My Adventures at IBM - The Early Years

I took an indirect route to a twenty-five-year career in IBM. I first heard that IBM could be part of my future from Althea Young, my high school math teacher at Kingston College in Jamaica. She said, "Baron, you are a bright boy. You could achieve almost any goal that you set for yourself. You could work for IBM, for example."  Mrs. Young was trying to motivate me to look beyond the Jamaican shores for opportunities for a productive future. At the time, I had little knowledge of IBM because IBM had only a small presence in Kingston. I was not sure why Mrs. Young thought that working at IBM  would be a worthy achievement, but I knew from experience that whatever Mrs. Young said would be good advice. Mrs. Young was my mentor, who had guided me through much-growing pain during my teenage years. So, I filed her opinion away under life goals.


I did not think of IBM again until the early seventies when I worked as a mathematics teacher at Rockland Country Day School (RCDS) in Congers, New York. At RCDS, I taught Daniel Radin, whose father, George Radin, was a computer scientist at IBM's Research Center across the river at York Town Heights. George was known for his participation in the development of the PL/1 programming language and the design of the OS/360 system. George was appointed an IBM Fellow, which is the highest technical appointment at IBM. Daniel Radin, George's son, was in my geometry class at RCDS. Daniel enjoyed his mathematic class so much that he told his father about me. George, based on his son's comments, wrote a recommendation for me to IBM. The Program Information Department, PID, saw George's suggestion and invited me in for an interview and aptitude tests. I performed well in both the interview and the exams. And IBM invited me to join their company which was regarded, at the time, to be one of the most admired companies in the world.


I spent my first nine weeks in Poughkeepsie attending programming training with the understanding that I must pass the class to keep my job. I had a Master's degree in mathematics, but I knew very little about computers. I was nervous, especially when I realized that most of my classmates had strong backgrounds in computer science. The machines were large, filling entire rooms with their space-age look with blinking lights, spinning tape drives, and large consoles. Computer operators were running in every direction, unloading tape and typing into consoles to control this massive production. I was impressed and scared at the same time. I could not help asking myself, "What had I signed up for?"  Nine weeks later, I had passed the computer training class and went to work at the Program Information Department (PID) in Hawthorne, New York.


The transition to IBM was not smooth. During my first weeks at PID, I realized that I missed my life as a teacher at RCDS even though I had doubled my salary by making the change. I did not wear the corporate uniform of suit and tie. On one occasion, I wore a dashiki over my white shirt and necktie, and I had to go home to change my clothes. I remember running from the computer room to my office, and my boss stuck his head out of his door to inform me that he frowned on running in the hallways at PID. But, the shock of my transition was when I found out that other black workers at PID thought that I was an "Uncle Tom." The believed that IBM was using me to show that they had a black face in the all-white programming department. Most of the black workers worked as computer operators, and many wanted to be programmers but never got the opportunity. So, when I showed up with little programming experience and had a coveted programming job, they cried foul. I felt horrible. But it happened before. When RCDS hired me, the headmistress who was married to a black doctor, wanted to give the students at RCDS an opportunity to experience a black teacher. This strategy worked because the students awarded me the Teacher of the Year Award at the end of my first year. Remembering my earlier experience, I made a personal commitment to be a star in my new job at PID.


Getting a foothold in IBM was, at first, a struggle. I was not a good programmer, and I was not sure I enjoyed programming. My job responsibilities were to maintain software that PID used to store and reproduce operating systems that IBM used to manage the vast computers. PID assigned a mentor, Rich Arco, to help me learn the PID culture and practices. Rich Arco, an Italian from the Bronx, was the best thing that happened for me during those early days. Rich, my office mate, was my age. He seemed to understand the challenges I faced during my transition to a contributing member of PID. Rich was a very successful computer operator before becoming a programmer and knew the short cuts to getting things done around PID. He helped me build relationships, improve my programming techniques, and help me get some respect in the computer room. In many ways, Rich was the glue that kept me in IBM. However, after a few months, Rich left PID for another opportunity in IBM closer to home, and I was on my own.


At first, after Rich left, I made some blunders that luckily did not cost me my job.   It was a holiday weekend, and I came into the office to catch up on some work. I was the only programmer in the office that evening, and only one operator supervising the machines. It was around 9:00 PM when the computer operator came into my office to say that he was about to leave, and he wanted to STOP the computers before I left the building. He took me into the computer room and demonstrated what he meant by STOPing the computers. He took me to one of the computer consoles and pointed out that he wanted me to push the button that was marked STOP. That seemed easy enough, and he packed up and left me working into the night. Around 11:30 PM, I was done and walked to the computer room to STOP the computers. I entered the computer room where computer consoles, tape drives, disc drives, and other computer equipment surrounded me.

I was immediately nervous. There were red, yellow, and white lights blinking everywhere. This feeling was irrational, but I feared that I would do something wrong, and I would damage these expensive machines. I went cautiously to the first console to locate the "STOP" button. I could not find it. This computer was a different model from the one in the demonstration; the button was not where I expected it to be. After looking around for a while, I found a large red button labeled "OFF." In my mind, I thought "STOP" or "OFF" must mean the same thing. It did not. I realized later that "STOP" placed the computer in neutral. The engine would still be running while to computer waited for a command. But, "OFF" turned off the engine and left the computer dead. I pushed the OFF button, and I heard a loud sound and a crash. All the light stopped blinking, and my first reaction was to pack up and leave because I had just killed a million-dollar computer, and I would certainly lose my job. However, just before I ran out the door, I noticed another computer blinking away. To this day, I don't know what took over my mind, but I thought I needed to kill that one too. I ran over, pushed "OFF" with the same results. I ran to my office, packed up, and drove home as fast as I could because I knew that was my last day at IBM.