Perhaps once or twice in the span of your working career you may be presented with a golden opportunity for fame and fortune ”if you recognize it. It s possible to be blind to opportunity, as my fellow systems engineers were back in the seventies ”even though our company was encouraging us to seize this chance. It turned out to be the biggest opportunity of my career ”and I seized it because IBM asked me to.
In the early 1970s, most companies had just installed, or were in the process of installing, their first (mainframe) computer. There were tens of thousands of companies computerizing their businesses for the first time, and many of them were small companies. Each company wrote most, if not all, of the programs that ran its business in-house, because there were virtually no application- related software packages available.
This was good news and bad news for IBM. The good news was that virtually all the customers were clamoring for IBM education (at a fee) and an IBM systems engineer (at an astronomical fee) to help their new programmers write and install their new computers. I remember working for many months splitting my billable systems engineering tasks among several customers shops and driving for an hour from one to the other, with no time to eat lunch. My boss forgot to think about my lunch when he scheduled my time with the key customers.
The bad news for IBM was that there were not enough newly trained customer programmers or IBM systems engineers to install those thousands of first mainframe computers effectively, no matter how hard we worked. This led to some really severe installation problems and threatened to slow the pace of IBM computer customer acceptance and payment for the computers. Most of the IBM systems were rented then, not purchased, so IBM couldn t start the rent until the customer accepted the computer.
Some genius at IBM headquarters (and I am not being sarcastic ) thought of a fantastic, creative way to solve all of these problems quickly, at almost no cost. He or she came up with the idea of finding the very best customer in every industry that already had an excellent set of computer software applications running on the company IBM computer. IBM had found that in virtually every industry there was at least one already installed and supremely happy customer with excellent software applications.
Could that best customer be a showcase installation for the hundreds or thousands of companies essentially just like it in the industry? And could that customer provide its proven software (for a nice fee) to all the other companies in the industry who wanted it? Yes, this was feasible .
Could IBM persuade the showcase customer to accept a nice royalty on the software that the other companies would pay IBM? And would the showcase customer like IBM to generate some impressive publicity about how successful and advanced the customer was in using this leading technology? Probably, yes. Most of the corporate CEOs were definitely Mr. Outside personalities, and were pleased at the chance to showcase their company s strengths.
Now all IBM had to do was to get someone who was really good at programming ”perhaps the programmer who had written that superb application for that best customer ”engaged in this effort. The accomplished programmer would spend lots of time and effort to review the system and bring it up to IBM standards for program distribution. He or she would also write clear IBM manuals needed to install and support this model system, exhaustively test it, and package it for IBM distribution worldwide. And support it after that, of course. Oh, and do all this work in the evening, without extra pay.
Could IBM possibly persuade a gullible IBM systems engineer to bite at this one? Well, yes ”at least me.
Soon after the IBM genius came up with this plan, every SE in the country found, in his or her mailbox (this was before e-mail) a brightly colored flyer from IBM headquarters extolling the potential virtues and benefits of the Installed User Program (IUP) ”benefits for IBM, the customers, and, potentially , for the systems engineer who was interested in applying himself or herself to such an effort (a big after-work project). All the flyers but mine promptly flew into wastebaskets.
I talked to my manager about possibly doing an IUP with a small apparel company that had just installed its first computer and where I had done most of the programming. My manager gave me quiet encouragement to do it on my off hours, so my billing performance would not drop below forty hours a week. I chose to do it.
Yes, there was no immediate payoff, and doing this work, without payment, after a grueling overtime week at IBM, seemed ludicrous to all the other systems engineers. But I took the position that this idea, a groundbreaking idea at the time, would lead to some sort of reward, eventually.
And it did. After I d created the Apparel Business System, the first interactive software package created for the apparel industry, I got to fly around the world presenting my first real software product of IBM quality. I ve seen it in use in hundreds of companies (indeed, its offspring products are still being sold). I even got a $10,000 award as a royalty for doing it (which I figure works out to about $5 an hour). I also got at least some respect from IBM: The company presented me with an IBM national award on a stage in San Francisco (my fifteen seconds of fame) and created a National Apparel Support Center ”a beautiful office overlooking a lake ”where I and my partner, Garry Reinhard, could support the package worldwide. All because I simply said yes, I would consider the genius s proposal. The rest of the systems engineers, who tossed the opportunity away, got to go home.
An opportunity that could enhance ”even change ”your career may not show up accompanied by the sound of trumpets. The potential rewards of a project you are offered or that you hear about may not be quantifiable, or even foreseeable. But any opportunity or challenge that requires intensive effort and that stretches your ability is likely to pay off in ways you can t anticipate. Don t shrink from a challenge.