A Window of Opportunity

We moved to Wisconsin in 1979 to pursue a business idea that failed. Because I had been self employeed I was not elegible for unemployment so I had to do what I could to feed my family. I will tackle that story in another post, but suffice it to say for the purposes of this narrative that we were in a very poor financial condition. The economy was bad with high unemployment, high inflation and interest rates. The prime rate was over 20%. I had no degree; I had been a photographer and had some equipment that I made some money with, I built a darkroom in the basement where I made black and white prints to sell. I did ballet photography mostly. I took a job selling life and health insurance primarily to farmers. This required me to drive all over the state of Wisconsin and even down in to Iowa some. I did make some money at this profession but I didn’t thrive as a salesman.

The Osborne Computer

This was during the period of the development of the personal computer where the Apple was in use but the IBM PC had not come out yet. There were several different companies who were offering computers to the consumer but the personal computer was still an oddity used mostly by the very early adopters and small businesses were just starting to get curious about how it might be able to help them.

I really didn’t actually know what a computer was except in the most general terms. I knew that there were giant main frame computers used by large businesses and the government. I had heard about mini computers medium size businesses used but they really didn’t capture my imagination until a start-up company began marketing a portable computer called the Osborne at a very low price, targeted at the business market. The price was $1,800 (much less than anything up to that point). It included software, Word Star, a word processor, VisiCalc, a spreadsheet, and dBase a database management system. When I first saw a demonstration I was impressed that this machine was a magic box that could be anything you wanted it to be. It wasn’t like a calculator that would only do math problems, it could be programmed to do almost anything you could imagine.

$1800 was a huge amount of money to us. Our income was not steady because I was working on commission and finding photography jobs at irregular intervals and with long dry spells. We constantly worried about getting enough to meet the basics. We had no money in the bank but I had made a big sale in insurance and was expecting a commission check of about 2 thousand dollars. Looking back I think Chris must have thought I was absolutely out of my mind when I presented to her the idea that we should take all this money and buy an Osborne. We didn’t know where any more money was going to come from or when but she gave me permission to buy it.

The Osborne was more powerful than anything else out there for the consumer. It had 2 floppy disks! Each would hold 80K of information. It had 64 k of memory. The screen boasted 53 characters per line. The screen was only 5 inches across but it was so sharp that you could read those tinny characters! The whole thing was portable — about the size of a portable sewing machine — with a handle to carry it. It later became known as a lug-able because it was so heavy.

I immersed myself in the books that came with it and bought more. I learned the basics of the C/PM operating system and learned to use the word processor. When I started to play with the spread sheet I discovered that you could create really cool spreadsheets that would calculate all sorts of things automatically. I remember how cool I thought it was when I discovered that you could put an if-then-else logic statement inside another if-then-else statement so it could make very complicated decisions.

When I studied dBase I discovered that it was a language! I could write a whole program. I memorized commands and studied books on dBase. At the insurance agency my boss was very impressed with what I could do so he payed for me to go to Chicago — we lived in Madison, WI — for a 2 day class designed for people who knew a little already. He paid for a room in a nice hotel and told me to take Chris with me.

When I returned to Madison, 2 days later, I was the most knowledgeable person in town about dBase so I went to the computer stores and told them that I was a programmer. They were thrilled because they had business people who wanted to buy a computer but, only if they could get a program made to do the special job they needed done. I got a jobs writing among other things:

  • a rental-property management program,
  • an automotive parts database for a factory rep company who sold parts to the major car makers,
  • a lease management application for a bank and
  • a robbery and fraud database for a banking association to keep track of and study criminal activity and patterns.

Near the end of my career I wrote a program for the Navy that was used to keep track of time cards for the three strategic sub bases. I wrote a major application for the Washington State Department of Transportation which kept track of the funds received from the Federal Government and dispensed out to the counties and cities to build highways and bridges.

I worked for Microsoft on the development team of the FoxPro database software the successor to the dBase language I originally learned on my Osborne. While working for Microsoft I was recruited by a company to go to Russia to work on a Prototype for a database to keep track of titling and registration of real estate. I managed 5 Russian  programmers and worked in 5 Russian cities. I was provided with a $3,000/mo apartment, a driver, house keeper and an interpreter.

Equipment has changed so much. My first hard drive cost $600 and it was a huge 20 megabytes. That hard drive would only hold 2 or 3 pictures from one of my digital cameras today. The first memory card I bought for my digital camera also cost $600 but it held 128 mega bytes the last one I bought recently cost $100 and it holds 16 giga bytes. What will the future hold? Things change so fast.

I made a career with that little computer by recognizing a window of opportunity, a short time when if you know anything you are the expert. Opportunities are out there if you can find them and take advantage of them. Where will the next window of opportunity come that you can jump through?

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