The Incredibly Weird Way I Landed My First Job and Accidentally Started a Life Long Career

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Remember that oft-postponed Honeoye Falls-Mendon Rotary Club meeting I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It finally happened. We had a sumptuous supper at Mendon 64 and, as always, the conversation was jovial, inspired, and ever enlightening. If you don’t know by now, Rotary does an awful lot of good things in our community. I like organizations that do an awful lot of good things in our community. I like the organizations like the Honeoye Falls-Mendon Rotary Club.

Betsy and I were delighted to be the appetizer for the evening’s dinner. And by “appetizer,” no, I don’t mean Hilary and Molly named a pre-dinner dish after us. Rather, I mean we provided the entertainment prior to that delicious dinner I referred to in the first paragraph. During our short presentation, I offered a never-before-told story about the beginnings of The Sentinel. (The end of this story was alluded to briefly in the never published Carosa Commentary entitled Banzai! that was “reprinted” on our Throwback Thursday page seven in the March 23, 2017 issue of The Sentinel.)

It occurred to me it would be unfair to our vast ocean of readers to limit knowledge of “the rest of the story” to the select group of Rotarians who attended the March 22nd meeting. Upon further reflection, it seemed there are actually two lessons in this story. Rather than consume an entire page of print, I’ve decided it best to create a two-part Commentary.

Lesson #1: Never Let Bad News Defeat You and Never Underestimate the Power of Curiosity
Our story begins in the spring of 1982. It’s roughly thirty-five years ago to the day that I turned down that Fellowship offer from Boston College. It was everything I wanted. I would have been paid $30,000 a year (a tad more than $77,000 a year in today’s dollars) to pursue a PhD in Astronomy and Physics while running their planetarium and hosting their NPR radio program on astronomy. Why did I turn it down? Because four years of extracurricular activities taught me I preferred the dynamic excitement of human interaction provided by the business environment to the solitude of academic study. In other words, the last thing I wanted to do was spend the rest of my life working in front of the intense greenish glow of a computer screen.

So, instead of accepting BC’s generous offer, I accepted an offer to work in the New York City office of The Yardley Group. The job placed my in the position I most imagined myself – that of a spokesman who explained technical matters to a non-technical audience. While it paid less ($25,000 a year), the professional track presented a much more lucrative earning potential. With two months to go before graduation, I had a job and a career I felt I was born for. Sadly, I had to say goodbye to my childhood dreams of becoming an astronomer. On the bright side, I was about to lasso the moon and capture the dreams of my budding adulthood.

Then the floor collapsed from beneath me. The Great Recession of 1982 was too much to bear. Within weeks of graduating, The Yardley Group laid me off before I had even started working for them. It was too late to find another job at school as the career office schedule of interviews had ended. It really didn’t matter. No one was hiring and those that did hire were rescinding offers. The class of 1982 was about to emerge into the abyss of economic darkness not seen since The Depression. There was nothing left to do except regroup. I returned to a friend I hadn’t seen in years – I wiled away the time playing Asteroids in the college game room.

I enjoyed asteroids, much more than its rivals Space Invaders and PAC-MAN. Still, I had left it for Berzerk a couple years earlier. Now, when I needed a sense of comfort, I returned to Asteroids…

Life after graduation wasn’t easy in terms of the job search. It was either “We’re looking for someone with more experience” or “You’re overqualified for this position.” For six months I trudged in this unmarked wilderness. With no incoming revenues, I could spend very little, if anything. And what I did spend was usually gas money to go from one job interview to another. When I was on the road I ate fast food at McDonald’s. It wasn’t because it was cheap (well, it was, but that was beside the point). At the time, franchises across the nation were running a contest. One of the prizes was a brand new Atari computer.

You see, in the lonely months following graduation, I yearned to play Asteroids. Atari had been selling a video game console, but that version of Asteroids lacked considerably. The version on their new computer compared quite favorably. Without the money to actually buy the computer, I did the next best thing – I researched everything there was to research about home computers. I learned inside and out about RAMs, ROMs, bits, bytes, kilobytes (no one ever spoke in terms of megabytes or gigabytes back then), hard drives, video drives, motherboards, and compilers. I even learned Assembly (or “machine”) language. In terms of full disclosure, the only computer classes I ever took were BASIC (high school) and Fortran (college). I had no formal training in hardware, electrical engineering, or systems.

One day in October of 1982 I was invited to interview for the “Computer Coordinator” position at Manning & Napier Advisers, Inc. I was told to bring a BASIC program to my interview. This was the first real job lead I had. I was so excited I spent hours and hours at the local Radio Shack testing my program. Confident it contained no bugs, I entered the interview. The interviewer took one look at the program and bluntly said, “This program won’t run.”

My heart sank.

In an instant, these thoughts raced through my head: How long would it take me to get another interview? What do I need to do to get a job? Why did I turn down Boston College?

But this is all I could muster in my meek response: “Why not?”

My tormentor replied, “You’ve got too many characters in your variable.”

Without thinking, and despite the sick feeling of defeat in my stomach, I immediately said in a matter-of-fact way, “Oh, that depends on the compiler you’re using.”

It was only later that I learned my interviewer knew little about computers and nothing of compilers. That’s not saying much. The only reason why I even knew the word compiler was because I was researching home computers in hopes of buying that Atari computer in order to play Asteroids.

I was offered the job for $13,000 a year. That was half of what The Yardley Group offered and only about a third of BC’s (which also included the PhD). Desperate and in no position to negotiate, I immediately accepted. It turns out that “Computer Coordinator” position was nothing more than a glorified data entry clerk. I vowed to myself to get a “real” job in six months.

I did get a “real” job within six months, but I didn’t need to leave Manning & Napier to do it. Here’s the funny thing. I never sought a career in portfolio management and investments. Destiny, on the other hand, knew exactly what it was doing. It guided me, through unbridled curiosity and a seemingly unrelated interest in video games, to happen upon a key word that would unlock not only my first job, but my life’s work. While I didn’t plan for this, I allowed myself to ride whatever currents fate offered.

As we enter that time of year when college seniors find themselves on the cusp of the unknown, they’re looking for their first job and trying to launch their own careers. It’s important they be mindful of the lessons here. Never let bad news interrupt your life, and never stop following your curiosity. I didn’t let that first wave of bad news (losing The Yardley Group job) let me down, but, after a series of consecutive rejections, I almost let that bad news of hearing my program “won’t work” defeat me. Fortunately, in a spontaneously weird and unexpected way, the fruits of my curiosity saved the day, landed me my first job, and opened the door to a wonderful career I never imagined.

And, you know, sometimes that curiosity rewards itself. Using one of the first paychecks I received from this new job, I purchased an Atari 800 home computer system.

It came with the game Asteroids.

Next Week: The Rest of the Story: How Atari’s Asteroids Helped Launch The Sentinel

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