Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Journey continues. . .

Well, I got a hold of the new PC, a printer and that copy of dBASE II, that fellow teacher of mine "Nick" (that I mentioned yesterday) brought it all to school, and we swapped it from his car to mine in the parking lot.

I already had a small ‘computer room’ set up at the house in a spare bedroom that was home to my Commodore 64, but, with the room I was going to need for the new equipment I set up some new space in what, up until this point had been a breezeway between the house and the garage.

As I recall I had everything set up, and ready for me to get down to work, over a couple of long weekend days.

I’d like to tell you I had some sort of innate, or intuitive sense for dBASE II. Or possibly that I was some sort of instant dBASE prodigy, it would have made this story a little more interesting I think. However, that was not the case, reality in fact, was quite the opposite.

I’d spent a couple of years, writing programs in BASIC, COBOL, Assembler and RPG, the one thing all of these languages had in common, was that if you wanted to open a data file, and ‘read’ the contents you had to tell the program what the file looked like, inside.

In COBOL for example, you have to do something similar to:
COBOL Sample

01 StudentDetail.
02 Student_Id PIC 9(7).
02 Student_Name.
03 First_Name PIC X(10).
03 Surname PIC X(15).
03 Middle_Initial PIC X.
02 Date_Of_Birth.
03 Birth_Day PIC 99.
03 Birth_Month PIC 99.
03 Year_Of_Birth PIC 9(4).
02 Course_ID PIC X(4).

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but after two solid days of scouring the manual for a way to describe the file, I remember thinking, “Could it be this simple?”

It was, to open the “StudentDetail” dBASE table (data file) all it took in the language was:

USE StudentDetail

That was it, the file was open, and miraculously, to me, somehow the computer knew what each of the pieces of data in the file were; what they contained, and how to allow, or not allow, me to process that same data.

So folks, that’s where it all started, me sitting in my “breezeway turned computer center” drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes into the wee hours of the mornings as I struggled to understand enough about this new language, and all of it’s ‘high tech’ features to actually deliver, what I’d promised to deliver.

Something else worth mentioning here, is that I’m doing all of this learning on my new customer’s computer. The idea today, that any sort of programmer would ‘need’ your specific computer to program it for you is beyond funny. The odd thing is, back then, it was almost expected that all the programming would be completed, and installed, before things were delivered.

So, for the next three weeks or so I was a virtual hermit. I’d get home from teaching school and hit the project. I’d take a break when my wife got home from work, we’d have dinner, talk a little and then I’d utter the infamous words of virtually every computer nerd/geek I’ve ever known “I’ll be back in a second, I just want to try out this idea I have”.

The next thing I’d know, it would be 2:00 or 3:00am, my wife has been asleep for hours, I need to get up for work in a couple of hours and am desperately needing sleep.

That was my life, for about three weeks. At the end of that time, I had a working invoicing system, that did everything the client said it needed to do, and, that I hadn’t been able to ‘break’ in three nights of trying. I was ‘ready’, or as ready as I was ever going to be, to deliver my first ever customer project.

I went to bed, visions of a “big money” future dancing in my head. The next morning I called Beck’s from a coffee shop and set up to deliver the system the next day, a Friday. I don’t remember why now, but it was not a school day, so I was able to get in there fairly early in the morning around 10:00am I think.

When I arrived, computer, printer, monitor etc in tow, Glenda had cleared a space for everything, and I proceeded to set it all up. While I was doing that, she went on to tell me that Mr. Beck had told her NOT to do any invoicing manually, that since I was bringing the new computer system, why do everything twice… Nice, no pressure in that little statement.

Then again, for whatever reason, I don’t remember being at all concerned at the time, I was certain I had all the bases covered.

I didn’t.

The first hour that Glenda and I worked on entering the weeks invoices, I spent more time making changes, and ‘fixing’ problems than we spent actually entering anything. In the second hour things went a little better, the mix was about 50/50, and for the next two hours things continued to improve until in the fifth hour she entered invoicing information for a full 60 minutes and all I did was watch.

Eventually Glenda announced she was finished entering all the runs for the trucks for the week and we now needed to print the invoices.

I remember, as they were printing out, that Bill Beck walked in. He looked at the first few pages, and then asked Glenda what she thought. I know I was thinking that she was going to really complain about all the ‘extra’ work she’d had to do as I worked on the program in between entries… but, instead she said: “This is great, it only took us 5 hours!!”

Bill smiled, looked at me, shook my hand and said “You work with Glenda, get her what ever she tells you she needs, just keep your bill to me under $2K a month”.

He looked at Glenda and said: “Write him a check for every thing we owe him, including today”.

He thanked me one more time, and with that he was gone.

Glenda wrote me that check, for all of the equipment, 90 hours of my time at $20/hour, and handed me a folder with the details for what she wanted to do next.

I was driving back home 10 minutes later, in some sort of daze. I couldn’t believe what was happening; I had checks in my hand for nearly $6,000!! A little over $2,500 of which was MINE, after all the expenses had been paid!!

It may not sound like a lot now, but to a guy who was making $16K a year, this, was the “big time”. Not only that, but, from what he’d just told me, I’d be making somewhere in the vicinity of $24,000 with them in the next 12 months!!

When I got home I did two things, first, I called my PC connection (Nick) and ordered myself one of those PC’s exactly like the one I’d sold Beck’s, second I called our favorite local restaurant and made dinner reservations!

It never occurred to me that Beck’s would ever want someone else doing their computer work, I know now, in retrospect, that I was naive, that the odds of ‘losing’ a client are much higher than keeping one. At the time though, it just never even entered my mind.

I continued to do work for Beck’s for the next 11 or 12 years, in fact, if I was still there and Bill Beck hadn’t retired and closed up shop, I’m as certain as I can be, we’d still be doing business together.

Oh, one last thing... The computer in question was a "Corona", 64K of memory, 2 360K 'floppy' drives (back when floppy meant it actually 'flopped' when you waved it around), a 'high tech' 13" amber monitor and MS-DOS, I still remember we used to keep the programming on Drive "A" and ALL of the data on drive "B".

The next leg of the journey… Micro Applications begins to grow

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Spirit Of Owl said...

OMG! You're making me laugh my head off! :D

Bill said...

Spirit - It *is* funny... I tell this story from time to time and folks look at me like I'm crazy... but I swear to you it's true... Hell, I couldn't make this crap up... I'm not that clever!!

Dizzy Ms. Lizzy said...

Over the years I've spent working at the College, it has been proven to me time and again that truth IS stranger than fiction! :-)

Spirit Of Owl said...

Hey, I know, I never said I didn't believe you man! I'm laughing 'cause I sort of recognise some of it, and just damn, it's so hilarious! :D

Bill said...

Liz - You've said a mouthful there! This tale gets stranger as time goes on... stay tuned!

Spirit - Sorry bro... I didn't think you were saying you didn't believe me! I'm glad you see the humor in this.... this is the kind of stuff I think of when folks say "I wish I knew, what you know" ...

"If only knew, how I "learned" what I know!!"

Flash said...

Wow, you actually still have a Commodore 64??/

In my eyes, your a god.

And the rest of the post made me chuckle.

Bill said...

Flash - No.. that old C/64 was laid to rest many years ago.

I'm glad you got a chuckle out of it!

Greg said...

Glad to see you've come back to earth!
Commodore Kaypro to Osborn..."Cpm or dos?"

Love it!

oh I responded to you on my blog...:-)

Bill said...

Greg - Never had a Kaypro, or a CPM box... used a variant called MPM though on a 'Televideo' mutiuser network setup... pretty cool... ran dBASE too!!

I replied to your reply, on your blog

Firehawk said...


"Pressure makes diamonds," that's what they say. I admire people who can just leap in and hope for the best. I suppose that you never know if you can do it unless you give it a whirl. That, and I find that most people you meet are just "faking it" to get through, anyway. I can count on a very short list people who really know the answers to big questions beforehand. Most of us just do our best and muddle along, finding solutions and hoping we can generalize from those to hop over the next set of problems.

When I was substitute teaching a few years back, I was the only guy who could keep this group of guitar students from going nuts when the teacher was out sick for over a month. I didn't think much of it, but they were always asking me how I controlled the kids. I just shrugged and said they weren't that bad.

The next year, the replacement teacher flipped his lid and ended up losing his job over punching one of the kids in the face. The school system was in a bind. I got tapped to teach the class full time for a semester. I had to tell them, "Hey, I don't have a teacher's certificate, and I'm a purely self-taught guitarist." They just nodded, and suddenly, I had a semi-decent job, albeit one I wasn't very qualified for.

To cut it short, on parent-teacher day, a whole bunch of parents said that their kids told them I was their favorite teacher! Here I was, learning as much from them as they were from me! I learned that I could do it, though. My kids learned to play a little, and no one was punched in the process.

Great post, Bill. I'm going to read the rest of them now. Sorry for the late start on them.

Bill said...

Firehawk - I do seem to attract, or as my ex used to say, create, pressure!

You've pretty much hit it on the head, and it's sort of the point of this series, I've never had a real clue what was coming next. I usually 'thought' I did, but, for the most part I just rolled with it.

I can see where you'd do well teaching. Most kids just want some one who's excited, passionate maybe, about what they're teaching. I believe they can find that same passion if they're encouraged.

If we ever meet I know we could have some laughs over the substitute teaching gig stories... :)