From Bean Counter to Programmer – Part 3

Some fifteen months after I began my studies, I managed to land a part-time job in something called “computer operations” at a Denver food manufacturer, and quit the cab company. Four days a week, from four in the afternoon until ten 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, cold), and spotless room with a false floor to accommodate a mess of wires and cables; a self-locking door with a push-button key; bright florescent lighting; and several potted plants, presumably there to lend the sterile place some semblance of life. Dominating the room were a number of milk-white IBM products: a System 38 “mini computer”―the manufacturer’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. (The “soul of the new machine”?) 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. 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, applications entirely different from those of accounting, was undertaken by the operations manager, a bald, out-of-shape, forty-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.

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―written not in COBOL, but rather RPG, an IBM programming language designed specifically for the 38―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, 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 half years into my employment, the operations manager recommended to the company’s Vice President of Information Systems another operator working the evening shift, a fellow student of mine that I myself had recommended to the company, to join the applications programming department―a “judgement call,” the operations manager merely explained, to my barely-suppressed mortification. Did the operations manager, through his stench of tobacco smoke, once or twice get a whiff of my marijuana smoke? I wondered. I immediately began looking for work elsewhere.

This disappointment notwithstanding, my experience, as reflected in my resume at the time, was apparently paying 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 relatively rare―who also owned the Beverly Hills Hotel and had recently bought and sold 20th Century Fox. His name was also Davis, and 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 he had hired me, and that was all that mattered.

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, coldly-lit, windowed, and secured enclosure. I worked alone several stories above Denver’s downtown on a floor entirely devoted to the company’s accounting procedures in a building of polished steel, marble, and glass, 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. So, 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. I was on my way in the data processing field, a journey that led to the Albuquerque lumber company.

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