Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Standards – The Secret Life of a Language Lawyer

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

On a very regular basis, many of us plug an electric appliance into a wall outlet. Not only do we expect the plug to fit, we also expect the appliance to work, probably without even thinking about it. Yet that can be so only if all the suppliers of electric sockets and plugs serving a given region follow the same socket-and-plug design, and the corresponding electrical conventions. And as you might have experienced, while you can take a device with a US plug and use it directly in Japan, you cannot do so in Germany, and vice versa; at the very least, you'll need an adaptor. [I have several: one is a single piece that allows selected prongs to protrude; the other provides a series of convertors that stack on one another. Both handle US, European, UK, and Australasian inputs and outputs.]

Since December 1984, I've worked on a number of US and international standards in the Information Technology area. I won't bore you with the esoteric details of that work, but, later on, I will mention a couple of projects with which you might relate. For the most part, I'll focus on other, every-day examples of standards and conventions.

Regardless of how, why, or by whom a standard is created, it needs to be written as a clear specification, so people can build products and provide services to comply with that standard. The person in charge of writing such a specification is often called a project editor or redactor. [For the past 12 years, that has been my main role in standards-related work, hence the title of this essay. From a standard's writer's perspective shall is a very strong word whereas can, might, could, and should, are weak words. And may is strong if its means "having permission" rather than "might".]

Standard or Convention?

There are two main kinds of standards:

  • Mandatory/Regulatory (defined by local, national, or international public health and safety officials, for example)
  • Optional/Industry initiatives (to allow interoperability and preservation of investment in equipment and training)

Sometimes, a vendor or consortium of vendors so dominates a market that its products became a de facto standard.

Standards We Use Regularly

Often when I put gasoline into my car, I see a sticker on the pump saying something like, "This pump has been calibrated and tested by the local/state Department of Weights and Measures on <test-date>." How do we know we're getting exactly 2 gallons of gas or that the 1-kg packet of meat we're paying for weighs exactly one kilo? Of course, it's not practical to measure everything we buy/use; we simply have to trust someone to have "done it correctly". Behind the scenes, a lot of people work to make that the case, and if they do their job properly, you'll never know or even think about them.

Regarding environment and health, there are standards for water quality, air quality, and automobile exhaust emissions. We have standards for seat belts and airbags. And given the growing use of the term organic with respect to food, we have an evolving—but not universal—set of definitions. However, read the fine print; there are always marketers trying to stretch the truth. [By the way, when people talk about organic produce, I joke that it really does taste much better than that inorganic stuff!]

When it comes to utilities and appliances there are a whole host of standards, many of which vary considerably from one country to another:

  • Electricity: In the US, we use 110 volts and 60 Hertz with the plug having two vertical, flat blades and an optional circular ground (earth) pin. And even then, on some plugs one of the flat blades is taller than the other. [100 years ago, a lot of power generated in the US was 40 Hertz. In my original country, Australia, it is 240 volts, 50 Hertz, with two, flat blades at an angle to each other and an optional third flat blade as the ground.] For a lot of information about different plug/socket conventions, click here.
  • Telephone: For those of us in the US still having a landline, we very likely plug our phone into an RJ11 jack. However, that wasn't always the case. When I lived in Chicago in 1979, my phone's wall socket had four pins equally spaced around a large, circular plug. [20+ years ago, when I started traveling internationally with a laptop computer using dial-up internet access, I bought a large set of adaptors that converted an RJ11 plug into pretty much every local phone socket type that existed.] Of course, now we have wireless mobile phones, but they use a myriad of incompatible conventions, and phone vendors can put locks on their handsets. There is also a standard for international telephone numbers, having the general form

    + <country-code> <area-code> <local-number>

    For example, +1 703 555 1212 is in the US (country code 1) with area code 703, which is in northern Virginia.
  • Radio: It still amazes me that I can stick a stationary antenna up in the air and use it to listen to news and music. And to be able to do that in a car moving at 50 mph or on a jet flying at 600 mph, is truly amazing. Beyond that, we need some standard transmission bands, such as AM, FM, XM, and short wave.
  • Television: The US (and other countries) had NTSC (jokingly referred to as "Never Twice the Same Color" or "Not The Same Color twice"), the Germans and Aussies (and many other countries) had PAL, and France and its territories, and Russia (among others) had SECAM. Then, of course, we had the VHS vs. Betamax videotape format war. And just to make it interesting, the audio on a PAL VHS tape can be heard on an NTSC VHS player, but the video cannot be seen due to the different number of lines per frame.
  • Audio/Video: If you are like most people, you have a rat's nest of cables behind your stereo/TV cabinet. Currently, I have RCA, composite, S-Video, component, and HDMI cables. They're all standards; they just need entirely different (and sometimes expensive) cables. For a lot of information about different audio and video interfaces and connectors, click here.
  • CD: After all the shakeout with videotape formats, the audio CD folks got it right. An audio CD can be played on any player anywhere in the world. What a concept! Of course, that was too sensible, and more complexity was needed; we had audio CD, CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, Video Compact Discs (VCD), Super Video Compact Discs (SVCD), PhotoCD, PictureCD, CD-i, and Enhanced CD. (Did I miss any?)
  • DVD and Blu-ray: When this media arrived, piracy of intellectual property was a growing problem, so while your average garden-variety digital video is the same around the world, the notion of DVD region codes was introduced. Australia uses a region code of 4 while the US uses a code of 1. So when a friend from Down Under brought me a prerecorded video, it wouldn't play on any of my video players. And while it would play in my Windows-based PC, the player software warned me that it would only play a "foreign" code-based DVD 10 times after which it would permanently switch the code of my DVD drive to that foreign code only. I am happy to report that when I burn a DVD with my home-movie maker software, it uses the universal region code 0. Of course, DVDs come in a number of flavors: DVD, DVD-ROM, DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM, with Dual-Layer being added to the mix.
  • Digital Photo: While there are numerous formats for these, the camera industry seems to have settled on JPEG.

Most of us drive a car or use public transportation. Doing so involves a whole host of standards. For example:

  • Nuts and bolts: The size and threading
  • Tires: Diameter, width, and quality
  • Batteries: Voltage and quality
  • Fuel and Oil: This may include fuel efficiency standards
  • Windows: Safety glass specifications
  • Traffic lights: This simple, but very important, invention is pretty much universal. However, some countries still pass through yellow when going from red to green, while most do not. Also, in some countries the set of lights is arranged horizontally while in others it is vertical.
  • Highway Signs and Traffic Rules: In the US, at most intersections controlled by lights, drivers can turn right on red after stopping.

The financial world employs numerous standards, which include:

  • Credit, Debit, and ATM/Cash Machine Cards: The size of the card, the format of the number, and the magnetic stripe encoding
  • Electronic Funds Transfers: These use an international Bank routing number and account number

In the world of personal computers, there literally are dozens of standards:

  • Floppy Disk: There have been a number of popular sizes and formats.
  • Network Cables: The world finally settled on the RJ45 Ethernet cable.
  • Device Cables: We've had serial, parallel, and SCSI ports and cables. Now, everything seems to be USB with some FireWire.
  • Surfing the Internet: Web pages have to be organized in some known fashion, and web browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and Safari need to understand that organization. If you have ever sent email to a person in another country, the chances are their address ended in a 2-letter country code, such as ".uk", ".jp", or "fr".

A few other standards we use on a regular basis are, as follows:

Who Develops Standards?

On the regulatory front, boards are often convened at the local, state, or federal level, with input solicited from the public.

In the more formal standards world, we have Standards Development Organizations (SDOs). Some examples are:

In short, anyone or any organization can establish a specification. Unless it involves an area needing government regulation, it's mostly a matter of marketplace relevance as to whether that specification becomes a de facto or formal standard. And just because a standard is produced by a recognized SDO doesn't mean it will succeed. Unfortunately, the world is full of failed standards!

In the case of commercial enterprises, to avoid being seen as pursuing antitrust activities, there usually needs to be at least two competing groups working together using an open development process.

Compliance Testing

In many cases, a product or service that claims to conform to a standard must be verified by testing, with a certificate being issued before conformance can be claimed legally. For certain products, governments might require such conformance before a vendor can qualify for procurement consideration.

In the computing world, we have what are called validation suites. These are used to test an implementation to see if it conforms to a given specification.

I have seen many products (mostly electrical in nature) with the label UL. According to Wikipedia, "UL (Underwriters Laboratories) is a safety consulting and certification company headquartered in Northbrook, Illinois. It maintains offices in 46 countries. UL was established in 1894 and has participated in the safety analysis of many of the last century's new technologies, most notably the public adoption of electricity and the drafting of safety standards for electrical devices and components."

Maintenance of Standards

I can easily imagine that the entire specification for the US 110-volt plug-and-socket standard takes up no more than a few pages of text, diagrams, and tables. As such, once all interested parties have proofed this, there is a very good chance it can be frozen for a very long time, possibly forever. On the other hand, a standard for a computer programming language might run 1,000 pages, and because its basic building blocks can be combined in an infinite number of ways, it can be difficult, time consuming, or even impossible to prove that its specification is not incomplete or self-contradictory in some way. In any event, as technology evolves, such languages need to be extended. This requires there to be a process by which the public can submit questions about a specification or to point out possible errors or shortcomings. [The largest and most complex specification I've worked on contains 6,500 pages. The committee responsible for maintaining that meets face-to-face three times a year for three days and by teleconference for two hours each month.]

Some of My Regulatory and Standards Work

Back in the early 1970's, I worked for an Australian state government Department of Chemistry, in the pesticide residues section of the Food and Drugs division. On a regular basis, I checked samples from the egg, milk, and fresh vegetable markets. Pesticides can enter the food chain through chemical sprays on food fed to farm animals and poultry. However, farmers are prohibited from spraying crops too close to harvest, so this doesn't happen.

One day, I took delivery of 20 dozen bottles of red wine. Over a several-week period, I had to test each one for artificial coloring, which was banned. Day after day, I found nothing, and I tested my control method continuously. Then finally, in the last few bottles, one failed the test. It was with great excitement that I hollered out the window to my boss—who was getting in his car to go home—that "I'd found one". He hurried back and watched me test it again, and, YES, it was indeed positive! [The German word shadenfreude comes to mind.]

At that same time, some of my colleagues were testing for mercury in fish. It was also the heady days of all those nasty things like 2,4-D (a major ingredient in Agent Orange), 2,4,5-T, and chloropicrin.

After leaving Chemistry, I went into the field of computing working for a state highways authority. Every truckload of concrete delivered to every jobsite had a sample taken. Three days later, that sample was crushed with all kinds of information being recorded. I implemented a system to process the results. [By the way, if a batch failed the tests, the contractor had to rip up all the concrete from that batch at their own expense!]

If you have used Microsoft Word for some time, you may well have noticed that with the 2007 edition, the files created changed from type DOC to type DOCX. The former was a format proprietary to Microsoft, and was wildly popular. However, some US state and foreign governments wanted office software that read and wrote files that could be understood by any vendor. The result was IS 29500, a 4-Part standard involving some 6,500 pages. Not only does this cover Word's "DOCX" format, it also covers the formats for Excel and PowerPoint. As a result, Apple uses this format for the office tools on its platforms, as do other vendors.

In the past 25 years, I've also been involved in writing specifications for software that needs to support culturally diverse audiences by dealing with such things as name, address, and telephone number formats; a variety of date and time formats; a large variation in alphabets and writing systems; and so on. If you think for a moment what might be involved in making the exact same program (MS Word, for example) work in US English, British English, Swiss German, Russian, Japanese, and Arabic modes, you'll have some idea why standards can be very important.


As I travel around the world, I sometimes come across commercial or industrial developments with large banners or signs outside saying ISO 9000-Compliant. According to Wikipedia, "The ISO 9000 family of standards is related to quality management systems and designed to help organizations ensure that they meet the needs of customers and other stakeholders while meeting statutory and regulatory requirements related to the product."

Every area of life is affected by standards, which can be as diverse as welding for pipelines, oil and gas exploration, how to cook the perfect pasta, how to make the perfect cup of tea, how to taste wine, toothbrushes, acoustics and hearing, and musical instrument tuning. There is even Irish Standard I.S 417:1988. Specification for Irish Coffee., which outlines the ingredients used, the minimum quantity of Irish Whiskey, the depth and quality of cream, and the temperature, among other things. Whatever will they think of next?

Starting Your Own Business

© 2010–2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


[If you have not already done so, I strongly suggest that before reading this essay, you read, "Talk is Cheap. Write it Down" (February 2011), and then, "Planning for Success" (May 2011).]

I started my own computer consulting business in July 1984, and it's been successful ever since. As far back as I can remember, I've wanted to be self-employed, and once I got permanent residency here in the US, I put my plan into action. I started my business, bought a townhouse, and my son was born, all within a couple of months. There's nothing like a little pressure to get the adrenaline flowing!

In recent years, I've been mentoring students at an alternative high school. For one or more of a number of reasons, the students there don't quite fit into mainstream schools, which is why they are at that school. The good news is that they all want to be at that school. More than a few of them think of themselves as mavericks, and they dream about running their own business. Whenever I get a chance to talk to them about that possibility, I cover many of the points in this essay.

Following the main sections below, are short notes in list form. I leave it as a reader exercise to research each one in the context of the business being planned.

The Dream vs. the Reality

Yes, you can get all the rewards, but you get to take all the risks and responsibilities as well. There really is no such thing as a free lunch! So, while the idea of driving around in a souped-up convertible company car and flying Business Class might seem wonderful, sooner or later you have to have a defensible plan to make a profit (well at least to not lose money). Assuming that you want to enjoy your work, will people actually pay you to do what you enjoy?

Goals – What is it you really want to do?

To be sure, I didn't have a detailed written plan when I went into business. However, I put in a lot of time and effort thinking about it in the year before. I planned to be a computer consultant, but I recognized early on that I really needed to distinguish myself from the thousands of other people having that same title on their business cards. The big question was, "Why would someone engage me over someone else? Just what was my angle?" In truth, I was prepared to do whatever it took to pay the rent, and I certainly had a lot of skills. What I really needed was a specialty I could claim that would make me attractive. After identifying a short list of candidate topics, I selected one and rode that wave to the top.

Right from the start, I had two very important rules:

  1. Never ever ever hire anyone – From my short, but very hectic, corporate career I learned that I simply didn't like to manage people. I can work with people, but that's a whole different scenario.
  2. Take as much time off as I could afford – You can't buy time. So rather than work fulltime and retire at 65 (hopefully) with some money, but not necessarily with great health and any urge to travel, I wanted more than the usual time off as I went. [I came to the US from a culture that provided everyone with 4–6 weeks of vacation per year, and where people worked a 37.5-hour week with flexible working hours.]

I have never regretted either rule, and, in fact, I've re-endorsed them both many times over. If I got a contract that was more than I could handle, I gave it to a larger player and subcontracted back a manageable part. And with regard to time off, I started with three months off in my first year, spread out over the year. [Except for three years in recent times—when I deliberately took on fulltime projects—I've taken off between three and six months each year.]

As far as I can remember, I've never heard an American say that they wanted to remain a 1-person company forever. The all-American goal seems to be that one is only a 1-person company until one figures out how to be a mega-corporation. But the evidence is well documented: Most small businesses fail in their first five years, and the kind of person who can run a small business is not at all like the one needed to run a medium-sized or large one.

A couple of years after I started my business, I took a break during which I analyzed my success. That's when I moved from being a brute-force success to a smart success. That is, by figuring out what made my business successful, I got smarter about planning. Either I could make more money for the same effort, or I could work less time for the same money. And I did some of each.

Many people have a narrow focus; they see only one path to their goal(s). They often place a lot of constraints on themselves. Are they able to travel out of town overnight? Are they willing and able to work long hours, weekends, or public holidays? Are they really prepared to "do whatever it takes within reason"? In my case, I figured that it would be hard enough to get potential customers to my door, so I didn't want to turn any away unnecessarily. As a result, I was prepared to be—and I remain today—very flexible.

Although I started out actually designing software systems and writing the programs to implement them, to help start my business, I began writing for publication with first one, and then a second magazine. Not only did this generate some cash flow, I got to keep all the rights to the intellectual property, I had a reason to learn and keep up with evolving technologies, and I had something to add to my resume. I was also getting directly to those who might want my services, and I could give potential clients copies of my published work. That led to my developing seminars using my published materials (some of which became books) and to the lucrative training business. With seminars, instead of charging per hour of work, you charge per person attending. The next step was starting the first of two publications, which led to editing and publishing. Now it's very rare that a client will hire one to learn on the job, so I had to find a way to do that myself. My solution was to get involved in national and international standards groups for my profession.

Twenty-seven years later, my business card still says "Computer Consultant", but my focus has evolved considerably, primarily because of my flexibility and the fact that about every three months I review my situation. Where am I now and where do I want to be in six, 12, or 24 months?

In reality, my consulting led to learning about topics on which I got paid to write. For topics I researched for writing, those skills could be sold as a consultant, as could those I learned when teaching seminars in a variety of environments. And my standards involvement overlapped and reinforced all the other parts of my business.

In truth, how could I know with certainty 27 years ago where I wanted to end up? Most of the technologies I work on now didn't exist back then.

And while having goals is important, so too are having non-goals. In my case, I had no interest in building an empire. Now that doesn't mean that I couldn't run one; it just means that that doing so is not one of my goals.

Selling Services vs. Building/Selling Products

It takes time and expense to provide a service. To provide the same service to more clients, you need to extend your hours and/or hire others to help you.

It also takes time and expense to build a product, and unless you are in a lucrative custom-made situation, you'll need to hire others to help you. (They need not necessarily be employees, however; they could be subcontractors.) Then there are the inventory-related issues of storage, insurance, cost, shipping, and tracking, and excess and out-dated inventory, along with sales tax collection.

In my case, I figured out a way to reuse some of my deliverables, namely, my intellectual property. I got paid to write it for publication. I re-used it as seminar materials, and I published it in book form. None of these activities required help or a physical inventory, which is worth keeping in mind as many economies move from manufacturing to service-based models.

Business Organization

There are a number of options for your business classification, including sole proprietorship, partnership, and various kinds of corporation. Each has its pros and cons. In my case, I decided to trade under my own name and to make that name my brand. After all, I was selling myself, not a product.

I've never been swayed by the argument that for a 1-person business like mine incorporating provides more legal protection. In these litigious United States, a determined plaintiff is just as likely to come after the individual owner(s) as he is to come after the company.

Are You in Business or Just Pretending?

If you don't have a business card, you won't convince me that you are in business, and you might not convince anyone else either.

Your business name should be important to you as a brand and you will want to promote it. As such, chose it carefully, protect it legally, and register it as an internet domain. Then put your website at that domain (of course, you'll have a website!), as in www.YourBusinessName.com, with your email address as YourName@YourBusinessName.com.

If you claim to be in business, then why not look like you are in business!


Each of us comes to a business with a set of skills and we'd like to think that we're at or near the top of the heap in our particular field. And maybe we are. However, to run any business successfully, especially one that has employees, you should be prepared to be a little bit of each of the following: a lawyer, a salesman, an accountant, a bookkeeper, a tax expert, an office manager, a negotiator, a promoter, a crisis manager, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a marriage counselor, a motivator, and a sage. And when you've finished all those tasks, you might even get time to do the things you liked and were really good at to begin with!

From a book of quotes I once read, comes the following: "No matter what your circumstance you should always believe that you work for yourself". It is highly unlikely that anyone cares about you as much as you should care about yourself. And, frankly, why should they?


A Summary of Things to Consider

  1. The Dream vs. the Reality
    1. You get all the rewards
    2. You get to take all the risks and responsibilities
    3. Will people actually pay you to do what you enjoy?
  2. Goals – What is it you really want to do?
    1. Consulting, writing, speaking, making a product (multiple paths to some goals)
    2. General guidelines are good, but don't be too rigid
    3. What are your constraints?
      1. Are you able to travel overnight away from home
      2. Parenting duties
      3. Hours on working days
      4. Availability on weekends and public holidays
  3. Services vs. Product
    1. Services:
      1. Time and expenses
      2. More services requires more people
    2. Product:
      1. Manufacture requires more people (employees vs. subcontractors)
      2. Inventory (storage, insurance, cost, shipping, tracking), excess, out-dated
      3. Sales tax
  4. Business Considerations
    1. Organization
      1. Sole proprietorship
      2. Partnership
      3. Subchapter S corporation
      4. Other corporation
      5. Non-profit
      6. Woman/Minority-owned or small business certification
    2. Who is your backup person?
    3. State/county business license (maybe need from multiple states)
    4. Insurance
      1. Liability
      2. Errors and Omissions
      3. Disability
      4. Medical/Hospital/Dental
    5. Taxes
      1. Both employer and employee social security contributions
      2. State income (quarterly estimated)
      3. Federal income (quarterly estimated)
      4. State sales tax
  5. Business Presence
    1. Website
    2. Email address
    3. Business cards
    4. Stationery (real and/or for Fax cover pages)
  6. Marketing and Promotion
    1. Advertising (print, web, direct mail, cold calls, …)
    2. Joining trade groups, associations
    3. Speaking at events, free mini-seminars
    4. Writing articles in target-audience publications
    5. Giving away time/products and getting publicity
    6. Going after government contracts
  7. Setting up an Office
    1. Space – in-home office vs. professional office space (Do you really have the discipline to work at home?)
    2. Telephone
    3. Fax
    4. Hi-speed internet connection with reliable up-time
    5. Computer
      1. Desktop, laptop, both?
      2. Wifi capability
    6. Printer (color vs. black and white)
    7. Computer file backup (frequency, on-site vs. off-site copies)
    8. Shredder
    9. Fire safe (documents and on-site backup media)
  8. Billing, Payments, and Cash Flow
    1. Accepting payment by cash, check, credit card, electronic transfer
    2. Issuing invoices
    3. Issuing receipts
    4. Sales tax collection
    5. How many days to pay?
    6. Penalty for late payment
    7. Travel time (local vs. out-of-area)
    8. Need cash flow to cover 30–90-day net payments
  9. Record Keeping
    1. Financial software
      1. Banking
      2. Invoices
      3. Accounts receivable
      4. Accounts payable
      5. Tax preparation
      6. Expense tracking
    2. Contact list/lead manager
    3. Electronic calendar with alarms
  10. Rates
    1. Charging by the hour, day, or job
    2. Are expenses included?
    3. Things to factor in
      1. No paid vacation
      2. No paid public holidays
      3. No paid sick leave
      4. No employer-provided health insurance
      5. No employer-provided contributions to a retirement plan
      6. Administration, banking, record keeping, backup, marketing and so on all take non-billable time
    4. What does your competition charge?
    5. Are you a generalist or a specialist?
    6. Pro-bono vs. full rate; should you ever discount your time?
  11. Professional Services
    1. Legal
    2. Accounting
    3. Payroll
    4. Taxes
    5. Safe-deposit box at a bank
  12. Agreements and Contracts
    1. Written vs. unwritten expectations
    2. Explicit vs. implicit guarantees
  13. Keeping Current: Clients don't hire contractors to learn
    1. Books and videos
    2. Training (in-person and self-paced)
    3. Certification/endorsement

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!