Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Career Path and the Journey. . .

I've mentioned several times that my path to software development was not exactly a direct line. I've talked about my days as an auto mechanic, painter and several other things I've done, but, since I started the story of what sparked my interest in computers, I thought I'd share a few of the highlights of the actual journey, beginning today with how it all really began....

Shortly after I graduated from college, in 1981 (yes, I was a ‘late bloomer’ educationally), the first actual job I landed was teaching at a “for profit”, post-secondary educational institution.

Ok, that’s what they liked to call it, it was a school that specialized in degree programs that had practical applications and they made money at it. Associates Degree tracks in Accounting, Business Management and Computer programming where among their more popular offerings.

The first semester I taught, as I recall, mostly “Introductory Accounting” classes, and one class called, “Flowcharting and Logic”.

The accounting classes were in various rooms in the building, and in the morning were fine, but by afternoon, the AC could not, in any way keep up with the afternoon sun streaming in the windows, along with 30 or so folks in what once was a space for maybe four workers maximum. In short, it was often warm, very warm in those classrooms and far too warm for the required professorial suit and tie.

The “Flowcharting and Logic” class however, was held in one of the classrooms assigned to the ‘computer curriculum” and, as such, had upgraded and additional AC units for the room. It was always comfortable. It was one hot summer afternoon that I decided if I was going to continue to teach there, I needed to be teaching classes in rooms like this!

I struck up friendships with a couple of the other instructors, one Fred Snyder, was the head of the computer department, the other, John Pickens was the lead programming instructor. Over the occasional after work beer, or three, and during our breaks from teaching, they would often encourage me to talk to the Dean about picking up some classes in the computer curriculum for the next semester.

I did, Joel Beck was the Dean at the time, and he was the type to reward good performance. As he put it, the students seemed to like me, they were doing fairly well in my classes, and no one was banging his door down to complain… in short, I was a “wonderful” teacher... as no one was complaining to him, or his superiors.

We talked further about it, and he agreed to give me an additional “Flowcharting” class and an “Introductory COBOL” class along with enough accounting classes to make me a full time instructor for the following semester. I was, needless to say, elated. With each passing semester I picked up additional classes and eventually was teaching IBM 360/370 Assembler, RPGIII and Apple Basic in addition to the COBOL and Flowcharting classes.

I still taught some classes in the Accounting realm, but primarily in the Corporate Finance and Economics areas. I was getting the good schedules, the kids seemed to enjoy the classes and I was having a great time, but, not making much in the way of money.

Fred, John and I actually started a computer consulting company that we called “Applied MicroSystems” in late 1982 (or the Spring of 1983, I just remember it was ‘winter’ as we met and discussed it), initially we’d intended to develop business software systems and use Apple computers to bring solutions to small and medium sized businesses. We mostly spun our wheels writing proposals, but got pretty close a few times to landing a deal or two, and learned a thing or two along the way.

Also in 1983, the school opened a second campus, I was offered the lead computer/accounting instructor slot at the new campus, and took the job!. This strained our little 3 man shop as it wasn’t as easy to get together and talk out ideas, meet with clients and draw up proposals. Cell phones were hardly common and very expensive, and email, well it hadn’t really arrived yet. Instead we resorted to ‘meetings’, and while we were all trying, the company was just not really going anywhere fast.

Then, one day after class, a student of mine came asked if I would be willing to meet with a fellow in Fulton, NY who had a small, but growing, trucking company. One of her close friends worked there, and they’d been trying to get someone to help them for several months, but, hadn’t met anyone they felt comfortable with yet. She said “I told them that if you had time, I believed you charged $100 for an initial consultation”.

Folks, at that time I was earning, maybe, $16K/yr as a full time instructor. Do the math, that’s about $308/week, for at least 30 (and probably usually over 40) hours of effort! I would have talked to anyone, about anything, for $100 back then!!

I called the company, “William H. Beck, Inc.” and spoke first with Glenda the office person, and then with Bill himself, we arranged a meeting for later that same week.

This was the early days, or the ‘glory days’ as I like to remember them. I met with Bill and Glenda, they laid out everything they’d shown to anyone else, and, they also shared with me what everyone else had proposed. We parted with me promising to review it all, and get back to them the following week. These days, having a client show you everything a competitor has proposed is almost unheard of, and, if a client offered, it would be a prudent business move to politely decline.

This was also about the time “clones” started becoming available for the new IBM PC. Prior to this time, if you wanted a “PC” you bought it from IBM, or possibly Compaq. One of the new instructors at the new campus, just happened to be in the clone business, and was willing to cut me a deal as it looked like I might be a good ‘reseller’ for him, over the long haul. So, slight shift from the Apple II, III, Lisa platform, and instant acceptability in the business marketplace!!

As I looked over the proposals from the consultants who had gone before me, a few things struck me:
  1. Folks were getting paid pretty well to do this sort of thing
  2. Every single proposal was specifying a language called dBASE (which I’d never heard of)
  3. Folks were getting paid very well to do this sort of thing

So, with the same brash manner I became a ‘computer’ instructor, I shaved a few dollars off the other guys computer prices, which left me pretty ‘thin’ on the hardware in terms of profit, and I cut their initial proposal in half for the custom programming. I figured for $2k I could learn the language and make a little money in the process

When I met with Bill the next time, to talk money, I explained two things to him:

  • I wasn’t making much at all on the hardware, but, we had to buy it up front, and I’d deliver it when the program was written, and working.
  • That my pricing for the programming was so much lower, not because I was charging significantly less per hour, but, because I was only contracting for a bare-bones invoicing application.
As we talked, what I told him was this (and I’ve promised the same thing to every customer since):

“If I don’t deliver, what I’m promising, in writing, to deliver, you won’t owe me anything”

With that, he and I agreed on the terms of the deal and I went home to write it up.

On the way home (about a 45 minute drive), I could hardly wait to call Fred, or John, and tell them the good news, I’d landed us our first deal!! As usual, as I pulled up to the house I stopped out front and got the mail from the box, interestingly enough, as I started to go through the mail on the way into the house, I saw this registered letter…

It seemed that John and Fred had decided they’d like to take off with the company, without me, and had, according to our bylaws, written me a letter, complete with a generous buy out agreement (essentially returning the money I’d invested initially).

I signed the agreement, and went down to the courthouse the following day and filed a DBA as “Micro Applications”. I was officially in business, as a computer consultant, complete with my very first customer!

That afternoon, I returned to “Beck’s” where Bill and I signed the contract I’d drafted, and he wrote me a check for the PC, and a copy of dBASE II. (Believe it or not, I actually still have that original signed deal dated 6 November 1983) We shook hands and I went home wondering what in the hell possessed me to sign a contract, to write a program, in a language I’d never even seen, let alone used.

My wife’s reaction, as I recall, was far more.. ummmmmm… you might say “realistic”… as in “You did WHAT!!!??? How are you ever going to do that? You know this is a legally binding thing right? Why would you do that? We’re going to get sued”

I’ll write about how it all turned out, in the next post.

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No_Newz said...

Cliffhanger! LOL! I can't wait to hear how it turned out. :)
That first customer was what they call perfect timing.
Lois Lane

Bhuwan said...

That was realllly interesting... waiting for the part 2...

Firehawk said...


That's...well, there are a variety of words for it. Intestinal Fortitude, hubris, madness.

Still, I think that you never really learn anything as quickly as when you really put yourself into a position where you HAVE to.

Looking forward to part 2.

Jada's Gigi said...

Talk about Providence...that registered letter cutting you loose was certainly a bonus. lol
Funny how we get where we are, isn't it? Looking forward to Pt 2...

Dizzy Ms. Lizzy said...

Wow - - THIS post brings back some memories!

I took a course out here at the College many, many moons ago called "Data Logic and Design", and it was all flowcharts - - I would have liked the course, but the instructor was AWFUL! Didn't get anything out of it.

I also took dBase, and that was a nightmare all its own . . . the only thing worse to me is Access! (Access and I are NOT friends . . . )

Can't wait for Part 2 - - :-)

Beth said...

Fulton, NY? Is that the county? I haven't heard of Fulton, NY.

Bill said...

Lois - Well wait no more... it's posted :)

bhuwan - First, welcome, and next thank you! Part #2 is posted.

Firehawk - I've been putting myself in impossible situations my whole life, I've often wondered why I do that. The only answer I've ever really had, is very close to what you've said, I seem, for what ever reason, to do my best work under self-inflicted pressures.

Cheryl - It is funny the roads life takes us down... I've long since stopped wondering 'why', but instead choose to simply roll with it the best I can.

Liz - Unlike you, dBASE and I became very close friends... now Access... I'm 100% with you on that!!

Beth - Fulton, NY it is... former home of both a Budweiser AND a Miller brewery... it's to the Lee of Lake Ontario, about 30, maybe 35 miles North of Syracuse.


Many of you mentioned 'providence', 'perfect timing' and so on, that, along with the 'madness' that Firehawk mentioned were all definitely at work during this time in my life.

One thing I never mentioned, was that at this time, I was also enrolled full time in an evening MBA program... I had to be nuts!!

Dizzy Ms. Lizzy said...

Are you trying for an insanity defense here? :-)

Bill said...

Liz - Actually.. yes... you've figured it out... this is all an elaborate scheme to prove that my insanity spans decades... I'm not sure at the moment why that will be important.. but it will be!! :)