Before I founded the company I work at now, I spent many years as a defense contractor. I worked for a smallish R&D firm that primarily did work for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA has quite the fabled existence, but like venture capitalists in the non-government world, most of that is complete bullshit. It’s staffed by a mix of military officers and academics, who are smarter than their peers in the rest of government, but nowhere near as smart as the defense contractors to whom they are funneling money. DARPA gets credit for things like the Internet, the Stealth Fighter, etc., but really they were just the loophole that let the government give money to smart people without going through an acquisition process that ensures the crap results the rest of the military has to deal with.
Every now and then, though, you’d find a real star inside the DARPA circle. I say the “circle” because, in fact, each of the military branches has their own R&D groups that work a lot like DARPA, although they don’t get as much credit. It’s a collegiate environment, and these program managers move around between the different organizations (and DC area universities and military research labs) fluidly.
So it was in one of these not-quite-DARPA organizations that I ended up working with a PM named Del. He was GS-15, which is as high as you can rise in civil service. GS-15 is like being a Colonel in the Army. It’s a position with a lot of power and autonomy, but you still have higher ups, and you are following orders most of the time.
Del was brilliant. And he liked Indian food, so he was a really good guy to hang around with when I was in DC. And I was in DC a lot. At this point in my career, the smallish R&D firm had been bought by a bigger defense contractor, which had been bought by the biggest defense contractor. Since I was on “Direct Labor” contracts, my employers just multiplied my salary by 3 to cover their “overhead” and charged that to the US Government. So I decided to go independent, and double my salary, and save the US Government a whole pile of dough. I’m a patriot.
I was living in Michigan, while Wife 1 was going through law school, and I was commuting to DC to sit in meetings as a late-twenties “grey beard” who would help the DARPA PMs figure out how the big defense contractors were screwing them, and whether they should just put up with it, or do something about it.
I’d fly full-fare coach from Detroit to National, and Northwest would bump me to first class every time. Back then, the stewardesses would blow you if you sprung for the first class ticket, so that was nice.
But I digress.
It was this smart PM Del who invented “I told you so” stickers. Now, this is just a concept. He never actually made the stickers, as far as I know. But the logic is brilliant.
If you’ve ever spent any time around military officers in dress uniform, then you’ve seen their badges. I found this snapshot on the web, but the officers I worked with had much bigger stacks than this. Rows and rows of badges indicating special skills they have, actions in which they’ve served, etc. Ever wonder why they have these badges? Well Del had a theory: it’s so if you are talking to a service member, and they have an opinion about something, you can glance at their chest and immediately know whether you should value that opinion. It’s a LinkedIn profile on your chest.
So Del’s idea was simple. Every time you are proven right, you are awarded an “I told you so” sticker. You wear this sticker on your breast, like a military badge. Over time, you’ll get more and more of these stickers. If you are like me, eventually you’ll have dozens of them.
So suppose you are in a disagreement with someone. You think things should be done this way, they insist they should be done that way. And then they look at your “I told you so” stickers. And you are covered with them. And they think, you know, he’s usually proven right. Maybe I should concede this one.
Del liked me a lot. He told me I’d have more “I told you so” stickers than anyone else he’d ever known.
Years later Del asked me to come back to DC to expand on a thesis I had on the future of military simulation. He figured I was probably right, and wanted to get ahead of the curve. But that’s a story for another time.