In Negative One Dollar, I described the events which precipitated my move from teaching to software engineering. I’d like to tell the story of the beginnings of my career. It’s a success story, and it is not my intention to brag. I could easily write 10k on this time of my life. With a little time I could write 20k words. It was an important year. Consider this the abridged version. As I’ve written, my wife’s uncle, an IT manager at Citgo in Tulsa, described to me a company that would train me and hire me if I passed a test. He told me about a huge software problem called Y2K in which an astounding amount of disruption would occur at midnight of 1999 if the code wasn’t fixed, and that there was something like a 400k short fall of workers available to do the work in the U.S. That number seems high to me, but that’s the way I remember it. He said that the consulting company, SPR, would train me to learn how to fix this problem.
(if you’re interested)
The problem was simple, by the way. When mainframe computers were young, there was very little memory for all of the software and huge databases needed to run banks, oil companies, airline booking systems, and the like. So they shortened dates by leaving off the “19” from the years. So 05-06-1999 would be 05-06-99. The problem was that when the year became 2000 the date would be 05-06-00 which all of the date calculations would read as being in the the year 1900. Imagine the chaos. Yes, folks. This was a real problem solved with billions (trillions?) of dollars in consulting fees.
I knew nothing about any of this stuff. In fact, I had lost the notion that I was smart in anyway other than music. But the salary was so much better than what I was getting and I was eager to provide for my growing family. We had our first baby that year. I called the company and set up an interview. I didn’t know what to say, not knowing anything about computers, but I figured I didn’t have anything to lose.
It was a phone interview, which I’d never done. I made a plan. When it came close to the time, I was sure to go to the bathroom first. No pee breaks in the interview. Also, I pulled out a notebook and pencil. I poured a glass of water. I told Jennifer not to disturb me. Then I locked myself in the bedroom to take the call. The interview was with a recruiter and I found that my lack of computer knowledge was actually expected. She liked me enough to invite me to come to Tulsa to take the test.
I had no idea what to expect so I decided to make a good impression with my clothes. I already had a suit, but I felt I needed something new to really add some polish so I went to Dillards in Sooner Mall to buy a new pair of shoes. We didn’t have much money, but I figured I should go all out so I bought a pair of Johnston & Murphy’s at $129. In truth, I couldn’t afford them, but in my mind I was going to pay for them by nailing the test and getting the job.
I decided to drive up to a Motel 6 outside of Tulsa the night before just as a precaution to make sure I arrived at the testing facility on time. The motel had no soap or shampoo, but I just wanted to get a good night sleep so I didn’t complain.
The testing would be held in the Mid-Continent Tower in downtown Tulsa. It is a stately sky scraper with an ornate green copper top. When I walked in, I was struck by the beauty and polish of the lobby. I remember thinking that I could be coming here every day in my Johnston and Murphy’s instead of pushing my music teaching cart back at Moore Public Schools and how posh that would be; how fancy I would be.
I didn’t grow up in a fancy family. We lived a modest life. But there were pockets of our extended family who were wealthier and lived a fancier lifestyle. I wanted it. I wanted to look sharp, drive a nice car, live in a fancy house. That was important to me when I was in my 20s, but I was too embarrassed to admit it to anyone.
The test was entitled something like “Software Engineering Aptitude Test”. It makes my hands sweat a little bit to remember what it felt like sitting in my suit and fancy shoes in front of an exam that could change the course of my life and not have a single idea if I could answer even one question. In spite of having no idea what was going to happen, I just knew that I would be working at this company. I was certain. And I could answer questions. It was all about logic and workflows. No computer programming concepts. I would need a 50% to pass. I did the best that I could. When I finished, they told me that I would get the results on Friday. I drove home to wait for the results.
I had most of the week to continue to teach. When Friday came, I put movies on instead of teaching. I did not have the focus to put together lesson plans. I had given SPR the school office phone and I was waiting anxiously while the kids watched.
“Mr. Wilson-Burns?” came the secretary’s voice on my class intercom. “You have a call.”
My heart raced. I took the call in an empty break room.
“David? This is Jessica from SPR. I’m calling to tell you the results of your exam.”
“Ok.” I said, expectantly.
“Are you ready? You scored a 51%. Welcome to SPR! Your boot camp starts next Monday. Can you make it?”
It was Friday. I would have to resign that day with no notice. I wrote my resignation letter on the a Mac in the lounge and printed it out and signed it. At the end of the day, I found my principal in her office. I’d never actually been to her office. It softened her a bit. I handed the letter to her.
I don’t remember what she said, but she didn’t blink an eye. She said they would miss me, and the she congratulated me. I wonder now if she had already suspected that I would leave soon.
And that was that. My teaching career was over. I don’t remember feeling anything but relief and excitement.
We were renting a house and so we gave the land lord a month’s notice. I went ahead to Tulsa and stayed at Jennifer’s aunt and uncle’s house. I would come home on the weekends. We would find an apartment in a month.
My experience to come was so intense that it is a blur in my memory. We were all put into a training room at the SPR offices in the Mid-Continent Tower. There were rows of tables, chairs, and computers facing front. On the first morning, nearly everyone was early, except for the instructor. There were somewhere around 30 trainees. Interestingly, it didn’t feel like I was returning to college. For some reason, it felt more like high school. Maybe because there were obvious former cool kids who began to connect with each other, establishing their place, while the rest of us sat quietly and skimmed through our materials. The material was like a foreign language to me; in fact, there were parts which were literally a foreign language to me.
I soon learned that the course would be taught by four retired computer science professors. We were to be in this room for ten hours ever day Monday through Friday and sometimes Saturday for ten weeks. Approximately 500 hours of instruction. We were told that 50% of us would drop out before the ten weeks were up. Boot Camp.
Our supervisor explained that we would receive a substantial raise and be hired permanently if we made it through the program.
Throughout the first day, I learned that many of the trainees had computer and programming experience. I admit, that this intimidated me at first, but eventually I learned that I was as capable or more than anyone in the room.
I do have a few vivid memories. Behind, me sat a former high school football star. He must have been a few years younger than me. Six foot four and still powerfully muscular. He was the class clown. At first I fell back into my old high role as the uncool geek, but as I got to know him I began to realize that that stuff was really a high school thing. We became friends and he seemed to be having the same realization. Here were two men who never would have spoken in high school, but were now free of the social structure that we had all quietly agreed to support. This was a turning point in my life. I realized that I can be who I wanted to be. There was no one in the world telling me who I should or shouldn’t be. This brought me a great sense of freedom and happiness.
After I wrote my first program, I decided to treat myself to Applebee’s. I decided that I should get a drink. I’m not sure exactly what it was, but it had milk in it. Why not just a beer, David? After I ate and I was nursing my drink, I pulled out a pen and scratched out some pseudo-code. Secretly, I wanted someone to see me and think I was solving some difficult problem for a big company.
I generally ate lunch alone. There were many choices downtown. Coneys were a popular item in that area and I often went to the Coney Islander Hot Weiner Shop for four chili coneys dressed with minced onions and Louisiana Hot Sauce. There was also a German restaurant that I liked. I loved to sit up in the balcony and watch the customers and wait staff. One day, after eating there, I started to write about a character named Daniel. Daniel was a very honest version of me. I was a private person at that time….um, not so much anymore. I was afraid of what people would think of me if they saw my true self. It was liberating to write. I wrote a series of Daniel vignettes. This is where my love of writing began. I would later write fifty thousand words on the Daniel character. The work is unfinished.
One by one, the trainees left. One guy left because he made the Tulsa paper in a very unfortunate way. He had been busted by the FBI for downloading pictures of underage teen boys. He claimed that it was unintentional. He never returned. The company didn’t want the bad press. Sometimes the most likable people do things that you would never expect.
I excelled. I was starting to believe that I could really do more than music. In fact, I was starting to believe that I could do anything I wanted. I had never felt so empowered.
One of the instructors was a crusty old man from Chicago. He was my favorite instructor. I found him to be kind and enjoyable to work with. One day, I was returning to the classroom with a cup of coffee and I heard singing in the library. The door was ajar so I peaked in. It was the instructor. He had what I now know was a prayer shawl and he was raising his hands. He was singing to God. Living in Oklahoma, you don’t meet a lot of people practicing the Jewish faith. This was my first encounter. I only watched for a few seconds. I didn’t want to intrude. It was beautiful.
I and around 50% of the trainees completed the program. We had a graduation of sorts and we were all given certificates. I wish I still had it. So what next? Every class preceding us went straight to work in offices all over Tulsa, one of them underground. But this class didn’t go anywhere. The work had dried up, so they put us on the bench. It’s expensive to put someone on the bench in the consulting industry. Another company might have let us go after a few weeks.
Everyone was trying to get placed. I befriended a man who eventually took me to Sunoco Oil with him. There my job was to add lines of comments to the header of a bunch of Cobol programs. Sitting in that office was the first time I watched a movie trailer on my computer. It was Star Wars Episode 1. My office mate and I geeked out of it.
I didn’t understand the code, but I did enjoy looking at the change logs written at the tops of the programs. I found one program that was written in 1965. I still marvel at that. The project ended after a month when the whole force was sent away. No more Y2k work needed. That is how so many consulting companies collapsed.
Then one day I was sitting at my computer back in the office and the general manager of the company walked out of his office and shouted “Everybody learn Powerbuilder!” Who needs email when you can scream from your office? And so I began to teach myself this new language. I found that I could learn it pretty quickly. I liked it a lot.
Soon, the company brought in a couple of Powerbuilder trainers and our training resumed. This time around I was cockier. I had conquered Cobol and was ready to conquer Powerbuilder.
One instructor was tall and arrogant. The other was short and stocky with a light, red beard. He was not arrogant at all. He was quite humble and I liked him a lot.
When the course was over, they announced that there were two placements available and that they would interview us to determine who would get them. I decided that my best move would be super confidence. I was going to out-arrogance the arrogant one and impress the humble one.
“Tell us why we should place you?” asked the arrogant one.
I worked up a computer analogy and looked him straight in the eye.
I said, “Jake, you see, those other guys are like hard drives. They may have a lot of information, but I’m like a processor. I can pick things up and make things happen.
Arrogant broke in and started to say, “I don’t get it. That’s not really how computers-”
But then humble held up his hand and said “No. Do you see what he’s saying? He is saying that he’s a fast learner and a fast worker. He is saying that he’s the best.”
After everyone was done the two of them came out. Humble pointed at me and asked me to come back into the office.
Arrogant said “I admit it, David, your confidence impressed me. I think you can do this.”
That job is the first one on my resume. I worked at Williams Communications for one year before I took a job back in Oklahoma City…coding Powerbuilder. I went on to learn other languages and I’ve held many more jobs, but I’ve never felt as utterly energized as I did in that first year. It was the year that I learned how to learn again and believe in myself, and I’ve never quit.
One conversation at a family reunion changed my life forever. Wow. I am in awe over that. It might have never happened. If it weren’t for 4 digit years it would have never happened. I never would have dreamed of doing what I do. I never would have believed that I could even do it. I do miss teaching sometimes, but when I look back over the last nineteen years I see a clear path to the happy place I am right now and I wouldn’t change that. The Johnston and Murphy shoes? They became my lucky interview shoes. I just resoled them.