“Why not?” I tend to ask that way more often than, “Why?” But this time, there were plenty of reasons why not. I could get fired, get electrocuted, or cause the university’s computer systems to be completely shut down for days. But none of that outweighed the risk or the challenge.
I began working as a student employee in the TCU computer center in May of 1982. It started only as a way to make some extra spending money, then accidentally turned into a career. The university and the world were at a turning point of technology. Phones were still used for talking to people, but hyperlinks and web browsers were just invented. All of the university’s administrative memory and processing power combined were likely less than today’s iPhone. But we were slowly moving from giant air conditioned rooms full of equipment with sub-floors containing giant cables to a new “networked” environment where an administrator might not have to walk across campus to get a printout anymore. I remember being on an email list where we would get notified when a new website was created - any new website - in the entire world, since there were so few. Since 30 years have passed since then, I may have embellished a few facts and rearranged some timeframes, but this is how I remember it.
It wasn’t normal for a student to have so much responsibility, nor was it likely very wise. One of the senior systems programmers resigned. That left me, the drunk nerdy sophomore frat guy, as the only one who knew how everything was connected. The director was so nervous that he gave me four raises in one day afraid that I was going to leave too. So one day, in the face of wisdom, of which I had very little, I waited for everyone to leave for the evening, then ripped out all of the cabling asking, “Why not?”.
Computer systems back then really weren’t expected to run 24/7. People slept more back then and were less connected. So I knew I could bring down the entire computer center as long as I had it back up by 7am. The miles of wiring in the foot deep sub-floor connecting the hard drives, the tape machines, the mainframes, the network interfaces, and the power were a total rat’s nest and it drove me nuts. It quickly grew from a whispering want, to a nagging desire, to a must have - I could no longer survive the chaos.
I’m visual. I don’t really know what that means. But it at least means that I sometimes have to draw images while I talk even if the images don’t have anything to do with what I’m saying. When I think of numbers, I see them - in various fonts depending on the context. I don’t know how to just think about a number. I have to see it - see its shape. I can’t remember your name unless I see it written and see your face within a few minutes of each other. I diagram things. I diagram everything. Diagrams are how I learn. They give me a false sense of being in control. If I can put something (or someone) into a Venn Diagram, I can control it and then sleep at night - knowing everything is exactly where it should be. A diagramming software package called Omnigraffle is my virtual savior. If I can label something (especially with color coding), I can rest knowing that it won’t escape or get plugged into the wrong hole or misused. So not only did I have to re-wire everything, I had to label all of it.
I think I started around 10pm. I started very methodically one cable at a time. Pulling up one 2-ft. x 2-ft. floor tile at a time, with giant cold dust-filled air conditioners blowing in my face, I began to get tired. I needed to accelerate the plan. I knew how it was all wired. I thought to myself, “I know - why not just rip it all out and start from scratch?” There I was again with that “Why not?” haunting me. So I did it. By around 5am, things were looking up. The inch thick power cables were bowing down to me as I commanded them to follow long right angle paths that would not interfere with network cables. The coaxial ethernet cables, in their bright yellow plastic coating were minding my every wish. My label maker was printing flawlessly and marking the ends of everything so that no one would ever need to crawl under there again. We didn’t quite have spreadsheets back then, but I made one on paper with nice rows and columns and color coded the labels and descriptions to match the real labels I placed on the cables. It was heaven. The world would soon be at peace.
Today, most people would think “bug fixing” had something to do with code or fixing logic problems in computer programs. But back then, Ken had something different in mind. He was a really cool old former military guy who worked in the computer center. And he fixed bugs. He had a long wooden stick, and when something wasn’t working quite right, he would get that stick out to squash the cock-roaches that would crawl in the sub-floor with the cabling. I think they liked the electricity flowing everywhere. While organizing the cables that night, I saw much of the evidence of his great work.
I wish I had some crazy ending where I either almost didn’t make it or else didn’t make it and the school had to close for a week to fix all that I screwed up. But it all worked out great. I have a feeling some of those cables and labels are still under that floor today.
Lots of cool things happened in that computer center. In 1984, the folks at Rolaids came over to film a commercial featuring Roger Staubach, the recent Dallas Cowboys quarterback who had just retired in 1979. I can’t remember if they let me be in it or not, but I was there. I had to show some of the actors how to look like they were doing things with the real-to-real tape drives (that were bigger than large refrigerators). After the shoot, Roger had to get me to show him how to use the telephone. It was one of the new-fangled ones with buttons that lit up for multiple lines and you had to know to press the “9” button to get an outside line. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xciakc_1984-rolaids-commercial_shortfilms
While I was working there, I developed a love for networking and data. We used network equipment made by a company called Gandalf. No telling if someone bought them or not. Probably not. I’d bet they went out of business. On the front of their eight foot tall networking cabinets was a power switch. It was mounted right at the height of my knees. Whenever I would bend down to look at the networking cards in the bottom two racks, my knee would hit the power switch and the entire campus communications system would shut down. I’m not sure if I’ve ever shared that with anyone before. I liked it being my little secret. I wrote some software that monitored the traffic going across all of the ports. That got me invited to Washington, D.C. to present what I had written to the Defense Department and other government agencies. Apparently, they used the same equipment but a lot more of it and needed some help.
I worked at TCU the entire time I was getting my B.S. in computer science, usually over 30 hours a week. Every week came with new challenges and new technology. Then I worked there full-time after graduation for a few months while I was commuting back and forth to Washington, D.C. and Dallas for interviews, background checks, psychological batteries, and competency tests all for a shot at two positions with the Central Intelligence Agency. Why not? But that’s all another story for another day - maybe. I officially accepted a position at Fidelity Investments wrangling their large computer systems. The chase for wealth and top floor corner offices and limitless expense accounts had officially begun. I now thought I knew the rules to the game of life and I was ready to play hard to win - leather briefcase and all. Little did I know it was all a big lie that would lead to nowhere.