I had achieved my Goal in Life when I was in my early 40s … I had achieved an international reputation in a field that most people don’t even know exists.
I’d heard someone use that phrase to describe themselves during something I saw on PBS when I was in my 20s, and starting to change careers. (After 8 years, I had decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life taking pictures of naked women.) I think he was the same person who said, “The Revolution has already happened; sorry if you missed it!” That phrase became my mantra for my new life.
In 1975 I had asked myself the Hard Question, “Where do you see yourself in five years, and in 25 years? At the time, my answer was: “Out of college (for the second time), making more money than I was two years ago, when I left a job in the Research Labs at Eastman Kodak. I’d like to be doing the same thing when I’m 50, only getting paid a lot more, and right now, that looks like being a Principal Engineer or Principal Scientist reporting directly to a Director or a Vice President, but he just approves the resources and funding for the projects that I create.”
Yeah, an “international reputation in a field most people don’t even know exists” … I wanted to be a big fish in a very small pond, and my first step involved getting a Bachelors degree in System Software Science. I had decided to be a programmer’s programmer, the guy who creates the operating systems and programming languages that applications programmers use to create the applications that non-programmers use, like the word processors, spread sheets, and image manipulation programs.
It took me less than 20 years to get there. As a Principal Software Engineer for an international CAD/CAM system vendor, 50% of my time was allocated to national (IGES) and international (ISO 10301) standards committees for CAD/CAM interoperability, where I managed 1,875 man/weeks of annual resources (125 people from 40 companies and government/military agencies who spent 25% to 75% of their time working on the project.)
I also had my own software business on the side, selling programs to help translator developers diagnose and fix problems with exchange files. It kept my programming skills sharp, since I didn’t have to push bits at my day job any longer (I managed an off-site contractor). I was using shareware marketing, the “try it before you buy it” paradigm. At the weeklong, quarterly meetings of these standards organizations, I would carry these brightly colored 5-1/4 inch floppy disks (a different color for each program) that I would hand out for $50 each. Some people would cut a Purchase Order when they got back to the office and have their bean counters send me a check, but a lot of them just handed me a $50 bill and said they would simply itemize it on their Expense Report for the trip to the meeting.
The point is, it was pocket money. Each time I sold a floppy disk, I could buy an opera or two on CD to listen to on the trip home. I only had to be in the office 20 hours a week, and I was making $200 a day, regardless of my being at my desk. And I was World Famous in Japan.
It’s been downhill since then.
When a competitor purchased my company, I took the early severance option, and with my international reputation and contacts, I started consulting at $50 an hour, or $2,000 plus travel expenses and lodging for on-site programming. It was 1994, and I was 44 years old. On Cinquo de Mayo, I had a stroke. The left side of my body went off-line, and when I returned home after two weeks in a rehabilitation facility, I could not hold my left arm over my head for longer than a count of ten. Oh, yeah, the COBRA insurance from my former employer expired 60 days after the stroke.
It was around that time that I had occasion to remind someone that the smartest man in the world can’t clean himself after a bowel movement. Prof. Stephen Hawking is the current Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a post held by Sir Isaac Newton over 300 years ago. He is a quadriplegic due to Lou Gehrig's disease, and has been confined to a wheelchair since the 1960s. My point was that the loss of physical dexterity would not limit my earning capacity because I could still type on a computer keyboard and use a mouse with only one hand. I made my living with my intellect, not with my hands. (The stroke might have cramped my style if I was still a professional photographer, but I hadn’t been in a darkroom for the past 20 years.)
I had reached my 25-year goal five years early, so I would just skip ahead to how I had planned to spend my inevitable retirement. I did all right for a while, but after ten years of living in a cottage on a lake in New England, I moved back to our Nation’s Capitol, where I had been born and raised. The contract work in my specialty had eventually dried up, and I thought that there would be more employment opportunities in the DC area. That was a few months before 9/11, and suddenly all of the software engineering jobs inside of the Capitol Beltway required an active security clearance, which requires that one be currently employed. Catch-22.
I’ve sold just about everything I’ve accumulated since I answered that Hard Question over 30 years ago, and I’m on the verge of being homeless, for three simple reasons:
It doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest fish left in the pond when it dries up. I can’t get a job pumping gas, even though that was one of my very first jobs, the other being flipping burgers from some chain that no longer exists after 40 years. People see my resume and think, “He’s too smart to be doing this job, and he’ll be gone as soon as something better comes along, so why should we waste the time to hire and train him?”
Notice how I didn’t mention the gray ceiling? I don’t detect any institutional age (or race) bias, although I’m not as willing to be as demonstrative about having been a Muslim since 1983. (Again, a post-9/11 effect.) No, I’m facing the dark side of being too smart. I got a college degree to create computer-programming languages for a living, but that was 20 years ago, and now all of the ads are asking for 5 years of occupational experience in languages that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. It doesn’t matter that I’ve forgotten how to program in languages that most people never knew existed; they just want people without any learning curve so that they can get maximum productivity from the beginning.
I think that this dystopian world I find myself in, of being unemployable because of over qualification, is not a 21st Century phenomenon, but there is an overwhelming element of the upheavals in society caused by the Information Revolution. The half-life of computer technology knowledge is only 5 years. (In other words, half of what you know about computers today will be obsolete in 5 years.) Only one sixty-fourth of what I learned in college 30 years ago is relevant today. It’s different for medicine and law, where the half-life is more like 50 years … a kidney is still a kidney, and a tort is still a tort. But who needs a FORTRAN programmer any more? (I never did use my two quarters of COBOL, even during the Y2K feeding frenzy.)
So, the bottom line is that renewing my subscription to Newsweek was one of the things I can no longer afford, and as I throw out my last issue, I wonder if I’ll ever see this in print.
Dennette A. Harrod, Jr.
6445 Luzon Ave. NW #104
Washington, DC 20012
Last update: 2006-05-15 by
<Who is this "Dennette" person?>