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Golden Geek: Executives and Malcontents

Earlier in this series:
2008-05-13: Wandering into Computing
2008-05-08: Don't Call Me a Coder!

Shortly after the East-coast software-development operations of Sperry Univac were consolidated in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, we began hiring new college graduates and putting them through systems-programmer training (what we would now think of as operating-system and programming-languages and tools software development).  There were not yet many established computer-science undergraduate programs and we needed to provide some common foundation and basics for developers in our world.  We also accepted trainees from within the company, including one engineering draftsman and a number of administrative assistants (then known as secretaries).  I don't recall any computer operators or field computer-service types, although we did recruit promising candidates from those areas. 

I was one of the first instructors when this started around 1966.  I also became the lead for a small group of advanced-software development technologists (harboring one of the first efforts to build a non-LISP functional-programming system in the United States).

The software organization (remarkably small by today's standards) that these newcomers inoculated became youthful, rambunctious, and energetic.  It was a time of enthusiastic growth.

Dave: Brilliant Malcontent Hacker

One of the developers that I brought into my team, Dave B., had been miss-hired.  Although he came in along with a Summer crop of new-graduate hires, he was an experienced developer and drop-out.   His experience showed.  And Dave was seriously underpaid.  I suspect, when he was first hired, he was looking at more money than he'd ever received before.  It was also less than what the new-graduate limited-experience hires were making.   It didn't take Dave long to figure that out.  The problem, of course, is that once you are in the system it is very difficult to break out of the annual merit-pay gradual-increase system.

Dave was also a bit iconoclastic with a seasoning of malcontent.  That's probably how I was so easily able to add him to my group.   He was also an important, helpful contributor.  One of his achievements was to develop a braille-printing output converter so that our first blind programmer could obtain listings and tests that were readable as Braille from the back side of the fan-fold sheets. 

At some point, Dave's review came up and I put him in for the correction that he claimed was merited.  The adjustment was declined, of course.  The next step was to find a way to appeal it.   Dave had to do the real work but I was able to add my support and recommendation. 

Don: Decisive Executive

The appeal authority was Engineering Division Vice-President Don N., someone who only recently had the Systems Programming group brought under his wing.  I was several levels below Don and we had never met one-on-one.  Dave was given an appointment with the V-P.  That same day I received a phone call from Don saying he was about to meet with Dave and he had just one question: "Was Dave worth it?"  I said yes.  Don told me what he was going to do.    That's probably the shortest, most-decisive conversations I've ever had.

Later, Dave provided his account.  Don talked with Dave, listened to his concerns about his situation and I'm sure a little about the company and how we operated.  Then Don made his offer.   Don would approve the special pay increase and change of grade under the condition that Dave would stay with the organization for the next 18 months.  That was it.

Dave needed to think about it.  What he did instead was leave the company, ultimately starting his own small software consulting company in his home town. 

Lessons: Resolution and Confronting Life

There were two lessons for me.

First, was the great example of executive decisiveness.  The Vice President accepted my judgment as the direct manager and advocate for Dave.  His offer was completely straightforward. 

Secondly, how Dave was offered a clear resolution to his salary concerns.  What that unconcealed was that Dave's dissatisfaction was about more than salary.   Although Dave and I have been out of touch for 30 years, I now wonder if he appreciates the gift that Don made to him.

It is not unusual for people early in their career to decide that they path they are on doesn't work for them.  They may fault the world or their dissatisfaction may be something that drives them to realize that they crave a different path.  I think of Dave as having accomplished that.  I also think that happened for others who were still footloose and chose to stop programming and teach disadvantaged children or finish college and graduate school before moving into a different career.  There are also people who entered the system-programming group at that time and stayed on, retiring from what became Unisys.  Others left and returned, some more than once.

The Greater Lesson

A third lesson took me more time and many installments to appreciate.  I fit the pattern of the successful malcontent, just like Dave.  I've since learned how powerful it is to see the world as already perfect.  Then it does not need to be fixed and certainly not complained about.  That leaves only simple questions: what do I stand for, what am i committed to, and what's next?   While recalling Dave's experience this morning, I saw this nice reminder from Leo Babauta that offers access to freedom for malcontents.  It does not weaken the useful challenge to "change the world or go home."

I don't write these reminiscences in any particular order even though I have a progression in mind.  Sometimes, such as today, something triggers a recollection that I want to pass on at once.  There will be more like this.

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$$Author: Orcmid $
$$Date: 08-10-07 13:22 $
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