Rockford Lhotka

VP, Open Source Creator, Author, Speaker

How I Got Into Computers First Job Hunt Edition

29 Dec 2020

This is the fourth post in a series about how I got into computers and how my career has unfolded.

When I was in school my relatives would often ask me what I was going to do when I graduated. Like what kind of job I’d have, and what would I actually be doing in a job.

I had no idea. I had zero experience (first, second, or third hand) with office jobs. I grew up in rural Minnesota, where pretty much everyone had jobs working with lumber, steel, construction, farming, more farming, and yet more farming. I had zero concept of office life, cube-land, or anything like that.

Even my internship didn’t provide this insight, because I spent most of my time riding a bus, recording aircraft noise, or doing other activities that weren’t in an office setting.

I also had no comprehension of what people actually did with computer programming. Fortunately (?) I’d heard titles like “system analyst” and “system programmer”, so that is what I told people who asked. Of course, I had no answer to the awkward follow-up regarding what such jobs actually entailed!

As a result, my future was this big empty field of endless, but totally undefined, opportunity. All I knew was that I really enjoyed programming, and had discovered that I was pretty good at it.

Sadly, I graduated near the end of the Ronald Reagan era, and trickle down economics had created a nasty recession. In Minnesota, thousands of software developers and engineers were being laid off by some of the biggest computer companies at the time. This meant that I, as a newly graduated student, was competing with lots of experienced folks.

I rapidly realized a few things. First, the vast majority of jobs were in cities, not in rural areas. Second, it was virtually impossible to run a job search from a remote area (remember, this is 1987, all pre-Internet). Third, living in the Twin Cities (for example) was way more expensive than living in any rural area.

So I moved in with a college friend to split the costs of rent, and got a temp job doing data entry work to try and make enough money to cover rent and food while I searched for a real job.

Not that data entry isn’t a real job! But after spending all that time and money on a Computer Science degree, my goal was clearly to leverage my degree to get a job doing what I loved!

That data entry job turned out to be valuable, not just because it allowed me to have a roof and food, but because it was my first real exposure to using mainframe computers. It turns out that the 3270 terminal experience pretty much sucks. At least if you are used to using VT series terminals with a VAX, or even PC-based (or Commodore 64-based) user experiences.

This temp job also exposed me to real cube life. The life so many people have every day of their working lives. Come in, drop your lunch in the refrigerator, settle into your shared cube area, log into the computer, get your work lined up, and start typing.

After a while, your supervisor stops by to see how you are doing, which is pretty cool the first couple times, because you think she cares. After a while you realize she’s following a corporate playbook, same routine every day.

Don’t get me wrong, I remember her as being a nice person. When she wasn’t following the playbook and actually was herself.

I was a super-fast typer, and picked up the numeric keypad stuff very rapidly. I still do type reasonably fast, but age is taking its toll. I think back to that time, when I could almost type as fast as I could think, and I was always trying to type faster, because the ideas coming from my head wanted to get out!

This was extremely helpful with the data entry job, and the biggest blocker for productivity was that during mid-day the mainframe would get pretty slow, so I’d have to wait for the screen to refresh before I could do more typing.

What did I type? I entered mortgage checks into the system. You know, those old paper things that represented payment against an IOU? Yeah, nobody uses checks anymore, but back then nearly everyone paid their mortgage each month by hand-writing a check, putting it an envelop, and mailing it to their loan office.

My job? Take the check and receipt and make sure they matched, then type the info into the mainframe. Over and over, check after check, all day long. Pretty brainless work, but it paid minimum wage ($3.35/hr), and provided enough money to just barely cover rent, food, and gas.

Every Sunday when the newspaper came out I’d go through the want ads. Again, I know, this probably doesn’t exist at all anymore, but at that time the only way for an employer to search for workers was to buy a want ad in the newspaper. And the only way for a would-be employee to find jobs was to comb through the want ads looking for something that seemed like a match.

I started out answering only ads I qualified for based on the requirements listed. Things like “entry level”, or “1-2 years experience”. I remember being totally lost by a lot of the acronyms like MUMPS and all sorts of other mainframe-ish terms from the time. Things the university didn’t cover and of which I had no knowledge.

In today’s world finding out what anything is is just a google search away, but that sure wasn’t true in the mid-1980s! Nor could I ask family or friends, because no one I knew was in the computer field.

After a month or so, of having very few applications out and no positive feedback (and hardly any negative feedback either), I decided to broaden my search. Which really meant applying for jobs that advertised for 5-7 years experience. Basically, anything around 5 or less was fair game, and if the job mentioned things I actually knew, like VAX, FORTRAN, or Pascal then I’d go higher.

The result was more feedback, mostly negative. But some positive and I actually got some interviews. One flew me to California actually, the others were in the Twin Cities. None of those resulted in offers, but it was movement! Hope!

During this time I had been talking to a professor at NDSU in Grand Forks, ND. This guy was trying to get a Masters Degree program off the ground at the university, and was looking for grad students. My job search was starting to stretch long into the summer, and I was extremely tired of data entry (it turns out I don’t handle repetition very well).

Well into August I had an interview with this company just outside the city to the west, and darned if they didn’t offer me a job! Not well paying, but a real job doing real computer programming!!

Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity!

About two weeks after I started, I got a call from the NDSU professor offering me a spot in the newly formed grad program. Maybe it was three weeks? I think I had received my first paycheck, and was drunk on the money!

That’s a joke. The job paid $20k/year, which even in the 80’s barely enough to pay student loans, rent, food, gas, and other life expenses for myself and my then-girlfriend. At least not in the Twin Cities.

But seriously, the fact that, after months of searching and painful data entry work, I finally had an actual professional programming job was overwhelming enough that I turned down a move back to university. This disappointed the professor greatly. I remember the anger in his voice to this day! So perhaps I dodged something bad there, because working for people who anger easily is never a fun thing.

Next post? All about that first job and lessons learned.

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