A Working Life III: My Early Career

In the spirit of full disclosure I should say that, following my adventures in America detailed in Part II of this series, I returned to England in the Summer of 1978 after three years in the States without a graduate degree. My studies at Tufts had been frustrating, and had cured me of any desire to become a sociologist. When I landed in England the customs agent said “Welcome home, sir…” but I really felt America was my home. The next two years were spent in Bristol, but my heart was in California.


Help The Aged Youth Campaign1978-80: Fundraiser, Help The Aged Youth Campaign, Bristol: On my return to the UK I visited friends in Cornwall and decided the stop off in Bristol on the way back to my parents home in Cheshire. I’d been in the town 15 minutes when I ran into Faith from the shoe store in Oregon quite by chance. I took this as an omen that I should move there, and the very next day was hired by the charity Help The Aged as a fundraiser in their Youth Campaign at a salary of £2,000 and the use of a Mini. Help The Aged StaffI drove around to Primary schools in the South-West organizing sponsored walks and, together with other Youth Campaign organizers, worked on larger fundraising events in London, and, rather embarrassingly, Leicestershire (which took me back to Wreake Valley College where a couple of the 6th Form remembered me as their first year teacher “who couldn’t keep control of the class…”). After two years I left on a summer holiday to the US and stayed on.

Again, in the spirit of full disclosure, as I first wrote in this blog eight years ago, I lived in the States for six years without papers, until President Reagan granted ‘illegal aliens’ amnesty in 1987. During this time I kept my nose clean, paid my taxes, and even, for one surreal week, helped the Immigration Service design a database that tracked immigrants (see Bytel below).

“To live outside the law you must be honest”
— Bob Dylan, Absolutely Sweet Marie

Temp Work

1980: Whim Agency, Mill Valley, CA: On my return to the States I settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and signed on with the temp agency ‘Whim’. I completed a broad range of casual work assignments including: Window washing; Balloon Delivery; “Ian The Butler” catering private events; House cleaning; Father Christmas appearances at malls and in private homes; bartending and much more. One gig as Santa Claus took me to the Sausalito home of Ron Cowan the property developer who was hosting a private dinner party where Santa’s gift for California Speaker of the House Willie Brown was a pair of bright red woolen gloves.

Construction_Site1981-82: Construction Labor, San Rafael, CA: I was hired (via Whim) to dig the foundations in clay baked as hard as steel by the summer sun on a hillside home above San Rafael. I worked with Rolf and the crew building the home from the ground up. I learned to use a hammer and skillsaw and managed not to amputate my leg or fall off the scaffolding.

The Right Stuff1982: Movie Extra, The Right Stuff, San Francisco: I was in the elevator ‘enema scene’ as a young doctor with a clipboard as well as a couple of other moments when they needed a man with short back and sides in a white coast. It paid $50 a day and all the food you could eat for a week’s filming above Buena Vista Park off Haight Street. On the set I saw Chuck Yeager, Scott Glenn, Jeff Goldblum, Jane Dornacker and of course Phil Kaufmann the director.

1982: Office Manager, Fields Construction, Sausalito, CA: I worked for Howard Fields, one of Time Magazine’s “most interesting people of the year” back in the 1970’s. Howard was a true Renaissance man who had dropped out of medical school in LA to start a company manufacturing waterbeds. He was a private pilot, sailor, and fan of Ayn Rand. He lived above his office at Schoonmaker Point in Sausalito and built commerical-sized pools in Reno and San Francisco. Tired of seeing me hammer out correspondence on an IBM Selectric he suggested I learn to use WordStar on a TRS-80 PC.

Personal Computers

Time Magazine Cover1983: Freelance WordStar consultant, San Francisco: Howard introduced me to a couple of small companies who needed help with their mailing lists and customer correspondence. Then, with a few months experience under my belt, and a growing fascination with PC’s I was finally able to launch a career. Time Magazine had just named the PC as “Man of the Year” and I was in the right place at the right time, 10 years after graduating, to catch the computing wave that would define my working life from here on.

MicroPro1984 – 86: Dealer Support, MicroPro, San Rafael: I hired into the three-person dealer tech support team at MicroPro where I expanded my hands-on computer knowledge from wordprocessing to databases and spreadsheets, from CP/M to MS-DOS. It was a short 10 minute commute from my home in Mill Valley (living in a cottage behind a home on Shell Road) to the old International Diamond Building next to the Civic Center in San Rafael. The company Seymour Rubinstein had started was booming. However, customer and dealer support was not a priority. When WordPerfect in Utah staffed up their support center we started to lose market share (and when CEO Glen Haney pushed for copy protection on WordStar 2000 it did not help matters). One vivid memory was a company meeting where Rubinstein mocked customers who used a mouse, since this required they take their hands of the ‘home row’ which touch-typists used.

1986: Telemarketing, Software Recording, San Rafael: After MicroPro I tried my hand a commission-only software sales for Randy Hayes’s company. I quickly went broke.

Dbase_III1986-88: Tech Support, Bytel, Albany: I was the sole tech support person for Genifer, the dBase III code-generator working for Dan Pines in his start-up, Bytel. It was a scrappy small company playing in the big leagues of the booming PC database market. I had fascinating conversations with users building databases used for everything from counting boll weevils in cotton fields to tracking immigrants at the immigration service (that was an interesting conversation!)

Around this time I was granted Amnesty by the US Government and given my Green Card which legally allowed to me to work in the US for the first time since 1979.

Tex Logo1988 – 1989: Tech Support, Personal TeX, Mill Valley: I worked for Lance Carnes in his beautiful office near the Sweetwater Bar in Mill Valley. On October 18th I’d left work on the dot at 5:00pm and was just driving through the center of town when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck at 5:05. I arrived home to a shaken-up wife clutching our six month old daughter. Later, I met Donald Knuth at a Stanford conference on TeX and extended my knowledge of this arcane programming language.

1989-1990: Tech Support, Medicus, Alameda: I worked the 6:00am to 3:00pm shift supporting both UNIX and MS-DOS versions of their medical records encoding software. I learned more that I wanted to about ICD-9 and CPT codes and the disputes that can arise over billing and denial of payment for medical services. I had a front-row seat in the dysfunctional world of American health care and medical insurance. Apparently US politicians find the system here preferable to the “socialized medicine” that the Europeans inflict on their citizens…

One day in 1990 I took a call from a recruiter who asked if I was interested in interviewing for a job at a company called Sun Microsystems in Milpitas. “Where’s Milpitas?” I asked. When I found out where, I began the next stage of my working life.

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