Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Where’s My Damn Gold Watch?

© 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

On December 12, 2009, I achieved a significant milestone: I completed 40 years in the workforce. That's 280 in dog years! How time flies when you are busy working to pay taxes!

Of course, as I'm still just a young whippersnapper you may well ask how I've clocked up so many years. Well, I was sent out to work in the coalmines of darkest South Australia (SA) at the age of six where I worked 20 hours a day. And when I got home to the hole in the ground in which all 14 of us lived my dad thrashed me to sleep with a broken beer bottle. And that was on a good night! [Thanks to the Monty Python gang for that inspiration.] Of course, I exaggerate; the shifts were only 18 hours and our hole was one of the more comfortable models. At least we didn't have to eat cold gravel every night; that only happened when we were bad.

All right. Ok, I'll start again. Being six months younger than students in my own class and then having completed two elementary school grades in one year, I started high school (Year 8) at the grand age of 11 years and 2 months. As a result, I completed Year 12 one week before my 16th birthday.

So, with all that experience and maturity under my belt what was I to do with my life? Well, I had two things going for me. I was a decent math and science student with good enough grades to get admitted to the South Australian Institute of Technology (SAIT), but only as a part-time/evening student. And I had enough ability to be offered a spot with the Under-17's team at a semiprofessional Australian Rules football club based in Adelaide. [This was in 1970, well before the national professional league (AFL) began, and when Adelaide—a city of around a million people—supported 10 semipro clubs. It still has nine of them, and two pro teams as well.]

The sport would keep me fit and give me something to do with my spare time, and it would even generate a little income, but that would be invested for a rainy day. And the studies would keep me busy two nights a week from February through early December; however, I'd have to have a job of some sort to pay the rent, pay for school tuition and books, and to buy polish for my football boots.

Hoe Hoe, Hoe Hoe, a Hoeing We Will Go!

At the time I finished high school, my father worked for Simarloo, an American fruit conglomerate owned by the Mariani family from Silicon Valley, California (back before electronics arrived there, when it was a valley full of fruit growers). While local growers in Australia were content with their 20–50 acres of citrus, stone fruits, or vines, not so those big-time Yanks. Simarloo put thousands of acres under irrigation. In fact, just before I started work there, they planted 10,000 almond trees.

Now classes at SAIT and training for the new football season—which ran from April to September—didn't start until March so I had 10 weeks to kill before moving to the state capital 150 miles away. As such, I signed up as a general laborer at Simarloo making AU$1/hour (which was comparable to US$1 at that time). There was plenty of overtime available, but it paid the regular rate. I distinctly remember earning $100 one week; yep, I worked 100 hours, which is probably one reason why I like to keep it around 25–30 now.

Each morning, someone drove me to some remote patch of young fruit trees that were 1–2 feet high, and left me there alone with a large water container and a freshly sharpened hand-held hoe. You know them there gardening implements for weeding, with the long wooden handle! At noon, someone drove me back to the main shed for lunch with the other worker bees. And in the afternoon, I'd do it all over again. My job was to walk up and down 250-yard rows removing weeds from anywhere within a foot of the base of each young tree. And as my water was left at the end of a row, I had 500 yards to go to the next drink, and it was high summer with average temperatures reaching at least 95 degrees F (35 C). Fortunately, it was dry heat. To this day, I have to say that I'm not much into gardening!

If I Had a Hammer

In March 1970, I packed my meager possessions and moved to Adelaide, the capital of the Aussie state of SA. My family had arranged for me to live with a widowed old-age pensioner within walking distance of my football club's stadium, but that was all the help I got. I also had the name of my "minder" at the football club and around AU$500 in my bank account.

I started night school with classes in chemistry and lab-related studies and my goal was to get a job in a science lab; however, as a 16-year-old in a strange city I found it hard going. After three weeks of looking at the job situation and spending money, but not earning any, I took a temporary job at D.B. Harrison and Son, a small factory that made wooden boxes for the wholesale fruit and vegetable trade. Each of these boxes had a lid, which was held in place by two small wooden stays nailed one on each end. My job was to nail those on by hand. I soaked the rather small stays in an old bathtub of cold water for some hours so they wouldn't split when nailed onto a box. I worked with two other drones and the son of the cantankerous owner. I earned AU$16 for a 40-hour week and paid $12/week for room, laundry, and meals including a cut lunch on weekdays. After a few weeks, I was given a $4/week raise. I worked there four months.

Extruders Beware!

I took a cut in pay to move to BG Plastics—a firm that specialized in plastics extrusion—making those nice little molded plastic packages in which brush and comb sets were packaged. The highlight came when the state fair was held and we made plastic spacesuit helmets for kids and sold them there. I took a turn working at the booth; however, almost all the buyers wanted them assembled. And as I was the fastest assembler they had, I got to work the fair for two whole weeks. That job lasted six weeks.

Oil be Loving You, Oo Oo Ooh

A fellow student knew I was looking for a lab job and as he was about to quit his he recommended me to his boss. I fronted up to Adelaide Margarine for an interview and got the job. That company was a subsidiary of Vegetable Oils Australia, which operated an oil refinery near Sydney as well as thousands of acres of olive groves around the country.

Although I was hired to run the quality control lab, I was really being trained in factory management. We made cooking margarine, most of which was packed in 50-pound boxes for commercial bakeries. The rest was in half-pound blocks for retail sale. Once every hour I'd do routine testing on the new batch of margarine that had been made. Other duties included testing the milk reconstituted from powder, testing the water, and placing Petri dishes in various parts of the factory to detect the presence of molds. It was routine chemistry with a little microbiology thrown in.

Although I was still only 17, once I proved to be a self-starter I got to help manage the ordering and shipping of the bulk vegetable oil from the city rail yard and I served as an emergency driver for the transportation department. Quite often, I got to drive one of the company cars (even though I didn't have one of my own), and I even managed to drive one up the back of a car that stalled at a traffic light. (Don't you just hate that when that happens?) I also became proficient at driving a forklift.

Being a non-union employee, during several union strikes I also got to put on white coveralls and a hair net and cap to actually make the margarine. On one such occasion, I had to "supervise" the company President who had no clue as to how things worked out in factory.

At age 18, I had my first business trip—a week in Sydney to visit the refinery and the main labs. It was heady stuff to catch that Boeing 727 and to have a driver pick me up on arrival and again each day at my hotel to go to work.

For quite a while, I had a separate contract with the company to bottle vegetable oil at nights and on weekends. That was my first entrepreneurial fling and it went well.

Rex Learns about Chemical Aids

After 2½ years, I was ready to move on and I chose pure lab work rather than the applied world. I had also completed my first 3-year program at SAIT so I could command a better deal. I joined the South Australian Department of Chemistry where I caused a ripple with their pay grade system. No one had ever gotten that qualification before age 21. [Back then, full adult pay started at age 21.] So at 19 they agreed to pay me as though I was a year older.

The Department was small with fewer than a 100 people, and it had five divisions: Forensics (doing stuff for autopsies and all the state's blood alcohol testing), Agriculture (looking at mercury in fish and DDT in the state's food supply, among other things), Cereals (playing with cereal grains and cooking in their test bakery), Gas and Explosives (testing public gas supplies and issuing explosive permits), and Food and Drugs, of which I was a part. I was assigned to the Pesticide Residues lab as a Technical Officer Grade 1, complete with white coat, safety glasses, and a pocket protector containing pens and a spatula.

This was the age of 2-4-D, 2-4-5-T, Chloropicrin, and other nasty chemicals that were being sprayed onto all sorts of aspects of the human and animal food chain. And aerial sprays caused wild bird's eggs to have very thin shells. Pesticides collect in fatty tissue and professional hunters would go out, shoot foxes, and send us batches of fox fat to analyze the impact of sprays in rural areas. My principal job was to check the Adelaide metropolitan area supply of eggs, milk, and fresh fruit and vegetables to monitor their pesticide levels. Occasionally, I'd get one-time tasks. The most exciting things that came our way were the stomach contents of a farmer and his dog. Wishing to commit suicide by drinking a concentrated chemical—Hey, sign me up for that plan!—Farmer Brown forced a dose down Rover's throat to make sure it was quick acting. Once he saw that it was he took a solid swig himself. Forensics got the case and handed off the pesticide component to my group.

Once, I was on-loan to the main Food and Drug lab to test 240 bottles of red wine for artificial coloring. I took a 20 ml sample from each bottle, gassed it with CO2 to preserve the contents, and resealed it. After many weeks of negative tests, and checking and rechecking my control process, about three bottles from the end I found one that was over the limit. The Deputy Director of the Department was so excited when I told him that he had to come and repeat the test himself. Months later, after I had given away most of the bottles of wine to staff members an agriculture inspector came by and asked what happened to all that wine. Of course, I had to inform him that it had been "consumed" during the testing.

I had taken on the task of handling lab maintenance requests for the whole department and enjoyed getting out of the lab to work with the maintenance staff. The electricians and plumbers I used supported the state library, state natural history museum, and Government House as well. On one visit to find them at Government House I had the good fortune to meet and chat with the Governor, Sir Mark Oliphant, a noted Australian scientist who worked on the Manhattan project in the US during WWII. [In Australia, the head of government in each state is an elected politician called the Premier. The (largely ceremonial) head of state in each state is the Governor, appointed by the Queen and who represents the Crown.]

While I was taking classes in my second 3-year course at SAIT, I discovered computers and programming. Minicomputers were becoming affordable and labs were starting to install them to automate all kinds of things. And while I loved programming, the Department didn't have any computers. It was time to move in a different direction.

Along the Highways and Byways

The SA Government had an acute shortage of computer programmers so they had SAIT develop and teach a 3month training program to be run in the summer when the campus was otherwise empty. They announced an opportunity for state civil servants to take an aptitude test to see if they would qualify for selection to this program. In my case, I had already taken the test as part of an effort to see about transferring to another department. As for the other 500 applicants, they all had to cram into a very large hall and compete with each other and the clock. I was one of the "25 chosen ones" and in January 1976, we went off for 13 weeks to be full-time students on full pay and benefits to learn COBOL on CDC mainframes. Along the way, we also did a bit of FORTRAN.

Each student was assigned to a state government department and mine was the South Australian Department of Highways. After that, we served six months "on the job training" before moving to the ranks of Computer Systems Officer Grade 1. And for those of us already with a pay grade ahead of that level, we kept it. My team leader was a former high school teacher who delighted in teaching.

After a solid stint in coding standard validation, update, and reporting applications in COBOL, I literally attached myself to an engineering group that got me my own office—only the Grade 4 boss had one of those—and a project processing statistics from highway and bridge concrete crushing compression results. From there, I transferred myself to a Digital Mapping group that had its very own DEC PDP-11 minicomputer. There, I designed and implemented a system to digitize from topographic maps all the state-owned or maintained roads and their adjunct facilities like bridges, rail crossings, and quarries. That got me into real-time data acquisition. I then tied that system to a cadastral system of land use and valuation information allowing planning engineers to figure out where to run new highways through neighborhoods. That project involved a lot of plotting and graphics. Others in my group worked on a system that gathered traffic statistics by punching holes in paper tape when cars ran over those rubber hoses you see stretched across a highway, and they were on the fringes of the first work in SA on computerized traffic system controls.

The state government was a classic British Commonwealth operation; you waited for someone to retire or die to get ahead. And I was a young man in a hurry! Once again, it was time to move on.

Along the way, I dropped out of my science course, one class short of completion. Then I started a 3-year Computing Science degree as a halftime student—without any previously earned credits transferring—with time off with pay from the Department. By the time I left Australia in mid-1979, I'd completed one year of that program. And just like Bill Gates, I never did get to finish university, yet somehow he finished a few billion ahead of me; however, due to a drop in the price of Microsoft stock I've managed to narrow the gap.

Laboring in Chicago

After traipsing around Asia and Europe for seven weeks playing tourist, in August 1979 I entered the US via New York and rode the Eastern Airlines Shuttle to the Nation's capital. A week later, I was living in Chicago and consulting to the US Department of Labor, Region 5, which covered six mid-western states.

My main project was to design and implement a system to track all apprenticeships in that region. Each state office had a computer terminal and dial-up modem to access the minicomputer in Chicago. When I delivered the system, users moved from an antiquated error-prone batch system to an interactive system, the contents for which they controlled directly. And they could query it in real time. It was very successful and I was asked to demonstrate it for other regions.

My second project was to design and implement a system for the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA) in Cincinnati, Ohio. Numerous public and private organizations and companies sent their lab instruments to OSHA for repair or calibration, and my system was used to track instruments from arrival to shipping.

Achtung Gesundheit!

After 13 months in Chicago, I started with Software AG of North America whose headquarters was in Reston, Virginia. The company developed and sold database management software. I was the first non-IBM mainframe person at HQ. Nominally, I was the technical support manager for a new product, the company's first foray into the world of minicomputers. In reality, I did whatever it took, developing installation procedures, writing training manuals, delivering training, and working with developers, sales, and marketing staff.

It was a stormy 2½ years involving quite a bit of travel, the company going public, and a lawsuit around my project. Along with that, I was thrown in at the deep end to manage staff and I had the unenviable task of hiring people for a project I knew was going to be cancelled! [To this day, I have no interest in hiring or managing anyone.]

So what does "AG" stand for? The parent company was German, and Aktiengesellschaft (AG) is a suffix indicating public trading and limited liability in Germany. Whenever I was asked its meaning, I usually said the (nonsense) title above, which means literally Attention and To your health.

Farming out the Cash

For some months in 1983, I worked on a contract with the US Department of Agriculture where I developed spreadsheets to manage federal grant money for agricultural research. I also worked on various database systems. PCs were becoming popular and lots of groups wanted to control their own computing destiny.

Becoming a Mainiac

Late in 1983, a major opportunity came my way when a company had need for a person experienced with DEC PDP-11s, real-time process-control, and FORTRAN. It was a great fit and I soon found myself in the wilds of Maine at Great Northern Paper Company's (GNP's) Millinocket papermaking factory. For each of three weeks a month, on Monday mornings I flew from Washington DC to Boston, Massachusetts, and then to Bangor, Maine. From there I drove more than an hour to the town nearest the north end of the Appalachian Trail. On the following Friday afternoon, I did the reverse process. It took six hours each way, and so began my extraordinary flying experience.

GNP generated a great deal of the power it used at its papermaking facilities at six hydroelectric dams and two steam plants. My project was to maintain, document, and later to enhance the software that ran on a network of minicomputers to monitor the steam plants and control the hydro plants. I got to hang out with a great bunch of engineers, electricians, and power dispatchers and I made some good friends.

By the way, rumor has it that if you spend one or two winters in Maine you are a Mainer. If you spend three or more, you are a Mainiac! I spent a lot more than that.

Doing It My Way

After five years in the US, in mid-1984, my application for permanent residency was approved and I got my green card. Very soon after, I started in business as an independent consultant. I continued to work on the GNP project for another 14 years, first as a subcontractor and then as the prime contractor. And I implemented the software changes for some major engineering additions to the power generation system.

Along the way, I started writing for publication and I spun off collections of articles into some seminars. As I wrote more, I started to plan each series, turning the resulting work into a seminar and then a textbook. And I continued this approach for some 15 years. Early on in that process, I started a quarterly publication and was its editor until it was sold three years later. Some years thereafter, I published and edited another quarterly. By then I had a very nice writing and publishing business on the side.

In December 1984, I attended my first meeting of a computer technology-related standards committee. It was a US committee, but before the end of my 15 years as member, international representative, then chair, it had spun off an international counterpart. That got me onto a regular schedule of national then international meetings, usually with some personal travel as well. And when I retired from that activity, I was hired by a software company as a consultant to help them build their own standards capability. 10 years later, I am still working with them in a number of forums relating to computer programming languages and office technology. Almost all my work is as project editor where I write and/or edit some or lots of a specification, and I help manage the maintenance process. For quite a few years, this meant attending 2- or 3-day international meetings every month, and on one project, 2-hour phone meetings every 1–2 weeks.

After a long break, I'm back to writing and teaching and recently I started a website with a partner to sell a lot of my previously published and unpublished intellectual property. (See www.ProgrammingClassroom.com.)

Throughout my 25+ years of being self-employed, I've had two very important rules: never ever hire anyone, and take as much time off as I can afford. And I am very happy to say that I have never reconsidered either of those and in fact, I have reinforced them many times. For 15 years, until 2006, I worked halftime and now after a few years of working more than full time on several interesting projects I'm back to part time. And I wouldn't have it any other way.


Now my boss is an understanding bloke so recently I had a chat with him about cutting back my hours or even retiring. Of course, he laughed aloud, but said nothing. So for the foreseeable future I guess I'm stuck with a good income, a part-time job, plenty of interesting work, a good amount of travel, a chance to work with some really good people, and no gold watch. Oh well, I guess someone has to do it, right? And as for retirement I guess that will happen when I die; however, I can't help thinking that maybe, just maybe, Hell might be a technical support job at a software company!