Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Computerizing myself

I've been fortunate to pick up some contract work lately... It helps cover our transition from our formerly extravagant lifestyle to a more reasonable and sustainable - and fulfilling - lifestyle. I don't really miss that other life, because of the emotional and intellectual costs. I do miss the money, but even as it was going on, I wanted something different, even if the payoff wasn't as lucrative. For many years, I actually believed that I was getting paid more than I deserved. Enough. It's over and done. And almost forgotten.

Now picture Dilbert sitting at home at his computer, unshaven, in his "house" clothes... That's me! Right now. People actually pay me (pretty well, actually) to sit here in my own natural habitat to do what I do! Hooray for the Internet!

I've always been a computer junkie. I bought my first top-of-the-line IBM-PC in late 1983 (although I had been lusting for an Atari for several years before that), for more than $5,000 [really big bucks back then]. An 8086 with twin(!) floppy disk drives - remember those old floppies that held... yeah, yeah, whatever. Anyway, within a year I did my first upgrade with a color graphics card and a new IBM RGB color monitor. Was I living good! I learned to program in Basic, bought Wordstar and VisiCalc, and even started trying to comprehend Assembly language programming.

Then I started a new job assignment - this drone had moved over onto the fast track! The work involved a lot of travel, with lots of writing memos, documenting meetings, composing letters, preparing speeches, etc. I painstakingly wrote everything out by hand and turned it over to the ever-patient secretary for typing. Then guiltily I would proofread and make my edits (she really hated my red pen - she used to hide it from me!) and then hand it back to her for retyping. However, using Wordstar I started doing more and more work at home, after hours (at least I was going home on-time). My then 7-year old son, B, had already been eyeballing the PC and was beginning to explore it after school - this was many years before the mouse! He was always hanging over my shoulder watching me work.

My productivity really jumped, since I did all my composing after-hours, leaving me free to do so much else on the job. But one day, I decided I had enough. I talked to my boss about getting a PC at work. He reacted in horror. Engineers did not use computers - they were just toys. Furthermore, "engineers aren't supposed to type." He actually believed all that, too. Sad to say, this was a common corporate attitude in the early 1980s. I'm sure a few companies had already begun to figure out that there might be an advantage, but not my company... I told him what I had been doing with mine, and offered to bring in my own computer for a while as a demonstration. He was very reluctant, but finally (after checking with his boss, no doubt) he relented - as long as I kept my office locked after hours and bought an insurance policy for the computer.

That Saturday, over B's tearful protestations, I loaded up my PC, keyboard, monitor, and dot-matrix printer (I even had to bring my own paper) and hauled it all to work. I had to do a major reorganization of my office to accommodate a PC. Can anyone even picture what offices used to look like before PCs? My desktop had a calculator and a phone, a coffee cup and lots and lots of paper. Monday morning brought a crowd to my door - a PC in the workplace! The secretaries were envious - most of them, anyway. After a few days the furor died down and I was able to get back to work. I ended up figuring out a way (using a null-modem, I think) to link my PC to the secretary's IBM programmable Selectric typewriter and we began producing professional-looking documents. I had to run a cable over the wall into the secretary's office - the first network!

After a year, I again proposed to my boss that the company buy me a computer. I was able to show plenty of proof that my productivity had gone up, but even then, my reptilian bosses wouldn't hear of it. I was an exception to the rule. If everyone had computers they'd just spend their days playing games (how right they actually were - how many of us spend untold hours surfing the web at work or playing solitaire)! So, I got mad and took my PC home, and vowed to go back to the old system of handwriting, etc. B was elated! He soon took over the PC and now 20 years later is a computer engineer deeply involved in the world of computers.

Eventually, after lots of negotiation and behind-the-scenes discussions I conjured up an inane return-on-investment calculation(!) that had to go all the way up to the Board of Directors(!) They reluctantly approved a package of 5 computers - one for me, one for the accountant and three for the secretaries! This was 1986! Several years later we installed the first file-sharing network cable - again on a weekend - running it through the drop ceiling with feeds to several of the computer-equipped offices. I took a lot of heat for that, since it was done off the books and without approvals from the emerging group of corporate IT nazis. A little later, I was ordained into the ranks of minor powers-that-be, and eventually I was able to successfully push through the "PC in every office" philosophy and bring in the internet, etc.

Still, I admit I finally had to be dragged into the present, too. I had to be convinced to even try switching from my DOS/keyboard interface to Windows/mouse-keyboard interface, that most of us now use today. I was a late holdout against MS Office (I really liked WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3). [I still refuse to use Internet Explorer.] Somewhere during all this time, I lost track of my own PC-savvyness. From being a nascent programmer when it was all getting started, I've become a mere low-level user. I no longer look behind Windows at DOS (or whatever lurks back there now). Any programming I do is in Excel or on the web. I no longer even understand how PCs work - everything has evolved so many times, that I'm afraid to even crack the case open... I don't even care how the newest Dual Core processor works, or why it's better. I suppose I'll eventually upgrade. I still drop a small fortune every few years on the latest and greatest - usually after I get tired of waiting while my current system lags on a new application.

Funny how life pulls you down unexpected paths.

Oh, man, I am so where you are coming from. Can you belive how short sighted those people we worked for in the 80's were? I'd be interested in hearing more about the kinds of work you can do while "retired" in Alaska.
Haha. I was an engineering intern at IBM in those days. Being female, I got the job of producing documents for a red-pen-wielding, computer-averse engineer that had previously been done by the office high school girl. I messed up their whole system by putting it into one of the early document formatting languages (SPF?), instead of using the single-line entry word processing program they'd been using. Once I was done, it was too hard for the high school girl to maintain, and I was out of there!

Mind you, there was a PC on every desk already, but this engineer was of the "engineers don't type" school.

Well now I've gone and made this all about me.
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