I’ll gladly give you a career tomorrow for a job today.
Forty years ago today, I began my first job not as a printer. As a kid, I learned to make first blueprints and, from there, print design specifications from my father, whose architecture practice employed me periodically and eventually full-time from junior high school through university. When after graduation, I moved to Southern California to seek my fortune as a professional writer; I supported my young family by working in a print shop in West Los Angeles. Through a series of loosely connected events—the most cosmic being the proximity of the job titles Printer and Programmer in the want ads of the L.A. Times—I found myself the morning of November 10, 1982, ready to write my first professionally published lines of … software.
“I’ll do this for 10 years,” I told my then-and-still wife Kari, with whom I had extensively counseled before shelving a four-year degree in professional writing to become a software engineer, “and then I’ll write something readable.” The suggestion that I was not ready to parlay my then-and-still fascination with words into an actual profession had come from the only working writers I had met in the years that led up to that moment.
Douglas Thayer, on his first-day teaching Writing the Novel, harrumphed to us students, “I sure hope none of you is planning to major in creative writing—if there even is such a major at this university. If a student will invest the same effort in becoming a novelist—should ‘novelist’ even be considered an actual job title—in my experience, unless you’re Steven King and can crank out 500 pages from the back of a taxi between Soho and Times Square, being a novelist is hardly an occupation. If you put in the same energy to become, say, an engineer, odds are you will be just as successful at either. But here’s the math. There are fifty courses at this university on how to become an engineer. You’re sitting in the only course on how to write a novel. And if you missed that point, you won’t miss this: were you to become an engineer, you’d at least have something to write, something people might find interesting enough to read, even pay to read. What human being is going to put down money for a story about a writer? I’m a writer. I know lots of writers. Writers don’t live interesting lives. We don’t have lives; we write. If I were you and had designs on becoming a writer, I’d walk out of that door, go straight over to the engineering building, and get myself something to write about.”
Orson Scott Card, another of my writing mentors, gave me the same advice but without the chip. “It took me years to write my first three novels, and I was paid so little for them that when I sold my fourth, I used the money to buy back the first three. So I didn’t make a nickel until I sold that fourth book. You might write part-time for years. Maybe ever. Go find yourself something you love and write about that.”
Having dismissed both words of advice, I find myself the week after graduating as a book-learned writer sitting in a plush chair across from the head of an advertising agency. Besides writing novels, I had trained to write stage plays, screenplays, poems, essays, and magazine articles, basically anything with words in it, including ad copy.
“So, Scott, it says in your resume you know how to write. What brings you to DDB?” asks the managing director of Doyle Dane Bernbach West, the L.A. office of the Madison Avenue firm representing Cracker Jack and Ernest and Julio Gallo.
I have expected this question, and my confidence soars that I can lead off my first job interview with a rehearsed answer.
“Um, I’m thinking beginning writers, at first, anyway, only write in their free time. So what better day job for an aspiring writer than to get paid for, you know, writing all day?”
“Come here,” he says, signaling to me by standing that my one-question interview is now over. “There’s someone you should meet.”
We make our way to another office, where I am introduced to the ad agency’s head copywriter.
“Scott, meet Bob.”
We shake hands unevenly, Bob, the actual writer; I, the pretender.
“Bob, Scott wants to write ad copy during the day, so when he gets home, he can write, what, screenplays at night?”
I attempt a facial gesture that might have passed for sheepish.
“So, Bob, tell Scott how many episodes of Sesame Street you are under contract to write for the Children’s Television Workshop this year—when you’re not at work.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” says Bob. “I think I’m up to about forty a year.”
“And how many episodes of Sesame Street did you write last year?”
“Oh, I don’t know, maybe ten?”
Bob has one of those stand-up desks that looks more like an architect’s drafting table than something a working writer would stand at. Except there is nothing on its broad surface to reveal its purpose except an 11 x 17 blank sheet of white paper and a couple of felt-tip markers, one black, one red.
“So, Scott, why don’t you ask Bob why he didn’t submit the other 30 episodes they would have paid him handsomely to write?”
By now, it’s obvious that not unlike my practiced answer, Click and Clack have performed this routine a dozen times before. I wryly accommodate.
“Yes, Bob, tell me.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Bob goes on. “I come to the office every day, stare at this piece of paper till my brain dries up, and in a good month, I might crank out, what, one tangible idea?”
No wonder he doesn’t own a typewriter. (Remember, this is 1982.)
“He’s being modest,” interjects Click. “’Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts, and a prize? … We will sell no wine before its time?’” Those were Bob on a slow day.”
“But when I get home and walk in that door,” Clack again, right on cue, “the dog’s barking, the kids are crying, the last thing I want to do is write, Vous savez? My advice: if you want to write screenplays …”—I decide, right on cue, that I no longer do—“… go out and do what every ‘screenwriter’ in this town does every single day: wait tables or drive a taxi. Give yourself something to write about.”
So there I am, seven months after enrolling in emergency engineering school, sitting in a steel chair, staring at a green screen, juicing up my brain to write its first line, not of a screenplay, nor of a novel, but of a block of computer code linked through a series of other blocks of computer code to the manufacture of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Introduced to my first boss, I am reminded just by hearing his name how close I might have gotten to becoming an actual writer.
Affectionally called ‘Sixto’ behind his back—“When are you gonna be done? Six hours? Six days? Six months?”—Paul Timon comes by to introduce himself and to give me my first writing assignment. “This software program prints out a shuttle manufacturing schedule with a report date that’s up in the right-hand corner. See, right here?” Paul hands me a fan-folded printout and points to where the date is. “The guys want to add something else up there, so I need you to write a routine that moves that date,” he jabs at the printout, “to that spot right there. Piece of cake; shouldn’t take long.”
My “engineering school” turned out to be for software engineering, enough of it to land me a job with Rockwell Space Systems, NASA’s primary shuttle manufacturer. Changing the position of the date on a parts list should not have taken even six minutes to complete. But in technical school—which was my only computer experience up until then—they insist that before you change even a word in someone else’s code, you’ve got to figure out where that word fits in the entire scheme of the program. This is because software is like anything changeful. If you’re not careful, the butterfly in your code could inadvertently trigger a tsunami in someone else’s.
I would later be introduced to a piece of still-working code at Rockwell written for the Apollo Program twenty years earlier. It was so messed up by the time I heard about it that no one was allowed even to load it into an editor, let alone modify it. That’s because nobody still at the company knew how the program tracked manufacturing work in progress. But it apparently did. “Change something in the landing gear assembly, and the right-wing might fall off!” Or so the legend went. But the block of code Paul asked me to tweak had not yet hardened into a complete black box, though it had lost any appearance of wholeness. Still, the code was so poorly composed that what it needed was to be completely broken down and rebuilt. And if not then, when?
Not six minutes, but sixty go by before Sixto is at my desk. “Ready for your next assignment?”
“Paul, sorry, but this code is messed up. I need to change a bunch of stuff before I fiddle with that date.”
“Fiddle with that date’,” he muses. “I only need you to move that date. How long can it take? Six minutes? Six hours? Six years? What is there to fiddle with?”
“All of it, “I say. “There are Go-to’s that go nowhere. There are no Perform statements. And whoever coded the printout counted spaces when they should have used tabs. I can’t work it without fixing all that … and some other things that won’t make sense to whoever gets it next.”
“Just fix the &#$% date,” Sixto mumbles as he walks away, shaking his head.
If I remember correctly, forty years on, that six-minute task did take six hours. I stayed after work to finish. Even before Paul had come by, there was no going back. Writing software in those days was not like today. They stored changes in staging areas before sending them to card punchers. Incremental undo’s and redo’s were all but impossible to track. Once taken, my decision to rewrite the entire program and create a brand new set of punched cards had become an all-or-nothing act of fate.
Looking back, I sometimes wonder if my heroic overhaul of an entire block of already working software—just to move a six-digit printer field a handful of vertical inches to the south—ever benefited anybody. Had ‘the guys’, whoever they were, needed the date field moved to the upper-left corner at some point? If so, I like to think my extra effort had given the next Cool Hand junior developer a shallower hole to dig and fill back up.
But what if that bit of software, like the untouchable Apollo code, was never to be looked at again? What if—Gasp! This truthfully just occurred to me 40 years later—what if Sixto gave me a non-production piece of code just to practice on my first day as a software engineer? What if knowing how brittle the actual code was, he would only allow me to make changes in what today we would call a test environment—a dummy program with no connections or consequences to actual manufacturing operations?
I never looked at that code again, and not long after my principled refusal to follow Paul’s orders, he assigned me a mentor—despite my insubordination, because of it?—whose humility, patience, and trembling hands opened effectual doors for me that I am still passing through.
The language of the software program whose date I fiddled with was of a kind Rockwell had co-developed with IBM during the Apollo days. The first hierarchical database, IMS, for Information Management System, powered some of the systems NASA used to send astronauts to the moon. At the dawn of the Space Shuttle Era, a Rockwell engineer named Ervin Lester had worked with IBM to devise a new software language based on a shift away from hierarchical databases. A few days after my all-or-nothing, date-changing, Sisyphus-busting, prima donna, first-day-on-the-job performance not as a printer but as a printout engineer, Erv educated me on the marvels of what he haltingly explained was a relational database language. Called ISARS, for Information Storage and Retrieval System–IBM would later rename it SQL–Erv’s little test language formed the basis for what would become the most widely used query system on the planet and remains so four decades later.
That little language, and Erv’s kindness in revealing it to me, led me to a systems engineering role at IBM and ultimately–albeit 30 years later than planned–this piece of writing. As I now have something to write about, my next adventure could involve learning to write something someone might actually read.
That you have come this far, I thank you for your pains and hope you will return.