ROI is an old acronym, meaning Return on investment—the monetary benefits derived from having spent money on developing or revising something. In the technical world, there are many ways to compute ROI, but it is often the intangibles that offer the most important benefits, even though they are the most difficult to quantify. The ROI that I am going to talk about has to do with an entire lifetime of experiences. It began with a simple interest, a passion of sorts, and ended up solidifying a relationship and a career.
The story begins over 40 years ago, when I was a young father of two, the owner of a new home (see story on My First Home) and an engineer working in manufacturing. The company was the National Acme Company, located in Cleveland, Ohio. Called Namco, they made multi-spindle automatic cutting machines. If you have ever looked at the metal end of a spark plug, the lug nut that holds your car wheel on, or something as simple as the sharp little disk that cuts through the top of a can when you open it, you have probably used items where the original manufacturing process was done on a multi-spindle automatic. I worked in a group where special designs for cutting tools were created.
This was an old company, over 60 years old at the time of my story. My father had worked there, along with several of my uncles. Still attached to the ceilings of the factory were the pulleys and shafts that turned leather belts. These, in turn, produced the power for the machinery in this factory. Yet its management had the vision to recognize that modernization was necessary to remain competitive. So 40 years ago, they purchased a new-fangled contraption called a “computer.” The computer was manufactured by General Electric and easily filled a large, very large room. Inventory control and production scheduling would be placed on this computer to improve overall costs and competitiveness. However, management wanted to try an experiment, using something called “FORTRAN” ten young engineers would be given training to see if the computer had any value in lowering design costs.
It is hard to admit, but there was a time when logarithms, slide rules, and mechanical calculators were the modern tools of engineering. Can you imagine a calculator that used an electric motor and thousands of gears to calculate something like a square root? What seems so simple today would take hours of work to complete. Calculations were often made by approximation.
It is important to remember that in the mid-60s, most engineers had never been exposed to a computer. The concepts of programming and problem-solving with electronic machines of this type were never covered in schools. So when I sat down in a room to learn to program, it was like being part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. I grabbed a document that had approximately 200 calculations on it, a gear chart listing the various combinations of gears supplied with our machines, and attempted to reproduce it with the computer. Not understanding much, I was not surprised when my first attempt on the computer matched only two of the two hundred existing calculations. Well, to make a long story short, the company had been using a chart that was wrong for 50 years. The computer was right. This was fantastic. So I rushed to my manager, who said, “If we have been using it for 50 years, we cannot correct it. It would confuse too many people.” So my coursework and the computer soon ended, and it was back to the mechanical calculators. There was little interest in the rank and file for eliminating hours of work. For me, this was devastating. I see so much potential power, yet no one will let me use it. I just had to learn more.
My wife was the first to see my new enthusiasm for programming and decided to invest in me. We had two little children, one of whom had special needs, and a new home. To say we were short of extra money was an understatement. But she went out and got a job in the evenings as a waitress. I would come home from work, take care of our children, and she would leave for her job. Her hours were long, her work was hard, and she would come home very late each night. Youth has its advantages, so she was able to keep it up. The extra money was helping. Christmas was coming, and it would mean that our children could have something nice under the family tree. Christmas Eve was special for us. We would put the children to bed and then decorate the entire house, including the tree and presents. Christmas morning was almost magical for them. They would wander, dazed, into the living room and behold the joy of Christmas. However, in this particular year, there was a card on the mantle. I had received a gift from my wife of $50 to pay for my tuition so I could take an advanced class in FORTRAN. She had saved it from her tip money, investing in my dream to be a programmer. The class was being taught at a local school, and she remembered me lamenting over the fact that we did not have that kind of extra money. It seems like a small amount today, but my salary was $600 per month. Yes, two children, mortgage payments, and, oh yes, my son needed a lot of special help.
That one class encouraged me to go back to college and take a few more classes. Even then, in the late 1960s, programming was not recognized as a profession. My interests and skills grew so rapidly that I found myself leaving manufacturing and becoming a programmer trainee. As the years passed, I advanced to developing compilers and other complex software systems. Through company acquisitions and numerous moves, my career would mature, and my wife and I would find ourselves going to new areas of the country. After programming came management, then product marketing, followed by selling software systems. My technical background took me to Europe, Asia, and virtually every state in the United States.
Now, 40+ years later, I reflect on how an unselfish sacrifice and a dream could extend themselves into a lifetime Return on Investment. Today, as a director for a large company, I often marvel at the wonderful experiences that established my foundation in the computer industry. Programming remains a hobby. But what exactly did that $50 sacrifice bring to my family? My work has taken me to over twenty countries, and I have worked with thousands of companies. My wife and I now enjoy a wonderful home with great children and grandchildren. It is easy to reflect on the positive things that my career has given our family, but the most precious gift I received was the blessing of a life partner, my wife, who has shared in the bounty brought forth by that simple gift so long ago. And what ever happened to National Acme? Their vision fell short, and they never realized the return on their investment. The world demanded more. The buildings sit abandoned today.
UPDATE: Retired in 2011; traveled to 27 countries; remained happily married to the same amazing woman; life is good.