Cheese and Crude

Some fifteen months after I began my studies, I managed to land a part-time job in something called “computer operations” at a large, successful Denver cheese manufacturer, and quit the cab company.  Four days a week, from 4:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 at night, I worked, except for a small janitorial crew of Vietnamese refugees newly arrived in Colorado, alone in the large facility.  I worked in a large, hermetically-sealed, “climate-controlled” (in other words, chilly), and spotless room.  It had a false floor to accommodate a mess of wires and cables; a self-locking door with a push-button key; bright florescent lighting; and a host of potted plants, presumably to lend the sterile place some semblance of organic life. 

Dominating the room were a number of pallid IBM products: a System 38 “mini computer”―IBM’s current success story, the machine I was determined to saddle and bust―consisting of a central processing unit and several disk storage drives; a computer-tape drive; and two printers.  This various equipment recalled, to my inexperienced eyes, freezers, washing machines, and credenzas, albeit immaculate ones.  What little character the central processing unit possessed was expressed in its vents, keyboard, and raised glass display; what little warmth, the glow of the green letters and numbers on the display.  In addition, there was a desk upon which sat a terminal, about the size of milk crate, with a display of more green numbers and letters, and another keyboard.  Against one wall was a cluster of non-IBM instruments that comprised a modem to deliver data to and from the company’s satellite plants around the country.  My job every shift was to run programs off of a “menu” on the terminal display, print documents generated by the programs, and back up on magnetic tape all of the company’s evolving and ongoing electronic data.  

The only programming in the company’s computer operations department, software entirely different from that of accounting, was undertaken by the operations manager, a bald, out-of-shape, 40-something man who spoke little, lumbered around in black wing-tips that appeared to weigh six pounds apiece, chain-smoked at a terminal in a sealed, glass-fronted office within the operations room, and drove a Cadillac.  He reminded me of a corrupt libertine in a Pasolini movie.

The computer operators did no programming; they merely pushed the buttons that set programs in motion.  However, I quickly learned that the operators could transition to and train in the company’s applications-programming department, which created the programs that performed the basic accounting functions, provided the operator sufficiently impressed the operations manager with his or her dedication, knowledge, and data processing intuition. 

I made what I thought was progress at the company: I was thorough, responsible, and had an impeccable attendance record.  Eventually, I accepted a full-time job in day-shift computer operations, confident that this would better position me for a transition to applications programming, which was also undertaken during the day shift. 

It did not.  One day, some two-and-a-half years into my employment, the operations manager recommended to the company’s Vice President of Information Systems an operator working the evening shift to join the applications programming department.  That operator was a fellow student of mine I had encouraged to apply to the company.  I bore him no ill will upon his promotion; he was indeed sharp.  But I was mortified with the operations manager, who merely explained that the recommendation was a “judgement call.”

Hmmm. Did the operations manager, through his stench of tobacco smoke, get a whiff of my marijuana smoke?  Furious, I updated my resumé and began looking for employment elsewhere while continuing to work at the mozzarella factory.

My experience apparently paid off.  Within two months, I was working in the computer operations department of a Denver oil company and, convinced I could climb the data processing ladder by simply learning on the job, no longer attending college. 

The company was owned by a corpulent Denver billionaire―at a time when American billionaires were still somewhat rare―who also owned the Beverly Hills Hotel and had recently bought and sold 20th Century Fox.  His name, too, was Davis, although no relation.  He was known as “Mr. Wildcatter” for the thousands of holes he had punched into the planet in search of his black gold.  The company’s head of data processing was young, driven, and rarely given to humor, but I didn’t care.  “You’ll love it,” he said, referring to the job, the day he hired me.  

And I did.

I worked alone in a building of polished steel, marble, and glass several stories above Denver’s downtown on a floor devoted to the company’s accounting procedures.  Once again, I worked the swing shift, although now five nights a week.  The computer room, which housed my second IBM System 38, was another chilly, fluorescent-lit, and secured enclosure. 

However, “Mr. Wildcatter,” whom I never once saw, was well on his way to pulling out of the oil business and investing his riches in Colorado and California real estate.  As a result, the floor on which I worked consisted of empty offices and just a handful of accounting personnel.  Nonetheless, for two years, in addition to handling computer operations, I was permitted to write some simple application programs.  Thus, when I applied for work in Albuquerque, I had, in addition to my resume, a printout of the software of which I was most proud. 

And I had my first love.  I was on my way in the data processing field, a journey that led to the Albuquerque lumber company.


The Soul of the New Man

After some basic research, I identified the two pillars of computing: “hardware” and “software.”  I learned that hardware is primarily about electrical engineering.  Having witnessed two people, one a dear friend and the other my brother-in-law, grapple with the study of “double-e,” and having an interest in electricity only insofar as it powered my refrigerator and stereo and was responsible for spectacular lightning shows over the Rockies, I knew that electrical engineering isn’t for me.  Which left that mysterious, apparel-sounding phenomenon known as software.  What, I initially wondered in my abject ignorance, is “soft” about any aspect of metal computer? 

Well, I then read that software is essentially electrified instructions that can read electrified numbers and letters and electrically command simple or complex electrified arithmetic operations.  (All of which was a considerable part of the soul of that little Texas Instrument calculator I used at the instrument repair company, although I was unaware of this at the time.)  I read that writing software is known as “programming,” and that programming is extremely detailed, precise, and orderly, and commonly used in accounting and bookkeeping applications―in other words, I concluded, a glowing possibility for me. 

From a programmer acquaintance, I borrowed a book on “flowcharting”: the routing of those electrified numbers―“data”―toward a desired goal.  As I read the book, the detailed-oriented part of me became increasingly optimistic, and the English-major part of me imaginative.  I imagined that each individual “datum” was a sleek automobile, its headlights aglow as it coursed over the perfectly gridded streets of, say, Manhattan at night, bound for its proper destination; turning north, south, east, or west; stopping and starting at perfectly calibrated traffic lights; respecting my junctions, intersections, loops, side streets, alleys, and dead ends; experiencing no unnecessary pauses, no time wasted, no flat tires―all under my flawless command, the traffic engineer at his desk upon which sat a coffee cup in its proper place.  Billions of cars, billions of lights, constant movement, not a single accident. 

Oh, such an awesome and beautiful rationality to all of it!  Yes, I could see myself as a successful programmer.  Thus, I decided to return to college, this one in downtown Denver, to pursue a major formally called by the college Computer Science and Accounting. 

Meanwhile, speaking of traffic, I hired on as a part-time driver at a Denver cab company, a job that, I was certain, would allow me to support myself, including paying for my education, while I pursued my studies.  Excited by my new career goal and satisfied with my new job now in its third week, I phoned my father and mother with the news.  My father applauded my latest academic pursuit, although not the new job.  “Only idiots drive cabs!” he spat, while no doubt recalling the thousands of dollars he spent toward my bachelor’s degree.  Swallowing, I tried to placate him, informing him, albeit with scant evidence, that demand for data processing professionals in Denver’s exploding economy was so great that I would have a job in the field long before I was awarded my second college diploma; this seemed to work. 

Lacking a car, I took a bus, or bicycled, or walked, or even ran―in running shoes and sweats―to the cab company in northwest Denver.  (I could have taken a cab, but I considered a cab too costly given my meager living as a cab driver.)   

Beyond my academic studies of FIFO, LIFO, central processing units, stocks, bonds, and “machine language,” I tried to engage with anything and everything in the day-to-day world that dealt with computers.  I read Megatrends.  I read Time magazine’s 1982 cover story about “the computer,” the magazine’s unprecedented “Machine of the Year.”  One afternoon I sat with rapt attention through a speech by a guest of the college, the distinguished Grace Hopper, a United States Navy Rear Admiral, computer programmer since the 1940’s, and pioneer in the development of COBOL, the first common programming language for business that I was at that very moment studying.  I slogged through Tracy Kidder’s Soul of the New Machine, a National Book Award winner about computer engineering.  At the same time, I sought any kind of work in the data processing field.




Phil the Scriviner

Either I passed my drug test―and for that I would have owed a debt of gratitude to comedian, political activist, and fasting advocate Dick “Cookin’ with Mother Nature” Gregory―or the head honchos at the lumber company felt that, despite evidence of marijuana use, a well-groomed and relatively articulate guy was worth a chance, so I began working as the only computer programmer in a company of 75 employees. 

My career in data processing arguably began when I was 25, shortly after I left the mine.  The Colorado state employment division referred me to a tiny Denver company that sold thermocouples and calibrated electrical and mechanical equipment.  The company was looking for a “full-charge bookkeeper.”  As usual, I was willing to take nearly any job offered to me.  However, I never filled out an employment application at the company, and no one at the company, which employed just five people, ever said in so many words, “You’re hired.”  I simply showed up at the company’s doorstep one day with a referral from the state.  The company then commenced to training me and told me to come in the following day.  The following day, the company resumed training me and told me to come in the day after that.  After a week of this somewhat peculiar routine, I, lacking the assertiveness to flat-out ask, presumed I was hired. 

My trainer was my predecessor at the company, a fellow named Lawrence, who appeared to be about 75 and was retiring after decades at the business.  Bald and rotund, wearing white perfed loafers, he reminded me of my hospital-accountant grandfather.  During my training, Lawrence, in an aura of either after-shave or cologne, hovered over me at my desk, a burning cigarette held effeminately between his first two fingers, his eyes squinting against the smoke.  A retired Army colonel, he all but forbade me to do a procedure unless each thing on my desk―pen, Texas Instruments calculator, coffee cup, Burroughs mechanical adding machine, pack of cigarettes, ashtray―was in a place he deemed appropriate. 

Long before Sarah Palin, Lawrence introduced me to the expression, which seemed to me particularly Western, “Youuuuuu betcha.”  And one rainy day he introduced me to a thing he called a “bumbershoot.”  He had beautifully flowing handwriting, graceful as the curves of drifted snow, with numerals exceptionally elegant, and my penmanship markedly improved under his tutelage. 

Lawrence trained me for a month.  Soon, I was well-versed in balance sheets, general ledgers, financial statements, work orders, payroll taxes, 3% 10/Net 30’s, and imprests.  Before long, I wouldn’t relax until I’d reconciled the company’s monthly checking account statement to the penny, even if it meant toiling alone at the office on a Friday evening.  (My monthly bank statement receives the same attention today; I regard the mental exercise of reconciling it as useful a defense against dementia.)  Indeed, if nothing else, my job seemed to reveal I had a knack for detailed work. 

Now, many another young man would have enthusiastically looked upon this job as the first step up that proverbial ladder of success in the world of business administration, accounting, or sales.  I did not.  The business utterly bored me.  Our thermocouple specialist had a radio above his workbench, so every lunch hour meant suffering the annoying staccato of right-wing newscaster Paul Harvey as he hawked automobiles―American-made, of course―and “porkburgers”; drooled over his wife, “Angel”; told maudlin stories; delivered cutesy sign-offs; and jabbed at communism.  The dreariness of the sales and servicing of thermocouples, pressure gauges, and Hewlett-Packard oscillators overshadowed any satisfaction and pride I got from keeping the accounting end of this whole uninteresting enterprise humming.  

My ennui particularly tested the tolerance of my gentle boss, Joe.  For instance, it was also my job to answer all phone calls to the company with, of course, the expectation that I would do so in a spirited and professional manner―very difficult to do, given my attitude.  Therefore, Joe would wearily remind me, “Phil, please don’t say ‘yeah’ when speaking to a customer; say ‘yes’.”  In addition to me, Joe had to deal with a leg presumably game since birth and a shoe with an elevated outsole, both of which he had to drag behind him whenever he moved about the office.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to quit, goldbrick for a couple months (and fritter away my meager savings), and return to the drudgery of job-hunting.

Meanwhile, the company, while not failing, was not exactly increasing its market share.  A year after my hiring, as various malfunctioning gauges and oscillators deep in the company’s back room―repair orders years old and somehow forgotten without consequence―gathered dust and the company barely made payroll, the aging owner of the business, retired before I came aboard, sold the company to a toothy, back-slapping, 40-something guy with a hard-on for the Denver business world.  I disliked him immediately: his ambitious ideas for the company threatened to disrupt my torpor.  Shortly after taking over, and to my great indignation, he accused me (correctly) of being a “clock-watcher,” and I therefore had no alternative but to be affronted and terminate my employment.  

I drifted from one job after another after that.  My work included volunteering for a groundbreaking Denver-government-sponsored mental-health program that worked with the male perpetrators of domestic violence.  My verbal skills led to the program being featured on The Phil Donahue Show and subsequently raised $12,000 to hire, for the first time in the program’s brief history, a full-time director.  I was among those who sought that directorship, but the program’s board members rejected me, hiring an individual with, apparently, far more experience running a non-profit. It was a huge disappointment, my first in my employment history; there would be more.

Then one day I decided that if I wanted a car; an apartment larger than a storage locker; furnishings beyond a table, chair, used mattress, and a few pieces of used United States Marine Corp dinnerware; and a girlfriend who expected a boyfriend with a modicum of financial stability, I’d have to consider my career options with an iron practicality.  I’d have to get into what was all the rage in the early 1980’s.  I’d have to get into computers!