My First Time — A Personal Narrative
Her hair was the color of copper, and she had a face full of freckles. At first sight, you’d imagine that her name was Colleen, and you’d be right. How could you not look at that face and think anything but — Irish?
She was probably in her mid-40s and quite attractive. And smart. She was a Vice President at Citibank, so that also gave her some clout. More than all that, Colleen was a nice person, and we had a great relationship.
A great working relationship — as she was my boss. As in, I worked for her.
Irene and I each had a desk outside Colleen’s office and Dan, the other VP’s office. Irene worked for Dan, and I worked for Colleen as word processing temps, as opposed to being secretaries.
I make the distinction because I had somewhat of an attitude about not being a male secretary. I was a pro about all things electronic, computerized, or networked. And while others may work by the clock, I only do that if I get paid by the hour. I usually work by these criteria:
- Did I get enough done today?
- Do I have time to do more?
If it moved or lit up, I needed to know how that happened.
Irene and I were somewhat birds of a feather in terms of word processing skills. She could type faster, but I could make the revisions faster. I had only been there for about four months, and Irene was assigned about a week before me, and we had developed a friendly but competitive relationship.
When I arrived upstairs, she apparently knew a little about me by reputation, because I was the guy on the first floor who used to say to our cadre of temps, “Bring me something that you think will take a couple of hours to revise and I’ll send it back to you complete in a half-hour.” It’s not that I was fast. I just taught myself how to use the tools that I had to their fullest. I couldn’t do that now that I was on the 23rd floor working for a VP.
I developed that “half-hour” line as a defense mechanism for people who thought I was a secretary. One old-time banker had asked me if I took steno or shorthand and when I said no, it was as if he suddenly smelled something unpleasant. It seemed that I was no good to anyone in that department, and I imagined that my time there would be short-lived. I had to do something to elevate myself in his mind, so I came up with the line.
Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against secretaries. It’s an unbelievably complex job, and the ones I know are incredible multi-taskers. The poise, intelligence, and grace under fire takes an extraordinary kind of person to do that. I admire the hell out of lumberjacks too (did that one summer), but it’s not a skill set I have now or care to pursue.
I’m mostly interested in computing.
So much so that one time, when the temp agency sent me to a new job, I arrived and didn’t see a computer. I asked where the computer was, and the reply came that it was in the closet. They only brought it out if they really, really needed it. I told them that there must be a mistake because my agency would have never sent me to a place just to sit and answer phones all day. I told him I would call my agency and get a replacement because I had no intention of sitting there all day without having a computer.
But I digress. Irene was a beautiful person, too, inside and out. With a long, meticulously braided jet-black ponytail and a clear cocoa colored complexion, she had two sweet little girls (as the plethora of pictures on her desk reminded us every day) and lived with her mother in Queens (part of NYC). Dan was always on the road somewhere, so no one was hovering over her shoulder, and we had sufficient time to learn from each other, as we were both insanely curious. Colleen wasn’t a micromanager and quickly discovered that whatever she needed was done correctly and either on or before schedule. That left me with free time to teach myself more.
Such was the environment that paid the bills and satisfied but one part of my emotional life. The other part was acting, directing, and writing (fiction, blogging, playwriting, screenwriting, etc.). Not famous, but a journeyman, just like 85% of the other showbiz professionals who made a living at something else while waiting for their next acting gig.
One day my friend Matthew said to me, “Why don’t you look into temping?” But I shrugged and said, “I act, write and direct.”
“Well, I act and temp,” was the reply, “but it’s the closest thing we have to Free Money. Exceptional word processing temps are in demand, and you basically set your own schedule. If you need to take an hour for an audition, you just tell them you have to leave for a while. If you need to take a day off for a commercial shoot or a soap extra, you just tell them, and you’ll still have a job when you get back.”
How do you argue with the old “Free Money” line?
So Matthew recommended a great advanced word processing class for me, I signed up, and before I finished, he had a word processing job lined up for me at Citibank in Manhattan. Fortunately, I had taken a typing class in high school, and between my fingers and my brain, I was suddenly an actor making a reasonable living. My first week’s check paid for the class (and then some), and I was working non-stop and auditioning at will.
Now, I must say that I personally never met a word processing temp that was not involved in show business in some way. It was a small world, and we helped each other out. Just like computing, it was extremely creative and analytical. Actors take acting classes all the time to keep their emotional instrument in tune, and word processing required constant exploration of the tools we had in our toolbox in order to be able to respond instantly to whatever problems arose.
While I thought it was common knowledge that all of us temps were in show business, I was wrong. Irene was an artist: she painted on canvas. Did I mention the pictures of her girls? Not all of them were photographs. Many were paintings, and they were obviously crafted and framed with love.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch –
I had been called upon more and more to help other temps upgrade their skills. My mother, uncle, and grandmother had been teachers, and my brother was a teacher, so you could say it runs in the family. It went from casual one on one sessions at lunchtime to several people gathered around my desk after work for an hour or so one or two nights a week. When I started making User Guides, it dawned on me that I could be making a fortune — relatively speaking.
But I was always torn between my love of things that moved or lit up and people that were moving or lit up. Sometimes it was hard to remember that I was doing this as a means to an end. When I was cast in my first commercial, clarity had its moment.
In subtle ways, my overall rep started to change. People knew that I was doing this because I enjoyed it (and I did), not because I had to do it. Even the lessons that I was giving enjoyed a little more respect and attention. In the world of TV commercials, once you start to appear on the tube, agents and casting directors recognize you at auditions and begin to think of you in a small way as “the next big thing,” so you’re cast again. Think about it. How many times have you seen an actor or actress in a cute commercial, and then suddenly you start seeing them in more and more commercials? It’s the safety factor of recognition. No one wants to take a chance on an unknown actor when millions of dollars are at stake. But someone who’s been paid by another company to advertise their product? “That actor is a “Star,” so I’ll hire them, and they’ll make MY product shine!”
Not really. Commercial actors and soap opera actors simply have more exposure to the entire country. Some may reek of talent and either shortly or eventually go on to “stardom” because eventually their talent will be given a chance to truly shine.
Something is Up
One day Colleen called me into her office.
“Have a seat and close the door, please.”
“So … (she looked as if she was trying to figure out how to say this) do you like it here?”
“Absolutely. Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” I said, trying to head her off at the pass. What have I done?
“Good.” (Another pause). “Because I have a proposition for you.”
Oh — wait, what!?
“I can’t help but notice that you have a lot of other … interests.”
Clueless, but suave to the end, I calmly replied, “Uh … yep.”
She leaned back in her chair, crossed her legs primly, put her hands behind her head, and looked directly at me. This lean (stretch) had the immediate effect of lengthening her 5’ 2” torso and emphasizing all, and I mean all, of her prodigious curves and the look left me gasping (which I cleverly covered with a sudden and deep cough.)
Oh, my God. Whatever happened next would determine my entire future. I was sure of it.
“Are you a good actor?”
“I hope so.” (Who was I kidding? I was great, and doing some of my best work right then and there.)
“I don’t know if you get paid for these word processing sessions you hold after work?? …”
“If it’s a problem, I can stop. Not a big deal.”
“No, no, no, it’s not that, I just may need you to hold up for this week.”
“Here’s the situation. I’m a vice president at this bank, and you’re a temp here, and I think I need your help with something that I would rather not become public. Follow me?”
“Uh-huh. … No.” (Somewhere a whiny little voice was crying “Mommm-yy!”)
She leaned in and folded her hands in front of her on her desk. As she did so, I mentally slapped myself back and forth and leaned back as she said something else that I couldn’t wholly focus on.
“I’m willing to pay you for your time from 5 till 7 for the next three nights if you can help me with this little project.”
“Is that a yes?”
“Colleen, could you just explain the last part again?”
“The part after you said you’re a vice president, and I’m a temp.”
“Are you alright?”
“Sure … Is it hot in here?”
The phone rang, and she answered it. Saved by the bell! Since I was a word processor, that wasn’t my job; I had made sure of that. She signaled that she had to take the call and said that we’d finish up when she was done.
When I got back to my desk, Irene whispered, “What’s going on?”
I flopped in my chair and said, “I’m not sure. Something about working late this week and a special project. I have to go back when she’s done on the phone and find out the rest.”
No sooner had I said that than Colleen called and I was on my way back, closing the door behind me.
She started, “So, what do you think?”
I countered, “You were going to clarify the project?”
Do you remember back in school when you didn’t know the answer, and you asked the teacher to repeat the question? Well, it was kind of like that, but in this case, since I was supposed to be an adult, and she needed me for something, she humored me.
“Sure. I have a presentation to do on Friday, and I’m rather terrified about public speaking. My next promotion kind of depends on this, so I’m asking you to make me a consummate public speaker in six hours.”
Oh. My. God. I’m alive! Hallelujah!
All’s well that ends well. (I’d say you can quote me, but I’m pretty sure that some obscure 17th-century playwright took that title.) She proved to be a very apt student, and I didn’t take any money for it. The biggest problem we had was three days of role reversals. I’d work until 5 doing the temp thing, and then we’d go into her office, and the temp became the master. It got to be a little confusing because, at 9 a.m. the next day, the roles were reversed again.
By 6 p.m. on Thursday, she just suddenly blurted out, “You’re very opinionated, you know.”
To which I replied, “Nah, I’m just good at what I do.”
“I rest my case,” she said.
At any rate, most of the training involved getting her to:
- Speak up,
- have fun,
- and relax.
Now, if you can smile, you can have fun, and if you can have fun, you can relax. That works pretty much most of the time unless, of course, your ship is sinking, and you’ve called a meeting to try to get the crew to bail just a wee bit faster.
BUT, she got me thinking about training people. Before I knew it, I had formed a company, made some contacts, and started lining up some clients. The relationships I had built with Colleen and Irene would last for years, but the Temp thing was done.
The End of One Era and the Beginning of Another
Once again, a friend knew of a very small training company that was looking for a PC instructor, so I went to interview with Aggie, whose husband worked for AT&T, and AT&T was one of Aggie’s clients. So I passed the test, and she hired me. I was starting to get the picture. Small companies hired trainers and leased them to larger companies that provided clients, books, and classrooms. These larger companies also had their own trainers, but the small companies took care of the overflow work that the large companies couldn’t afford to keep on staff.
At one point, Aggie referred me to a friend of hers with a larger company to interview for a training job for a two-week stint in Leesburg, Virginia. They were desperate to hire a trainer because this was Friday, and the job started on Monday. Needless to say, I got the job and walked out of there with almost a ton of books that I had to prep over the weekend.
The ultimate client was the US Department of Agriculture. As I recall, because honestly, it was a blur, it was two weeks of training tailored to get 30 USDA people up to speed in … something? After dinner in the cafeteria, we would meet every night until about 7 p.m. going over practical examples of the day’s training. Then, I would go back to my dorm room and prep until 2 in the morning for whatever the hell I was teaching the next day. All in all, it was a great experience, and I survived with flying colors.
Welcome to the big leagues!
Shortly after I returned to work for Aggie, someone else from her friend’s company called me and offered me a job teaching for Shell Oil for the entire summer. The catch? It was in Nigeria. I could find it on a globe or a map, but that’s all I knew about it.
This new contact was named Rotimi, and we became fast friends. He was a Nigerian national and had his own company where if there were a buck to be made, he would find a way. Nothing illegal, but in computing. He earned his Ph.D. through a free ride as a result of an enterprise application he wrote for the ambulance dispatch system while a student in London.
Jacquie, Rotimi and I were the three trainers. We each had our own classroom and had our students for one week. Then we’d get another batch of students. And so it went.
There was also an interesting problem. In Nigeria, the milk is not pasteurized. And every day we would have lunch at the Shell Club, a kind of private banquet room for Shell employees. And every day, I would finish off my lunch with ice cream.
Do you know what it’s like to have diarrhea for weeks on end? I do. It wasn’t until the last week when I had a couple of Dutch ex-pats in my class who said to me, “What are you, a bloody fool, you’re eating the ice cream!”
I made a deal with my body: I stopped eating ice cream, and diarrhea stopped killing me. This was the origin of my first big mantra: “Pay Attention.”
My second mantra just popped into my head one day and could be a bit of a corollary to the first: “Anything is easy — once you know how.”
For example, try to remember a time when you couldn’t tie your shoes, or write or use a fork. But now that you know how to do those things, easy, right? Calculus, not so much. But then I never really learned how to do calculus, so that’s my excuse for why it’s not easy now.
Anyhow, learning many things about the larger world and making terrific friends, this eventually ended well also. When I got back to the USA, I found that Aggie had gone out of business, and I was looking for work again, just like showbiz.
As luck would have it, I auditioned (interviewed and did a training demo) for a computer training role at AT&T. They have their own internal Training Division (the PDC, Professional Development Corporation), and that’s where I got my next job.
After spending a couple of years there, I left and started to focus on my company. I got a lead from a friend of a friend in California who was looking for trainers for a company that was a subsidiary of IBM.
My new company became the go-to guys as trainers for Catapult as they tried to establish a foothold on the East Coast anywhere from Boston to DC to Philadelphia and Albany and all points between. We were off to the races!
Early on, my Catapult contact, Lyla, asked if I’d ever heard of Lotus Notes. When I answered in the negative, she said, “You should look into it. I think it would help you.”
So I did, and it did. I spent the money to become a Lotus Business Partner, bought a new server and installed it, administered the server and developed a Lotus Notes system so that my instructors could get all the information they needed for all of their classes through Lotus Notes, instead of email or phone calls. I tracked book inventory, instructor availability, directions to sites, etc. What’s more, I was becoming enamored of Lotus Notes. I even got to apply my 2nd favorite showbiz talent, writing, to preparing User Guides and in-depth training manuals.
Eventually, another client offered to pay for my Microsoft training if I would become a Microsoft Certified Trainer for his company, so I did. (Who am I to question the wisdom of others?) At that point, I started teaching Lotus Notes Development courses, Lotus Notes Administration courses, and Microsoft networking courses all over the US, Canada, and the UK. This was a critical factor in my career development.
I managed to grow the company to 25 contract trainers because I hired dedicated, professional people and maintained that standard with “train the trainers” and vigorous support for their efforts. And remember Irene? She came on board as one of my best word processing trainers!
But when most clients started asking us to dilute the quality of our training with questions like, “Can you teach an intro class in the morning and then an advanced class to the same people in the afternoon?” I decided that as a business, it wasn’t worth it anymore, so I closed the training company and opened a consulting company primarily for Lotus Notes but also Project Management, documentation, website development, documentation, analysis, and more.
More than Ever, Solving Problems and Learning New Stuff
If you’re wondering about My First Time at this point, I think it’s essential that you understand the accident that got me into computer training (because I needed money to feed my acting habit). And that passion grew and became Lotus Notes consulting (and so much more). You’ll find that with me, “Passion” is always the operative word.
Then a few years ago, I got somewhat interested in Google, but didn’t have the time or need to explore it to my usual extent (obsessed). But in 2014, I met with a colleague who really got me excited about pitching a migration from Lotus Notes to Google Apps to the board of the company where I was working as a Lotus Notes consultant.
We finally pitched it in early 2015, and it was a home run. I prepped for the Google Apps Administrator certification test and passed, so we were off and running with the migration.
As we were starting to migrate the Lotus Notes email system, we were trying to determine who we were eventually going to migrate. I also developed a new Google application system for Lotus Notes repository databases (along with migrating the Lotus Notes groups, maintaining the Help site, and publishing a Tips and Tricks newsletter that I called the “Google Bugle”). I was in heaven, or as close as I had hoped to get to it for a while.
But man does not live by bread alone. Where I used to live in New Jersey (25 miles from the Big Apple), there were a couple of excellent community theaters, but one reason they were excellent was that they hired professional directors and many of the actors were either professionals who worked in these theaters as a way to avoid being away from home (because many theater pros spend their time on the road) or as a way to keep their skills in tune and working on great roles in great shows. This is where I got my acting “fix” while still working in IT.
I suspect that I know many IT pros who’ve also spent considerable time in showbiz, but for some reason, we rarely discuss it openly in mixed company. I’ve always had the nagging feeling that once you’re earning a goodly sum in technology, telling people that you’re an actor somehow lessens your IT credibility in the minds of your peers. People tend to think that acting is easy and that actors are overpaid brats who really don’t have the brains we were born with. And sometimes that’s actually true — in any field.
I’m not sure if the negative connotation is right, but somehow it seems like it is. For those of us in IT who actually have these other talents and passions, it doesn’t seem worth the risk of losing the credibility that we’ve earned at this point by telling others.
And so —
I’m not fond of secrets, but if I have one, or am holding a confidence for someone else, no one is ever going to get it from me. To me, a secret is held by only one person. The surest way to spread a secret is to utter that commonly known line: “I’m going to tell you something but don’t say anything to anyone, because it’s a secret.” Then it becomes gossip.
I say this because sharing this information about My First Time today, while some others already know (only out of necessity), it’s the first time I’ve broadcast it on this scale (because Writing has always been a passion.) My wife assures me that since I wrote my first play during a slow Temp job, it’s only fair to tell my IT network.
So, here goes. For the first time anywhere. (Testing, one, two three.)
“Hi, I’m Jerry,”
(and from the assembled throng came the reply, “Hi Jerry.”)
“and I’m a Writer, Actor, and Director.”
(A loud gasp rose from the crowd!)
(Quickly) … but I also excel in Information Technology.