the most rewarding aspect?  The answers to these questions from the respective organizations can be provided if requested.

Following this workshop, we had our plenary power lunch, sponsored by Disney.  It opened with Selisse Berry discussing how we can be married in 14 states, but we can still be fired in 29 states, simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  After Selisse, the mayor of Minneapolis, RT Rybak gave same opening remarks.  The first keynote speaker of the session was Elaine Kaplan who is the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management for the US Government (a Presidential appointment).  After her, was television personality Tabitha Coffey, host of “Tabitha Takes Over” on Bravo who discussed her show as well as her coming out experience which she expected to be easy due to being surrounded by LGBT people growing up but was shocked and surprised by her mother’s reaction when told.

After the plenary I attended, “Getting It Done – Microsoft GLEAM At 20 Years.”  The presenter was Brian Murphy from the Windows Research Group.  His role within Microsoft’s LGBT group, GLEAM, is focused on policy.  He gave a brief history of GLEAM.  In 1993 it became part of Microsoft’s “diversity infrastructure.”  He then discussed the strategy used for a successful EBRG:
Focus on outcomes:  MSFT typically got caught up on the process of implementation without focusing on the end result.  An example of this was implementing benefits for transgender employees.
Be appropriately provocative:  What are the limits of advocacy for change.  Avoid the breaking point where you end up hurting your case.
Sidebar feelings:  Keep emotion out of the discussion.  Focus on the facts when making the case for change.
Don’t get attached:  To an argument, to a strategy, or even to being the driver on an issue.  If you are the person advocating the change but can’t get it to the final step to the finish line, you need to let go and let others complete the accomplishment.
Starting Small is still starting:  Accept less than you hoped since it is at least a beginning.
Bring others along:  What’s good for us is good for others.  Be principled and it will happen naturally.

There were also many lessons learned over the 20 years that the EBRG has been in existence.  There’s no single right answer.  Build organizational intelligence–understand how your organization is structured and how that helps or hurts you in achieving the outcomes you want.  Competitors are allies (e.g. Google)–other organizations in your industry are your best tools to drive change in your organization.  Use disruptive change–opportunities come with disruption, so be ready to use it to your advantage.  It doesn’t stop with success–getting a policy or benefit change is just the beginning.  Once implemented you have to look at the results and course correct where necessary.  Change can be a long game–anything worthwhile takes time so get comfortable, you could be doing this a while; focus on the war, not the battle.

October 31st began with a workshop that was very important to me called “Breaking Down Barriers – Creating A Thriving Workplace For Employees With HIV.”  The panel consisted of Bonnie Rossow (Minnesota AIDS Project), Sarah Fryberger (Project for Pride In Living) and Robert Menk, who is a volunteer HIV educator.  The workshop discussed some key facts regarding HIV.  According to the Center For Disease Control, 20% of the people with HIV do not know that they have it.  HIV can only be transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk.  It cannot be transmitted from saliva or casual contact with the above fluids if they are outside of the body.  HIV dies outside of the body within two minutes.  The three most common ways of getting infected are sharing needles (syringe type only), unprotected sex, and mother-to-child transmission.  With mother-to-child there is only a 25% chance of transmission.  It is a less than 1% chance of transmission if the mother is taking treatment.  The presentation continued with a series of quiz questions.  Such as, “true or false:  People with HIV can live long and productive lives.”  This of course is true, studies show that if someone is on medication, they have a life span of 40 years after infection.  Being adherent to HIV medications can reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others, provided that they are 95% adherent to their treatment (1-2 missed doses per month).  When someone is adherent, they are 96% less likely to transmit the virus to another person.  There are two medications that can prevent HIV infection.  Truvada is one of them and is part of Pre Exposure Prophylaxis.  The other is called Post Exposure Prophylaxis which contains a one month HIV treatment regimen.  This information was presented by Rossow and Fryberger.  The discussion concluded with Robert Menk’s story in which there are a couple of parallels to my own.  Like myself, his career is in Information Technology (as a project manager).  He was diagnosed in October 2011 (I was diagnosed one month earlier). Robert may have been infected for over five years.  He was in a monogamous relationship and was safe 99% of the time, the lesson is to be tested.  In his case, the cause of infection was a blood clot.  His lowest T-cell count was 31 at time of diagnosis (mine was much higher).  Typical range is 800-1500 for a healthy person.  His peak viral load was at 800,000 per cubic ML (mine was at around 20,000).  Uninfected person should have 0.  As a result of getting HIV, either directly or indirectly he lost his job at finance company.  He took a year off and teamed up with the MN AIDS Project.  After 14 months he got a job as a project manager in the healthcare field just as his unemployment insurance and COBRA were running out.

The final workshop was part of the Global Series, this one sponsored by IBM entitled, “From Russia, With or Without Love.”  This workshop focused on the conditions in Russia regarding legalized discrimination as well as how those laws can affect the upcoming Winter Olympics.  The discussion began with a brief history of modern, post-Soviet Russia.  Under pressure from the US, Boris Yeltsin de-criminalized same-sex relationships.  Subsequently Putin overturned those laws via the anti-propaganda bill.  One presenter was the former US Ambassador to Romania (2001-2004).  He discussed his concern about the vagueness of the anti-LGBT laws in Russia and how that will affect LGBT athletes at the Olympics. The US Olympic committee is working with the International Olympic Committee to make sure LGBT athletes are protected in Russia during the games in Sochi.  He believes the IOC has dropped the ball when addressing the anti-LGBT laws in Russia.  He feels that the IOC is tarnishing the charter, particularly article 6 banning discrimination.  As a diplomat, he feels that boycotting does not resolve anything and serves no purpose.  The focus goes beyond the games and there is added focus from the U.S. government to pressure Russia to remove these anti-LGBT laws.  Russia’s contention is that the laws have to do with propaganda to children, however, that the law vs. the actual implementation is very different.  In September in St. Petersburg there was a “Queer Festival.”  The organizers got a permit, the police looked and then left and the festival was able to continue.

The summit concluded with its final plenary, the gala dinner.  Comedian Kate Clinton was the M.C. for the event and was as funny as ever.  As part of O & E’s fundraising activities there was an auction that consisted of such things as a one of a kind rainbow mixer from Whirlpool and cruises from Disney.  R&B singer Thelma Houston performed “Don’t Leave Me” and other classic hits.  The highlight of the evening was the keynote speech by comedic actress, Kathy Najimy, which was videotaped by me.  I also made a 91 second trailer of video and pictures from the Merck rainbow Alliance which can be viewed via this link.

In conclusion, I found the summit both entertaining and insightful.  For me, the workshop that had the most personal impact was the one regarding HIV in the workplace.  The one that had the most professional impact was the social networking one since it identified some of the challenges Merck currently faces with its own social networking strategy.