One day I visit the college to pick up Heather for a date. She’s in the library, finishing up writing some paper for class. She’s using a program called Netscape to do… something. I’m not sure what this thing is for. I only see a glimpse of it before we leave. I gather that the college has an internet – whatever that is. She describes the paper and her brutal workload at school, but my mind is busy asking what this Netscape thing is and what it’s for.
It’s 1994, and I’ve landed a job at a medium-sized company. They’re willing to hire me, despite my lack of a degree and experience. I begin working nights. I’m charged with running and delivering the nightly reports, and making backups. I spend most of the shift sitting around, waiting for the computer to finish the next thing. With a faster computer, I could do all of my work in about three hours. This is not taxing or cerebral work, but it is solid work experience and a chance to prove myself.
Eventually I move up to working during the day and writing reports myself. These people don’t use RPG, or COBOL, or BASIC. They use some proprietary system. Apparently this is common in the industry. Even with the awkwardness of this programming language, these tasks are not very different from the the trivial practice assignments we were given in school. These things are nothing compared to the complexity of the Tetris clone I wrote a few years earlier, back when I was learning to program in C. In fact, just the code to remove a completed line and drop all of the Tetris bits down a row is many times more complex than any of the work I’m doing here.
This place is pretty close to the “big iron” paradigm from days of yore. There’s one central computer that serves the entire company. There’s our headquarters here in Pennsylvania, our major branch in Chicago, and a few other small locations around the northeast United States. These locations all have dumb terminals that talk to the mainframe, which is a computer is the size of a washer / dryer set. I’m one of the few people who ever get to see the thing up close.
I’m glad to have a proper industry job, although I’m not as invested in this place as I could be. I see it as old, dead-end technology. I laugh at the archaic computer system. (I laugh to myself. I’m no fool.) As time goes on and I learn how the company operates, and I come to understand why companies continue to use these machines when there are faster, cheaper alternatives readily available. The computer doesn’t exist for its own sake. Nor does it exist for the benefit of those of us who work in the IT department. We’re overhead. An unwanted expense. The focus is on the people who make stuff and sell stuff. They are the useful people who bring in money. Anything that doesn’t improve their workflow is useless. We could replace our mainframe and turn the nightly reports into a part-time job, but that wouldn’t help anyone who matters. The transition to a newer computer might frustrate or confuse those people for a time, which would be unacceptable unless it would directly benefit them down the road. Until we reach that point, it’s our job to keep this dusty old machine running flawlessly for as long as possible.
We don’t matter. It’s a humbling lesson, but an important one. The goal is to make money, not have the fastest or sleekest computer. Our job is to make the place work in spite of how much the computer sucks.
I’m used to bringing in minimum wage, and I’m making a lot more than that these days. These IT paychecks come in faster than I can spend them. I move out on my own. I don’t have a lot of needs beyond maintaining my computer and paying the bills, so the cash piles up in the bank. Eventually I buy myself a nice car. It’s a 1990 Cavalier Z24, the last model before they shrank the car and made it look more like an “economy car” and less like a “muscle car wanna-be”. I’ve never been huge on cars, but I really enjoy this one. It’s the newest car I’ve ever driven. Our family tends to stick to the practice of buying cars once they’ve undergone most of their depreciation, but before they become a problem from a maintenance and reliability standpoint. It’s a good policy, although it is really nice to have something newer now that I can afford it.
|This one is not mine, but it’s the same model. (Mine was maroon.) I don’t have a single picture of mine, but this is how I remember it.|
Unfortunately, I’ve been working fast food for the last three years, and this has imparted some bad habits. I’m used to eight hour shifts of fast-moving activity and manual labor. Now I sit at a desk for eight hours at a stretch. I’ve been skinny all my life, and up until now I’ve lived as if the laws of age, calorie intake, and exercise didn’t apply to me. I don’t change my eating habits when I change jobs, and so I begin stacking on the pounds at an alarming rate. I go from being the skinny guy in any given room to being the fat guy in less than a year.
|Top: Me, in Heather’s dorm room. Bottom: Me, in the same location, about a year later.|
There are politics going on at this company. Keith is in charge of the computer system, and everyone likes him. Don is his second, and nobody likes him. Keith is friendly, funny, and outgoing. Don is creepy, sketchy, and foul-tempered. I make friends with Kieth and scorn Don. After about nine months, Keith leaves and Don is put in charge of the IT department. I don’t last very long after that. I’m let go almost exactly a year after I began.
It’s a painful lesson, but this was my fault. For the last several months I’ve been coasting. New work came in, and I let other people have it. I maintained a small number of reports and never sought out new responsibilities. Perhaps I was still infected with the school mentality of doing the minimal work needed to “pass”. Don was looking for an excuse to get rid of me, but he never would have been able to do it if I’d been more integral to the operation. I didn’t enjoy the work because it was mostly boring maintenance on old hardware. Nobody ever handed me big problems to solve. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t problems. I could have looked for ways to improve things. There was no rule saying I wasn’t allowed to jump in and make things work better. Wasn’t that what I’d always wanted to do at Taco Bell? How did I allow myself to slip into this rut?
I will not make this mistake again.
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