doing stupid stuff

St Louis night by Daniel Schwen/WikimediaI started my career in information technology in September 1983 at the Wilmington, DE office of Digital Equipment Corporation [DEC]. The Wilmington office serviced the E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co account. Better known as DuPont, they were the largest chemical company in the United States and No. 6 on the Fortune 500. They were huge and impossible to please but they used DEC computers for just about all their technical and scientific computing so our little office was a busy place.

I was hired to provide pre-sales support for the Rainbow, DEC’s personal computer. My qualifications for the position consisted of knowing how to spell “PC” and being able to turn one on. My interview was a total snowjob. I didn’t have the first clue how to work a PC but I somehow convinced the interviewing manager that I could. Truth is the Wilmington DEC office was filled with technical geniuses that I couldn’t possibly compete with. However, they were all engaged on long, complicated consulting residencies on site at various DuPont facilities. So there was a vacuum that needed filling. And sometimes that’s all it takes to find your dream job.

Pre-sales support consisted of working with the local sales representatives on their sales calls to DuPont. That often meant lugging computers, monitors, keyboards and such to do onsite demos. I’d set up all the gear and then show the DuPont eggheads how to use it.

Side note: At the time, DuPont’s main research laboratory had the highest concentration of Ph.D chemical engineers in the world. I saw the rooms where Nylon, Rayon and Teflon were invented. It was Chemistry Ground Zero and they all listened to me show them how to use their new Rainbows.

And to my eternal amazement, I got paid to do this. If anyone ever tells you bullshit doesn’t pay, that’s bullshit. I may have used Jedi mind tricks to get in the door but, from then on, it was work and study and more work and learning and more work. Soon enough, with pure sweat and effort, I cornered the office “guru” label on PC’s. My planted seeds had taken root. I was in.

Fast forward to 1987. I wasn’t tired of the PC job but it was pretty obvious that the resident consultants in the office were the rock stars. A residency consisted of going to work each day *at* a DuPont site with only rare appearances at the local DEC office. They were basically working for DuPont at DuPont. And I wanted to do a residency too. Only problem was there were no residencies for DEC’s Rainbow PC’s. So I had to learn the bigger, multi-user, time sharing systems in order to go onsite.

The 1980’s were Digital’s salad days. The stock price soared, new offices and plants were built, employee hiring surged and we were acknowledged as the 2nd largest computer company in the world behind IBM, our toughest competitor.

And it was all due to a DEC minicomputer known as the VAX. A minicomputer was larger than a PC but much smaller than a massive IBM mainframe. A VAX could service dozens if not hundreds of concurrent users so it was perfect for smaller offices and departments at DuPont. And best of all, IBM didn’t have a mini anywhere near as good as a VAX. They sold like candy.

So if I wanted to switch jobs to a residency, I had to learn VAX software. Enter ALL-IN-1, a very early and very good office automation prototype. It ran on the VAX and provided shared services for word processing, electronic mail and calendar. Those services are ubiquitous today but they were cutting edge in the 80’s. Best of all, it had its own programming language you could use to write ALL-IN-1 add-on applications. For whatever reason, I took to it like a thirsty man takes to water. And soon enough, I got the residency I’d been looking for.

The Corporate DuPont Office Technology (CDOT) team was located in DuPont’s corporate headquarters in downtown Wilmington. It was a fantastic assignment. CDOT was responsible for supporting ALL-IN-1 across the entire DuPont corporate enterprise.

I traveled all over the DuPont map. Textile fibers factories, experimental laboratories, office complexes, oil refineries and so on. Hard hats and jeans one day. Coat and tie the next. I rode in corporate limos, flew in corporate jets and even took a helicopter ride over Boston. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve looked down between your knees through plexiglass and said, “Hey, look, there’s Fenway Park!”

About a year into my CDOT residency, DEC released a new software package called VAX NOTES. Think of VAX NOTES as Facebook discussion threads but without the chat and colorful graphics. It was revolutionary because you could post questions and get answers from experts all over the world. DuPont loved it and CDOT was asked to support it.

One day, I discovered that Digital’s corporate ALL-IN-1 support group had been connected to DuPont’s VAX NOTES network. DEC ALL-IN-1 support was located in Charlotte, NC. That office was the nerve center for ALL-IN-1 and I found myself talking to the “gods” of the product. I got instant answers from some of the sharpest people I’d ever known. They made my job in Wilmington much easier. With their help, I got even better at working with ALL-IN-1.

So if you’ve read this far, you know what’s coming next. Yep, now I wanted to be an ALL-IN-1 guru in Charlotte too. It became my Holy Grail quest to transfer down there and immerse myself in all that incredible knowledge and kickass expertise. Charlotte was my white whale and I had to get there.

Now, here’s the deal. I only knew these Charlotte swamis by their computer screens. I’d never met anyone face-to-face and had never had a phone call with any of them. I didn’t know them personally so I had no idea what they looked like or their individual likes, dislikes and personality quirks. It was the ultimate blind man’s quest.

Side note: I have to tip my hat and express my love and gratitude to my incredible wife, Cindy. I asked her to move 600 miles away from our life up North to a new life down South where neither of us knew anyone. And she never once hesitated to back me up. Thank you, Cindy.

So I snagged an interview in December 1989 with the office manager in Charlotte and what do you know, I got the job. Boo yeah.

First order of business was a house hunting trip to Charlotte. Our trip so happened to coincide with the Charlotte office’s Christmas pot luck luncheon. They graciously invited us to join even though this was the first time we were meeting these people and putting names to faces. A few minutes after we sat down to eat, I looked around and saw this interesting fellow close by and I whispered to Cindy, “Look at that guy over there. He’s eating his lunch using a Jetsons lunch kit!” Jetsons plate, Jetsons cup, Jetsons knife, fork and spoon. I said to Cindy, “I think I’m gonna like it here.”

That Jetsons guy was Daniel Medvid and he and I became good solid friends very quickly. One of the first things Dan told me was “Don’t be too impressed with these people. They’re all geniuses but they’re also total weirdos with awkward social skills.” Boy, was he right. A lotta quirky guys and a few oddball gals too. It was a melting pot of eccentricity. And I fell in love with them all instantly. I had finally found my nirvana. Working with the best to be the best while having ridiculous amounts of fun doing it. Once again, I was amazed I was getting paid to have this much fun at work.

We said goodbye to Delaware in January 1990 and moved to the Charlotte area. And after a few days at work, I got my first new assignment. There was a small company out in St Louis that had written a version of ALL-IN-1 that could run on a PC and not a VAX. DEC had given them some seed money and were considering a buyout if their stuff was good enough. My task was to learn their code and evaluate them as possible buyout candidates. And so a trip to St Louis was in order.

In typical large company fashion, we took too many people on the trip. Daniel was asked to go. He was a documentation and training expert and that was too early in the evaluation process so he didn’t have a whole lot to do. Our manager also made the trip and he had nothing to do either. Two or three other guys made the trip as well and they were also idle most of the time. And to wrap it all up, their code wasn’t really ready so I twiddled my thumbs a lot.

Another side note: Daniel and I had another post-Jetsons bonding moment on this St Louis trip. I was killing time reading VAX NOTES groups on the corporate network. DEC had a very loose policy on using VAX NOTES internally. You could start up just about any group you wanted. Didn’t have to be a business topic either. I had discovered a SPORTS NOTES group a few months before and was participating actively.

So I’m sitting there with nothing to do and I’m laughing under my breath at a thread in the SPORTS group. Daniel heard me laughing and came over to see. He’s a sports fan too so I asked him if he was a SPORTS NOTES member. He said no, not yet, so I showed him my screen.

The thread was titled “Kissing In The NBA” and it was a hilarious thread about Pistons G Isaiah Thomas and Lakers G Magic Johnson kissing each other’s cheeks in the center circle right before the opening tipoff when they played against each other. Two minutes later, Daniel was the newest member of SPORTS NOTES.

So anyway, what do five or six young geeks do in a strange city with nothing to do? That’s right, we tore it up like the masters of the nerd universe we were. One night after work, we all hit a local St Louis sports bar. I’m not much of a drinker so I volunteered to be the designated driver of our rental car. First thing we see is a lovely midwestern young lady dressed to attract males in waves. Over her skimpy outfit, she’s got two leather straps down her front and they’re loaded with small glass tubes filled with a dark purple liquid.

“Would anyone like a Purple Shooter?”

Our manager stepped right up, paid her and then poured whatever a Purple Shooter was right down his throat. And then 4 or 5 more Purple Shooters to follow. Uh oh, this could get interesting.

From there, we headed to an NHL hockey game between the hometown St Louis Blues and the visiting Hartford Whalers. We bought walk-up tickets and settled in our seats. Can you guess what beers are on sale at Blues games with St Louis being the corporate headquarters of Anheuser-Busch? You got it, we were in Budweiser Central. Every time play stopped, the Budweiser jingle played …

2:00 minutes for roughing? “When you say Bud.”
Goal scored? “When you say Bud.”
Zamboni on the ice? “When you say Bud.”

Guess what cold beverage our geek squad was slamming down with both hands? “When you say Bud.”

I’m still sober but I am thoroughly enjoying hanging with my new friends, this brutally hammered fun bunch. After the game, we staggered back to our rental and left the parking lot looking for something else to do.

“Hey, let’s go see the Gateway Arch! Great idea, let’s go! Man, I gotta pee. Hey, let’s go pee on the Gateway Arch!”

“I dunno, guys, it’s night time. What if we get caught?”

Of course, I was outvoted 5-1. Here we come, Gateway Arch! Bladders ho!

Ten minutes later, with six fresh new wet pee stains gracing that beautiful steel edifice, we piled in the rental and headed back to the hotel. And that’s when our manager, Captain Purple Shooter, lying in a stupor in the back seat decided he needed to show us all his stomach contents. I think even Linda Blair would’ve been impressed. And so there we were, drenched in used Purple Shooter, in frozen January, riding back to our hotel with the icy windows open.

I think I’m gonna like it here.

Epilogue: Since that wild trip, many friends and family members have also visited St Louis. And each time they mention the Gateway Arch or show it in a vacation photo, my reply is always the same …

“I peed on that.”

And then I get to tell this story all over again.

Image credit: St Louis night by Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia (cc).
Robert E Hunt Jr

Robert Hunt

Bob is a software developer specializing in large scale database applications. He was born near Philadelphia, grew up on the Jersey Shore (Bruce!), graduated from the University of Virginia in 1980 and moved to the Charlotte, NC area in 1990. Bob is an avid sports fan, a political junkie, a music and cinema buff and a history book reader. Bob is married to Cindy Hunt and together they have three beautiful and smart adult daughters and three adorable granddaughters. Bob's past lives are a bit more checkered. He was a Roman centurion killed in the Battle of Pharsalus, Shakespeare's secretary and the uncredited author of "Othello" and finally, he was one of the North Carolina infantrymen who accidentally shot Stonewall Jackson.