Always volunteer!

volunteer

As a kid it was a given amongst my friends and classmates: never volunteer! You might get stuck doing something you weren’t good at or didn’t enjoy or you might simply stick out from your peers in an uncomfortable way.  If I recall correctly the saying “never volunteer” came from the U.S. Army.

My last post left off with my deciding to leave the library. But I still held fast to my goal of wanting with work with sound and audio equipment. So though I had been exposed to what it meant to be a manager and I turned out to be quite good at it, that hadn’t really sunk in. I started scanning the classified ads for a job.

We now have to take a slight detour, back to my college days. I hated the dorm and got special permission to leave after one semester. After that I lived off campus in semi-communal fashion. One of those places was on, for someone attending Michigan State University, the aptly name Detroit street. No sooner had I moved in but the sound of trumpet playing came from next door. I had played trumpet in elementary and junior high until my lack of musicality started to become evident and I gave it up. But I could still at least recognize the instrument! Intrigued I went next door and introduced myself. It turned out that the guys living in this house were all musicians. But beyond that they were into recording their music and that of other musicians. And that they were into computer music – this in 1966! It turned out that the late David Wessel was teaching a course on how to compose music using the IBM 365 mainframe. They were all taking his course and were very excited by what they were learning and by Dave Wessel. Long story short, I soon visited Professor Wessel and got permission to audit his course. Just to demonstrate how primitive computer music was in those days, MSU did not own it’s own digital to analog converter! Students had to send their computer compositions out to Stanford for the D to A conversion and Stanford would send their music back to them – a week later.

Dave Wessel was a fascinating guy. In addition to teaching a course on computer music he taught another course, on learning statistics using the computer. In addition he was an excellent jazz drummer, playing with various musicians on campus. He became my first mentor, though I wasn’t even familiar with the term at the time. On his own time he taught me about musicians he thought I would be interested in like Terry RileyGyörgy Ligeti, Charles Wuorinen and most importantly, Steve Reich. There’s a long story there about my influence by Steve Reich, but suffice to say I spent spring term of my senior year doing an independent study project with Professor Wessel on the verbal transformation effect. Most importantly Dave sparked my interest in computers. But I wasn’t much good at math and had no interest in programming computers; what interested me was what you could what a computer could help you do, not what you could make the computer do. Compose music! Teach statistics? Who knew what else computers could be used for besides crunching numbers in those days of the mainframe in the 1960s.

After graduation I retained my interest in computers, taking an adult education course in COBOL. But the most interesting course was in library school, titled something like, “Computers for Librarians.” After dealing with the batch processing and punch cards of the mainframe, my introduction to mini-computers and time sharing was eye-opening. Though programming in BASIC required an attention to detail I lacked, I was fascinated by the interactivity of the DEC minicomputer we accessed through terminals that looked like IBM Selectric typewriters on steroids. It seemed magical to see a program printing out all by itself!

As a kid who was interested in audio and electronics – building an electric motor with my dad, an electrical engineer, and a crystal radio set on my own, I was delighted to discover the publication Popular Electronics. While I had let my subscription lapse. I was in the habit of scanning its cover on the newsstand and picking up issues of interest. Today with the power of a mainframe computer in our pockets you can’t imagine my amazement to see the Altair 8800 microcomputer on the cover of Popular Electronics in January, 1975.  While I was buying my copy at the Out of Town News kiosk in Harvard Square, Paul Allen, Bill Gates’ Harvard friend, was doing the same thing. That issue catalyzed the founding of Micro-soft, as it was then called, whose near term mission was to port BASIC to the Altair. You can read all about the founding of Microsoft in dozens of books and web pages. But what separated me from Bill and Paul was they were programmers and I was not. So while the idea that you could actually buy and own a computer not much larger than a stereo amplifier was amazing, I didn’t buy one, as all you could do with it was write programs and even that required entering your code via toggle switches.

Fast forward a few years and I bought an Apple II in early 1980. But after buying it I found out I really had no idea how to use it. Fortunately for me, I discovered The Boston Computer Society.  The BCS was founded by teenage wunderkind Jonathan Rotenberg, was one of the first user groups in the country and grew to become the largest and most influential. I started attending BCS meeting where I learned how to you pronounced Apple DOS as “Apple doss”, not “dose” and which Steve was doing what at Apple Computer.

One night at a packed meeting Jonathan ended the meeting by asking if there was anyone in the audience who knew anything about running non-profit organizations. He realized the BCS was growing rapidly and he needed some help. So I proceeded to do something that I had never done before in my life: I raised my hand and volunteered. To condense this story, I hit it off with Jonathan and was soon invited to join the Board of Directors of the Boston Computer Society. Also sitting on the Board was the inventor of VisiCalc, Dan Bricklin and Tracy Licklider, of Software Arts. We all worked together quite well. The Board met monthly, the same night of the BCS meeting.

Ok, now back to my dissatisfaction with the library world and my job search. I was delighted to find a job at Bose Corporation, where my boss managed a 16 track recording studio, had access to a minicomputer, and video equipment. I had finally found the electronic sandbox I had been looking for ever since seeing Gunther Weil’s workspace at UMass Boston! I interviewed and got the job. At the next BCS Board meeting I was very excited to share my good news with fellow directors.

We had our usual pizza dinner together before the meeting and I shared my exciting news with everyone on the Board. They all congratulated me on my new job, but both Dan Bricklin and Tracy Licklider didn’t look very happy, staring into their pizza slices. As it was my turn to set up for the BCS meeting that night I was thinking more about what I needed to do than their rather odd response to my news.

After dinner, while I was busy setting up chairs for that evening’s meeting, Tracy Licklider grabbed my sleeve and said he really needed to talk to me. I was a bit put off by both his less than enthusiastic response to my news about my new job and getting interrupted in the middle of getting the meeting room ready, but I found five minutes to talk with Tracy before the BCS meeting began. And what I learned in those five minutes changed my life! It turned out that Tracy and Dan were planning on offering me the position of Product Manager for VisiCalc and had no idea I was looking for a new job. Dan had been filling this role and was anxious to move on to designing products – his forte. I was beyond shocked that a MIT-bred company of comprised of top gun programmers would hire a guy who couldn’t even program in BASIC.

I had never reneged on a job offer before. But after discussing the offer from Software Arts with my wife I decided that Bose Corporation would probably do quite well without me – which they have, but I would deeply regret passing up the opportunity to work with people I knew and greatly respected, at the cutting edge of the computer software industry.

I spent four years at Software Arts. When I left I had risen to the position of Vice President of Product Management, managing about 75 people. My career has come full circle, as I am once again working with brilliant MIT engineers, now as a mentor. Life would have been very different for me and my family had I not raised my hand that night in 1980 to volunteer my experience managing a non-profit organization. So volunteer – you never know where it might lead. And even if it’s not a stepping stone in your career, you’ll probably learn a lot, meet new people, and make a valuable contribution. All good!

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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