When I was 17 and a high school drop-out I went to work for a bank. My mom was ecstatic, I had a job, in spite of my failure to ‘get an education’. Never mind that the job that I got was mailroom gofer. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being a mail runner for a bank. And run I did. So fast that people complained about it because I made them look lazy :)
What I really wanted was to run my own company, but without the required background knowledge that would have been a huge risk, and as my mom told me, at least now I had a job.
So I worked my shifts and at night did my best to grok this thing called computing better than I did up and until that point. Burning the midnight oil, studying 6809 and 6502 assembler (using Lance Leventhals books), digital logic and Schaums Outline series on boolean algebra and any other subject that might be remotely related to computing in any shape or form. Even if I didn’t understand all that I read when I read it enough of it stuck to be able to read back later when I needed it. All the money I made that didn’t go into the rent of my 1 room apartment and food went in to computing hardware and books. No world wide web back then to get information from. And computer gear was expensive back then! A 160K floppy drive? That’s 900 bucks please! Aka 4 months of savings.
My first ‘freelance’ job I got by accident. I was walking home one night in Amsterdam and two guys were lugging an Apple II from a car in to a house. Being of a curious nature I asked what they were doing (it looked rather suspicious!) and they said ‘building an eye tracker’. “What’s that?” I asked. “Come along and see”. Stuff like that happens in Amsterdam in the middle of the night.
Up a couple of flights of (very narrow) stairs in to a room full of gear, lights, mirrors at weird angles, cameras and so on.
An eye tracker is a device that allows you to see on a screen what a person is looking at, a cleverly rigged monitor/camera/light/mirror combination reflects a dot of light from the eye of the observer of the screen on to a camera via a mirror. Only one problem, it didn’t work.
They were using a plug-in board to the Apple with a flash digitizer in it to sample the video signal, and they were having a hell of a time getting the interrupts from the board on the horizontal scanline processed fast enough to make it work.
I looked at their code for a bit, saw that it was hopelessly inefficient and hand-assembled a much faster version using a look-up table and a bit mask instead of a bunch of math to figure out where in memory to dump the data from the converter.
They rolled off their chairs, they’d never ever seen anybody do assembly without an assembler before, and so I got my first gig.
Of course, I was still employed at the time, and this ‘job’ only got me a (very) little bit of money but I realized that maybe I was going to be good enough to make a living while not being employed.
I started working harder. The next thing I did was to apply for jobs for the programming department of the bank. Now, technically this was a no-go. Not having any of the required pre-requisites for the job I got turned down again and again and again. But since these were ‘internal’ applications they had to consider them, there was a directive that any internal application had to be looked at to make sure that no talent already in-house would be wasted. After 18 months of me beating down the doors of the HR department every time they posted an IT job I got an offer to become a systems administrator.
Not a programmer yet, but a huge step up from running mail, a room with 4 other guys lording it over the pile of output that was generated every day for the ‘corporate accounts’ division of the bank. Basically the job consisted of checking half a mile of output each day to make sure that it was all good and signing off on it that it was inspected. Sick days were not appreciated. Meanwhile I got a bit more money, so my 5” CRT that I’d liberated from an old studio camera was replaced by a 12”, I got a pair of drives and kept on learning.
And still applied for jobs. Now what? You’ve got an IT job… but I want to program.
Another 9 months and I got a call. I should report the next day in the “Coengebouw”, a building in the west part of Amsterdam where the IT department was housed. Meet with a guy that ran the programming department. About a job I’d applied to.
I think I was there 3 hours early, no nails left because I’d bitten them all off at night.
The guy that met me was gruff and to the point. I know who you are, I’ve seen you apply for every programming job in the last 2 1⁄2 years. You have no qualifications whatsoever why do you want this job so badly? So I explained that I’d been programming for years on my ‘micros’ but would really like to do that professionally not just as a hobby. He said: “Ok, I’m going to send you on this course, it’s a 20,000 guilder expense on my side. If you let me down, you’re out and I never ever want to see you again, if you pass the examination at the end you’ve got a job as a junior programmer”.
I could have hugged the guy.
Off to “Volmac” I went, I finished their 3 months course in about 6 weeks and was suspected of cheating because I got their trick questions that ‘nobody ever got’ right. Oh well.
So, finally, I was a programmer. But still not running my own company but that could wait. For another year or so I worked really hard to learn the ins-and-outs of COBOL on the Sperry Univac and a weird system called Mapper which only named variables from v1 to v23 iirc.
The bank got bought by Chase Manhattan, and we switched to IBM. I did a little bit of work on that. And every now and then found another side job. One day my boss (the guy that interviewed me) came to me and we had a talk. He basically pointed out to me that I was wasting my time writing print programs in Cobol. (I’d written a full screen editor in my spare time and was using it to edit my code, it was lightyears ahead of the system editor and he’d seen it in action). There was this new thing coming out called a PC, how about he ordered one and I’d get to learn how to program that? So it happened, I got a brandnew PC-XT complete with harddrive (10M!) and an enormous pile of books to go with it. I learned 8086 assembler and spent some time on other languages. Another talk. You should found your own company, and I’ll give you a couple of hints. Do it!
And I did. And landed my first contract that first year and made more money than I had made in my life up and until that point.
When I announced that I was going ‘solo’ my mom freaked out. I was 22 at the time and making roughly twice what she was making and she could not for one second understand that this was a responsible thing to do.
Without the moral support of my boss and my former boss I would have never believed that I could do it. So, I’m not your boss. But if you are in any way talented or dedicated and you have half a head for business, take if from me. You can do it. If a high school drop-out with nothing but a typing diploma could do it, so can you. Now go do it.
– dedicated to Piet Tacx, Fred Fluitsma and Eddy de Leeuw, thank you both very much for my early career and everything that followed from it.