Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Story ??

Here’s a funny little story … actually a short story … and today’s Christmas snow storm reminded me of it. I was teaching a class called “Programming Fundamentals” in Rochester, Minnesota. Besides being the home of a large IBM facility, Rochester is famous for the Mayo Clinic located there. It is about 60 miles south of Minneapolis, but the winter weather doesn’t improve that much in those short miles. Minnesota weather can be pretty cold and snowy in the winter. A wonderful place in the summer, but winter … brrrr. I used to fly into Minneapolis and then drive down rather than wait for a puddle jumper airplane to take me the last few miles of the trip.

I remember one October, I was driving down late on a Sunday evening for a class I was teaching on Monday. I stopped at a small, local restaurant, and overheard a conversation where the waitress asked if this mother had bought her family new snowmobile outfits for the winter. They weren’t snowmobilers, they wore those full coverage outfits, sort of like what Ralphy’s brother wore in "The Christmas Story," to keep them warm on the way to school. My family in Alaska could relate, and probably tell some stories of their own.

The Programming Fundamentals class was fifteen weeks long, or about four months, and it had started in August, so we knew some winter would probably visit us before the class was done. In the mean time, we were enjoying the great fall weather.

We were teaching the class at the IBM facility in Rochester, but about three-fourths of the students were from other IBM locations such as Raleigh, North Carolina; Endicott, New York; and Boca Raton, Florida. I was teaching with another IBM instructor named Dan Smith. Dan was my mentor in the programmer retraining process. Prior to our development of the Programming Fundamentals, Dan had been the lead instructor of the predecessor class. It was only eight weeks in length, compared to PF, which was fifteen; and the previous class used IBM mainframes and an internal IBM programming language as the vehicle to teach programming. PF used the new IBM PC for the student’s labs and taught Pascal, a language intended for teaching modern programming … at least what was modern in 1985. That was before object oriented programming, and Pascal was an excellent “structured programming” language.

While I was the technical expert, Dan was the leader on class management. He knew how to deal with a bunch of students living in hotels, and how to make sure people showed up on time and issues of that type. I think he’d been teaching IBM training classes for over twenty years. So, one night, Dan was telling me stories about classes he’d taught and some of the rules he enforced. In addition, Dan had worked at the plant in Rochester for over ten years before transferring to Austin, and he knew all the good restaurants and was a good mentor in many ways.

There was a tendency with IBM training classes that you would finish up early on the last day. That made it easier for the students to catch early flights home. Our fifteen week long class had a very short final day planned at the end, only a couple of hours so the students could book flights as early as noon.

One night, as we partook of an excellent meal at a restaurant almost twenty miles outside of Rochester, “You’ll love the prime rib here, and the owner is an old friend,” Dan told me about a class he taught in Rochester in the middle of winter. The class was five days long, but had a lot of material, so, on the first day, he cautioned the class that they would be going until 5:00 PM on Friday. Therefore, students should either book evening flights or travel on the following Saturday.

At the first break after Dan’s little admonition, one of the students came up to him and said he had to take the noon flight back. Dan reminded him that it was important he stay for the entire Friday class and asked why he had to fly out so early.

The student explained that he was from Hawaii and had to be back to his IBM branch office before it closed. Dan asked why. The student explained that he had the “Department Overcoat” and had to get it back before closing because another student was coming to a class the following week. It turns out that most people in Hawaii don’t have a heavy coat. So when people from the IBM branch office came to the states, and particularly places like Chicago or Rochester, there was an overcoat that they would wear. But the branch office only had one overcoat and he had to get it back in time for the next person going to class to wear. It was the “Department Overcoat.”

That story led to another Rochester anecdote. This time it was an employee from Puerto Rico. He was working temporarily in the lab in Rochester. He had parked his car in the very large parking lot in front of one of the IBM buildings in the morning. During the day a heavy snowstorm had covered all the cars with snow. Dan was headed home when he found this guy wandering around in the parking lot wearing only a thin jacket. The guy didn’t remember where he had parked his car. In fact, since it was a rental car, he wasn’t even sure what it looked like or what color it was. So Dan had him hop in with him, and they cruised around the parking lot looking for the car. Dan said that, if he hadn’t stopped and picked him up, he might have frozen to death wandering the parking lot all night.

Here's another story from Dan. As I said, he worked at the Rochester plant for several years before transferring to Ausin, Texas. Dan explained that, although summers in Rochester were idyllic, the winters were quite cold and snowy. So he said he took his snow shovel and put it on his shoulder and started walking south. Finally, when someone asked him, "What's that on your shoulder," he made it his home. That's how he ended up in Austin. I can understand that story. I've spent many a January in Austin amidst the green shrubs and no sign of snow.

Dan had about a million stories like that, and it was great fun traveling and teaching with him. He lived in Round Rock, a few miles south of Austin. (Round Rock is famous for the large Dell Computer facilities there.) I spent many a pleasant evening with Dan and his wife whenever I was teaching in Austin. I always assumed that, if IBM closed the Boulder facility — which was possible a few times — I would transfer to Austin. After all, the saying was that I.B.M. stood for “I’ve Been Moved.” Alas, I spent my entire 33 years in Boulder. And I’m glad for that, but I do still love Austin. After shoveling two inches of “Merry Christmas” off the drive way, I’m thinking there’s still time to head south. So, Merry Christmas all and Happy 2013.

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