StyleWare, Inc. – Summer 1987

During the time between when I withdrew from college in November, 1986 and started again in January, 1987, I worked as the customer support representative at StyleWare. This company sold Apple II software. The founder and one his partners were still undergraduates; the third partner put up what capital he could. They made a go, and had a successful product, called Multiscribe, which was a MacWrite-style clone for the Apple IIc/IIe.

Apple courted StyleWare to write software for it’s biggest and best Apple II, the Apple IIGS. StyleWare hired a couple of my other classmates to work on a drawing program (called TopDraw) during the school year in 1986.

The president of StyleWare, however, had much bigger dreams. He wanted to replace AppleWorks, a text-based package originally written for the much-maligned Apple III that had a word processor, spreadsheet, and a database. StyleWare’s package would have graphical versions of those, plus a graphics module, a page layout/desktop publishing module, and a terminal module for dialup connections.

One of the TopDraw developers approached me while I was working on a lab for my retake of the Worse Course Ever in the History of Academia (or at least at Rice) (It was much better this time around). He plopped down next to me, and said, “You have a job for the summer? How about when you finish?”

I said No to both.

“You want to work at StyleWare? We already have (a long list of names of friends I took classes with). We are going to spend the summer training, writing accessories, and start work on GSWorks in September after the boss writes the base framework.”

“I won’t be finished with school until December,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, I talked to him about that. He said you could work part-time in the fall. If the summer and fall work out, then you could work full-time when you are done.”

“Kind of like an internship? And probation?”

He squirmed. “Probation is such a strong word. But, essentially, yes. The main writers of the various modules are already assigned. You would be working on infrastructure and other tasks the main developers can’t get to.”

“Well, assuming I don’t find another full-time job in December, I would be interested. I am certainly interested in the summer and fall thing.”

He beamed, “Great! Can you show up the first Monday after last day of finals?” He thought about it. “In 8 weeks?”


Yep. Even with my first professional programming job: It’s all in who you know.


Digital Equipment Corporation – 1987

I got my mail, and there was a letter with the return address of Digital Equiment Corporation, in Nashua, NH. It was a thick envelope, which was different than most of the letters I received from companies I had interviewed with.

Dear Mr. _____,

After your on-campus interview with our representative, we would like to extend to you an invitaion to participate in our onsite interview process, which will take place at our Nashua campus, March __-__, 1987. Please find enclosed our information about how to make travel arrangements…

OMG. I could hardly believe it…

But I wasn’t graduating.

If you have any questions or concerns, please call Ms. Jane Smith at ___-___-____, M-F, 10-5 Eastern time. Looking forward to seeing you in March.

I knew that interview went well!

But I still wasn’t graduating.

The next day, I called Ms. Smith, and talked to her. I said I had received the invitation, but due to illness and other unexpected circumstances, I was going to graduate a semester late. She said, “Well, we may not do this hiring fair next year. Up to you.”

“I’ll guess I’ll have to decline.”

I should have gone. I found out later that if a company wants you, they are often willing to set your hiring date much later, or make other accommodations (like letting me finish my degree in the Boston area), or whatever. At the very least, I should have gone to get interviewing practice.

I also found out later that at least two of my classmates in my Compiler Construction class got offers and went to work there. It was truly a great class.

My life would’ve been much different had I moved to the Nashua/Boston area in 1987. But I did learn some lessons from the entire experience, and at the very least, got a big confidence boost that a company was actually interested in me. I needed that after the depression that set in after I withdrew from school and punted a semester. My spirits were so much better, and as a result, school was easier.

COMP 482 – Algorithms

This should be the last post about college coursework. However, it was the most important course I took as part of my Computer Science degree at Rice.

The first exposure to algorithms and data structures at Rice was in a course called Advanced Programming. (I would have written a post about how awful that course was, but I’ve already written about a course that was much worse). 90% of that course was doing “team programming”, and the rest was an introduction to data structures and algorithms. One of the reasons I did so poorly in that course was the “team programming” was only 60% of the grade.

I had also not done particularly well in COMP 481 Automata and Formal Languages, which is the mentally most challenging course I ever attempted. I took it once from Hans Boehm, who I mentioned in this post, and dropped it. And then I took it from the late Michael Perlman, and almost failed.

I did much better in the hands-on-keyboard, programming work, than I did in the theory work.

Algorithms is a theory course. An algorithm is a way to solve a problem. They have all kinds of characteristics, and many ways to measure them. A good use of an algorithm can mean the difference between a website handling lots of traffic, or crashing.

I took this course from Dr. Robert Hood. He was great. Friendly, approachable, and understandable. As was typical, I got behind almost immediately, and struggled with the work the first 3 or 4 weeks.

The fourth week, one of our homework problems was a problem called The Stable Marriage Problem. We had to come up with an algorithm to come up with solutions for the problem. (And we did not yet have the Internet to help us.)

I sat in my apartment with TV dinners, lots of Dr. Pepper, and a radio, and spent 2.5 days doing nothing but work on this problem. But I finally had an “aha” moment. I figured out a solution in my mind Sunday around lunch, and spent the rest of the day writing it down and refining it.

When I got to school on Monday, I started talking with some friends. We decided to form a study group. It may seem obvious, but I had not really been part of a study group before, except for the one that formed around a woman I dated when I took Differential Equations.

I really started digging the course. I thoroughly enjoyed the material, and the three of us in our study group kicked butt and took no prisoners.

This should have been my last semester, but I had to withdraw from school the previous semester, so I had one more semester left. However, a lot of my friends were graduating. Rice had a thing whereby graduating senior finals had to be completed a week earlier than the rest of the finals so that final grades could be calculated and diplomas printed. The final for 482 was on the last day of senior finals, and it was my last final, and all of my friends were partying afterwards. I was really motivated to finish the final and get out of there.

I started the final, and breezed through the first 9 questions. 10 and 11 had some meat to them, and some proofs, so they took me a few minutes each. At 1:00 into the 3 hour final, I had one problem left.

Some poor woman turned hers in around this time. She looked like she was about to break down and sob; she evidently had not done well.

I looked at the last problem, and it was a classic “prove this problem is really really hard when there are lots of inputs” problem. The thing is, if you can prove that one of those can be transformed to a different one that you know is already “hard”, you are done. There was a note on the white board though:

“On problem #12, I am willing to give you a hint for a 5 point penalty on the grade for the test.”

I looked outside. It was a beautiful day. I knew that the parties were already starting. I could hear the music blaring out of Radio Free Sid (a high-rise dorm on campus) through the walls. I was done.

I walked up to Dr. Hood, and whispered, “I would like the hint, please?” He looked startled, and said, “Really? Are you sure?” I said, “Please.”

The hint was what known problem to transform it to. That made it easy; about 10 minutes later I turned in the test, and left to party with my friends. The 3-hour final had taken about 1:20.

I went by Dr. Hood’s office a couple of weeks later to pick up the test. I got an 88 out of 100, after the penalty was accessed. Dr. Hood asked me, “So, what on Earth made you ask for the hint? Without the penalty, you made one of the highest five scores on this test out of the entire class. Even with it, you are in the top 10…”

I said, “Dr. Hood, I was done. I was supposed to graduate this semester, and I am somewhat burned out. I wanted out of there, and I figured I had done well enough to absorb the penalty in return for freedom.”

He laughed. He the put his elbows on his desk, put his hands together in a triangle, and said, “So, what are you going to do when you are finished with your bachelor’s?”

“Oh, I’m going into industry.”

“Have you thought about grad school?” He looked thoughtful, and he looked at me like he was appraising me for something.

“You’ve seen my grades. I don’t think anybody would take me.”

He put his hands down, and said, earnestly, “I would take you. You could get your Ph. D. at Rice.”

I was speechless, and almost ready to cry. He continued.

“You showed me what you are able to do this this semester. You started slow, but came on very strong. And, as I said, you made one of the best grades on the final. And I talked with Hans about you; he said you had grown up between the two courses you took from him. We think you could do well. You would have to do well on the GRE. You would have to retake all of the computer science courses you made D’s in. So it would take you a little longer.”

I sat up straighter and looked him in the eye. “Thank you so much for the invitation. This is the nicest thing anybody has said to me about my career here at Rice. I am honored.

“That being said, I have one more semester for my degree. It will be my 11th semester. Spending 3-5 more years at school I think would make me absolutely crazy. And I am hoping to get out of Houston. So I think I am going to have to decline. But, thank you so much.”

“Well, if you change your mind, give me a call.”

He’s not a professor anymore, so I can’t play that card now. Still, it was very nice.

Oh, and as for Algorithms, it is the cornerstone of Computer Science. It is also the basis of all modern interview processes at most big companies, like Amazon, Google, or Facebook. Anybody wanting a good programming position should know this material cold. I am thankful every day at work that I took this course and did well in it.

StyleWare, Inc. – 1986

There I was around Thanksgiving – I had just withdrawn and flushed the first semester of my senior year down the toilet. I was always pretty broke; I had been in college, after all, so I needed some kind of job.

I had worked the previous summer doing data entry for an airplane broker, entering information on giant cards full of data about Lear Jets, Windsongs, and Cessna Citations into a database. I knew that they had not finished that project yet, so I called my old boss there to see if I could do a few weeks of work. No dice.

Two friends of mine had been tapped on the shoulder that summer to work for a startup in Houston doing Apple II software. StyleWare was formed somewhere around 1984 or 1985 by two current Rice students and a fellow they had worked with one summer. They wrote Multiscribe (a word processor that looked very much like MacWrite for the original Mac) for the Apple II, and sold it with 1-800 phones lines in their dorm rooms. It was a success.

Apple shipped the Apple II GS in the fall of 1986, and they asked StyleWare to port and upgrade Multiscribe for the Apple IIGS. Apple also wanted StyleWare to do some kind of graphics program, and StyleWare hired my two friends to work on it, which is how I found out about it.

When I ended up on the street, I called StyleWare to do any job they had available. Turns out they had just fired their customer support representative. So, for the last six weeks of December, I answered phones and took orders at StyleWare. It would not be the last time I worked for them.

Oh, and I applied for re-admission as soon as I found out that my withdrawal from Rice was final. The beginning of the second week of December, I got a letter for Rice stating that my application for re-admission had been granted.

Whew. Maybe my life was going to be worth something after all.