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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Losing My Virginity

No, this has nothing to do about me and Karen D. on a blanket in the woods outside of Syracuse University way back when...

Around 1995 economic conditions in the desert had deteriorated to the point that I had to create a new plan to move forward. The photographic market had changed dramatically in the desert over the previous 8 years, and I was nickel and dimed out of my once illustrious career as a pro photog.

The international market for my software tools similarly was going through strenuous growing pains after the collapse of communism. The eastern bloc was in economic chaos, and it certainly had rippled down to me.

I had spent the last two years working as a substitute teacher in the Palm Desert / Indio area, but $74 a day for getting locked in closets by 7th graders was getting old fast. I summarily quit teaching the day an assistant principal decided to discipline me for disarming a student who attacked me with a metal edged ruler. She told me I could not make physical contact with a student until they had drawn blood first.

Not wanting to be a piñata for the 7th grade English class at La Quinta Middle School, I bid farewell to teaching and never looked back. This would be the first time in over twenty years that I would have to find work as an employee for someone else, hence the metaphor about losing my virginity.

Resigned to the hard fact that absolutely no work could be found in the desert, I started looking in the Los Angeles area. I interviewed with a good-natured young man who was looking for FoxPro programmers. FoxPro was a commonly used business language prior to the development of hard core software tools around 2000. Before Microsoft released .NET, which would become my mainstay for the rest of my career as a software architect, FoxBase, FoxPro, and Visual FoxPro were all used for the development of business software, and I was an expert in all three – having actually worked in tandem with the inventor of said language during the development of the first API (Application Programing Interface) available as a software tool.

Most programming languages derive their power from the voluminous number of ways available to design and implement software. As antiquated as FoxPro was, it had features I had never explored because I had not had the need for them. This put me at the bottom of the heap when the programming test I was given for my first job interview required the use of these aspects of the language I was unfamiliar with.

As I was about to bid my interviewer farewell, I causally mentioned that I was glad he had pointed out an area of the language I was unfamiliar with, and I would investigate its uses when I returned home. Apparently, this desire to learn sparked a chord in the head of the MIS (Management Information Services) at Lexi International, and I received a job offer the next day. I was quite surprised, to say the least.

When they told me the salary was $35,000 per year, I demurred, explaining that I could not come to Los Angeles for anything under $60,000. I wasn’t really negotiating. I figured out what it would cost to live away from home and still be able to pay the bills. When they agreed on the spot to my figure, I was elated.

Lexi Inc. was the one of the earliest telemarketing firms in the country. Yeah, I wrote the software that enabled those guys to call you up and pester you, day in, day out, long before there was a ‘do not call’ list, and way before caller id and call blocking.

I felt like chum in the waters surrounded by sharks. There were a dozen programmers, all men, and they were very competitive. I didn’t know anything about how businesses operated back then, and had I understood their business model, I would have headed for the hills and called for either reinforcements or an air strike. They had no QA (Quality Assurance) department. Those are the people who specifically try to break the code you just wrote to make it more robust. Analysis over the years showed that programmers rarely catch more than 15% of the bugs in their own code. A company without one has a big red circular target on their back, saying “SHOOT ME NOW.”

Networked computers are backed up on to special servers built and designed to be hearty enough to survive an earthquake – not a rare occurrence in California. This shoot-from-the-hip IT department had their two servers sitting on the floor in the development area. They had tape backup units, but no one was in charge of them, and no one exercised them.

The guy that hired me was unfortunate enough to endure a system crash his first day on the job. He ensured management he would handle it, but he didn’t. The same computer crashed again the next day (without a backup), and he was fired immediately, with a scant 48 hours onboard.

All eyes turned towards me. I was his first hire, and they assumed I had to be as incompetent as him. To be honest, I was frightened. I was alone; two days was hardly enough time to forge any relationships with my co-workers, so I did the next best thing: I kept my head down and threw myself into my work. Within two weeks I had found the source of much of their hand wringing and hair pulling. I fixed the code and eliminated a $40,000 per week loss in productivity virtually overnight.

That solidified my reputation as a programmer and took most of the heat off my back. It was very difficult adjusting to the legitimately third world atmosphere of the building. Almost all the telemarketers were from India; and naturally they brought most of their cultural norms with them until they could adjust to life here in the United States. We take a lot for granted being born and raised here, so witnessing what I saw on a daily basis helped me to not be complacent with regard to the smallest amenities we consider to be essential.

Taking bathing for example. I don’t know where these fellows lived in the Hollywood area, but watching people bathe in the sink every morning, including washing their socks, was a bit unusual. However, their toilet habits definitely made our heads rotate: plumbing in India (where it is available) is not as reliable as what we have here in the states. Watching every single guy leave a bathroom stall with used toilet paper in hand, which was then deposed of in a waste basket rather than being flushed down the toilet, was probably the most gut-churning thing I have witnessed.

We notified management who punted to HR who taught the men how to properly dispose of their paper. They were, in a word, elated. Getting them to wash their hands after using the toilet was another challenge. One guy was wearing leather socks made by his mother -- and had no idea how to clean them on a daily basis. I, unfortunately, was no help in this area.

They were very pleasant people to be around – and for my 25+ years in the business I never had any issues with Indians – they were high spirited chaps with good senses of humor, and once they were schooled in the art of bathing daily and using deodorant, we all got along quite well.

The other programmers turned out to be likable guys and we formed nearly unbreakable bonds quickly. Having worked in literally dozens of business environments, these were easy people to get along with, until the big change occurred.

The owners decided to install a layer of middle management to oversee the I.T. department. That was their first change – MIS became IT (Information Technology). IT did not roll off your tongue like MIS, so we resisted the change initially. The problem with bringing a middle layer team into a production environment is that they have to create their own jobs. In order to justify their existence, they must manufacture a level of obscurity that gives them plenty of leeway to manage people who were doing just fine before they arrived.

I was not the only one rankled by their incessant demands for menial paperwork to be completed for each computer programming task we were involved with. We were all hard workers who were committed to the success of the company (a rarity I have only witnessed three time in over 25 years), and we were being intentionally hobbled by a sadistic bunch of S.O.B.’s who thoroughly enjoyed inflicting this level of pain on the hired help.

Me and a Chinese buddy of mine – who had been at Tiananmen Square – resisted their efforts. These new managers then determined to make our lives as miserable as possible. They would wait for us to be hours away from completing weeklong projects and then unceremoniously cancel the task. Complaints to upper management fell on the proverbial deaf ears.

The 90’s were a time of exponential growth in the software industry. I actually watched as the internet was developed, one line of code after another. A spin-off company was born in the basement, and the lead programmer was tasked with the initial development of what would someday soon become what we all depend upon today.

Neither me or my pal Chen had any difficulty lining up our next gig – mine took me to the heart of Silicon Valley at a time when the apartment vacancy rate was under 3%, and my salary nearly doubled overnight. When we gave notice, something interesting happened. Apparently, we had fomented so much discontent (and rightly so) among our colleagues with regard to the insidious idiots overseeing our work, that our photos were posted at the security desk with specific instruction to not let us back in the building ever again for any reason.

We took this as a sign of defiant pride and an air of accomplishment for what we had achieved. My cherry was popped. Yes, it did hurt a bit at first, but I never looked back. In what would be an uncanny turn of events, the same guy who hired me to work for Lexi actually applied for a job under me at my next position up in Milpitas. With our roles weirdly reversed, I now had to make the unfortunate decision of not offering him work – he folded during his interview – appearing nervous and unprepared (and my boss would not tolerate that). It saddened me that I was unable to extend a helping hand as he had done for me, but alas, this was one of those life lessons that is sometimes hard to swallow.

While I would face far more significant challenges in the multitude of places I worked during my career, my year at Lexi would form the backbone I built upon. While there were almost as many failures as successes over the next 25 years, I came to learn the most basic principle of working for someone else: the only real failure is the person who does not get up, dust himself off, and try again.

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