NASA – 1986

Most of my posts won’t be too long, but I think I need to lay down some background.

I was going to be a musician. I was in jazz band in junior high, and I went to a performing arts high school. I was good at saxophone, decent at other woodwinds, and good with arranging, with a smattering of composition. So I went to the University of Miami to study jazz on scholarship. The music was awesome…

But music was never the only thing in my life. I attended enrichment summer school at Rice University before 7th grade, and took an intro to computers course, where I learned some BASIC. My junior high had a teletype with a paper tape reader, and I wrote programs to calculate factorials, prime numbers, and perfect numbers. I took FORTRAN on punch cards one summer at Rice. And starting in 9th grade, I started doing some serious hobbyist work on the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model II that both Lanier Junior High and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

I thought I was hot stuff.

Scholarship music students at Miami were required to work the desk at the practice room building, handing out keys. They had a grad student in computer science as an actual employee who worked shifts when we were not. I used to talk to her for hours about programming.

Music school was hard. I practiced four to six hours a day just to keep up. I was doing OK. I was doing better than OK in theory and composition. But I spent a lot of time reading science fiction, playing D&D, and missing math.

I went home at spring break, and visited high school buddies at Rice. And instantly felt at home. And I started to think. I looked at my classmates at Miami. The ones I hung out with, for the most part, were not musicians, or were in the process of changing majors. I did an honest assessment of my music, and I knew I could make a living, but I did not think I was going to be a jazz star. I thought that I could make it as a studio player or Broadway player, and could work on composing and arranging, but the economics were not lining up. I was going to have to buy more than $20000 worth of saxophones, flutes, and clarinet, and synthesizers, and all of the accessories, and I was going to need them in the next three years…

So, I decided to take advantage of the other thing I thought I was good at. I applied and transferred to Rice to study computer science.

That was almost the biggest mistake I ever made.

I was mistaken as to how much I knew. I won’t go through the blow-by-blow of my first two years of Rice, but due to family problems, financial problems, health, and not actually knowing anything about programming or studying, I almost failed out of school.

My third year at Rice I started turning it around. Family issues were slowly resolving, we figured out finances, and I dated somebody in Differential Equations who would not do anything fun until all of the homework was done (taught me how to study!) I found that I did have the ability to code, but I was behind on the theory and the other courses I had to take to graduate. I was catching up, but I was really far behind.

I had worked food service the previous five summers going back into high school, and knew I never wanted to do that again. When it came time to figure out what to do for the summer, I went to the Rice Placement Office to find a summer job. The only posting on the bulletin board was a piece of paper from the Johnson Space Center, advertising for an internship. I called them that afternoon, and left a message.

They called me back, and asked me to come out there. It was a 30 mile drive, so I had to borrow a car…

I showed up, and discovered that one of my classmates was also there. This person had become the Systems Administrator for the Rice Computer Science Department, and had much better grades than I did. They interviewed both of us at the same time. We each had an individual interview session, but the rest of it was combined.

It was not hard to predict what happened. With not much of a resume and bad grades, I had no chance. The other guy got the job, and I got a job doing data entry that summer.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s