T-SQL Tuesday

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about today and then saw it was T-SQL Tuesday, this month’s question from Kenneth Fisher. The topic is “Your First Technical Job”.

I had to actually stop and think about this one for a second. The requirement was to not talk about ones first DBA job, but ones first technical job.

I entered RPI, my alma mater in the fall of 1985. This means I should have graduated in 1989. However, I graduated in 1990 and that made all the difference in my career. One thing that RPI had then, and still has, is a very robust Co-Op program. These were (and I believe still are) an opportunity to work for a company in your field for a summer and at least one semester. Unlike some college programs like this, RPI’s Co-Op office made sure that you were doing actual work in your field, not relegated to say filing papers in an office, or getting coffee for the full-time employees. You also were paid, just like an employee. Given my financial status as a student, this was a huge help.

Through a series of connections, I found myself working at company in Troy called Laboratory MicroSystems. It’s long gone, but it was a good company. It was founded by a pair of RPI alumns, one of which who had also been an Outing Club member and for awhile, tended to hire Outing Club members. It was our own networking group.

That said, my housemate and best friend had just completed his Co-Op there, so there was an opening. After a quick interview, I was hired and started working a few weeks later.

Let me say that this was a great opportunity for me. I had learned a lot in the classroom (even if my grades didn’t always show it!) But, I had never actually applied such skills in the real world. And to further complicate things, my manager was on vacation my first week. Not only was I thrown into the deep end, I didn’t even have a lifeguard.

My friend, when he was there, had taken the PC version of a package they had, called Thermal Analysis and ported it over to a mini-computer (I believe some sort of HP model). To give you an idea of how long ago this was, all the work was done in Fortran.

My job ironically enough, was to take the HP version of the software, that now had been updated and improved and back-port it BACK to the PC. Up until now all my projects in school had been 1, maybe 2 files. So any linking (yeah kids these days are wondering what I mean there) could be done by hand and I had never created a make file. (go google it kids). So very quickly in my first week I learned how to actually compile and link large groups of files in a complex, real-world environment.

Within a few weeks I was deep into the code and really starting to understand how it worked and how to apply my classroom skills. It was a great experience. After about 8 months on the job, it was time to go back to the classroom. But I wasn’t through yet. After another semester of school, I went back for another Co-Op and worked another semester and summer. At this point my manager had moved onto another company and the rest of the company moved onto a new product and project (one that ultimately made the company valuable enough to be sold and for the founders to move on.) I found myself in an unusual position of being 20 years old and the lead developer on a product with no other teammates other than a 20 something sales manager who spent more time on the phone talking about his supposed sexual exploits than actually make sales. But he’s a story for another time.

During this time there are several things that stand out as I think greatly helping me in my career.

The first was adding pop-up help to the Thermal Analysis program. One has to remember, this was back in the days of purely DOS programs, so one normally didn’t have overlapping windows, and the like. But a few customers had wanted some sort of help system added. It took some work, but I finally found a way to do it. Fortran was great for the computational aspects and the 3rd party library helped us display plots on the screen. However, Fortran wasn’t great for developing a UI. After reading and research, I realized I could do what I wanted with some C and Assembler code. This is also when I learned that their call stacks were reversed from Fortran. So I ended up having Fortran calling C code, using a keyword Pascal to ensure the stack would read in the right direction (don’t ask me why it used that for the keyword) and then the C code called ASM to call the DOS interrupts to allow a pop-up to be displayed, and then the C code populated the pop-up with the help text. Learning how to do this, really helped me with my problem solving skills and to learn that “solutions exist” it’s just a matter of finding them.

Another project was one completely unrelated to Thermal Analysis. I can’t recall the name we gave the problem, but it was software we wrote for GE Plastics that basically involved setting up a material on a tensile test machine (a machine that would pull stuff apart at whatever speed you told it to. In this case, the test took a year to run!) GE had provided the hardware and the hardware specific language to write this in and I was off. This had to handle reboots, power outages and the like. Fortunately we were using an external A/D (analog/digital) converter box made by Perkin-Elmer that could store a certain number of data points. This meant we could reboot the PC and reread in data to see if it were new or not. The software was the first I’d seen that had any sort of try/catch (though I believe they called it something else). So I was able to learn and develop good error-handling techniques. Something I’m still working on and improving on to this day.

But, ultimately, this job really led me to where I am today through a convoluted series of steps. The office network was Novell Server with Thinwire ethernet. For those who don’t recall what Thinwire is (or was) the key details was that rather than every network cable running back to a central switch, the cable ran in a serial line from computer to computer and any break in it resulted in a network outage. There were many ways this could fail.

Well between my software work, I started to be the go-to guy for diagnosing network issues. And then for issues with the Novell Server itself.

After college, for various reasons (including I suspect because both my parents had worked for themselves) I wasn’t eager to work for another company right away. So I went into consulting and my first client was, you guessed it, Laboratory MicroSystems. I started handling all their IT needs, which continued to grow. When I had started, they barely filled one floor of the building they were in. By now they were spread across 3 floors and still growing.

And that product everyone else had started working on during my Co-Op? Well by now they were porting it to use SQL Server 4.21a, and they realized that they could use a specialist to go to customer sites and install SQL Server before they sent out their specialists to install the actual software.

And that folks is how, I started out programming in Fortran and ended up as a SQL Server DBA.

Someday, I’ll tell you how the Streets of Laredo figures into this story or how the last I had heard about the now formal sales manager involved him and a radio contest or even how after I stopped consulting I did one last gig for them as a 1 day Oracle consultant or the time I saved them (after being bought) from moving into a new office with only 2 outlets for 24 people.

But in the meantime, now back to studying for a test for my next change of career to hopefully become a Physicians Assistant!

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