Beth and I watched “Ad Astra” Saturday night, and while it was no “Interstellar” or even “The Martian,” it was a decent mental escape for a couple of hours – an interesting but wobbly story woven around an emotionally inaccessible man longing for human connection – set in space. “Daddy Issues in Space,” if you will. Story aside, the film provided some gorgeous art direction of planets, space pirates, space monkeys, a Nathan’s Hot Dog Stand on the Moon, and Liv Tyler again playing the girlfriend of a dude that goes to space. The real drag on the movie was a consistent “oh, come on” factor -from a 79-day Mars – Neptune flight to body-surfing Neptune’s rings on a metal sheet to a space-boost from a nuclear explosion, I just knew the science wasn’t quite there. Oh, and even Brad Pitt’s getting old.
The movie title did get me thinking about an old vintage 1980’s NEC mini-computer and how it helped me sustain a high-tech career for uh, let’s see… 35 years so far. See: the “getting old thing.” Anyway, early in my career, I was asked to take a report of hundreds of “green-bar” pages and reduce it to a short summary on 8 ½ x 11-inch paper. I had no freakin’ idea how I was going to do that, but I knew who might. Merrill Simons was considerably older than me then, but likely younger then than I am now. Back then he seemed ancient with more grey hair on his face than his head and an ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth. “Sure, I’ll give you the data on a floppy, and you can write the report in dBase,” Merrill barked in a “man, this guy has burned a lot of cigs” voice. “Uh, OK.” So off I went with an 8” floppy disk which then had to be copied to a brandy-new 5 ¼” floppy because my NEC APC (Advanced Personal Computer) had only a 5 ¼ inch drive. OK, now what? I went to see Dean, one of the top tech support guys to ask, “Hey, what’s dBase?”
Dean: “Oh, it’s a database program.”
Me: “I see. How do I use it?”
Dean: “Just type dbase at the C prompt.”
Me: (1 minute later) “There’s just a flashing dot at the bottom-left of the screen.”
Dean: “That’s the dot prompt.”
Me: “What am I supposed to do with it.”
Dean: “Oh, you need to type Do something or other.”
Dino got me started and introduced me to his son, Jeff, one of my best friends and a frequent character here on the blog. Eventually, I learned to create the database structure for the raw data Merrill gave me and then to write a program that would calculate the “billable utilization” of our field service technicians out servicing Astra computers, “Spinwriter” printers, and other NEC hardware like Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems (AFIS). My bosses’ boss (who soon became my boss) had set a utilization target of 65%. That meant that in a 40-hour week, our techs were striving for 26/40 hours to be spent on billable work. More on that later. I confirmed the numbers semi-manually using the SuperCalc spreadsheet program and then wrote a memo explaining it all in the word-processing software, Wordstar. The paper memo and report would be submitted to the boss weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc. etc. etc…
With that display of some competency, my job responsibilities expanded and I spent time writing RFP responses with my other pal, Dave, eventually including Executive Summaries for our AFIS bids and creating slide presentations (on 35mm slides) using the programs GEM and Harvard Graphics for my boss to present at our annual User’s Conference. By the time I was doing presentations in the early 90’s, the mouse was still a new thing, and it took many more clicks than it does today to get things done. My right shoulder still has a knot from that first presentation back in 1991.
These skills acquired during the formative years of my career have been a huge part of my good fortune to have been gainfully employed for the past 3 ½ decades. They still serve me well today:
- Data analysis – Whether dBase or Access, Supercalc or Excel, the ability to work with data has grown in importance over the years
- Writing – I’ve always enjoyed writing and storytelling – it doesn’t matter what your data says if you can’t explain and make a case for it
- Public speaking – This takes courage, confidence, and creativity – About 75% of us are terrified by this, but having confidence in the information you’re presenting helps, and being creative about how you present (imagery, graphics, humor) helps the audience engage more with your content
By early 2000, it was decided that the AFIS division of NEC, located in Boxborough, MA would relocate to Sacramento, CA. For family reasons, I couldn’t make that move, but because Dino knew a guy from his PictureTel days (Pete), I got to interview with Kronos. My initial lunch interview with Pete went pretty well, although between the din in the room, Pete’s wild hand gestures, and me wondering if he was going to eat all of those fries resulted in little content retention by yours truly. The second round of interviews included the HR Manager for chit-chat, Pete’s boss, Joe, the Services Division VP for a cool discussion about Woodstock and construction work in sub-zero temperatures (him, not me), the guy I would replace for more chit-chat, and then the gauntlet, Ray Riley. Ray looked like… Well, there’s Ray. I recall the discussion as all business, and one question vividly, “What do you think the billable utilization should be for professional services employees?” Ray looked at me the way Nolan Ryan might have looked at a guy after buzzing him with a little chin-music, or Sandy Koufax after freezing a batter with a knee-buckling curveball. Oh yeah, Ray thought he had me. “Well Ray, I once wrote a program in dBase to calculate field service billable utilization from a dump of mini-computer data, and our target was 65%.”
I’ve been at Kronos ever since.