How Atari’s Asteroids Helped Launch THE SENTINEL

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Life is a never ending series of wagers. Each decision you make is a bet that can have long-term consequences. Sometimes you make the right decision. Sometimes the decision you make doesn’t seem right but turns out to be the best decision you ever made. Such was my case in 1982. I turned down a $30,000 fellowship that fulfilled my dream of taking complex concepts of astronomy and spreading it to regular people across the land. I decided against that offer because I thought I had a better one. Although it paid slightly less, I accepted a job at a New York City consulting firm. Because it fulfilled my dream of being the communications go-between with the technical folks on one side and the non-technical folks on the other. Of course, who knew I’d get laid off before I even graduated? In the end. I accepted a non-descript, less-than-entry-level, dead-end job that paid roughly a third of that fellowship.

Sounds like I made the wrong bet at the beginning of this series of decisions.

But, you know what? Life has a way of turning lemons into lemonade. In the first segment of this two part series, last week’s “The Incredibly Weird Way I Landed My First Job and Accidentally Started a Life Long Career,” we learned the importance of never giving up and letting your curiosity run wild. This part of the tale reveals more than how two inexperienced newspaper publisher’s on a bare bones budget beat out their highly capitalized veteran competition. It represents a classic fable of the importance of how curiosity, helping others, and opportunity can become the dots you connect on the way to success.

Lesson #2: Voids Create Opportunity and A Little Kindness Goes a Long Way

I got the chump job and, within six months, turned it into a real job. I knew, however, I had to quickly learn about computers. I soon joined the appropriate professional group – the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA). Since the best way to learn is to do and the best way to do is to volunteer, I volunteered to serve on its board. As you might expect, they gave me an assignment no one wanted. I became DPMA’s liaison to a fledgling group of area computer groups called computerAccess.

Most of the groups in computerAccess dealt with home computers – or “personal computers” or “PCs” as the term was evolving to. Most of the members in DPMA were mainframe professionals. They considered PCs no more than the plaything of hobbyists. PCs were therefore beneath them. As a PC owner and with a passing knowledge of the subject (plus the fact I was only 24 years old), they figured I was the best candidate for the job of computerAccess liaison. Plus, did I say no one else wanted to do it?

computerAccess met at The German House on Monday nights. The first meeting I attended was October 15, 1984. How do I remember this? The Green Bay Packers were playing against the Denver Broncos in Mile High Stadium and there was one of those freak Denver snowstorms. Perhaps I remember that because everything else was so alien to me. I had never been to The German House or even that part of the city. The bar was dark. The members of computerAccess were meeting in some private room. It took me a while to gather up the courage to ask the bartender where they were. Trust me, I was about to leave but duty required me to summon up that courage.

I entered a secluded room deep in the bowels of The German House. It had no windows. There was a head table and a scattering of irregular unmatched old chairs placed about on the floor. I took a far chair. In front of me sat a group of mostly guys in their 30s and 40s with advanced degrees who built their own computers. Imagine walking into a room to find the cast of Big Bang Theory, only, not the actors, but the real people those actors are based on. Within seconds, I knew I was in way over my head. So I sat and listened. And listened. And listened.

Abraham Lincoln is thought to have said “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” (Many now attribute this adage to Maurice Switzer.) Regardless of its origin, I followed the maxim… until the end of the meeting when the group finally forced me to say what I was thinking.

The entire meeting had been about solving a particular problem. While the problem itself wasn’t technical, it involved presenting a highly technical subject to the mass audience. Having been put on the spot, I proceeded to display what Boston College had expected from me and what The Yardley Group would never get from me. I quickly laid out a comprehensive plan which, at least I hoped and thought, clearly allowed the group to achieve its goal. In two minutes I proposed a clean solution to their seemingly complex problem they had just spent the last ninety minutes trying to unravel.

I didn’t know how they’d respond. Their response was not immediate (did I mention I was only twenty-four?). The leaders of the group – at least the ones I thought were the leaders – only exchanged knowing, (possibly concerned, it was hard to tell) glances, almost as if they were communicating telepathically. (Believe me, they were this smart and I actually considered this might be happening.)

When the elder member finally spoke, this is what he said: “Would you like to be president of computerAccess?”

And that’s how I became president of computerAccess. From there, the group had many successful ventures, most notably its annual computerFair. Between everyone else’s technical expertise and my willingness to take on broader organizational tasks, we became a very efficient team. They became my good friends.

Fast forward five years. At my house, my computerAccess friends and I were standing around the island in my kitchen. Always interested to hear my latest ideas, I told them of The Sentinel. Actually, I told them of the idea to start the newspaper. This was a small window of opportunity since the previous paper had ceased publication and the larger community newspapers were months away from stepping in. There was a void and we had a limited time to fill it.

Naturally, they asked what we called the new newspaper. I said we hadn’t figured that out yet. They assumed I was just being coy and insisted I tell them right then and there the name of the newspaper. I insisted we didn’t have a name. So, like we had done so often before, we began an impromptu brainstorming session.

We started with the name of the old newspaper – The Honeoye Falls Times – and spun off some variations from there. They were all duds. Then they asked what I envisioned when I thought of the paper. I said I always liked the name The Mendon Monitor because it suggested we were keeping tabs on the community. The problem with that name, I noted, was that it inconveniently left out Honeoye Falls and Lima, two thirds of our coverage area. They focused on the number three and the “monitor” concept. It wasn’t too long before we settled on the name “Sentinel” because most people picture a colonial sentry wearing a tri-cornered hat.

Coming up with the name was easy compared to actually producing the paper. Shirley and I had a three week head start on our competition. After scrounging up a couple thousand dollars, we bought a computer, a laser printer, and Pagemaker software. I was using Pagemaker at work, so I was quite comfortable with it. I was less comfortable configuring the hardware. When we tried to print the Pagemaker files for the first issue, nothing happened. Time was not on our side. The finished (i.e., printed) layout had to be assembled and brought to the printer the next morning in order for us to meet our deadline. (If we missed our printing schedule, we’d have to wait for the following week for the next opportunity to print. This was a major problem since it was Easter week and we had all the church schedules in the paper.)

Try and try and we came up empty. Finally, like that TV game show, I chose to call a friend. Actually, several friends. I called my friends from computerAccess. They had plenty of experience doing these tech sort of things on the fly. And we needed desperately to fly. I copied the Pagemaker files onto a floppy disk (remember them), got in my jalopy of a car, and drove to Irondequoit to the high-tech home of one of the computerAccess gurus.

His computer couldn’t read my disks. (He had an Apple and this was a fairly common occurrence.) Once again we brainstormed and we determined the best way to transfer the files was over the phone lines through a modem. He had a modem. The Sentinel didn’t. So we made another series of phone calls to locate a stray modem. He hopped into my car, we picked up the modem, and it was back to Honeoye Falls to install the modem on The Sentinel computer. We confirmed the connection with someone who had stayed in Irondequoit, transferred the files, and printed them out at the remote site. Once again I drove to Irondequoit to pick up the now printed pages and returned to The Sentinel office to use our light table for the final assembly of the paper. We finished the first edition shortly before the cock crowed.

This ballet between Honeoye Falls and Irondequoit continued for several weeks until we solved our printer problems. Just as I had stepped in to help a budding computerAccess years earlier, so too had they now returned the favor. And they promised to always be there if The Sentinel needed help. Without their help those first few weeks, we might have squandered that three week head start we had. By the time our better known competition hit the streets of Honeoye Falls in late April, the response of the community was, “Doesn’t Honeoye Falls have its own paper?”

We have the guys from computerAccess to thank for that.

And those guys wouldn’t have been around if I didn’t volunteer to help the DPMA. And I wouldn’t have joined the DPMA if I didn’t get that job at Manning & Napier. And I wouldn’t have got that job at Manning & Napier if I didn’t know the word “compiler.” And I wouldn’t have known what a compiler was if I wasn’t researching home computers.

And I would have never researched home computers if I didn’t have this burning desire to play Asteroids.

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