The Rise and Eventual Fall of My Career in Information Technology
Are you starting or thinking about starting a career in Information Technology?
Then you need to read this cautionary tale of what happened to me. It is a tale that spans over thirty years. But it won’t take you that long to read it.
It was the second day of my last job with Information Technology. I had started the day before as the new Vice President of Information Technology. A lofty title in a small company with only me and one employee keeping the bits going.
I arrived later than I was accustomed to, but I hadn’t been given the keys to the kingdom yet. Several of the employees were already there, but it was still early. I arrived with a clean shave, a new tie, and a good attitude.
None of those things would last very long.
As I passed from the lobby into the main office, I was stopped by one guy I had met the previous day.
“Hey, Darryl. My printer is still out of paper.”
“I told you yesterday that my printer was out of paper.”
“I thought you were kidding.”
“No, the old guy always put paper in the printers.”
I looked him in the eye and said —
But wait, let’s start at the beginning. I was born in Atlanta…
No, not that beginning. This one.
In 1983, my wife was going to Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta to pursue a degree in Information Technology. She had a full-time job, so she had to go to school at night. Atlanta was a very different place in 1983, and no one was in the city after dark. So, we looked at getting her a computer to do most of her work from home.
After researching the few choices available then and consulting with the only person on the planet I knew that owned a computer, we went with an Apple IIe. It had a green phosphorous monochrome monitor and a single 5 1/4 inch floppy drive. We bought 64 1K memory chips so that we would have, “more memory than we would ever need.” I don’t recall what we paid for this miracle of modern technology, but I remember paying $2,000 for a dot-matrix printer and $800 for a 300 baud modem.
Daddy, what’s a modem?
For you kids that don’t have to walk uphill in the snow to get to school, my connection to the world was about 1 million times slower than yours. And that was to a bulletin board service, not the Internet. Think Internet but only text. If you wanted the answer to a question, you found the phone number for the most relevant bulletin board service, dialed in, and asked your question. Within a week or so, you might get an answer.
But I digress.
I instantly fell in love with this machine and started reading all of my wife’s course materials and every manual I could get on the subject. I also discovered that it came with something called Applesoft BASIC. While my wife was learning Pascal and COBOL, I taught myself Basic. I could tell the computer what to do, and it would do it. Or crash. How cool was that?
At the time, I owned my own construction company, so between writing code and using an early precursor to Microsoft Office called AppleWorks, I built software from which to run my business.
A couple of years later, my wife graduated and was immediately scooped up by IBM. Owning an Apple was frowned upon, so we bought our second computer, an IBM PC. If you go to the Smithsonian museum’s computer display, they display the history of personal computers. The first one is the Apple II. The second was the IBM PC. (Spoiler alert: we bought the third one in that display a couple of years later — the IBM XT).
Now, I had a new toy and learned a new set of things to do with it. The 300 baud modem was upgraded to 1200 baud. Now, you’re only 250,000 times faster. Apple Basic was replaced with BASICA, and AppleWorks replaced with Framework. Framework had a more robust database, so I learned how those worked.
I began to see how much more useable a database system was than a spreadsheet, so I graduated to a product called R:Base. In researching this, I discover that, 36 years later, R:Base is still in business. For those of you that were around then, this would have been similar to DBase made my then software giant, Ashton-Tate,
I also had to learn a fabulous new ‘language’ called DOS. In the beginning, Microsoft made the DOS operating system, and that was all. But it was enough to keep me occupied for a bit. DOS came with (and still does underneath the hood) commands to tell the computer what to do or not to do. You could chain these commands together into a tiny text file called a batch file.
At startup, you had one called Autoexec.bat. This was a magical thing so that you could have a particular program run when the computer started. But first, I had to learn how to write one. Those of you with any long-term familiarity with IBM won’t be surprised, but their documentation was a bit cryptic.
I wanted to write an autoexec.bat, so I opened the manual and turned to pass the “Page Intentionally Left Blank” to find the instructions. But what it said left me scratching my head for a bit. You see, I needed to enter the commands using the ‘standard input device.’ I didn’t know what that was.
I finally figured out they meant the keyboard.
Soon after that, Microsoft introduced this new thingy called Windows, but I wouldn’t go down that road until I was dragged, kicking, and screaming much later.
Meanwhile, I continued writing programs for my business using R:Base and Basic. Everything was still text-based, at least for me, until I was asked to beta test a new product called Prodigy. This was a joint venture between Sears and IBM to develop a product similar to one that would come out a year or two later called America Online. But as with many IBM initiatives (Remember OS2), they dropped the ball instead of ruling the world, and it died a slow death.
But what it did do, along with AOL and later Windows, was force me to up my dial-up speed to 2400 baud. At this time, I began to look into a new service by the phone company called ISDN, which later became DSL. This was one more case of a tech company creating something wonderful but having no idea how to market it. It ran at the phenomenal speed of 144 kilobits per second. But how much did it cost?
It depends. Seriously. That’s the answer you got from Ma Bell if you asked how much it cost. It depends.
No, thank you.
Anyway, let’s move this story along until 1990. The construction business hit a major recession. There was no work. So, I decided to hang up my spurs. On Friday, I told my last employee that I was closing the business. I also told him that I had already found him a new job, that it came with a raise, and started on Monday.
On Sunday, I began scouring the newspapers for jobs with computers. This was both a good time and a bad time. Good because there were still a relative few of us inducted into the dark priesthood of IT. Bad because most jobs wanted a degree.
I didn’t have one of those handy.
But, I stumbled across a tiny ad for a medical database company looking for someone who could program in, of all things, R:Base. I called them on Monday, had my first interview Tuesday and my second one Wednesday. So, on a Thursday in 1990, I began my career in IT in earnest. And got paid for it.
Don’t worry, folks; we’re going to pick up steam in a minute.
This company’s primary product was a medical database. It was created by a program written in R:Base and took about a week to run on three (at that time) screaming fast 486 computers. There was also a retrieval program written with an R:Base runtime so doctors could retrieve the data. That program on a 486 took three minutes to retrieve one piece of data.
On my first day on the job, by a simple change in logic, I changed that to five seconds. That feeling of having created something special that few others could do kept me happily in the Information Technology field for many years.
Until it didn’t.
That program that took a week to run? I rewrote it in Basic and got it down to two days. A year later, I rewrote it in C and got it down to a couple of hours. This allowed us to sell our product monthly instead of quarterly.
One day, the new boss walked in toward the end of the day.
“ I want you to think about writing a newer, more modern version of our software. It needs to run in Windows and not only look good but be very fast. Just give it some thought, and we’ll talk tomorrow.”
The next day when he got to the office, the program was written and ready to ship. That program was the company’s flagship product for years after I left the company.
Those were fun times.
Until they weren’t.
The next job was very similar. I was able to streamline processes, automate things that weren’t automated, and write commercial quality software In the early nineties, I took a suite of databases that were hosted in Lotus Notes and ported them to this fairly new thing called the World Wide Web using HTML, ASP, and Java.
I would have to say IT’s downfall as something I enjoyed began with Y2K, continued sliding after 9/11, and finally rolled to the bottom of the hill when smartphones, tablets, and laptops were in everyone’s hands.
The company I was in at the end of 1999 was owned by a larger company with its own IT staff. Knowing how computers worked and how software was written, specifically our computers and software, I wasn’t concerned in the least with Y2K. I expected the fallout in our company to be zero and across the world to be no more than a minor glitch here and there.
In short, I never bought into the hype or hysteria. But it was a learning experience. That was the last time I ever watched or listened to a news program.
But internally, I faced an uphill battle. Like a lot of people in IT, the geeks in our parent company wanted to milk it for all it was worth. I fought battles for months, trying to stop screwing around and get back to work.
Finally, in one meeting, I had enough.
“I will sign a waiver if you want me to, but I’m not doing this anymore. Y2K will have zero impact on our technology. Pay me or fire me. I don’t care which.”
They paid me.
But it left a bad taste in my mouth, so I moved on to that last job in the summer of 2001. For a corporate travel agency. Three months before 9/11.
Do I have great timing, or what?
“I thought you were kidding.”
“No, the old guy always put paper in the printers.”
I looked him in the eye and said, “There’s a new sheriff in town. That guy doesn’t work here anymore. Paper is in the supply closet.”
And so, I came into the new era of Information Technology. It was a schizophrenic age. On the one hand, no one wanted to admit knowing how to do anything with a computer. On the other hand, thanks to the Web and their smart devices, everyone knew more than I did.
“Can you come into my office? My wireless mouse quit working.”
“Did you change the battery?
“Uh, it has a battery? Can you change it? I don’t know anything about computers.”
Even though I started at six, there were a few people that began a shift at five. I got there one day and one of the people was sitting there doing nothing.
“My monitor doesn’t work.”
“Is it plugged in?” (It wasn’t)
“How am I supposed to know. I don’t know anything about computers.”
Then 9/11 happened.
“I need a report of every client we have, what city they are in, and where they were supposed to be going.”
“In the first place, why? They aren’t going anywhere for a few days with or without a report. And two, all the airline computers are down; I don’t have access to the data.”
“Well, you’re the computer guy; figure something out.”
For thirteen more years, I stayed with that company. And it never got any better. Why did I stay that long? Laziness. Complacency.
I was a short-timer serving a life sentence.
The magic was gone. I could still pull a rabbit out of a hat, but no one cared. Some guy on TV could make zebras jump out of his hat. I actually had the VP of sales come in and tell me we needed to get one of those wall-sized transparent touch-screen monitors like they had on CSI.
So, in December of 2014, I met my boss on her way into the office.
“My key and laptop are on my desk. I quit. Goodbye.”
The good thing about IT today is it has gotten very specialized. So, if you are thinking about a career in Information Technology, find something you truly love to do. And do that. You need to keep abreast of changing tech and keep your options open, but don’t try to be everything to everybody.
That way lies madness.
Last week, some of the neighbors played cards in the clubhouse when one said, “My printer quit working. Does anybody know how to fix it?”
I have no idea.