Billing Time


When colleagues find out that my degree is in English Literature, they look at me with confusion and ask how a came to be a programmer. The following is more or less what I tell them. Well, mostly more. People generally don’t have time for the director’s cut.

I was working in a college book store, entering invoices into the computer system and sometimes helping process deliveries. It was dull work, but at least it didn’t pay well.

Wendi was working for a local firm that sold its own software and provided butts for consulting gigs. It was a small company run out of a decommissioned rectory. When their receptionist/recruiter moved out-of-state, Wendi suggested that I apply for the job.

It was a terrible idea. I hate phones. Calling in a pizza order leaves me with a racing pulse and the start of a tension headache. I knew nothing about computers beyond minimal experience with BASIC and PASCAL, and I was terrified of strangers. Making a cold call to a programmer about a job I didn’t comprehend lay far outside the realm of Things I Could Do.

So I applied.

To my total surprise I was called in for an interview. A few people talked to me for a bit, and I wound up standing in the parking lot for an hour listening to the company president as he smoked most of a pack of cigarettes. My ankle hurt, and the smoke made my eyes water, but I stood there and took it for the sake of the job.

Turns out they’d already decided to hire me.

A week later I was helping my new boss clear space in HoneyPot, Inc. for our new office, and he told me how I’d come to be a recruiter. I’d mentioned having finished the first draft of a novel, and he’d been impressed by the initiative and drive that indicated. He figured I wouldn’t have a hard time learning the job.

His faith was touching but entirely misplaced. As a recruiter, I was useless. The one and only call I made was a disaster, and I wound up explaining to my poor victim that I had no clue why I had been asked to call him in the first place. Fortunately the company with which we’d just merged into Honeypot had its own, well-oiled recruiting staff. I was not asked to join them, and I never again even pretended to be a recruiter.

That left me with reception. Again our partner office already had a receptionist, and she was incredible. I sat at our little side door and served little purpose but to tell employees where the managers had disappeared to.

One day the phone rang, and I stared at it in terror. I forced myself to answer, which was good as the caller turned out to be the VP who’d been the president of the company I’d hired into. His flight had included a stop-over, but delays in the initial stretch had led to him missing his connecting flight. It looked like he’d be missing his business meeting.

“Oh, man,” I sympathized. “That sucks.”

There was a lengthy pause on the other end as he accepted that I was unlikely to be of any use in the situation. Finally he told me that he’d call the representatives of the company to reschedule and work out arrangements to come back.

“Okay,” I told him. “Good luck.”

As soon as I hung up, I realized that I’d just lost my job. What I didn’t realize was that I wouldn’t be fired, not for another four years.

Having started precisely at my level of incompetence, I had nowhere to go but sideways. I wound up assisting an office administrator. My new responsibilities consisted of entering time sheets into an Access database and managing the software library. The first kept me busy for just over half of a day each week, and the second consisted solely of telling developers they couldn’t have the software they wanted.

Incidentally, after I became a developer the admins saved on personnel costs by locking the software in a closet and pretending to not have the key.

I had a lot of time on my hands at precisely that moment in the cultural zeitgeist when everyone was making one-page websites about their friends and interests, usually with lots of blinking text and aggravating MIDI loops. The majority of my work time was spent making constant tweaks to my Geocities page.

One day an account manager caught me. I’ll call him Tom. He looked at what I was doing and asked why I wasn’t out billing. I laughed. Tom laughed. Within a week I’d been assigned a contract to make a dynamic Word document for a school district to use. I’d become a developer, and it would be many more years before I felt like one.

I finished a second draft of that novel before writing it off as an unsalvageable mess. It will never see the light of day, and that’s alright. I have other stories in me, and after all this one gave me a career.

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