Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Never Give Up

When I returned to Illinois from Virginia, I signed on with a consulting group. My first assignment was to be at Allstate, which required a ten person contingent: a project leader, a technical leader, and eight assembler programmers. I was to be the technical leader.

The project leader and I got there a couple of weeks ahead of the rest - in fact not all "the rest" had been found and hired. I wound up interviewing a couple of them myself. After a couple of weeks everyone was present and *that* is when I learned that Allstate didn't need ten techies. What they needed was a group of people to document some systems written in assembler, and they had decided that should be done by assembler programmers. Our group *might* write a dozen lines of code a week among us.

I called my employers and told them they had to get me out of there, and a week or two later they arranged an interview at IBM for a programming job working (as a contractor, not an employee) with an assembler programming department. I was interviewed by the manager and a couple of days later he introduced me to the others in the department, six in number, and informed me that I would be working with (read "for") Rick.

Rick was in some ways old school IBM: all business, not one whit more sociable than he had to be. I, on the other hand, tend to be somewhat gregarious around people with whom I work. Within a couple of weeks I had made several friends in the department, but no progress in that area with the Great Stone Face, Rick. Nearly every minute of the work day you could walk by his cubicle and see him either staring at programming code on his monitor or making modifications to it, oblivious to his surroundings. In fact, and I *swear* to you this is true, one day an employee in another department had a heart attack, paramedics raced by Rick's cubicle with a gurney and then returned, wheeling the patient past Rick, and when I mentioned it later he was completely unaware of the incident. He was a dedicated worker, no doubt about *that*.

He gave me assignments, pointed me to the programs and libraries I would need, and basically ignored me until I went to him and said I was done. I *tried* to break him down, but that was a very slow process. I would go into his cube, park my butt on his credenza, and wait until he was forced to look at me. He, on the other hand, would ignore me for a bit, then take a deep breath to let me know that this was an imposition, turn to me, and give me the phoniest smile in creation while saying "Yes?"

But *this* Yankee is made of stern stuff, and after a couple of months I could actually get a few minutes of non-work conversation out of him. At some point he began calling me "Fred," which was most assuredly not my name. However, I would have dipped my arm in boiling oil before asking him why, at least until I had *some* information about it.

That came one day when he decided he wanted to talk about a problem he was having with a program. He just *couldn't* find the problem and thought that perhaps talking it out with me would help. I looked over his shoulder as he discussed the program routines and found that he had inserted some testing code to provide him with interim information to help the debugging. Interestingly, he had named the testing routine "Fred." Aha!

I asked him "Why 'Fred?'" He said he had once had a boss that named such routines Fred and he had picked up the habit. Good enough for me, and soon we were *both* calling each other Fred, a practice which persists to this day. (My greatest triumph came one day when the two of us had lunch and I presented him with a bottle of wine from Lynfred Winery, the label of which proclaimed it to be "Fred's Red.")

The Great Stone Face cracked one day. The breakthrough came as the result of some work he had given me. When I said I was done he tested the program. Soon his voice wafted across the corridor: "Hey, Fred. It doesn't work." I, of course, denied that this could be true in a four dimensional universe, and learned something about how the department worked. When you made a modification to the program you owned the *entire* program, not just the code you wrote, not just the functions the code affected. He had found something in the program that didn't work. It wasn't related to my coding and in fact it was obvious that it had *never* worked properly. I pointed that out and he gave me an Ownership 101 lecture. Go back and fix this one, and in the future when I fixed something, test *every* function in the program. It didn't matter if it had never worked, if it didn't work *now* it was my responsibility.

The breakthrough? I said "You should be in Quality Control," and he replied "You should be pumping gas."

That's one of the funniest things anyone's ever said to me, and I have known a lot of people over the years who would have paid mucho dinero for front row seats to it. I once related the story during a telephone conversation with Debbie (you'll just have to read older posts if you want to know about her) and it was several minutes before she could breathe properly.

Rick and I slowly became good friends, and the final proof was that one hot summer afternoon I got him to steal out of the building with me and make a quick run to Dairy Queen.

I left IBM nearly ten years ago, but several of the department members, including Rick and me, still have lunch once a month, and every couple of months Rick and I get together for a movie and dinner.

1 comment:

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