Sunday, April 4, 2010

Back When I Was The Tech Guy

by Sophie


I've publicly bemoaned the fact that I got a degree in computer science, circa 1980-something, a field for which I was neither suited nor destined.

I know why I chose it, however. I was very concerned about supporting myself. Finances were tight in the house I grew up in, and end-of-month money worries were common, and I was very certain I wanted to grow up and never have to battle that sort of worry again.

I got a great job after graduation. I worked for Arthur Andersen - remember them? I wore navy and gray suits with those eighties bow blouses (younger sisters, cover your eyes) and the fussy pins we used to wear at our collars. Nude pantyhose, and Reeboks that we'd change for pumps outside the building - because we weren't allowed to have sneakers on "in the workplace."

(Side note: Junior dug up one of those pins, from 1982 (I know this because she found the date stamped on the back) - a Monet goldtone job shaped like a chevron. Gave me shivers, remembering how I used to choke on those starched blouses. Junior wears it a little different - at the waist of a cardigan knotted over a camisole. (Her style is a mix of Anthropologie and audrey hepburn so we're never quite sure what will coming waltzing out of her bedroom in the morning.)

Anyway, my first assignment was writing COBOL code for an IRS job. It was deadly dull. You'd run your job, and it would fail, and you'd take that two-pound green-and-white printout back to your desk, go through its accordion-folded entirety, drink four Tabs in a row, try something else, repeat.

After that was a stint at the New York Port Authority. More COBOL, more exciting location. Then I got really crazy and became a Novell LAN administrator, a gig that saw me through the remainder of my Anderson days and into my next job, in Philadephia where I'd moved with my future husband. Academics suited me okay, and I ran Novell networks at Penn and then at Northwestern in Chicago, and kept doing so until I quit to stay home with my kids.

The early Novell LANS were an exercise in frustration. There was a lot of coax cable - stuff that makes today's T1 look like gossamer spider webs by comparison. The hubs looked like they came from the set of the original Star Trek, ungainly things with a pebbled beige powder-coated metal surface identical to the unpleasantly hollow sounding boxes that housed the early IBM PCs. You'd plug everything in, say an incantation over the server (a $15,000 computer with less smarts than your kid's phone) - squeeze your eyes shut in heart-fluttering hope and trepidation - flip the switch aaaaaaaand -


A whole lot of nothing. It never worked, not until you'd stayed until 3am many nights in a row, often enough to catch your boss banging one of the recent hires in the conference room, often enough to get completely behind on Moonlighting, often enough that your diet was 70% vending machine food.

I usually waited until most of the other staff were gone before I cried, and I bruised my knuckles beating on the damn LAN parts. Also, crawling around the floor in a suit and heels meant that I went through a lot of pantyhose.

Yeah, I was pretty bad at the whole thing, it's true. But I was making good money. Good enough for a high-rise apartment, a charge account at Marshall Fields, a drawer full of Lancome, six-week highlight touch-ups.

A certain kind of happiness, I won't lie.

These days I'm living far more austerely than I did when I was half this age, but my work brings me so much more satisfaction. I have, ahem, a mac, so it does everything for me, and my relationship with technology is what I would call "cordially distant." I am happy to pay the Comcast guy, my web designer, a backup service, even my kids so that I don't have to get involved in any of the technology.

I don't have regrets, really, about my first career. But I'm more than happy that it's in the past now, and I'm doing what I was truly meant to do.


CJ West said...


The Novell box brings back memories. I remember COBOL, RPG, and flipping jumpers on network cards. I'm so glad that is in my past, too.

We're glad you gave up on technology. So many more of us can appreciate your work!


Sophie Littlefield said...

aw thanks CJ - isn't it funny to look at photos of all that old technology? it looks so desperately clunky, like my kid might have made it at school or something. I should have added that I *appreciate* technology, I just want a consumer-only relationship with it.

Juliet Blackwell said...

I grew up in Cupertino, home of the Apple Computer. Kids I went to school with, SO much smarter than I, went to work with Jobs when he was still functioning out of a garage. They all own private airplanes and islands and small countries by now. I still contend I'm happier...but I wouldn't mind owning my own island ;-)

Unknown said...

Soph-I was just telling someone about how we used to register for classes at Indiana. Remember the field house and the tables set up with the computer scan cards? we'd walk around in the murky half-light hoping that we could get our fingers on a coveted class time slot so we wouldn't have to get up first thing Monday morning.... :)

Pop Culture Nerd said...

Oh, gosh, back then, I WISHED I was fancy enough to wear one of those bow-tied blouses. I thought it'd make me look all Princess Di-like. I bet you were fetching in them.

It's funny--I'm pretty good at figuring out tech stuff (I'm the nerd who actually reads manuals cover-to-cover before trying to operate anything) but I'm old-school in that I don't want a lot of it around. I rarely use my cell phone (which was on an emergency-only 20 minutes a MONTH plan for 8 years), don't have iPod, iPhone, laptop, e-reader, etc. I read physical books, send cards and invitations via snail mail and like living as if I'm still in the '80s. I've turned into Grandma without actually being one.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Lisa i had that thought too - I was thinking about what a nightmare it would be for these kids in CA state schools, with all the classes that are over-full, if they had to wait in lines to figure it out. And way back when, I never imagined it could all be computerized!

Sophie Littlefield said...

PCN the funny thing is that i'm so broad-shouldered that they NEVER fit properly - no matter how large the blouse, it strained across the shoulders and was completely uncomfortable all day long. and the sleeves were never long enough either.

you are *hardly* a gramma, silly. and i think snail-mailed cards are nice. :)

Unknown said...

Wow, I became a tech writer so I could keep wearing jeans to work. I'm neck deep in software all day long -- and yet I've never sent a text. Not once.

I think perhaps it's not a question of "technology or not" so much as "which technology," and why not wait until they get the user interface easy to use?

I had to write an installation guide for Sybase on Novell. It was harder than all the other ones combined...

Sophie Littlefield said...

mysti, you know this makes me want to text-bomb you!!! :)

"Sybase on Novell" sounds to me like what the inquisitor would whisper as he drew ever nearer with the pliers and cattle prod...

Anonymous said...

Oh wow--those big bow blouses. Yup, remember them. I liked them so much that for my confirmation, I asked for a suit rather than a traditional dress so I had something even *snazzier* to wear those blouses with! I was the only one at the front of the church who looked like a lawyer in training.

Rachael Herron said...

You know what? That's HOT.
(No, really. That's awesome.)

Sophie Littlefield said...

ah jeez pamela, can you believe that they had us convinced we looked good in those things? I remember a particular Evan Picone suite - beige - with a rayon striped blouse underneath. I was convinced it rendered everyone in my radius Hungry like a wolf. It was the frumpiest thing retrospect

L.G.C. Smith said...

Fun post, Sophie. Such memories. I couldn't wear those horrible blouses because my neck's too short and my boobs too big. There wasn't room for a bow in the middle. I avoided computer programming like the plague, but I always had a soft spot for the boy computer nerds because my brother was one. Still is. He got our dad an iPad already.

Gary Corby said...

My mind rebels at the very thought of you writing COBOL. You are much, much too cool for COBOL.

I'm glad you escaped. The world doesn't need another IT person. It could use a few more writers like you.

Gigi Pandian said...

I sometimes feel like I sorta missed out on something by not having to dress up for work. I have a pair of the coolest work-place heels that I've never had the opportunity to wear, as well as a couple sleek suits packed away under the bed. I'm glad I don't have to do it, but it seems like it would be fun to *look back on* the things I had to wear :)