Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Story time - California move

Story time – gather ‘round my children and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Joe before he got to Vegas.

My first job out of college was with Xerox Corporation, back in Rochester, New York. I went to school at RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) and was able to snag a local job up there. As discussed before, I was a Photo Illustration major, and became interested in what the programmers were doing. After doing well in some evening classes, because they would not let an ‘art’ major take technical classes, I was allowed to take some grown up programming courses. I really liked the assembler programming, making all of those bits and bytes jump around.

Most of the firms in the area advertised on campus for work, figuring to get some technical people cheap, back when there weren’t too many around anyway. The Xerox listing asked for people with Fortran and Basic experience. We had a Xerox computer at RIT – their major customers were colleges, had a good system for multiple terminal users back then. And I took Basic as part of my ‘non technical’ classes, a course designed for business majors. Real programmers back then didn’t do Basic. So I was able to get in because I wasn’t a Comp Sci major.

The group I worked for had the job of converting new customers over to Xerox computers. We had our own sales staff, and after the big guys sold a computer our salesmen would go in to sell our conversion services under separate contract. This is back in ‘mainframe’ days, when computer contracts were for big bucks for just one machine. Programmers in the group were responsible for moving computer code off of an old computer system being replaced and putting on the new Xerox machine. We became good at tape drive manipulation, and strange data and code conversions. We had three levels of conversion: the most expensive was exactly matching inputs and outputs from the old system to the new; middle level was getting programs running with no errors and a semblance of similarities between the systems; and cheapest was just getting clean compiles from all programs. The last was the easiest – when time was running out we just commented out everything that caused an error. This resulted in very few executing lines, but clean compiles. For you non-programmers, this is like having your kids clean their room by stuffing everything under the bed or in the closet. The floor would be clean, but really there was still a lot to do.

Being single, and the new guy, I was sent off to Phoenix, Arizona to work on the Motorola contract. They were the ones with a lot of Basic programs on an old IBM computer. Sent from Rochester to Phoenix in July. Stepped off the plane – back when planes just pulled up to a terminal and they rolled steps out to the plane, and you walked across the asphalt to the terminal. It was 11 at night, and raining. Thunderstorms in Phoenix in July – very typical. And probably about 100f. To me it felt like stepping out of the plane into a really big shower stall, with clouds and thunder and lightning. I did like it.

Two of us were out there, I ended up doing most of the Fortran stuff. A few weeks into it and the salesman came up to me and said that management had complained to my boss back in Rochester about how slow I was going with the Fortran. I explained I was a Basic person, and was not very familiar with Fortran. They ended up finally using me on the Basic stuff. I did well, and really liked the warm. Met my wife while there, but that’s another story.

Finished up just before Christmas. Supposed to be a three month job, but ended up being almost six. I did drive around the southwest, getting my first weekend in Vegas, staying at Caesar’s Palace and seeing Alan King and Carol Channing on stage back when she was doing Hello Dolly. Flew back to Rochester, from 80f days to a snowstorm closing the Rochester airport and typical upstate New York freeze. I had originally told my boss I wanted to move to California within a few years, but after a week back I told him he didn’t have a year, I probably couldn’t last another winter in that place. But fortunately our group was opening an office in LA, at the main manufacturing plant. I talked my way into that – no one else wanted to move anyway (idiots). And Xerox moved me from New York to sunny skies.
They packed my place, put my old Jaguar on a truck, and hauled away.

Xerox had purchased Sigma Data Systems (SDS) manufacturers of the Sigma line of computers. Changed the name to Xerox Data Systems (XDS) and kept making the old computers with slightly different name plates. In Manhattan Beach, just south of the LA airport. Several really big buildings, and about 6,000 employees on site. Using my GI Bill and some expense coverage from Xerox I bought a house just a few blocks from the plant. Being California I bought a skateboard to commute on. The only problem I had was that there was a grammar school between my house and the office, and I had to put up with the kids laughing at the ‘old’ guy on the skateboard. But most of my work was at night, in order to get time on the computers, so I could skate by when nobody was there. I also got to use the skateboard inside, flying in the empty building from my desk to the computer room to get printouts. Back when there was a big noisy chain printer clanking out those green bar wide fan fold pages. (come on, stop laughing, I know that Rob knows what I’m talking about if he does Cobol). We used to program in printouts that would make the printer ‘play’ songs, and do those character based pictures that no one now seems to know anything about. I’ll have to see if I kept any. Probably some packed up in the attic.

Xerox eventually created a new computer model of their own design, the first non Sigma designed machine. Supposed to be bigger and faster and more expensive. Ended up being bigger and slower and much more expensive. A few months after the release everybody realized that the new machines were not as good as the old ones. As IBM was starting to come out with copier machines to compete with Xerox, Xerox decided to stop competing with IBM and was going to stop making computers. Didn’t discourage IBM from making copiers, though.

We had heard rumors that we were closing, but nothing positive. I was having problems getting support from my manager, the same guy all along back in Rochester. He didn’t seem to care much about the four of us in California. I made an appointment to see his boss, in an office in a high rise just off the LAX runway. Went to see him on a Wednesday morning, and he basically said that after Friday it would not matter anyway. I took this to mean that Friday was the day that the computer division would close. Nobody else in the office believed this. But I started to pack up my desk, taking copies of the programs out on tape (big nine track tape reels) along with my notes and samples. Sure enough, in to work Friday morning to find two guards on every door, telling everyone to just go home and we would be contacted. In one fell swoop (who made up that phrase? What the heck is a ‘fell swoop’ anyway? Say it three times fast.) four thousand people were out of work. They kept on some to manufacture the machines already on order, but locked out sales, design and development people. Xerox had security people pack up all personal stuff on desks and ship it to us – I was the only one that got all of my stuff, and books, and code, out of there thanks to my boss. Teach the rest to listen to me.

Xerox gave us all a good salary continuance, and help in finding jobs. I learned how to do a resume correctly, and how to interview. I found one not too far away, with a firm that processed medical bills. Ended up buying a big house in Temecula, and starting my move further south.

So that is the story of my move out West. Skipping over the Navy and college tales. But those may come later. Again, no pics this time. Guess I can haul out some old shots of those days – I do have my Xerox ID, with my big hair picture on it. Not too sure if I want that one passed around.

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