Despite my best efforts to render myself unemployable with a degree in English literature, I landed in a honey pot after my graduation from the University of Illinois in 1971. The Center for Advanced Computation hired me to be purchasing manager for the ILLIAC IV project. The ILLIAC series of supercomputers were quite famous because one of them made an appearance as HAL, the rebellious computer in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Getting hired onto this project, building the most advanced parallel processing supercomputer of its day for NASA/AMES, was an incredible opportunity that I did not understand. My only defense is that I was 21 years old.
The university also offered to send me back to school (for free) to get a degree in computer science. Quite the perk, huh? I considered this opportunity "boring."
My immediate boss was a black woman named Vivian. This was back in the beginning of the quota era, and she was a quota hire. It didn't take long to discover that she was functionally illiterate, unable to read the specs for the tech components we were buying, and, thus, absolutely incompetent. I had little choice but to do her job for her.
The ILLIAC IV project was funded by DARPA, the Department of Defense's R&D bureau. We were at the tail end of the Vietnam War and the campus was consumed by anti-war furor. And, my team was building a computer primarily intended for weapons testing for the war machine! (The supercomputer did have other purposes. It was used for experimental testing of 3D displays and for environmental planning and analysis, and a host of other purposes.)
The director of the project and most of the professors involved in the theoretical and construction work eventually rebeled against the project and tried to prevent delivery of the finished computer to NASA/AMES in protest against the war, an effort obviously doomed to failure. You can't take millions in R&D funding from DARPA and then refuse to give the bureau its product.
Amusingly, I was aching to be in the middle of the intellectual, artistic and political action, and I didn't realize that I was, right there in that institute out in the middle of the cornfields in Illinois. I thought that the action was happening somewhere else, but the great dramas of the day were playing out in front of me and I was one of the actors. I yearned to be in glamorous New York City or San Francisco, and I was bored with living out there in the flatlands.
Dealing with the incompetent quota hire especially pissed me off. Vivian, beset by personal problems and embarrassed by her incompetence, only showed at work about half the time. Her job fell entirely to me. This was a dilemma that I faced three times in my career, and it took me a long time to understand how to handle it. At the age of 21, I was consumed with the stupid belief that fairness should prevail. I didn't understand that it might be better to manage the situation strategically.
What I learned through repetition of this scenario is that the incompetent quota hire ultimately fails and has to be replaced, and that I should wait out this inevitable failure after which I would get the lead job and salary. The contemporary political situation left management no choice but to hire and try to manage with the quota hire. They weren't any happier with the situation than I was.
After a year of working on the project, I fled to what I hoped would be a life of glamour and music in San Francisco. All the problems that I thought I'd fled came along for the ride with me. I hoped to escape a lifetime of working in tech back in those days because I considered that field gray, boring and nerdy. (Indeed, it is in a lot of ways. It is also quite lucrative and innovative.)
I couldn't escape my fate. I had to have a job, even in San Francisco, and with my now established tech qualifications, where else could I go but back to the burgeoning computer field? So, I found myself sitting in business offices dealing with the opening round of the entry of PCs into the marketplace.
There was no escaping my fate.
As I look back upon this era of my life... well... I'm bewildered at my own blindness. Had I just stayed at the University of Illinois and earned my free degree in computer science, and exploited my experience with the ILLIAC IV project to the max, I would have acquired credentials that would have enabled me to earn a great living anywhere in the world.
Later in my life, I did indeed develop those abilities, but there was a lot of unnecessary bloodshed and travail along the way. Everything that I needed was right there at the University of Illinois in the midst of the cornfields.
And the blues clubs of Chicago were only a 2 hour drive away!
I took a long, circuitous (and painful) route to get to the same place. Why I had to do that remains a mystery to me.