Wednesday, October 05, 2011

How Steve Jobs Made Me a Computer Geek

Well, HE didn't actually make me a geek... but his old beige toaster Macintosh did.

In 1987, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Luddite; a history/literature/musician/actress ARTISTE. I had managed to avoid computers all through high school (they were still in the punch-card phase and I saw absolutely no reason to bother with something so obviously dull). I was as right-brained as they come, and proud to be so.

Then I went to college at Belmont. Within my first month there, I realized that I was going to have to start typing papers, and I think my friend Suzy Life offered to show me where the computer lab was on campus. I have no memory of my first visit there, but I remember how the computers looked; so cozy, so simple and I approached them without any fear whatsoever. There were only 3 or 4 available for student use at that time.

This is the model they had - the operating system booted from a small 800K floppy. There was no hard drive yet! But I remember someone showing me the font choices they had like Times, Chicago and Venice, and I was all "ooh, pretty!" I started using it to write letters to pen pals and friends, and by the time I really did start using it to do papers, I was fairly comfortable with a Mac.

Of course, I was still under the illusion I was an artiste! I got my History degree with a minor in English. But as the years progressed I continued working with Macs, and by my senior year I was working as a lab monitor in the large, 20+ computer Mac lab across the hall from my mentor's office, the Dean of Humanities, Robert Simmons. He adored Macs, and typed up detailed critiques on student papers and essays, which he would print out on a noisy dot-matrix printer. It was he who decided the School of Humanities needed its own computer lab, and he established special freshman writing classes that were taught in the lab, so the students could get comfortable using computers for composition. He'd even let students in his classes go downstairs during a test to type their essays in the lab! I miss him terribly - he died a few years after I graduated.

I still didn't know that I liked computers. My use of them had been so organic, so thoughtless, that I had no notion that I had any particular affinity or skill. I've always said that things need to sneak up on me; I am so alert to potential scenarios that I can become crippled by expectations and behave quite stupidly. Well, computers snuck up on me! Almost every job I had from that point on, in various secretarial and office admin positions, had a Macintosh on hand, and I used all of them.

By the time I was working on my 2nd undergrad degree in Theater, I had gotten a student job working in sales for the campus "Computer Connection" store. They also took care of departmental support for the college; fixing, installing, and maintaining computers all over campus. But they were so short of tech guys, and the demand for user support was so great that one day I said "well, I could probably install RAM at least; why not show me how to do it?" I had never even looked inside a computer before. (My favorite anecdote is that memory was so vastly expensive at this time, that it was selling for $350 for an 8MB chip!)

The next thing I knew (really, I don't remember any learning curve) I was doing both jobs - support and sales. I was delivering computers (how I loved our delivery golf cart!) around campus and installing them, installing memory, making service calls, even giving tutorials to staff on software programs. Less than a year after I started at the Computer Connection, I was hired to work at the William Morris Agency, which was one of the rare businesses that primarily used Macs and they needed a Mac person. I'm still astonished that they hired me; I had no qualifications or education in computers!

But the Mac had taught me how to use itself, even in the days before the internet became really useful. Steve Jobs, Woz, and Apple Computer made a computer that I didn't need a college education in Computer Science to use and support. Since my years at WMA, I've moved on to Windows and PCs and that is what I primarily support now. But my affection and nostalgia for the Mac platform, for the beauty and ease and simplicity of the products made by Apple (with some notable exceptions, of course!) will always be with me, and I will always be grateful to the people who made a machine that took me out of my right brain, and eased me into using my left as well.