A Life of Flabby Loneliness

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It was a cold February winter more than 35 years ago. I sat uncomfortably close to a diminutive manually assembled Bush Furniture computer hutch. You remember those things. They looked like the mutant offspring of a too short desk and a flimsy book shelf.

Little did I know I was on the leading edge.

Actually, I did know I was on the leading edge… and loving it.

Hunched over what was then a new Wang PC, I had convinced my employer I needed to test a remote system setup. We wanted our Rochester office to communicate electronically with our about-to-be-opened Manhattan office.

There was no internet in those days. Well, really, there was. It was just limited to the highest echelons of academic researchers and those in the defense department who possessed the requisite security clearance.

For certain, the internet was not available to a twenty-four-year-old whiz kid who was trained to be an astrophysicist and was only learning network computing on the fly. No, in today’s terms, I would have been called a “hacker.”

Heck, in yesterday’s terms I’m almost certain people called me a “hacker.” I was too young to be where I was in the data processing profession. While the many veterans sang the praises of centralized computing and the immortal IBM, I took the rebel path.

I choose to base my system on a company known more for making word processing machines. Technically, these were computers. But the old pros in the DPMA (“Data Processing Management Association”) called them glorified typewriters.

Still, they were interested in my grand experiment. I was, after all, the president of the local chapter of their professional society. As much as they delighted in making fun of my naïve youthfulness, deep down, they had a sneaking suspicion I was on to something.

Something big.

(But that’s another story for another time.)

The original “glorified typewriters” produced by Wang were, for all intents and purposes, smart terminals. A smart terminal was the name of a PC before they called them “PCs.”

OK, PCs had a few more bells and whistles than smart terminals, but, conceptually, there were quite similar.

In 1985, I persuaded my company to buy a real PC – not a word processor. This PC was made by Wang, not IBM (and, man, was that a fight). It came equipped with a dial-up modem.

Now, I had a lot of experience tapping into phone lines. I learned that (again, on the fly) when I was a sports broadcaster/radio technician (because our radio station couldn’t afford two different people to do the two different jobs).

Our broadcasts required us to tap into analog phone lines. It was easy then. It’s still easy now, but you have to do it a different way.

And, don’t worry, it didn’t require a warrant. You just had to pay the phone company a surcharge and let them know you were doing it. Tapping into the phone lines would allow you to link from the broadcast location (i.e., arena or stadium) to the radio station, which could then broadcast my velvety voice across the southern Connecticut shore (and, some say, even into Long Island).

Working from home used phone lines in a similar way. By 1985, dial-up modems made the job easier (since no wiring was required) but harder (since the phone’s handset had to remain snugly tight in the modem’s rubber receiver). There were a lot of false starts, intermittent breakdowns, and the endless Artoo-Detoo beeps, buzzes, and shushes.

In addition, there was solitude. I worked in a small den set off in the south west corner of my parent’s new house. It was an open plan with wood floors. The resultant echoes from every step, every sound, only emphasized the isolation.

Early on in my telecommuting experiment, on one particularly lonely February day, I happened to be reading The Wall Street Journal. As I leafed through the paper, I came upon a headline on page 33.

“Working at Home: Is it Freedom or a Life of Flabby Loneliness?” the title blared out. It seemed as if it were speaking directly to me. Maybe Eric Larson, the author of the piece which appeared in the February 13, 1985 edition of the newspaper, had tapped into my phone lines. How did he know my main form of exercise was walking to the refrigerator and snacking.

Not that it bothered me. Quite the contrary. I thrived in the pleasure of working uninterrupted on my favorite activities.

Where they all work related?

Yes and no.

Truth be told, once I figured out the hardware, the rest of it was pretty boring. I had to run periodic tests throughout the day. It made no sense to go back to the office, especially when the weather got bad. So I stayed at home all day, testing the system, reading reports and business magazines, and tinkering with a few other intellectual pursuits. (Remember there was no internet to immerse myself in.)

One of those intellectual pursuits involved writing an article for Astronomy Magazine. NASA supported my effort, since it involved the Hubble Telescope which was scheduled to be launched the next year. After several back and forths with the magazine’s editor, the article was cut when the Challenger disaster delayed Hubble’s launch. (The delay ended up being 4 years.)

As my work time grew more efficient (one of the more inspired revelations uncovered during my experiment), I found myself exploring new avenues for work.

I absorbed all the management training books, magazines, and journals I could get my hands on. I began to develop a personal philosophy on how to manage for results. All before I ever attended my first MBA class.

This proved quite beneficial when, the following year just as the Hubble launch delay became official, I was named Managing Director of Operations.

As many embark on their own voyage of telecommuting discovery, take a moment to reflect on my experience. I’m betting you, too, will soon learn something fascinating about your work, your desires, and your own inventiveness.

So what if you gain a little weight in the process.

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