In Which a Son Encourages His Dad

My son shared a very touching story with me last night. After much thought I felt to share it here on my blog, thinking and hoping it might do someone some good to read the story. To set the background, Mike and I both do the same thing for a living. I know it sounds kind of boring, but we are both certified network engineers.

One of the primary goals in systems support is to help your company achieve certain company-wide certifications set by international standards organizations. These certs open opportunities for them to bid on specific jobs. In the process, the tech usually adds to his own cadre of certs. Mike and I have always been competitive in this area.

Now Mike is 38 and I’m 64 but we are both at roughly the same place in our career. I’ve had more management experience, but he, by far, is a better engineer than I ever hope to be. As you can imagine we talk shop often, mainly complaining about unrealistic expectations of management and co-workers, but often about solving technical issues.

Mike Malone about age two on a KayPro COmputer
Mike knew from the time he was little what he wanted to do with his life
“See Dad, I Can Do It Too!”

You may not recognize that old computer. It’s a KayPro 10 from about 1984 and was all the rage before the IBM PC kicked it’s butt the next year and put it out of business. I sold a ton of them during the week and taught classes on Saturday on the bundled software that came with it: WordStar, SuperCalc, BASIC and dBASE. Yep, it’ran CP/M, an operating system most people have never heard of, if they even know what an operating system on a computer is or does.

As my career progressed, I joined an organization that built and sold IBM clones (about 1986). Again, I and my team sold a ton of them during the week, but on the weekends, you could find us at the local computer show. It was held at the Los Angeles County fairgrounds in Pomona where we lived at the time. For many years, every Saturday, Mike and I would “ooh” and “aah” over advances in technology, whishing we could afford the latest graphic card or disk drive.

And sometimes we could. A few years later, Mike had saved up enough to buy almost all the parts for his first PC and we kicked in the rest for this birthday. I remember how careful he was to make his list of every component as found in “The Computer Shopper,” the Sears “Wish Book” of our day. He knew exactly what he wanted and could hardly wait for Saturday. I wandered the aisles looking at business stuff but he went right to each booth and loaded his cart.

Buying Computers at the LA Computer Fair
Everyone goes to the LA Computer Fair looking for the best deals
“But Dad, You Said You Would Help Me”

When we got home, Mike carefully unpacked all the components he had purchased, showed them proudly to his mother and then looked expectantly at me. He didn’t know, and I hadn’t shared, but I had planned to spend the day working on a thorny user interface issue with a program I was writing for a client. They had made some specific demands outside the usual scope of navigating a database record and wanted it done “just so,” and put it in the specs I had foolishly signed.

You would think I would have learned by now. I have signed onto companies many times with the promise of being able to do something for them that they want and need. I may have only barely been exposed to it, but not actually performed the job regularly or consistently. You might be surprised how many times this happens in our industry. There’s a lot of braggadocio when asked, “Can you help us do this or that?” And of course, we figure we can can find anything on Google, right?

Mike Puts Together His First Computer

Well, on this Saturday after we got back from the Computer Fair, Mike laid out all the pieces and said, “Come On, Dad, let’s put it together., like we did the last one, the one you’re using now.”

In one of those stupid moments I regret, I said, “Mike, I’ve got work to do. I’ve promised to demonstrate this user interface to the customer on Monday morning and it’s simply not ready. It’s going to take all day to get it done.”

As you can imagine, Mike was crestfallen, but he stoically gathered all the pieces and went to the corner of the room and began to read the instructions. Remember, he would have been only eight at the most. All day he worked on that computer, only occasionally coming to me for help when he got stuck. And, at the end of the day, we both successfully completed our tasks.

“I Owe Everything to You Making Me Do It Myself”

That day was over thirty years ago and I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it since. After Mike brought it up last night, I went back in my journal and read what I wrote about that day, “After we went to the Computer Fair in the morning, I worked on the special screen display PB&F wanted for their subscription database system. It was a real bear but I think I’ve got it ready to go.” Nothing about Mike’s many questions, and my (hopefully) patient answers. I’ll bet I said many times, “Go back and read the instructions again carefully.”

Well, last night, we had one of those father and son chats that usually comes at the end of a busy week. It was the end of my first week on my new job and Mike asked how it went. I said something about it being full of paperwork and self-training modules, and out of the blue he said, “I owe everything I know about computers to you.” I look at him incredulously and reminded him that he was a much better tech than I ever hoped to be because I have “wasted” so much of my time in management positions.

LA Computer Fair
Crowds at the LA Computer Fair
“You Taught Me To Read The Instructions”

“No, seriously dad, do you remember that day we bought my first computer?” I had to think back. He reminded me. “You were busy building the UI for that company you just joined. Just like today, I think it was the end of your first week.”

I stopped short, had a feeling he was about to share something important. His mother is out of town this weekend, visiting her brother who has just turned 80, so Mike was relaxing in the front room with me. No TV, just talking.

“Everything I know about computers today, I owe to you telling me to go read the instructions and do it myself.” I just about choked as I thought about what he might have said about how I had ignored him almost all that day.

A Son Counsels His Dad on How to Be Successful

I then shared with him how overwhelmed I felt by the ninety-minute meeting I had just completed that afternoon with my new boss, where he laid out all his expectations of what I was going to do for the company. This is not going to be the cushy last-job-of-my-career where I do the same admin tasks I have been doing for the last twenty-five years.

Mike listened as I told him the boss wanted me to head up the project to get the company certified for CMMC Level 3, a step above NIST Cybersecurity, which Mike is currently working on for one of his clients. I barely have basic Security+ level training. I feel woefully inadequate to lead this project. But Mike gave me the answer in his usual confident manner.

Just Read the Instructions and Follow Them Precisely

“You just have to read the instructions and follow them precisely. I hope to get that cert next. Maybe your company can hire me if you can’t do it.” I laughed. I felt the usual challenge of our relationship.

“Thanks, Son. I love you. But I think I can figure it out.”

“Love you too, dad. And I meant it. I owe you everything I know about computers.”

I’m glad he wasn’t there to see my tears that night in my prayer or as I share this now.

Am so grateful a loving God gave us instructions. We just have to read them and act in faith.

And eventually, over time, we’ll “get it”, be able to document it and even teach it to others.

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