December 31, 2014

Boss Man

I'm typing this on a Bluetooth keyboard that is linked to my tablet. The whole kit and caboodle easily fits inside a place mat on my kitchen table. That's a far cry from the first automated typing system I used.

This  was back in 1970 when I had just gotten out of the Army. I decided to remain in DC rather than move back to Boston mostly because I already had a job guaranteed me at the U.S Department of Agriculture, plus there was a recession on. So resigning myself to a life of mere money-making, I returned to USDA and settled in at my old agency, The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, a bureaucratic behemoth that ran all the farm subsidy programs.

I was put into a section that was responsible for issuing internal procedures, a massive library of manuals that filled an entire wall of book cases. This was an era still dominated by paper. An army of clerk-typists churned out ream after ream of paper drafts using electric typewriters, which at that time were the ultimate in electronic sophistication.

But just as the invention of the typewriter wiped out the copyist profession, so too were regular typists about to find themselves on the cutting edge of job extinction. These were the early days of office automation. The newest wrinkle was the word processing center. There were only a handful in the entire Federal government: two were in USDA, and for some reason, I was put in charge of one of them, most likely because no one else was willing to do it.

We used IBM MT/ST's, large rectangular boxes packed with vacuum tubes that were connected to specially-fitted IBM Selectric typewriters. Documents were encoded on magnetic tape about an inch wide. (You could actually see the magnetic coding of each letter on the tape, that's how big these things were.) The idea was you could revise segments of a document without having to retype the entire document. Since our issuances were redrafted many times, it seemed like a word processing center would make things more efficient.

My staff consisted of four black ladies, most of them a bit older than me, most of them reentering the work place after having had children. This was my first time supervising anyone, much less a group of women. The times they were a changing, and black power and women's rights were at the forefront of social change, and there I was, stuck in the middle of it all.

I learned a lot about supervising in the year or so I ran my little unit. As time passed, some of the ladies left for other work, others were promoted within my larger unit, and some were asked to leave. My greatest satisfaction came from recognizing talented people and getting them into better positions where they could advance and build a true career. I made some friendships that lasted my entire career at USDA.

Eventually, I was given a chance to join the regular staff. I spent the next several years editing issuances. Trust me when I tell you that pride of authorship could easily be the eighth deadly sin. Over the years, I learned what it takes to be a professional, to be able to do decent work even on the days you didn't feel like doing anything. I also learned that work should never be more important than the people doing the work.

For the rest of my time at USDA, writing and office automation would be the two abiding  elements of my work. I was lucky enough to ride the wave of personal computers and the Internet into a full-time job as a computer specialist, web designer, and programmer. Writing was an integral part of building web sites, as was the willingness to tear things apart and rework them endlessly until it was as close to just right as you could get it, something I learned in my years as an editor.

If you had asked me as a young man what I would do for my life's work, nothing of what I actually ended up doing would have made the list. No way would I have seen myself as a supervisor or an editor or a computer type. I just went with what I had at the time. I never said "no" when asked if I wanted to try something. But I always found a way to carve out a space at work that was my own, a space where I could take a chance on something new, where I could try something different and prove to myself and to others that I could get it done and that it was worth doing. For me, that's about as good as it gets.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this enlightning post. Please keep sharing.