Photo Note: The above is a chart I produced for the class described below. To this day, I feel both proud and exhausted when I think of all the hours that went into creating it. Every student got two copies: one as the back cover of the lecture notes and the second as a place mat size poster. My customer management loved it and, more important, my students raved about how much they understood about the topic after spending 4 and half days with me and this chart. Don’t try to understand it. The information is now obsolete. Just sit back and enjoy the symmetry and balance of this technical work of art…
I have received a challenge to write about an accomplishment I’m proud of. I almost waved it off but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to write it.
I am very proud of something, but am reluctant to fully call it my own because so many people pushed, nudged, advised, or even forced me towards doing something I would have never thought I was able to pull off.
So, I’ll share my big accomplishment, but I’m going to call out some important names along the way.
Going all the way back to my last year in grammar school, my sister, Linda, arranged with her 4th grade teacher for me to come from my 6th grade class to give a lecture on my passion, astronomy, to her class. I made a big poster with drawings from space things and gave that lecture. I came away still loving astronomy, but realized also that teaching was a great rush. I would be watching for future chances to teach. Yea – I have to thank my sister… Please don’t tell her.
In high school, an adult of all people, Ned, pushed me to attend an Electrical Engineering trade school right out of high school when I was nearly clueless about what to do with my life . I knew only that I liked giving that astronomy lecture so many years ago and was pretty handy with a soldering iron and voltage meter.
At that trade school, a peer student named, Joe, befriended me and needled me to excel in my studies and then to apply to a certain company right after graduation where I started a Silicon Valley career I would not have believed possible only two years earlier as a computer diagnostic technician.
At this company, another real adult, Martin, befriended me when I moved upstairs to the R&D lab and forced me to realize that I needed to go for a real 4-year college degree. Over many months, he inspired me to believe that I could succeed in accomplishing it.
Then, there was, Becky, a friend who loved me despite myself, made me promise to visit a certain church that quickly grabbed me up and changed my life in ways mostly outside the scope of this essay but pushed me out of a comfort zone I was too happy in.
I decided to quit my job while I was still young enough to do so, and move from California to Washington to attend a private college outside of Seattle in pursuit of my BA.
At college, a new friend, Rick, stepped aside from a leadership role and arranged for me to be his successor. He gave me the confidence to succeed.
In college, I had several professors who WOULD NOT LET ME FAIL. I graduated with my AA and BA in 2 disciplines. One was in my real love – education.
Next, with a wife now by my side, I was daily encouraged by her love and trust as I tore into one career that quickly failed and then a second that I found deadly dull within 2 years. I was a respected computer hardware repair man, but already knew I had hit a ceiling of what I would find interesting with this job. Software seemed to be where the action was but I had no training or experience with it other than as a user. What to do?
Jerry, who worked in the same office, gave me the one sentence advice that I needed; “Learn UNIX and you’ll never be without a job”. I had no idea what UNIX was but by finding out, everything else you’ll read below became within my reach.
Martin popped up again about this time to call me back to San Jose California and join a new UNIX based company where I could begin following Jerry’s advice.
We moved back to San Jose but this new company failed. Fortunately, I had collected just enough experience to land a job that I loved only 6 blocks from our apartment as a UNIX technology teacher. I was suddenly teaching the very stuff Jerry told me to learn. Many days, I was teaching, then staying up another 6 hours to write the material for the next day.
My work in this area got the attention of, Richard, the director at UC Berkeley and I soon found myself advising, authoring and teaching various UNIX night courses for UC Berkeley Extension.
About this time, I realized that there was a better way to teach technology so I adapted my courseware to this new method. I was: working days authoring courses, teaching them, sending my wife to graduate school and teaching evening classes. My students loved my new method and my classes, so both my day and night managers loved having me around.
One day, I noticed a book by pure chance in a computer book store. I struggled to understand it, but realized that this book would be a smash hit if coupled with a strong instructor. I decided to be that instructor and teach a UNIX Internals course. I realized I was going to need help so I partnered with Brian, who explained many things about software I needed to know. The UC Extension put us in front of many classes of 40-50 people where I was often learning the material enough to teach it literally the night before delivery. The students gave us rave reviews, Richard was thrilled. Brian and I were sleep deprived, but loving life in the fast lane – even if there was not much money in this deal.
Our payment arrived in the form of reputation and soon, Brian moved on to other efforts and I was left as virtually the only UNIX Internals instructor in the country who had any record of success.
By this time, my wife and I were also working in our church as children or youth leaders. We were well received and loved by these families, until our first child was born and then all that love moved to him. Funny how that works… The love and of these families and their kids prepared us for the next big series of challenges. Another company failure (there goes the day job) and UC Berkeley became too difficult to work with (Richard was very apologetic but unable to fix things), so it must be time to move on.
One of my UC students, David, recalled my UNIX Internals class and wanted his team to take the class. He engaged me for a custom offering. The material and my method was a huge hit. So much so that it came to the attention of the education management at his company, IBM.
David’s endorsement and the reviews of that recent offering to his team lead the IBM training management team to offer me a contract. They asked me to wrap a version of my class around a new UNIX-based operating system that had not been released. After signing a pile papers vowing not to tell anyone anything about what I was working on and a big second pile of paper promising to pay me a huge amount of money to develop and teach this class for about a year, my wife and I were stunned by the value of our checking account. We looked things over and bought our first home and moved to San Carlos where our first son would be born.
Work continued on the class with multiple trips back and forth to Austin Texas, where the project developers all sat, so theoretically, I could meet and chat with them. I found mostly that I was locked down with large manuals and my laptop.
This work proved to be pretty lonely because I did not have a team. My wife was heads down with her new job and our son. My method of teaching the material was new to IBM and unlike anything they had ever seen, but they loved it, so I worked many long hours to deserve their trust and their money. The result was an improved method and a 4 and half-day long class.
When it was time for the first offering, I flew back to Austin and found that my classroom full of folks who wrote the software I was teaching. Seriously! How did that make any sense? I asked my sponsor, Mary, what she had in mind. These folks wrote the code. They know it already and will see immediately where I got something wrong.
“One correction,” she answered. “They know their modules, but they know almost nothing of the whole picture, which you have conveniently mapped out for us, so you’ll teach them the big picture and when you talk about their parts, they’ll catch any mistakes we gave you because our manuals became quickly out of date when we started coding.”
“Oh,” I answered. Those manuals were out of date – I thought, realizing that many of my slides were likely wrong, but there was no help for it now so I said, “okay. This makes sense. Let’s go.”
And this worked wonderfully. By the third offering, I was hearing less calls from someone in the class that started with, “Umm, Gary. I know which manual you got that slide from, but here’s what I really wrote…”
For weeks, I felt like I was dancing on large chucks of ice floating down a rushing river trying to avoid falling in.
I was amazed, but these classes of developers, the guys and gals who wrote this code, raved about the quality of the class and unique approach. IBM flew me from Japan to Toronto to teach more of their employees. I loved it because, I finally got sleep while flying…
It was finally time to handover of teaching the class to IBM instructors in Dallas, Texas. One became a close friend. Dave gave me incredible thanks and kudos for delivering one of the most successful classes, their team had ever seen. I was both humbled and a lot wealthier. Dave went on to teach hundreds of more students, and using my method. An updated version of this course is still in use today.
The success of that course came to the attention of my current employer, Oracle Corp. in 1991 and after teaching one session for their database support team, they offered me a full-time job to come in out of the contractor cold to become a normal employee. Big plus – I could see Oracle from my back door in San Carlos, Calif. My daughter had just arrived and I needed to stop flying all over the country to pay our mortgage. I jumped at the opportunity.
I’m now approaching my 20th year with Oracle. I am still with that wonderful girl I married over 30 years ago and other than my marriage and 3 kids (we added a second son) I look back to this one class as my biggest accomplishment. It was one of the toughest challenges I’ve taken on and one of the most fulfilling.
However, I reject that its success was due solely to my wise navigation. Yes, I had worked hard, but there are many who played a part in setting and keeping me on a path to making it happen. In the 30 years since, it has driven my career and impacted our lives in so many ways.
Dave, who took over teaching it for me at IBM, came across a student of mine several months ago, who still had his copy of the student notebook I distributed circa 1990. He sent it to me and I sat down to remind myself of what is was like teaching all those people this material. It was breathtaking to recall how much fun I had and how hard the work was of communicating such a huge body of material.
It was my overall accomplishment, but I will be forever thankful for the friends and colleagues who made it possible.