In my previous post (What I learned from my previous jobs – Part 1), I covered my first four jobs up until I headed off to law school. In doing so, I did go chronologically, but I skipped over two small jobs in there as they overlapped my job at the library, and I was focused on telling that part of the story. However, others are worth mentioning.
E. Assistant to the Treasurer — My girlfriend at the time had ties to the local Anglican church, and the wife of the Canon was the Treasurer to the Canadian Gerontological Nursing Association. Nice lady, but not particularly computer savvy beyond Word Processing, etc., and I had my own computer plus the know-how and software to run spreadsheets and print mailing labels, etc. I had struggled to get a job out of high school, including the library one, and I was looking for more experience to round out my work history. I didn’t know at the time that I would be working in the library pretty much full-time for four years, so I volunteered to be her assistant.
Generally speaking, that meant maintaining a database showing what type of member each person was (full, associate, etc.), how much they paid and when (i.e. for which membership year), and we would print out labels so she could mail them forms and newsletters, etc. It wasn’t particularly arduous, but it was interesting. I got to see how a small organization could automate certain things, at a time when, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of computers in active use in organizations like that. Now, sure, it would all be online, but back then, even confirmations were sent by fax or paper mail. It was a way to apply my skills from my work training to a new area, and to actually “DO” something with the skills beyond my own papers for school, etc.
Did it give me any amazing insights or skills for future jobs? Nope. But it did help me think of something that was like the serials job…I really liked helping people do something that was annoying or time-consuming for them, but relatively easy for me. Value-added assistance again, although I didn’t really recognize it as such at the time. I liked being “responsible” too for some things…I had to maintain the database, cuz if I didn’t, no one else was going to do it. And she trusted me to do it. Win-win.
F. Computer lab assistant — I have to point out that the year was 1989, and the job continued until 1990 or so. I’m flagging the year because this was still pretty early adoption for PCs. Lots of computers were being used for programming, etc., and I had bought an IBM XT clone for home use (couldn’t afford the faster AT/80286 clones) in ’87 or ’88. The university had lots of computer labs around, all running off the mainframe. It wasn’t even that many years since punch cards had still been in use, not really. Yet the university put together a computer lab with IBM computers, networked them to some shared printers, and installed MSDOS, WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, and dBase IV. My job was to basically monitor the room at night, twice a week, and help people when they had problems with the network or printing or formatting or whatever. It wasn’t that difficult a gig the first semester as there was NO ONE using the machines. They didn’t know how, for the most part. Heck, I doubt most students even knew it was there. It should have been in the library (a future location for another lab), but at the time, it was in one of the colleges on campus.
However, by the second semester, word had gotten out somehow to the local business community that the lab was there, and somehow, someway, an external teacher came and used the lab to run training for bank employees at night. If they completed the course, the bank paid for the course. Most of the students were bank tellers looking to expand their skill set, and with it being a totally covered course, we filled the lab easily. I say, “we”, but officially I was supposed to be just tech support. The teacher was running the course actually four nights a week (M/W and Tu/Th), but I was only working for two of the nights (Tu/Th). The student who worked M/W sat in the corner and only helped out if the systems crashed or the printer jammed.
I was more, umm, engaged. Or as the instructor told me, “co-teaching”. The course wasn’t detailed, it was an “intro to applications” course before the word applications was really used. She started with a quick overview explaining what DOS, WordPerfect, Lotus, and dBase were for, and showed them the programs the first night. The other nights were about theory at the beginning and then exercises they could do to learn how to do different things. Typical learning approach for the time.
The second night was all about DOS. How to format a disk, for example. Save files, move files, erase files — gasp (!). They worked in banks — you NEVER erase anything, ever! Everybody got it, except for one woman. She didn’t understand it, she didn’t get it at all. She interrupted every two minutes, she was afraid to touch keys, the class went downhill fast. I went and helped her for a bit, but honestly, she was an idiot. I was convinced she was actually certifiably stupid. She couldn’t follow the most basic instructions. Every tech support person has met people like this and wondered how they got dressed that morning. And this woman worked in a BANK! With money!
The third and fourth nights were WordPerfect. It was DOS-based, sure, not the lovely graphical user interfaces you have now with every wordprocessor program/application being almost identical. But it was a blank page. You type. Like a letter in a typewriter. Which she knew how to do. Supposedly. Again, it was a nightmare. Everything she did, she did wrong. I finally gave up on helping anyone else, and I literally sat beside her the WHOLE night and helped her with every question she had so she wouldn’t interrupt the teacher and the rest of the class could keep going. After the classes, the teacher kept thanking me profusely, and honestly, I had earned it. There was no language barrier, the process was simple, the student just couldn’t grasp it.
The fifth and sixth nights were Lotus. A basic spreadsheet and I thought, “Okay, she works in a bank, she should get this.” Nope. She didn’t understand formulas, didn’t understand tables. It was also DOS-based, so again, not a pretty menu, but it’s pretty basic…table, data, totals. We weren’t doing lookups or complicated scenario reports. Again, all night, I sat beside her. Other students were starting to get ticked at her because I was helping her all night, and they thought she was too stupid to even be there.
The seventh and last night was dBase IV, and to be perfectly honest, I was dreading it. If I could have phoned in sick and had someone to cover for me (there was NO ONE to cover, if I wasn’t there, the lab was closed), I might have bailed. I couldn’t imagine how the night would go. NOBODY ever understood dBase. It was a complete and utter pig to work with. The interface wasn’t intuitive. In fact, the structure of some report functions was not just opaque or non-intuitive, it was often actually fully counter-intuitive.
The student listened while the teacher talked, and was nodding her head the whole time. No questions. Very suspicious, I thought. Was she high or something? I’d find out when the practical exercises started.
She took the exercises, started in. Type type type, click click click, done the first one. Umm, okay. That’s weird.
Type type type, click click click, done the second one. Then the third and the fourth. Full report completed for the fifth. She did all five while most people were fighting with the first. And then ran around and helped everyone who was struggling with theirs. WTF?
She got it perfectly. Entries. Updates. Reports. It made perfect sense to her because that was what her job was at the bank. She hadn’t used dBase before, but she did understand what a database was and essentially how it worked. She couldn’t work any of the other programs to save her life, but dBase was a breeze to her.
The teacher and I were blown away. She wasn’t stupid, we just hadn’t found a way to reach her the first six nights. No common reference, no link, no inroad to her experience. While I had some awareness of learning styles, etc., I had never seen it so starkly portrayed when it came to learning a technical skill like using the software.
For me, that alone was worth taking the job. That realization that she may seem like she wasn’t able to tie her own shoes, but she did have expertise, we just had to find it. I didn’t have enough evidence to evaluate teaching methodology as it had worked fine for everyone else, and we didn’t have any problem like that the next semester (plus I was there only one night of the teaching course).
However, the other thing for me was seeing the reaction of the teacher. It never occurred to me NOT to help with mentoring, teaching, problem-solving. It never occurred to me that really I was just being paid to sit on my butt and read while she did her job. Or to work on my own school work. So I helped. And the teacher was asking my bosses if there was a chance I could be scheduled on the same nights as her class because it was so much better for her workload. I don’t think I had ever been “requested” before like that, that I had any inkling that I didn’t work like “other people”, that I approached a simple job with a different mentality than other students. Some of that seems to be internal to me and shows up later, but some of it was just a result of my work at the library. I had learned to be a team player, to pitch in, to help, not just to do my own job and that’s it. To do my job reliably like it mattered, even if I wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.