Confessions Of A Wannabe Geek - II
Look Ma, I'm programming!
Ray Levasseur (c) November 12,1999
"Here's a dime, call you mother and tell her you're not going to be a programmer"
A turning point in my career?
It's strange that for the first 5 to 6 years of working at, what was once the second largest computer company in the world, I had seldom ever had the need to sit at a keyboard, and when I did, had the faintest idea of what I was doing; a future programmer in the making for sure!
I worked at a computer company, in part, to support my voracious analog high tech habit. I was the first kid on my block to have a VHS VCR, an old RCA VFT650. I bought a second VCR, a video camera and a portable machine, plus a video mixing console. This was added to my rather bloated audio system; 250W per channel amplifier, 2 Technics SDL 1200 turntables, 3 cassette decks, 2 reel to reel machines, a 1/3 octave equalizer, dynamic range compander, complex mixing console and multiple sets of studio monitors. Oh! this stuff was not all bought at once, but over the course of a few years. There were the 3500 albums and singles, a growing movie collection that was approaching 700 titles, etc, etc. But I still had no interest in computers, other than a means to get a paycheck. I worked in Finance, spending my days "bean counting".
Around 1982 my boss knew I was bored and felt that I'd probably make a pretty darned good programmer, so began encouraging me to talk to (suck up to) people in the MIS department. They were the wizards behind the glass wall, and Finance didn't really have much use for them, except as a necessary evil. Everything pretty much ran on DEC System 10/20's, PDP 11/70's and the new emerging VAX family of hardware. We had just recently introduced a family of personal workstations; the PC100 Rainbow, The Decmate and PRO 350. IBM had PC's out for a while, and a couple of start-ups, Compaq among them, were following suit. An old boss had bought an early Apple machine, claiming, this was the future.
December 1983, a new job
I interviewed with an internal engineering Finance group and started my new position around Christmas. One thing my new boss suggested was that I learn as much as possible about computers and programming, because the position required a finance type who could provide decision support. I took classes in a 4GL called Datatreive (native to the VAX), began to learn a couple of electronic spreadsheets, a language called EPS, which looked like BASIC and was used in financial modeling. This was when I began tinkering around in VAX BASIC and learning DCL, a powerful command and scripting language on the VAX. I still did not have a clue regarding what I was doing, but my manager loved the quick and dirty database queries I began cooking up.
I sat in the next cubicle to our system manager, who showed me some neat tricks. I had begun writing a game in basic at home in the evenings, which sat in my VAX account. It was called, "P-Town Weekend" and was one of those text based adventure games, along the lines of Adventure and Zork. It was a pretty tame game, which quickly grew to around 250,000 lines of code. The P-Town game had an elevator, magic walkman, other magic stuff, an underground empire which ran from Provincetown to Boston. Our system manager found the curiously named BASIC file in my account and immediately began making suggestions on how to improve it.
The system manager introduced me to a couple of nifty items, VAXNotes and VAXPhone. These were similar to the Usenet news groups and, what would be later called chat rooms. He also showed me how to subscribe to Usenet news groups through our UNIX gateway. Most finance people were totally unaware that such toys existed, but I took an immediate interest in online diversions. NOTES would later become a major means of sharing information on VAX based networks; a great idle time killer. I began writing journals that got posted among a number of Usenet news groups. From 1983 through 1987 my writing received wide readership and I kept fan mail from over 700 people from around the world.
1983 through 1987 was also a period where I began to meet and mingle with the true software geeks. I met one through our internal VAXNotes files and we have remained good friends to this day. Bob and I shared an apartment for a year, which was probably one of the most insane and fun years of my earlier life. He was (and still is) a software engineer, and I was still this "wanna be" geek. Bob encouraged my latent programming skills and I got him hooked on high end audio gear. Prior to living with me, a high end audio system did not rank very high on Bob's list of things to buy, but shortly after I moved out he equipped himself with a mega-system, with real solid lease breaking power. He learned the importance of having hundreds of pure, clean watts of unadulterated speaker cone moving power, with eardrum busting transient response. I have to admit that the system he bought put mine to shame.
The year I shared dodgings with Bob in Chelsea was a time if transition. The doctors had informed me that I should not make any long range plans and I would probably not live to see 1990, let alone witness the fabled Y2K roll over. I moved out, not telling him some of my true reasons for 4 more years. A couple of years later I quit drinking and most other forms of partying, letting my internal clock slow down. I also began to sell, give away and dispose of about 75% of all my high tech toys, along with the truckload of video, and records. I opted for a more modest high end integrated amplifier, boasting a mere 125 watts per channel, two high end cassette decks and a cd player, replacing my 500 or so most favorite albums with compact disks. I still did not own a computer. I was also getting tired of the job I was in, hoping to land something where I could pick up more programming skills.
1991, Note to self, but a computer
I has moved into a large studio apartment, which was the first time I had ever lived totally on my own. At Christmas, I bought myself a Radio Shack 8086 PC. I knew so little about personal computers, was not aware that the 8086 was already becoming a museum piece. The PC came with a quasi graphical user interface named "DeskMate" which looked as if it was drawn by children using crayons. I was still a strictly "command line" person so found a GUI confusing to use. The machine was not capable of much and lacked real muscle.
1992, Note to self, buy a better PC.
I had a 33MHX 486 machine at work, and decided to ditch the old one, which I sold for $100, considering it cost $1000 a year earlier. Still lacking PC hardware savvy, I decided on a Packard Bell computer, which I soon learned was not very upgradable, unless I was hardware geek enough to tear it apart and rebuild it, which I didn't. I did begin to stumble around, learning Microsoft Access and Visual Basic, but never got very far. Any skills I needed resided on the VAX platform, which I was getting pretty good at writing Business reporting applications on. I used my home PC mostly for tinkering and as a dumb terminal to log into work for those late night or snow days brainstorming sessions.
The Engineering Finance job served as a spring board to my next Finance job in a corporate support function, Business Systems Analyst. It was here that I learned COBOL, IBI-FOCUS and a number of other languages and scripting tools. I also became known as a DCL guru. I rode this wave from 1987 through 1997. I must have enjoyed my job, since I often logged in from home in the evenings to tweak code and add new features. The application I developed grew to around 1000 users in the Americas, and the development force expanded from "moi" alone to 4 developers.
I still didn't like desktop applications and held on to my old VT240 terminal and VAXStation. Users began requesting, no demanding desktop solutions, so I added options for downloading reports and data extracts into comma delimited Excel and Access friendly files.
1994, another note to self, buy an even better PC.
My sister has passed away in April of 94, and at Christmas Mom offered to buy me a new PC for Christmas with some of the money from my sister's small estate. The Pentium, although flawed at first, was the next quantum leap in horse power, so I selected a Digital Starion 60 MHZ, which performed like a Ferrari compared to my old 486. I loaded it up with Visual Basic, MS Office Professional, a lot of CD-Rom stuff and games. I actually began writing some of my first programs in VB, "Baby's first object oriented steps".
I was beginning to feel left behind in the rapidly accelerating programming race. Although I really enjoyed coding in a VMS environment, I knew that the world was turning away from minis, mainframes and "legacy" command line applications. I was considered too "mission critical" to the application I had breathed life into, to be allowed to hone my desktop programming skills. Everyone else was off learning client-server, object oriented GUI stuff, but I kept banging away at COBOL, DCL and FOCUS code. My boss kept pushing for me to get into more cutting edge training classes, but it was usually denied, since my job description was not a true IT job code, but a Business Systems support analyst. I could not complain, since I got stellar performance reviews and won 3 Excellence awards for my work. I still loved working at DEC, and although people claimed I could make much more working for another company, I planned to stay until I retired, died or Digital went under, whichever came first.
My boss and I had a number of common interests, among them aliens, UFO's, conspiracies, science fiction and technology. It was early in 1994 when he asked if I had been out on the web yet. I had heard of, but admitted total ignorance of the world wide web. He then informed me that I could access it from my VAXStation using Mosaic, "huh, what the heck is Mosaic?"
It didn't take me long to become a "web addicted". Hey, this computer stuff can come in pretty handy, from ferreting out little known medical facts, hunting down rare books and music, snooping around in UFO and conspiracy sites, grabbing tons of interesting online magazine articles, doing religious and Bible study, down to browsing the occasion smutty URL. Shortly afterward it was time to find out what made HTML work.
If you went searching for books on the internet and HTML programming in 1994, you might find a small handful of titles. I played around and tinkered with some basic code on my office workstation, not having a clue what I was doing, but it all sank in very quickly, the big "Ahhhh, so that's how it works!"
I signed up with an ISP, UltraNet, in December of 1995, where I still hang my internet hat today. I sat up til all hours of the night, typing away, tweaking pages this way, then that way, and finally uploaded the first version of my site for the world to "oooh and Ahhh" over. Not too many "oooh's" or "ahhhh's: followed, not at first. I was the first kid on my block to have his very own web site, hotcha! One gray background page containing a few links, a brief "yoohoo, hi there" introduction and a small UFO graphic defined John Bigboote's Area51 - V1; it grew from there.
During the Day I was Ray, corporate Information Systems, COBOL and VAX geek, by nightfall I was John Bigboote, webmiester. I'd rush home from work to log in and surf around, exchange e-mails and tinker with my pages. John Smallberries (Paul) referred to himself as a web widow, hardly getting a chance to talk with me until after I had logged off. My job was began requiring that I come up to speed in MS Access, Web skills and Visual Basic, which I didn't get to utilize much, since I was still the keeper of zillions of lines of legacy VAX code.
DEC had been going through, what seemed as, never-ending rounds of painful layoffs. Their founder and CEO, Ken Olson was ousted and a new, more aggressive president took his place. Ken was like a father to the grunts in the trenches, and many referred to him as "Uncle Ken". Most of knew that the passing of Ken as president was a nail in the coffin of a great New England institution.
The computer world was spinning faster and faster, and the old, less nimble teams were being kicked off the playing field. Rumors of the VAX going the way of the nickel cigar became more common, along with anything that was not Object Oriented, GUI, Desktop, Client-Server or Web Enabled. The show wouldn't be over until the fat lady sang, and most of our mission critical applications were still VAX dependent and on our DECNet. A lot of people I knew and respected were leaving, either through layoffs, or on their own, in search of higher ground.
I had created a simple finance reporting tool in 1987, which lasted through numerous threats of being retired, and outlived many attempts to replace it. Instead of shrinking, it grew from 15 users to about 1000 during it's useful life. The BIG buzzword was becoming "downsize", both people and numbers of applications in the corporation. Like many other companies, Digital was looking for one of those "Lights out", "One size fits all" software solutions. "Yes! be the first kid on your block to downsize your IT and Finance staff by 70-80-90% with increased productivity and no maintenance required."
I had been hearing the rumblings for some time; in notes files, through e-mail, in the cafeteria, etc that SAP was coming soon. "SAP!" I thought, pronounced like the stuff that bleeds out of trees. I was corrected, "not SAP, but S.A.P" Giggles, jokes and slurs regarding the new software solution were common among the legacy crowd, "it'll never work, they'll be sorry, it's all snake oil" As we scoffed at SAP's implementation, it gained more and more support from upper management, and in 1997, my boss sadly informed me that if I stayed in my current role, I'd probably be on the street in a year or less. One of my most beloved managers had moved on to become well known in the SAP group as a guru. My current manager arranged for me to transfer into the SAP reporting group on telephone reporting support. I would no longer be known as a programming geek, but a SAP support desk person.
Sigh! to be honest, I hated it. I know longer got to wear the wizard's robes or carry a magic wand. I spent the first 6-9 months just getting used to navigating the SAP environment. It was a very painful learning experience for me. The people were also much different from those I was used to working with. SAP is a unique product, not so much a mere application, as a total corporate shift in philosophy. It was like a religious cult. Everything was by the books and bureaucracy was built right into SAP.
So what is SAP? Well, hmm, I still am not sure, but it's one of those enterprise wide "everything in one box" solutions; Accounts Receivable, Payable, Personnel, General Ledgers, Reporting, Operations, Inventory Control, Sales and Marketing and any other function a company could want. In other words, SAP is the Swiss Army Knife or business solutions, for any type of business out there. And you thought Windows 95 or 98 was difficult to install huh! For a medium to large scale company, it takes an army of programmers, consultants, project managers, accountants, monks, Army special forces, Navy Seals, psychics, and trained chimps to fully implement. If you decide to use it, "As-Is" right out of the box, it's a little easier, but since many companies want a solution custom made, it takes much longer and costs a....uhhh...bit...uhhh more to implement."
My boss wanted me to get into ABAP training. No, ABAP is not that Pop Group from New Zealand, that's ABBA. ABAP is SAP's proprietary programming language, which resembles COBOL, VB, C++, Pascal, SQL and a few other things, all spun around in a blender, with some German thrown in. Yeah, SAP is a German company, who have taken over major corporate hearts by a storm. A well seasoned ABAP programmer, SAP program manager, etc can command "obscene" salaries. My wish to become an ABAP programmer was shot down, there was just too much politics involved in our SAP group, and I was not very well liked to boot.
Since I was still connected to my own group via a thin tether line, I kept my sanity by helping old bean counter colleagues with some MS Access quick and dirty solutions, helping them learn web skills, or just sharing the vast amount of useless knowledge I had acquired over the years about the general business rules and how to program them into a software package. It sounds funny, but after I moved on to the SAP group, some of my old cronies thought I had bit the bullet and was laid off, since they never saw me around the old building I had worked in. During my last year at DEC, some SAP people moved back to our old dodgings. This was part of the downsizing, as the company sold off increasing amounts of real estate, squeezing the survivors of layoffs into smaller spaces. Many times someone would say to me, "who did you piss off to be sent to SAP." Don't get me wrong, SAP is not bad at all; if it was, it wouldn't be nearly as popular among the Fortune 500 crowd as it is. But that's the wave of the future, one size fits all in the IT world.
April 1998, more notes to self: buy a new PC and update your resume.
My 60MHZ Pentium was fast becoming a museum piece, so after a bit of intelligent (for once) shopping, selected a nicely appointed 300MHZ P-II from Micro Center's line of house brand machines. I now had enough computing horsepower to launch a first nuclear strike, land a man on the moon or complete the Human Genome project, well almost. I wound up "giving" my old machine to a friend and his wife, who wanted a PC, but could not afford one a the time; they were happy as as pigs in a poke and quickly discovered the internet and World Wide Web.
It didn't take long to fill up almost 1/2 of my 6.5GIG drive with fat, bloated Windoze applications: Office 97 Pro, VB5, Graphics stuff, database junk, internet junk, games and just plain old junk. I thought that the new machine would last at least 4 to 5 more years, but I'm already toying with the idea of buying a 550 to 600 MHZ P-III within the next year. For now this machine serves me well.
The rumors had been flying fast and furious at the office about where we were going as a company. More and more folks were bailing out, or being tossed out. Mother DEC claimed she could no longer afford to feed us all, but that had been going on for a while. SAP was moving ahead like a runaway freight train, with increasing numbers of "legacy" applications and systems being retired. More of us were getting into small groups and critiquing each one another's resumes. My boss went from saying my position was still fairly safe, to admitting no one was safe any more. In January of 1998, Digital announced their plans to merge with Compaq, and by June the ink has dried on the contract, we now worked for Compaq. Prior to that the new CEO had been selling off bits and pieces of the company; Networks, other product lines and finally the crowning jewel of our technology, Semiconductors and the Alpha. A colleague said, "whoever is left here last gets to turn out the lights."
Like many others, I began to get my resume out in the market, with very few nibbles from prospective employers. I had been told that with all my VAX and general business data systems analysis skills, I'd have companies knocking at my door. Well, the opposite was true, they were all looking for the latest and greatest: Microsoft certification, Oracle, SQL Server, Java, Active Server, Unix (eunuchs), C++, C+++, C++++, Visual Basic and on and on. I could see myself being herded into the cattle cars with all the other over 40 and 50 legacy men and women, on our way to the career death camps and gas ovens. I began to get VERY depressed.
At the same time my closest friend in the world and companion, Paul had been diagnosed with cancer and I was taking care of him, while attempting to maintain my own sanity. I was getting soured on technology and wished I had been interested in something else that had nothing to do with computers, programming, or other techno-toys. I thought , why couldn't I have taken my college student advisor's advice and majored in English, Writing or something else in the humanities. At the tender age of 51, I was asking myself what I really wanted to be when I grew up. I never had an interest in "finance" for it's own sake, and lacked the drive and ruthlessness to be an SUV driving yuppie millionaire investment broker. I loved creating things, money was secondary.
On the road again
The Summer of 98 was spent nursing Paul back to health, surfing the net and worrying about work. I had actually begun to enjoy some of the stuff I was involved with in the SAP world; providing quick reporting for reconciliation of SAP to the legacy systems that were being phased out. Toward the end of Summer, one of my best managers and friends at DEC dropped my my cube to let me know he was leaving; I was shocked! "You traitor!" He strongly advised me to begin looking outside in earnest. He was moving on to another company, as were many others.
On October 3rd my decision was made for me. My boss dropped my and asked if I had a minute to talk. My performance review was due and he and I discussed getting me into some Visual Basic, Java and other classes, since he felt that a programming was where I belonged. There was something about the expression on his face that said, this was not going to be good news. Yep, I was among a group to be let go by the end of the month. He said he was very sorry and tried to keep me on board, but.
For all the years of rehearsing this fateful day in my head, it was an anti-climax. I had thought, ' will I break down crying, will I scream, will I jump out a window?' I let out a long sigh, "well, it's finally over, huh." He told me that I could still come to work if I wanted until my termination date; it was up to me. I needed the sense of continuity, so told him I'd probably be in. I also needed to say a lot of farewells. After being with Digital for 22 years, you tend to get to know a lot of people. Many colleagues I knew had already been let go or found new work, so I began putting together a large e-mail list for the final transmission.
I went through the motions of going to work, chatting with co workers, who claimed I was the lucky one; the wait was finally over and at least I knew my fate. A week later Paul came home and told me the doctors found more cancer, this time in his hip. October 1998, would go down as a month that would live on in infamy. A week after that I rushed him into the emergency room at 4am. I only showed up a few more times at work until my last day. On my last day, I said my final good byes, and my boss and I shook hands at the door as I handed him my badge. I think the two of us almost started to cry. He felt sure I'd find something very quickly. When I drove out of the parking lot, I felt as if a giant millstone had been lifted from my shoulders, but still had a good cry on the way home.
Digital had been good to me, despite the sellout. I had access to 3 months of free outplacement services and 39 weeks of salary, plus 5 weeks of accrued vacation. I drove to the hospital to visit Paul, who had just had major hip replacement surgery. His only comment was, "good, thank God, you're finally out of that hell hole!"
I was convinced that I didn't want to work in technology any more, but did not want to spend the rest of my life bagging groceries or slinging burgers, "you want fries with that?" I learned a lot from the DBM outplacement support group I was in, all DEC alumni who were in the same boat as I was, and many my age or older. I wanted to try a smaller company, or something outside the immediate computer hardware, software industry. Working in the medical or academic arena seemed attractive, but I lacked most of the skills to even land a position in a financial MIS slot.
I began networking; at church, through the small handful of friends I had and in my support group. Many other larger companies were also hacking and slashing away at their staffs, so this might not offer much. The newer start-ups were all hiring generation-x cutting edge kids, and the few intakes I took with interviewers half my age were depressing; very arrogant little snots, "here's a gun, go shoot yourself, you old fossil."
The rejection letters began rolling in, "Thank you for showing interest in YoyoDyne Technologies. Unfortunately, at this time we do not have any positions matching your (lack of) skills. Don't call us, we'll call you." A couple of people in my support group had found jobs, but most were temporary as contractors. I found the job fairs to be quite depressing; herds of malcontents (just like me) flocking to hotel ballrooms and conference centers, resume in hand.
Around mid November, I was browsing through the Boston Sunday Globe classifieds. There were always tons of C++, Software engineering, MS certified, Java and UNIX jobs, but I never say anything for people with tons of VMS experience, well except for the occasional temporary Y2K job, and there were thousands of other people with similar experience, all scrambling for the few legacy crumbs out there. Hmmmm, two ads caught my eye. A well known Headhunter had a number of positions, "COBOL programmers, learn Visual Basic, SQL Server, Oracle, Java, etc." I almost said "screw it", since the other hundreds of ads I answered yielded "nada! zilch!"
What the heck, I logged onto their web site and sent mail to the rep responsible for the positions I was interested in; a nice upbeat cover letter, MS Word resume attachment and plain text version in the e-mail body. That was on Sunday night. I had a good feeling about these particular offerings, but decided not to get all excited.
My phone rang the next morning at 8:30, and it was the rep from the headhunter asking if Ray Levasseur was there. Wow! she wanted to meet wit me ASAP as she felt there were a number of close fits to my skill set. She set up an intake interview for that Friday. When Friday came, I put on my best, and only suit, and drove into Boston for the interview. My interviewer was almost half my age, but we seemed to hit it off right away and I felt relaxed. She had been dealing with a number of recent Digital alumni, plus others who were being downsized from other companies. She laid out about 8 possible openings with companies in the area. Two openings really caught my attention and she said she would pursue these first. There was one position, although sounding interesting, was with a company I had no interest in. The only thing I had ever heard about them was a media flap a few years earlier, where an AIDS activist group held a demonstration at their door, demonizing them. Hmmm, this was something to be taken into consideration, and I let the headhunter know about my concerns, but she asked that I not rule them out and that they were a really good place to work.
After two very enjoyable hours, we shook hands and I went off to celebrate, all gussied up in my suit, to have a nice leisurely cappuccino and pastry, then on to Barnes and Noble for a long book browse.
She didn't waste any time researching for me, and on the following Monday called in the morning to tell me that three of the companies were chomping at the bit to meet me, YAHOO! Tops on the list was my personal "dark horse" candidate, the company the media flap was over. They wanted to meet with me ASAP. At first my response was, "ehhh, I dunno, can we wait until some of the others get back to you." At her insistence, I agreed to an interview in two days.
It's funny, but I had this impression that this company was going to be in a big corporate campus, with steel and glass towers. Even though I've lived in Massachusetts all of my life, the South Shore may as well be in another country; I was not familiar with the area. I found the address, a rather small brick building, tucked away in an industrial park. Since I arrived over an hour early, walked around and sized the place up, watching the employees arrive and walk in. Hmmm, nobody seemed to have 3 heads or breath fire. The rest of my wait was spent at a local coffee shop.
The hiring manager met me in the lobby and lead me around the building, which was surprisingly very nice inside. I was expecting to see all 3 piece suits, tuxes and ballroom gowns, but everyone was dressed very casual. The interview was scheduled to last 45 minutes, but went on for almost 2 hours. It seemed to go quite well from my viewpoint. When I got home called in to the headhunter, who had already gotten very positive feedback from the manager I had just met with. She told me to hang tight and would also be pursuing the other openings, two of which were supposedly desperate to interview me immediately, but they just could not seem to align people's schedules.
The following Monday the headhunter called and said the company I met with wanted to schedule a secondary half day interview...Hmmm! Still nothing from the other contenders, so I agreed to round two. I was a bit more nervous during the bonus round, since I would be meeting a bunch of people this time, but all went very well, and after lunch shook hands with the hiring manager, who assured me, I'd be hearing from them one way or another soon.
I kept exploring my other options while waiting. I had been in the position before of , "we really like you", only at the 11th hour to find the position had been filled by a better qualified candidate. The headhunter called to tell me that she got excellent feedback from round two and she was still trying to arrange interviews with my top 3 choices, none of whom could seem to connect the dots for an agreeable interview time, "this manger is on vacation, and that manger is away on business, etc."
I was at my weekly DBM support group meeting when a phone message arrived, "please call Melanie ASAP." She had very good news, the company wanted to extend an offer, which was quite reasonable. I hemmed and hawed, then told her, "OK, tell them I accept." Everyone at DBM celebrated with me and we shared an alcohol free champagne toast and bagels.
I would be starting a new job, and hopefully future beginning Christmas week. This came in handy, since my benefits and last Digital paycheck would arrive on December 25th, Christmas. E-mails went out to all my old cronies who were still at DEC, and to those who had moved on. Much cheering and well wishing followed, but I still had that nagging feeling, 'am I making the right decision, or is this all a big mistake?' I always found it difficult to adjust to new cultures and environments. Digital had become like an old comfortable pair of shoes, and my normal fear of the unknown kicked in, 'will I fail, will they like me, am I in over my head, yadda yadda blah blah.'
I would be stepping into a Senior Programmer Analyst position in a totally alien environment. This concludes part two of "Confessions of a Wanna be Geek."
When I get around to it, part three deals with the vertical learning curve, and some of my personal feelings on technology today.