Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Thanks, Steve

As I sit here during Day 2 of a long software implementation, I remember that I have Steve Jobs to thank for this. A long time ago when I still wore short dresses and high heels, my first job out of college was as a legal secretary. Four years of college to become an English teacher and the job I landed paying 50% more than the nearest teaching job was one that required my high school typing class and my solid Catholic grade school grammar. But the senior partner was a quirky guy named Troy who was trying to get an Apple computer to drive an IBM typewriter. This could be fun.

He and one of his clients had this contraption set up in the little law library at the back of the offices. Troy’s wife Jeannie refused to have anything to do with it, seeing only money being flushed away on expensive gadgets with no new money floating in. Office managers have to think that way. And Troy’s favorite legal secretary Sue likewise declined the opportunity to dip a toe into what felt at the time like science fiction. I was the new kid and basically it was my job to do what Jeannie and Sue didn’t want to do. But it paid so much better than the teaching job I had worked so hard to qualify for.

Even before I went back to college to get a second bachelor’s degree in computer science, I was pretty sure that Apples and IBM’s had just enough of a different philosophy to make this marriage a rocky one. The three of us however tinkered away like mad scientists, interrupted from time to time by real legal work and Jeannie’s increased annoyance at kids playing with toys.

Needless to say, Troy, his friend and I did not become famous for the invention. It worked, in a way, but really was better at proving a concept than being a practical solution. It did serve, however, to pave the way for my later career as a programmer, then database analyst, then the long dark years in technology management and finally emerging as an analyst in my present job. It gave me the “tab A, slot B” background for understanding the inner mysteries of Computer Magic and it also gave me the confidence to know that the machine is only as smart as you tell it to be. As a programmer and DBA I later gained an appreciation for Divine Intervention in the world of computers, but for the most part there was comfort in the binary “it’s either on or it’s off” simplicity of the computational life.

Naturally, it’s not that simple any more. The more stuff you plug into the chain of things between your question and the answer you’re looking for on a computer, the more complex that simplicity has become. I laugh just as hard as you do (or not) at the promise we made to unsuspecting non-techies that computers were going to make our lives easier. I laugh every time one of the cats walks across my husband’s laptop and hits the little setting that disconnects him from the network. I laugh when he roars and whines that his computer is broken. I laugh when I walk into his office and reach forward with one finger, like a magic wand, to press the one little button that solves his problem while he glares at me in disgust and disbelief. Magicians aren’t always appreciated, Mr. Jobs. I’ll bet you learned that too. Maybe we shouldn’t laugh when we do these things. But sometimes it’s funny.
Tea Tarot
(c) Copyright 2011 Marcia McCord

“See that little blue light-y thingee?” I ask in my best Goon-techno-speak. He’s a people person, not a computer person. “You’re gonna wanna make sure that stays blue and if it doesn’t, just touch it with your finger.” This bit of wizardry repeats itself because it is repeatedly lost. I find he doesn’t hear as well when he’s at his wits’ end. I’m pretty sure I have the same trait so I don’t actually mind.

Of course, I’m really only on the fringe of being a real geek. Oh, once, a long time ago in an Illinois far, far away, I lived in the belly of the beast. I worked for a major Midwest insurance company who at the time loved its technical people. You got a rose on your birthday. You could pick your Christmas present from the company out of a catalog. The company had a private park with tennis courts, a small lake, volleyball courts, picnic areas and golf course. I traveled to exotic places like Hartford, Connecticut and Chicago for more intense IBM training, only to learn, like much of life, that if you clean up after yourself once in a while and vacuum out the dust-bunnies, your household and your computer both seem to run more smoothly. In turn for these marvelous perks, I pulled so many all-nighters recovering databases that the IBM guys thought I might have the most experience of anyone they knew performing that little task. They quickly figured out how to automate it with tools and so my dubious glory was short-lived. I think my record was 43 full forward recoveries on the Big Iron. By then I was a long way from Steve Jobs’ idea of computing accessibility to mere mortals.

And then there was the dirty little secret. While I loved computer fire-fighting and had branched out into what I thought of as “preventative design” to keep others’ really good ideas from going horribly wrong with one little oops, I became bored. Bored! How could I be so ungrateful? The career that more than doubled my salary a couple of times became routine. I could recover mainframe databases in my sleep. Well, I kind of had to because most of the time it was over night so that the business day wasn’t interrupted.

I realized that I could concentrate on customer service, which I loved, or “chase” technology and continue to keep up with whatever the latest sexy trend in languages and hardware and database design caught the fancy of the gizmo guys. I loved all that relational vs. hierarchical debate and how far to go with normalizing data. But I wanted it to work, you know? I wanted it to be useful, to make people’s lives better. It wasn’t just a toy to fiddle with in the law library.

So I gave up trying to be the latest in techno-fashion and concentrated on the folly of trying to make customers happy. Ever after I have spent a lifetime of being misunderstood by my bosses, slugged by the “patients” while packing them into the ambulance and attempting to translate technical terms into something that makes sense to people who have better things to do than try to understand what a dad-blasted machine is thinking.

Here’s just a little tip for people hoping to make a career out of technology and customer service: Please, whatever you do, limit your expectations of gratitude from those you are saving. The Magician is so often considered a trickster, a liar, a showman, and a thief by his admirers. Somehow, it never occurs to many people who are your loving customer base that if you have an ability you might choose to use it for good even if you had the opportunity to do otherwise. You may spend a lifetime being needed but never trusted fully. You must remember that a Magician is no one without his audience and you need them as much as they need you. That’s the good news and the bad news.

For that, I’m happy we had a Jobs. RIP, Steve.

Best wishes.

1 comment:

  1. I feel sad... it is like my rock star has died... And funny it is that we carry him around in our hands... Thanks, Gods!