By John F. McMullen
When you come to the fork in the road, take it.
In Steve Jobs’ great graduation speech at Stanford University in 2005, he spent a good amount of time speaking about “connecting the dots”—seeing how incidents in a life tie together to determine the course of that life—but only when we look backwards to note them. As Steve said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” Writing this article gives me the chance to look back and connect them, to examine the forks and the paths I took.
I started off in college as a Philosophy major and spent a year at it before realizing that career paths for philosophers were rather limited. I then switched to something much more practical—English Literature. Changing majors cost me a year, putting me on the “5 Year Plan” and involving me with a whole different group of classmates, soon friends, than those I began with.
In the last semester of my new Senior Year, one of these new friends asked me if I was going to take the “Federal Service Entrance Exam” that was going to be given on campus. After I told him that I had no interest in working for the government, he began arguing that it would give me something to fall back on and it was in my best interests to take it—and, besides, he needed me to drive him up to campus on the Saturday for the test—so I reluctantly agreed.
It was only natural, however, given the fact that I lived in a New York City Irish neighborhood, that I would close a local bar and stay out talking until 5 a.m. the night before the test. At that time and being exhausted, I would have blown off the whole thing had I not promised to drive my friend to the test. Instead, I went home and slept on the floor for an hour to make sure I was up to playing chauffeur.
It turned out that I did very well on the test and was high enough on the list that I kept getting bothered with letters and calls about becoming a “Border Guard,” an “IRS Auditor,” and many other positions in which I had no interest. One day, however, bored with my insurance company job and tired of law school, I responded to a call concerning a new “Department of Defense Pilot Management Training Program.” The description piqued my interest when the recruiter explained that the selection process was very competitive—only four would be picked from hundreds for the first group—and that those selected would spend six months “walking around” this Department of the Army facility and would, subject to approval, have the opportunity to select the area in which they wished to work.
I landed the job and, at the end of six months, chose what was then called “Electronic Data Processing.” Why? I had never seen a computer before, knew nothing about them, and had never aspired to know anything about them, let alone work with them. The tipping point was that the smartest people I had met were the people working with the computers—and my 50 year career in technology was launched!
After two years with the government, I moved to a large Wall Street firm and, in the course of eight years, had moved up the ladder to be an officer of the firm, responsible for all of its data processing activities. The joy ride ended soon thereafter when I came out on the wrong side of a management conflict and was forced out. I was, however, able to join a former co-worker who had set up his own computer services firm and, after a year, we were able to sell the company to a subsidiary of Control Data, joining with two other subsidiaries to form a much larger entity with hundreds of clients.
The new firm not only gave me a position with a much higher Wall Street presence; my duties also forced me to give up a stammer I’d had since childhood. Even more important was a presentation that I made to a three-person team from a large firm, Bache and Co., evaluating new brokerage systems. The team chose not to do business with us but, about two years later, another client at the firm of Morgan Stanley, called to ask if I knew Barbara, the female member of the Bache team—she had applied for a job at Morgan Stanley. I certainly did remember her!—and gave her a great recommendation and, whatever factor that played in the decision, she was hired.
Shortly thereafter, I also joined Morgan Stanley and, within a few months, I had asked Barbara to marry me. At that time at Morgan Stanley, it would have been frowned upon for us to work together so we hid the relationship—and that lasted for about a year. Once the relationship did come to light one of us would have had to leave the firm—so we both decided to leave and form our own business, a consulting firm focused on the management of financial systems running on large “mainframe computers.”
Prior to our leaving, however, we were about to get on the elevator to go to lunch when a co-worker stepped up and said, “Before you leave, you should take a look at the little computer that Ben Rosen (the firm’s electronics analyst) has on his desk.” So, off we went and saw our first Apple II. It didn’t do much but I said “I should get one of those to fool around with.” And I did.
Within three months, Ben Rosen had gotten ahold of the first electronic spreadsheet, “Visicalc,” and written about it—and the real microcomputer revolution was launched—and we were well positioned. Barbara soon established a reputation as the best corporate trainer in the area while I was the “big picture” guy—and our business boomed.
Barbara was asked to write about Visicalc for a magazine and we were off into writing—a path that led to books, 1,500 articles and columns; we became involved with computer clubs and wound up as officers of the two largest ones in New York, which, in turn, led us into teaching—really, these activities began simply as “trying to give something back.”
Our partnership began 34 years ago and it has been wonderful—we both work very hard and have always enjoyed what we do. The work has always been challenging, rewarding, and interesting—and it continues to be.
So I connect my dots—Philosophy to English Literature—getting convinced to take the FSEE—getting up in the morning to drive a friend to the test—finally applying for a government job—choosing the world of technology when I knew nothing about it—going to work for a large Wall Street firm, doing very well, and getting fired—joining a firm that forced me to lose the stammer and that eventually led me first to Barbara, then to Morgan Stanley, and back to Barbara—deciding to form our own firm—seeing and buying an early Apple II—expanding into writing and teaching—and, in retrospect, it all makes perfect sense.
John F. McMullen has been involved in technology for over 40 years and has written extensively for major publications. He may be found on Facebook and his current non-technical writing, a novel “The Inwood Book” and “New & Collected Poems by johnmac the bard,” are available on Amazon. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research.
Photo provided by John F. McMullen.