That breakout job

In my work as a mentor for startups and as an informal career coach for others, I often tell people about the moment in time when I made a major career change. Many of you might enjoy this story as well, and use it to think about how you have gotten to where you are today.

The Internet has made it easier to stay in touch with people from our past: just this week I met with someone that attended my undergraduate college (whom I never met when I was there) and got an email from a co-worker from my past. It put me in a mood.

This job change was a big moment for me: it turned me towards my path of tech journalism and changed the nature of what I do every day.

I can remember it precisely: it was the winter of 1986, and I was working as an IT analyst for a large insurance company in downtown Los Angeles.

It was a fun job. Back then, end user computing was on the rise. Budgets and staff were big. We had, I think, somewhere north of 20 people working in various capacities, and we were installing PCs by the truck load across our three building “campus” (although no one called it that back then). I was good at my job, and enjoyed working with end users and helping them to learn about the few apps (by today’s standards) that we supported on their PCs.

I was an avid reader of PC Week, which (along with Infoworld) was the leading trade pub for IT workers. All work would stop when the internal mail delivered our copies Monday afternoon, as we tried to scan its pages before our users (who also were subscribers) would start calling us with questions about the tech they were reading about in the latest issue.

PC Week was starting a special edition that was going to be called Connectivity. It would be a supplement that would go to a subset of its readership, what publishers call a “demographic.” And they were looking for writers and stories.

I found out who was going to be running the publication and sent him what I now know is a query letter. At the time, I was just an interested reader of the pub and didn’t think anyone would be even interested in hiring me, let alone want to know what I thought was important and interesting. I mean, I was just this little cog in a big machine. I had zero professional writing experience. I didn’t know who the CEOs were of the major tech vendors by name. I was in the process of installing my company’s first LAN, so was interested in PC communications.

I was dead wrong. They were more than interested.

That query letter led to flying me out to Comdex in Vegas, the biggest tech show back then, and meeting the newly minted Connectivity staff, and eventually a job offer to join their ranks as a staff writer. I began working for them almost immediately, and the rest, as they say, is history.

That first year I wrote more than 300 individual stories for the publication. They were stories about how LANs were connecting to mainframes, and how PCs were changing the nature of American business. They were heady times: we had the ear of every major tech company around. I got to work with some of the most creative and interesting people of my career, some of whom I still am in touch with today. Many of the original PC Weekers went on to bigger and better things in the tech industry, and I am proud to count myself as part of them.

I went from installing my first LAN to telling thousands of people how to do it themselves. Back then, we could talk to anyone, including Bill Gates, just by calling them on the phone. Email was still a bright and shiny object, and the Internet was yet to be invented, by Al Gore or Vint Cerf or anyone else.

What motivated me to write that letter? I really don’t know. But it was a transformative moment for my career, to say the least. And I tell this story to you today in the hopes that you may share your own moment when your career went in a new and exciting direction, and you have the perspective to acknowledge and celebrate it. Please share your stories here if you feel so moved.

4 thoughts on “That breakout job

  1. Great story David, reminds me of when I switched academic pursuits. I entered Antioch College as a Biochemistry major, though with no real visions of where that would lead me. I think I chose that because my older brother had already taken theoretical physics. Antioch had a ground breaking Co-op program and one of my jobs was a six month stint at MIT in a high powered lab, and I thought of it as a dream fulfilled. One day while mixing heavy atom compounds in a hood for our work with spectroscopy on T-RNA, donned in heavy gloves, a respirator and glasses, I heard myself say, “I hate this shit!”. With an interest in photography borne out of the strange experience of an uncle giving me a camera for my Bar Mitzvah, and not money like everyone else, I appointed myself the lab photographer. I then switched to the art department when I returned to campus and promptly realized , “I’m an artist”. The rest, as you said, is history.

    Robert

  2. Funny you should ask, David, because it was you that spawned the breakout job for me, back when I was working for Manufacturers Hanover Trust and freelancing columns for free. I was so dense that you had to come after me twice to get me to join Network Computing, where I seem to remember that I had an opportunity to make a couple of token ring card manufacturers mad at me for my comparative performance article. That job and few others finally catapulted me into… a staff software engineer job at IBM.

  3. David — I find myself recommending this article to lots of people. It’s inspiring. Could be because I was there in Las Vegas, but still, it rings awfully true.

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