Keep Up, Or Else…

When I was a teenager, my father leased a minicomputer from a three-letter company for his insurance business. This computer was about the size of a small refrigerator and had a half-dozen or so serial terminals plugged into it.  It was mostly used for data retrieval,  and weekly updates were available on 8″ floppy disks that arrived in the mail on Saturday mornings. Loading these weekly updates was one of my chores. Cleaning the office was another.

Thus, my Saturday routine started with biking to the post office before closing to pick up the box of disks. At noon my father’s office shut down for the weekend, the employees went home, and I could start my work. Naturally, the crucial first step was to put one of my 8-track tapes (Styx, Rush, Ted Nugent, AC/DC…) in the office sound system and crank up the volume. Then log in to a serial terminal to start the update process and mount the first floppy, hit return. While the disk was loading, I could start a cleaning activity: dust furniture, vacuum the floor, scrub the sinks, etc.  After a while the first disk would be done loading, I’d remove it and mount the next, then clean the toilets, collect trash, and so on for a good part of Saturday afternoon.

I didn’t mind the cleaning tasks, or spending part of each Saturday afternoon working, because I got to do something, no matter how trivial, with some type of computer. I was fascinated by the things. However, personal computers were very expensive at that time. Nobody I knew had a personal computer. My school didn’t have a single computer, let alone a computer lab.  Thus, a weekly chance to peck around on some keys, poke at menus, type commands and get error messages, etc. was quite a treat. I couldn’t imagine that anything would ever take that away from me.

One day, I stopped by the office after school, and my father told me that the field engineer from three-letter company had been there to install a new device. It plugged into the phone line and enabled transmission of the updates, and they could be done automatically every night.  My father was thrilled and quite impressed.  No more data that’s a week out-of-date.  No more floppy disks to retrieve from the post office.  I looked behind the computer, and sure enough there was a telephone line that hadn’t been there before, as well as some new flashing lights.

With that, the modem had taken away my weekly computer fun.  I turned to my father and said “Well, I guess you don’t need me to come in here on Saturdays any more.”

To which my father replied “Oh no, you still have to come in here on Saturdays and clean the restrooms, sweep the rugs, wash the windows…”

So, with this I learned an early and valuable lesson about my chosen field – if you want to work in technology you have to keep up, or else you’ll only be qualified to clean the toilets.

About Noel McKinney

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13 Responses to Keep Up, Or Else…

  1. Matt Velic says:

    That was a great little story! And it’s so true, even with the technology itself – everything is growing obsolete as we learn and use it.

  2. Bob Pusateri says:

    Nice story & great blog design too! I look forward to reading more here in the future 🙂

  3. Interesting read.

  4. Karen Lopez says:

    My first computing experience was building a program on a TRS-80 to keep track of fund-raising sales for my local FFA chapter. Our school system had no computers, so we borrowed the TRS-80 from a friend. I believe at that time data was flat file, comma-delimited values. Eventually I took a programming class in high school because they bought a programmable calculator. One, that we all had to share.

    Wonderful story. Now we know what your job will be on #sqlcruise: cleaning up and updating our computers…since you have the most experience.

    • I think I’m going to be hearing “swab the deck” on SQLCruise!

      My high school got a TRS-80 the year after I graduated, but it went into the principal’s office so that nobody would get their grubby little hands on it.

      I’m glad you mentioned the programmable calculator. I still have my first, a Casio FX-700P that I bought my first year of college (1982). I was able to afford it because it was a factory reject (the finish was marred but it worked fine) that was half-price. You could write programs in BASIC and save them to a cassette tape.

  5. Jason says:

    Nice article. Who did your pic in the header?

    • Thanks Jason. It was taken by a professional photographer (I can’t remember her name at the moment), but I’m a bit camera shy. Before the formal shoots (i.e. the point where I would normally stiffen up and look awkward) I was sitting in a chair casually talking with whoever was standing around, and the photographer snapped that picture of me. I later told her that’s the best picture anyone has every taken of me. She said that she noticed how relaxed I appeared and that I was having fun, and she wanted to capture that.

  6. Mike Walsh says:

    Yay! A New Blogger!

    Noel – Welcome to the fray, sir. This is a great first post. I was excited to read the story, felt the excitement you were describing doing the menial tasks (even experiencing those magical computer errors). Great reminder at the ending as well.

    Once I get around to it, I’ll be adding you to the feed reader/blogroll on my blog. I’m not an expert/guru blogger by any stretch but I’ve done a few posts about blogging and if you ever need any tips or have frustrations with WordPress shoot me an e-mail, you can see it in WP admin now.

    Welcome, Thanks for the Post and keep at it (or else)
    -mike walsh

  7. Pingback: Matt Velic » Blog Archive » Why Should I Join PASS?

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