Saturday, April 14, 2007

On the kindness of strangers...

I got my "break" into the software industry partially due to the kindness of a couple of strangers a number of years ago. It's difficult to say where I'd be now without that break. Maybe I'd be in exactly the same place, maybe I wouldn't. But lately it's gotten me to thinking of ways I could give someone else the same kind of break.

A little background:

Like many American kids, I was a bum in the summers. No school, just sat around watching TV all day, messing with a computer, consuming mass quantities of Vitamin J (aka "junk food"- it's a wonder I'm not diabetic). As soon as I hit eighth grade, though, my dad put a stop to that. We'd just moved to a new subdivision, and many of the neighbors didn't have landscaping yet. The ol' man wasted no time farming me out to do their bidding (I can't remember how many times I heard, "Hey, my kid will put in your yard and sprinkler system!"). Even though the pay was fantastic for a 14 year old kid, as a generally sedentary geek-type, I absolutely hated the work. My raging hay fever didn't help matters, either.

During one of those loathsome work sessions, my neighbor Jake was toiling alongside me in his yard. I think I was bellyaching about how much I hated working outside when he asked what kinds of things I did enjoy doing. Obviously, the computer stuff came up. "Hmm...", he said. "My brother-in-law owns a software company. Maybe you should talk to him- there might be something you two could work out."

A few phone calls later, I was sitting in a room talking with Bob Rasmussen of
Rasmussen Software. I don't recall the exact content of that conversation, but it ended with him offering me a job. As is the case at many small companies, my actual role had a pretty fuzzy definition that's difficult to slap a label on. While I was there, I had varying responsibilities for bookkeeping, QA, production script maintenance, janitorial, debugging, feature development, system admininistration, shipping, and so on.

At that first job, I learned a lot of great lessons about the software business by being invited to look over Bob's shoulder. The importance of customer service; developing a sense of "code smell" (he would often refer to hacky code as "not kosher," a phrase I continue to use today); formal design and debugging techniques, and so on. It was my first experience being around someone who truly loved their work- a feeling I've strived (and mostly succeeded) to replicate. I even got my first experience with being fired after a stupid mishandling of a batch of customer inquiries. All valuable lessons indeed- they have contributed to my success in this industry on a daily basis, and I'm sure the experience was a contributing factor to my landing an internship with Intel soon after, which was again a jumping off point for many other adventures. A heartfelt thanks, Bob.

The question I struggle with now is: how can I "pay it forward" and give someone else the same kind of opportunity? I've always enjoyed enabling my colleagues on difficult technologies, but that's not really the same kind of "break" that I got. Maybe I'll have a chat with computer instructors at some of the local high schools- it seems like there's always some star-in-the-making that outshines even the instructor and is always "bored" in those classes.

So, dear readers, how did you get your start? Can you pin early success in your field to the actions of a small group of people? And do you have any ideas for me on how I could give someone else the same chance?

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