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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Fortune Smiles on Those Least Prepared to Accept the Challenge

It was sometime in the early 80s when I began to dabble in computer technology, specifically in designing software. Before user groups, before the Internet, you were on your own. It was like hunting for buried treasure, but you had no map. All you had was a shovel and two strong arms to help you start digging.

My foray into computer science began when a friend of the family opened the first home computer store in Orange County, California, light years ahead of the rest of the country. I headed down more for a social call. We were friends – he put me up for a week while I was finding an apartment in L.A. two years earlier as I made a short stint into the video world – working on MTV sets as a grunt.

I came home with one of the earliest ‘portable’ home computers – a 13-pound Panasonic Senior Partner. While woefully underpowered compared to modern gear, it was amiable enough to help me get my feet wet in the world of computer programming.

My goal was simple: create a program to help manage my photography business.


I was heading down the rabbit hole headfirst accelerating at unimaginable speed. It was all good! There were only two programming languages commercially available at that point in time. One was super awful (Microsoft Basic), and the other was clumsy, klutzy, and slower than molasses in January (dBase III).

A normal day for me began at 3 am. I could not contain my enthusiasm at all. This had a very pleasant side effect -- when Sasha was born in 1985, I effortlessly handled the early morning feeding so Phyllis could get some extra Z’s… Learning the rigors of programming made my focus so intense that I completely missed Phyllis telling me that she was going out with her mom that day looking for a lot on which to build a home. When she returned, I was too deep in thought to hear that she put the down payment of the lot on a credit card!

Ultimately, that early computer would be passed along to our daughter when she was three years old. I threw in a copy of Mavis Beacon’s Typing Tutor, and by the time she graduated high school Sasha was typing 108 words per minute – error free. That was an act of sheer beauty and fortitude to behold!

I had a very rude awakening when some friends from L.A. came down for a visit and my buddy Craig asked to play with my newly developed software. Like some madman on a mission from God, he began pounding on the keyboard at a speed never before witnessed by human eyes. In short order my software crashed the computer mercilessly.

A dull quiet overwhelmed the room as I surveyed the damage. Craig had taught me an important lesson: Field Level Validation. Simply stated, this means that every data entry field must be wrapped with an error handling protocol to ensure that the type and format of the information entered was accurate. The best example of this is a Zip Code. At the least, it must be a 5-digit field that is all numeric. At the best, it should include a search into a zip code database to validate the fact that the five digits represent an existing Zip Code.

From that point forward I attacked the code with a vengeance, installing field level validations everywhere. The next time Craig sat down at my computer, the code was bulletproof and unbreakable. He taught me a valuable lesson that I carried with me for the rest of my 25+ year career in software architecture.

I became so fixated by error handling protocol that I single handedly helped a small company (Lexi International) to get back on its feet after numerous software crashes in the early 90’s. What their six man team of programmers could not accomplish in a year of work I implemented in under 48 hours. The result was a tangible $40,000 per week increase in profits. I was stoked.

Before this phenomenon, I spent eight years developing software tools for other programmers. I hit a nerve more than once, and my tools provided significant fodder for developers all over the world. The language du jour back then was Clipper, a fast as lightning compiled algorithm that enabled programmers to create real world business applications for all of the major players at the time.

There was a dark side to this fury. Software was not copyrightable at that point in time and the compiled code was easily reversed into readable source code by an enterprising developer. Before Microsoft released its first version of Windows – which forever changed the way people worked on computers, I had created the first commercially available mouse driver, enabling software developers to incorporate this functionality into their applications long before it appeared in this new operating system.

Microsoft tried to hire me four times during my heyday back then. I turned them down each time with no regrets. I suspect they wanted to buy me out once I was onboard. Instead, they took the easy way out and reverse engineered my code and plopped it into Windows without so much as a thank you. While this did leave me feeling a bit raw at the time, I only stewed briefly.

In addition to my mouse software, I developed the first commercially available data arching solution (backup and restore), and by 1993 every branch of the military, the FBI, IRS, United Nations, and the 1992 Olympic Committee had purchased and implemented my tools. I used to joke that I was able to pay the mortgage on our first home each month solely by sales to Yugoslavia!

While Microsoft Windows was initially released in 1985, it was not a viable business model at that time. Most companies waited until they stabilized the operating system, which took nearly seven years.

While my “Clipper” days were indeed heady – I was one of the guest speakers at the 1987 Clipper’s Developers Conference” and dBase magazine regularly published articles I wrote on programming tips and tricks, my world came to an abrupt halt when the en masse shift from the DOS operating system to Windows took place around 1995.

Windows used a different way of mapping memory (the area in code where information is stored for the length of time the application is in use), and there were no published articles or books on how to coordinate the shift if you were designing low level software (me) to run reliably in the new environment. My users clamored for a solution, but I had none to offer. I just couldn’t create a smooth transition that would help move my code from one platform to the other.

I had a good run, but now had to shift gears. For this entire span of around 15 years, I was successfully running both my photo and software businesses simultaneously, but around this time got double whammied. When I came to the desert (Coachella Valley) in 1975, there were only eight photographers in the area (including me). There was plenty of work to go around and everyone pretty much kept to their side of the tracks.

The ’old money’ that successfully ran the businesses in the valley had retired by then, and their children were of a coarser generation that immediately shifted the aims and goals of the business establishment. I was nickel and dimed out of my successful portraiture, public relations, and wedding photography by know-nothings with skills more aligned with boiling hot dogs than artfully capturing a portrait. By 1995 I was hunting the backsides of newspapers looking for work. There was plenty to be found in software development, but nothing in the desert.

I did the loop from Los Angeles to Milpitas to Irvine to San Diego so many times I needed a GPS to know where I was when I woke up in the morning. 30% of my paycheck went towards motels, food, and gasoline – but it was a decent sized paycheck. I heard stories from co-workers about being forced to sleep under their desks at night if they wanted to keep their jobs.

While I ran into some wacko bosses (as was detailed in other earlier blog posts), there was sufficient work in SoCal for me to move around as I saw fit when things got too dicey. What some people saw as detrimental to their careers – frequently changing jobs – worked as my most cherished characteristic when selling myself to a potential new boss.

By working in so many different environments and observing how their business software either succeeded or failed, I developed an arsenal of tools that were tried and tested. There was never any conjecture flowing from my lips – it was hardcore proven facts of what works – and what doesn’t. I became the sleuth that companies sought after.

While working for College Loan Corporation in Escondido, I put my Sherlock Holmes hat on and helped stop the unnecessary flow of $375,000,000.00 per year in excess sales commissions that were slipping out the door. The tool I developed was the equivalent of a software ninja. I had to go inside existing software to trap loan applications as they came across the firewall.

I had to grab the file before the main software found it, opened, interrogated, and logged its contents before it was systematically destroyed by the outlier. The best metaphor I can use to illustrate this is the ‘grab the shuttle’ scene in Angelina Jolie’s magnificent film ‘Wanted’. Part of Wesley’s training is to grab a moving shuttle in a manufacturing loom before it cuts his hand off. It was a nearly impossible task given how fast the loom was moving back and forth. Rent the movie and watch it. That’s me there…

It was 2001 when the most significant development in the history of programming languages occurred. Microsoft released C#, a component of the .NET family of software tools. This was a truly powerful language that gave you the ability to mold software into any form required by the task at hand. It was not a difficult language to use, but it was a difficult language to use properly. It gave us the power and facility to build complex code that mastered many tasks.

I became involved with gaming around 2005, and worked on poker and bingo games that are still in use all over the world. I designed Belize’s new lottery system, but they managed to steal the design from my employer and implement all of my code without any form of payment for our services. My gaming software still runs throughout the United States, as well as in England, Ireland, Norway, and Cyprus. One of my lasting treasures was an unbreakable encryption algorithm designed to prevent workstations from being duplicated or moved illegally to other areas of a country. It utilized the GPS coordinates of the computer and the moment the sun rose in that particular geographical region to firmly lock the computer to its designated area. Even accessing the code itself required shutting down the entire network and reverse engineering its operating system. As good a Gordian Knot as I’ve ever seen.

I came full circle after retirement in 2016 and returned to photography, the first love of my life. I have not looked back since then.

To say it’s been a wild ride would be an understatement of Biblical proportions. I have enjoyed every minute of it. I have few regrets – selling my 1970 Harley Davidson FLH being at the top of that list. If that’s the worst I must contend with, I can bear it.

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