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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Cub Programmer

"Thank you for calling Microsoft.  My name is Colby.  Can I get your day-time phone number, beginning with the area code?"

The year was 1994 and I was a contractor working for Microsoft, answering the telephone at PSS (Product Support Services).  I was 20 years old and just newly returned to the Northwest from college (college and what happened between leaving college and arriving in Seattle is another story...involving Hollywood and the wonderful world of LA culture).  For the purposes of this story, it is sufficient that you understand that I had not completed my college education...See this story for details about the years prior to college and Microsoft.

Most people know that Bill Gates didn't complete his college degree and there are many solid people at Microsoft with similar stories.  When I arrived in Seattle in the summer of 1994, I decided to try for a job at Microsoft.  Microsoft receives many thousands of resumes a day.  I knew I couldn't just put together my meager resume and hope that my interesting name would be enough to get me noticed.  I wanted to be an SDE (Software Development Engineer).  A good friend of mine from high school was working at Microsoft (I believe he started there when he was 17) and eventually invented Active Server Pages, among other things.  He is the kind of smart that will make your head spin.

At the time I wasn't really in a position to be picky.  I was living on borrowed time and money, and in fact was living on friends' couches...sometimes I couldn't find a couch and life got really dicey.

Slightly desperate and definitely motivated, I signed up with a "variable workforce placement agency", long-hand for going to work as a temp.  My first couple of gigs weren't even at Microsoft.  I was doing computer repair and technical support at various companies around Seattle.  After months of living on couches and taking the bus all over Seattle to my temp gigs, I finally landed a long-term (9 months I think) job at PSS.

I was ecstatic.

When I was a child, my mother worked at the local university in various capacities ranging from gardener to librarian technician, and eventually served as the program coordinator for continuing education and conference facilitator for the University (self-starting is a long-standing tradition in my family).  I will write another story about browsing the thesis section of the university library for days and days, just wondering at the volume of thought represented by these little booklets).  My mother met many interesting folks on campus and frequently invited me to meet them.  I was involved in the campus astronomy club, spent a few weeks working at Dr. Weiking's robotics laboratory, and generally geeking out with smart older people.   I had built a laser a couple years prior and in high school I applied my experience with lasers to the task of building a laser interferometer.  So, I was a real hardware nerd and had early on decided get into the business of building electronics. 

In 1990 I got my first computer (a Tandy TRS-80) and started using it for school work.  I was a bit, um, distracted during elementary school and never learned how to write properly so when I was very young, my mother taught me to touch type.  The TRS-80 (or Trash 80 as it is fondly remembered) was a huge step up from the old typewriter I was using.  

For some reason, I just never got into programming on the TRS-80 even though one of my mom's university friends came over and showed me how to use BASIC.  It just struck me as too easy and that the real challenge would come from building the machines.  It wasn't until I took my first programing class in 6th grade (Pascal on the Apple 2GS) that I finally understood the joy of programming.

As I have said before, I decided to ditch my nerdy ways and skateboard as much as possible.

Back to 1994 and my job at PSS.  I wasn't even an engineer working in PSS.  I was the guy that would ensure Microsoft's customer records where up-to-date (try asking an irate customer to verify their home address and read their license key before they get to speak to someone...a thousand times a week for months on end!).  I was in trouble more than my fair share because I would just jump right in and start helping the customer instead of sending them to the appropriate "queue."

Many months into the job, a few full time positions opened up in PSS.  Even though I wasn't overly thrilled about answering phones as a career, I put in for an interview. Any full time job at Microsoft meant it would be easier to move within the company (getting your blue badge is a big deal at Microsoft--the color of the ID you get when you are a full time employee).  Furthermore, I really, really needed health insurance and some sense of security.

I didn't get the job and to this day I think it was because I overstepped my bounds by helping the customer too many times.  And thank goodness I didn't get the job...Or I wouldn't be writing these stories and I wouldn't have my wonderful family.

Around this time, I met some very cool people.  In particular, I met Brecken and his girlfriend Jennifer.  Jennifer worked (if my memory serves me) at the Bill Gate's Foundation.  One evening a bunch of people from Brecken and Jennifer's crowd and myself met at a pub in Kirkland (just down the road from Redmond where Microsoft is headquartered).   Jennifer introduced me to Garin Pangburn. 

Garin and I got to talking over a couple of beers about what he did and what I was up to.  As is turned out, Garin was a former Microsoftie and had started a company with some other Microsofties.   I told him about my programming experience as a kid and about the more substantive software development I did at boarding school.   Garin wanted to know if would do some contract development for his company.  By this time I had found a place to live (in the spare bedroom of my mother's cousin's condo and had a car but I was barely making it).  So, of course I was interested.

Also about this time I was really getting tired of answering the phones... After getting turned down for the job at PSS, I wrote a little humor piece about what it was like working at this particular job.  I sent it out on Microsoft's internal humor email alias just for laughs.  That was how I got my next big break at Microsoft.  For the life of me I can't remember his name,  but a guy working in the hardware acquisition group at Microsoft read the story and just howled.  He called me and said anybody smart enough to write something so funny needed to come work for him.  I was flattered and ready to get the heck out of dodge.

I started the summer of 1995 with some contract work for Garin to keep me busy in the evenings and a new job as a Purchasing Agent for Microsoft's hardware acquisition group.  Again, I was ecstatic.

Garin's little company (CPTS--Critical Path Technical Services...and yes I have been in the project management industry forever)  included a gentleman by the name of Glenn Minch (one of smartest and most ornery men I have ever met).  Garin and Glenn where the principles along with another gentleman by the name of Ken Inglis (also one of the smartest men I have met and the least ornery).  All were either moonlighting or were former Microsoft employees.  They were also, in many ways, my family.   I would not be here today if it weren't for these three guys.  They collectively gave me my career.

But I digress.  I was working as a purchasing agent and doing contract work for CPTS.  I was doing a lot of VBA, some Visual Basic 3.0 and trying to reconstitute my C/C++ skills on my own.  About this time I created my first web page using Notepad...  These were the very early days of the Internet as we know it today.  It was quite a heady time for me.

It was also a good time for CPTS and after a few months of contract work, the team offered me a full-time job.  I readily accepted, put in my two weeks notice at Microsoft, and got ready to go to work as a full-time software developer!  My dream of working in the technology industry seemed to be finally taking shape, albeit I felt like I was taking the very longest of roads to finally end up at Microsoft.  In fact, while at CPTS I reconsidered this goal and was content to stay at CPTS for the duration.  This is not how it ended up.

CPTS was still very much a start-up.  Garin and Glenn were working full-time while Ken was still at Microsoft during the days.  We didn't even have an office.  Garin and Glenn were working out of Glenn's little house just blocks from Microsoft's campus. 

So, I showed up for work the first day, knocked on the door, and Glenn's wife answered the door.  She yelled back into the house "did somebody order pizza?!."  To which Glenn responded that I was the newest employee of the company and to let me in.  I looked like the pizza delivery boy.. Just 21 years old and driving my Hyundai Elantra around...

Working from Glenn's house on hacked together machines atop card tables, the four of us set out on a wonderful journey...Never letting me forget that I was as the most junior of software developers, Glenn created my first business card and on it read:

Cub Programmer

Thanks Glenn, Garin, and Ken for giving me that first start.  Next up, my days as a REAL Microsoft employee!

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