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Business Technology: Be Like Mike

Mike Howell represents the best of what the business-technology field can offer

I wish I had known Mike Howell. His achievements seem to typify the best of what this field of business technology is about: deep commitment, relentless pursuit of excellence, intense focus, selfless dedication, and confident decisiveness. As well, at the center of his life were his two families: his primary family at home and his other family -- the one at the office.

Mike was chief technology officer at an investment-management company in Manhattan, and like thousands of other people he had the tragic misfortune of being in the World Trade Center early in the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Mike, along with 34 colleagues working at the company's headquarters on the 93rd floor of the north tower, was killed in the attacks; 15 other colleagues from that headquarters office survived.

Mike's company, Fred Alger Management Inc., has survived as well, due in no small part to the business-continuity planning of Mike and his IT colleagues: "On Sept. 13, the stock markets were closed, but I went, for the first time, into the [emergency backup] office that Mike built. I turned on the portfolio-management station designated originally not for me, but my boss, David Alger, who was killed on Sept. 11. What did I see? Every portfolio for every client was intact and accounted for; every financial model or note that our research team had produced was saved and available; every information service or database was live and operational to run our critical business functions."

So reads a letter I received last week from Dan Chung, chief investment officer at Fred Alger, who expressed his desire that Mike Howell "might receive the attention usually reserved for the CIOs and CTOs of the Fortune 500." In a subsequent conversation, Dan said, "Mike was often one of the last people in the office, backing stuff up and making sure everything would be ready for the morning's business, but then he'd still be in the next morning at 8. So one time I said to Mike, 'If you want me to shift your hours from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., I'll do that, but that means you can't also show up at 9 in the morning to start the day!'"

Mike's widow, Emily, recalled her husband's professional commitment this way: "What Dan said truly encompasses the effort my husband put into his job -- he really, really loved it. He was totally committed to getting the company to the cutting edge and keeping it there. Anything he could do or learn or apply, he dove into it. He loved to use whatever the latest stuff was to make the business work better."

That includes the emergency backup office, located 50 miles west of Manhattan in Morristown, N.J. "With many of our key people lost in the attack, our offices in New York destroyed, and our Jersey City (N.J.) offices evacuated for several days (for fear of more attacks), the firm would have had nowhere to operate from but for the planning and execution of Mike Howell and his team," Chung's letter said.

From Alger IT colleague Dave Friedman, who worked closely with Mike for several years: "Mike was just a wonderful, wonderful guy. He was a soft-spoken, gentle, intelligent human being -- he'd speak in very measured tones, and he was very capable, very reassuring. Working in this industry, it was so nice to work with someone like him, someone who wasn't a Type A guy always screaming and ranting."

Mike Howell, said Friedman, "was the sort of guy who, if we were working late, would always give other people rides so they could get home sooner -- he'd drop people off at Penn Station so they could get an earlier train, or take people to the Upper East Side, and then he'd go home last."

For Dave Friedman, Mike Howell lives on not just in the business and infrastructure of the company but in Friedman's own approach to life in and out of the office. "I'm a pretty hyper guy -- I get pretty excited most of the time -- and Mike would sit back and watch me go nuts and he'd laugh with me and say, 'That's right, Dave -- that's just what we're gonna do.' So now, instead of always attacking things at 90 miles an hour, I'm trying to be more calm and efficient, both at work and at home with my family. I want to try to be more like Mike in that way. If I can do it, it'll probably help me live longer."

Bob Evans

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