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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

The Story Behind the Stories (Part Six) aka On Being Agile

I was told from as early as I can remember that my mission in life was to grow up to become a doctor. All Jewish boys are doctors or lawyers. That’s written somewhere, but thankfully it’s not on the tablets Moses carried down from Mount Sinai, else I’d be in a world of trouble. When I informed my mother at the age of 18 that I intended to be a photographer (1967) she responded in the same manner as any mother would: she cried, she wailed, she screamed, and then she said no. It was as if I had calmly told her at dinner “Mom, I’m having a sex change operation, please pass the potatoes.”

While I endured the same growing pains all people do as they master their chosen field, my passion for photography pushed me to experience some really rare air, to enjoy moments in time to their fullest, and have a ton of fun along the way.

Things changed abruptly for me in the early 80’s. I was meandering through the Sears in Boston with my life-long friend Bruno when we happened upon a display of the first IBM personal computer. Two five and one quarter inch floppy drives, 16K of ram. It was sitting at the DOS prompt, that big green “C:>” that adorned the screens of early computers – and intimidated the crap out of everyone within a mile since no one had a clue what to do next. Bruno did. He searched the home directory and found BASIC. This was Microsoft’s first programming language way back when. Someone somewhere had tutored Bruno in the basics of BASIC, and in about 30 seconds he had whipped up a three-line piece of code that put the computer into an infinite loop, creating a dizzying display on the green screen. We walked away laughing, we walked away laughing heartily, but something stuck with me, and it stuck so hard that I couldn’t leave it alone. Like an itch you enjoy scratching, that endless loop on that IBM hung over my head all the way back to California.

As luck would have it, a family friend of Phyllis’ had opened the first personal computer store in the U.S. down in Orange County. In the same way that fate had lured me to photography, it was now steering me in a new direction. I drove down to see Richard and his store. I drove home with a Panasonic Senior Partner, the first portable computer (all 16 pounds of it – with a built-in printer!).

I decided to learn to program: to develop a piece of software I could use to manage my photography business. Remember where we are now. 1982. No internet, no how-to books for programmers, no kid down the block I could talk to for help. Talk about being adrift without a rudder or a pair of oars…

I finally glommed on to Ashton-Tate’s DBASE III. My friend Richard offered me both DBASE II and DBASE III; I had to make a semi-informed decision on which way to go – they were worlds apart in their approach to producing code. Every minute I wasn’t taking photographs I was glued to that miniature screen and keyboard, pounding out line after line of code to build a piece of software. I was so proud of myself. There sat a data entry screen where I could put tons of info about this and that.

A buddy of mine came down from Los Angeles and asked to check out my work. He was about 15 minutes ahead of me in programming knowledge. He started pounding at the keyboard and 4 or 5 keystrokes later the program crashed. Garbage-truck-into-the-side-of-a-house-crash. My jaw hung open as I watched my beautiful program turn belly up and start to rot in the desert sun.

What Craig had so nimbly demonstrated was the lack of Exception Handling in my design. Most beginning programmers code for what is supposed to happen. A skilled software engineer anticipates what could possibly go wrong and nails a few 2 x 4’s to the rafters to prevent the house from collapsing when the end user does something stupid. After scooping my dignity up off the floor, I redoubled my efforts and fortified my code to trap and prevent wayward keystrokes from causing problems. This, I was to learn, was the heart and soul of any piece of software, the ne plus ultra that separated good software from great software.

By 1985 program development had taken off. It would be a full 15 years before anyone would utter the phrase World Wide Web, opening a Pandora’s box from which no one would ever escape again. The first rudimentary means of communicating with other developers was by way of Compuserve, a dial-up network of user’s groups where you could leave questions and hope for an answer from someone 10 minutes ahead of you in the knowledge base at that time.

You required a modem, a device that turned your phone line into a communication device, very similar to a fax machine. This fomented a technology explosion that literally made your head spin. The BBS was born (Bulletin Board System), which permitted users to dial into another computer anywhere in the continental United States. Since we were still paying for long distance phone calls by the minute back then, our phone bills each month were monstrously large, but, oh, what the hell…

How ever these things work, wherever the notion of creativity was born, I started developing tools for other programmers -- software they could plug into their own programs to make them more agile. I started uploading these utilities to BBS’s across the country. Within weeks I’d go to my mailbox every evening and there would be money in it for me! At $35 per subscription, it didn’t take long for my income from software development to match and then surpass what I was making from photography.

While this might have proven to be a difficult choice under other circumstances, it was bonehead easy for me. The nature of commercial photography in the desert was changing, and it wasn’t changing for the better, as far as I could see. I didn’t look back, I didn’t have the time to. Rising at 3 am every morning to shovel out a couple hundred lines of code before breakfast, I started developing software tools that seemed to fill a niche that all developers wanted to attach themselves to.

By the late 80’s I was a guest speaker at Computer Software Development Conferences and my articles were being published regularly in Data Based Advisor Magazine, the first and foremost resource for programmers. I seemed to hit a nerve, and I kept hammering at it at a pace so feverish, I don’t recall how I managed to book time for sleep.

Ultimately, software I developed was adopted by every branch of the U.S. military, the FBI, IRS, and almost every other government acronym in use at the time. The United Nations used my tools during Operation Desert Storm, and the ’88 and ’92 Olympic committees also bought in. All of this at $79 a package!

At the height of my career I had distributors in England, Germany and Australia. I used to boast that I could pay our mortgage each month with sales to Czechoslovakia alone. Microsoft tried to hire me five times, but we had no intention of moving to Seattle and lose out on the glorious warm weather of the desert.

And then everything came to a screeching halt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. While I was forever grateful for the work President Reagan and Pope John Paul II accomplished by pretty much ending the cold war and putting the USSR on notice that we would no longer be intimidated by their antics, the economic upheaval was more than eastern Europe could stand, and my markets started collapsing all over.

In 1995 I had to accept my first job working for someone else since I came to CA in late 1973. I took a position with the first telemarketing company in the U.S., Lexi International, spitting distance from Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles. I rented an apartment in Glendale, and early one Saturday morning I was walking the streets with my Rollei, when I spied the parking meter and streetlamp. The rising sun created a low raking light that produced an exaggerated shadow.

It would be the last photo I would take for 20 years. I fell in love with that image for many reasons -- and held it close to my heart as I moved away from photography into an endeavor that would take me around the world. It would not be until my retirement about 7 years ago that I would pick up a camera again. While I did shoot sporadically from time to time, it certainly was not at the fever pitch that motivated me through the majority of my days.

The quiet moment of this image on the street in Glendale echoed the very first time I ever seriously pressed a shutter release back in 1967:

Alone in an alley in Pittsburgh, back when you could be alone in an alley at night without the fear of being haplessly consumed by some evil lurking nearby, a quiet moment beckoned me, and I listened. It would be the first photo on the first roll of film I ever developed

The circle was now complete, but as circles go, there is no real beginning, no real end, only a point on the circumference somewhere, a tiny degree of a journey. I had marked one full revolution, and while it would take some time before I could begin again, I embraced the notion that a checkbox had finally been checked, and it was time to move forward, to light the fire of the engine that would propel me headlong into whatever new adventure awaited me.

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