Episode 020 - What I did in my 20s

I was recently asked by a listener who is in his 20s, what my life looked like back then, and what did I do in my career, and what I learned from it. Let me venture down my memory lane, tell you what I learned and you might get to know me a bit better by the end of this episode. Strange thing is that I think I know myself better from recording this now.

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Show Notes

Researching this episode was a walk down memory lane for me.  But I guess after time you just take for granted your journey, thinking that it was just how you got to where you are.  But when a listener contacted me and said that he would be interested in hearing my personal story of how my life went in my 20s, I decided it would be worth telling.  I guess he wanted to see if there is something in there that he could extract from it that might help his own life journey.  But then could I remember it all?  

More importantly, how can you sum up a decade of learning into a small podcast episode?  Is that possible?  Well after researching all of this, and then trying to take a 1,000 foot view on the highlights of what I learned, I think I have something here.  You be the judge.   Hope you find it entertaining.

It really doesn’t matter at what point in your life journey you are at - this might be fodder for consideration of how you react to certain opportunities put in front of you (or create them), or whether it makes you think of what adventures you had in your 20s.  All I know is that life is sacred and it is what we take from it that is the most important gift we will ever have.  I can say that looking back, my 20s were pivotal in determine who I am today, and I hope that these stories and the summary of what I learned helps someone out in some way.  Maybe it will help you get to know me a little better.

Let’s begin....

I really enjoyed my 20s, but I didn’t follow a traditional path like my friends did.  I had a close circle of friends and 80% of them went to university.  I didn’t.  Some of my friends went into the trades (ie. carpentry, metal work, etc.).  They took apprenticeships with other companies.  I didn’t do that either.  In fact, I never even finished high school.

I went into business.  I received the calling of business because my uncle was a CEO of a major appliances retailer in Australia, and he gave me the opportunity when I was about 15 to do work experience there, and I got hooked.  I loved the concept of systems, supply chains, transactions, sales, etc.  I didn’t know why at the time.  But I just knew I loved it.  Sounds a bit nerdy looking back at it, but it didn’t feel that way at the time.  It felt, to me, like there was an exciting world out there to conquer and that this was a path that was full of adventure.

In the mid 1970s, I discovered electronics and CB Radio as a hobby.  I loved communication and for someone living on the other side of the planet, in a city of about 1 million (for those of you from the US, that’s about the size of Portland, Oregon), but where it was at least an 8 hour drive to get to another city, CB radio managed to break through the sense of isolation.  I was hooked.  But I didn’t know that was simply an on ramp to bigger things.

In 1977 I discovered the first personal computers.  Local shops that were traditionally selling electronic components that I shopped at first carried them as kits, then the odd Commodore Pet or Apple II or TRS-80 started to show up.  Radio Shack opened a “Tandy Computer Center” in my city and I was the kid in there bothering the sales person to spend time on the computer.  That eventually led me to buying one, and that began the journey down the rabbit hole for me.  The draw to me, however, was software & programming - what I could make the machine do.  I enrolled in a local community college course on programming in Basic, then Pascal, etc.  I soaked it all up like a sponge.  Somehow these strange, foreign languages made sense to me.

When I realized I actually had skills with computers, by chance I found myself at the very genesis of the personal computer industry.  I saw that if I knew how to write software for those computers, people wouldn’t treat me like some young, wet behind the ears, kid.  I was able to communicate with senior level business people like my uncle.  And that worked.  

I guess one of the things I realized in my 20s was that you needed to surround yourself with people who were where you wanted to be.  The problem for me was that I didn’t know where I wanted to be.  I knew I loved business.  I knew I was passionate about computers.  That’s about it.  But that did mean that I needed to be able to spend  time with wealthy people.  I used my rare and unusual skills to program computers as a way to do it.  Little did I know, I was beginning to learn the art of leverage.

There were not many rich people in the city of Adelaide, where I grew up.  I didn’t come from a poor family, but definitely not rich.  I guess middle class, but my father struggled to put me into a private high school, so all of my friends were sons of doctors, or business leaders, or lawyers, etc.   I never leveraged any of those relationships though.  Anyone I met I did it by just being willing to reach out and contact someone.  Often it was someone who I met that referred me to one of their friends.  And my ability to write software to help their businesses allowed me to become befriended.  It was about learning.  Many times I hear the word “mentor” but in my case, I just made friends.  Friends of all shapes & sizes.  Age didn’t matter.  That was a huge learning experience for me - to push aside any fears of rejection.  I didn’t care in my early 20s because I knew each rejection was one step closer to a positive reaction, but more importantly I knew that I was a master of something that they either would need or would seen realize they needed - software.

You see one of the most important things I learned early is that you need to know what people want in 1-2 years time.  Not what they need right now.  That means you  get a 1-2 year advance notice of need, meaning that I could become the expert before anyone else.  That requires disclipline and a sense of urgency, but this is the DNA of the technology industry.  It is all about timing.

Does this work in 2020?  Well it is a very different economic world.  Technology isn’t something *new* now.  It is commonplace.  Everyone has a smart phone, every business has a website, etc.  There’s nothing really new going on.  I just got back from CES in Las Vegas, and I searched out new things and spent a huge amount of time in the startup areas.  But I saw very little that was innovative.  There were a few things, but it was representative that today’s market doesn’t have the “wild west” of the 1980s in technology.  

I guess I was over confident in my 20s because I didn’t know any better.  I read a lot of books, mainly biographical or autobiographical, about business and thought leaders.  I tried to understand how they thought.  I tried to let their approach influence my own.  Sometimes they were conflicting and other times they were complimentary.

Let me give you more of a detailed timeline of what I did and how I leveraged each opportunity to get me forward.

My first job was when I was about 16.  I got a junior level retail job at a pretty large department store in the middle of the city.  It was full-time, didn’t pay much but I didn’t care because I still lived at home with my parents.  I learned quickly how I had to rise to the occasion of what I was expected to do, and that no one was going to do things for me other than me.  It was a baptism of fire, but I guess all kids go through that.  I remember spending the lunch hour with the older guys in the company, hearing their war stories, their home life, their complaining wives, the football team they followed, etc.  Didn’t really learn anything other than what I witnessed about business, but what I did learn was what was around me in the city that I had the chance to explore and discover.  And I also learned what unions were and how I eventually learned to hate them.  I did realize, however, that as much as I loved my work colleagues as people, I didn’t want to end up like them.

I knew that this job was just a stepping stone of getting something on my resume.  After about 12 months there, I started to seek out companies that were in the emerging computer retail space.  I could use the small amount of retail experience I had developed, but point it towards the industry I wanted to be a part of.  That meant getting my next job in  a electronic parts company, kinda like Radio Shack, called Dick Smith Electronics.  This was a relatively new company that had opened up a branch in Adelaide, and I got to learn from and watch the legendary Dick Smith at work.  This man was the ultimate entrepreneur and I loved being exposed to his teachings inside HIS business.  From that I learned how management works and quickly learned to fill everything I didn’t know about electronics by buying his electronic kit products and building my own hardware from scratch.  Eventually that turned into having some good electronic skills and I wasn’t even 18 yet.  I look back now and realize that this was a turning point and much of it had to do with the aimable personality of my boss, Dick Smith and his positive and problem solving attitude.  It isn’t surprising that he became the mega-millionaire that he did and I’m proud to have contacted him in my later years and have an open door invitation to come and see him next time I’m in Sydney, which I definitely intend to do.

One day a company in the city that sold typewriters wanted to find someone who knew computers to help them transition from typewriters to word processors, so they advertised in the local paper for a sales person.  They had secured the dealership of Kaypro computers in Adelaide, so I applied and with my retail experience and computer experience, was the most qualfied candidate.  I was young, but that didn’t matter.  No one had the skills and the energy.  I got the job.  I then learned business computers, CP/M, UNIX, etc. and one day a customer who was a Ph.D student at the local university came in to buy a Kaypro computer and we became good friends.  Funny how the people you meet one day play into your own story.

After a year of working there, I found a job as a software developer with my CP/M & UNIX skills at a computer dealership that had just started to sell S-100 bus systems so I took it.  This is before the IBM PC came out - I guess that was 1980.  One day the guy who was the customer at the typewriter company that I met came in after finding I had moved over to work at this other company and told me he didn’t want to pursue a career in his PhD field (biology) and wanted to be a programmer and whether there might be some work at this new company I was at.  So I spoke to the boss and vouched for him, and next thing he’s working alongside of me.  We had a great time writing software together.  He was far more “technical” than I was - more Low level.  He was like the Steve Wozniack and I was the Steve Jobs back then.  Then one day I heard that IBM were going to release their first personal computer and I remember talking to him about it.

He said to me, “So why don’t we create a company and write software for it?”.  Well I didn’t need much more of a catalyst from that, so we did.  I mean what an interesting combination - there’s me who never finished high school, but was a proficient sales person and able to embrace business and him, the smart guy.  We found a small office and signed a lease.  I managed to convince a bank manager to give us a $10,000 line of credit each, of which we used $5,000 each to buy ourselves the first ever IBM PC that came to Adelaide, and the rest we put into capitalizing the business.  I never received a dime from my parents for anything I did, which in retrospect was probably the best gift they could ever have given me.

We started programming in C on those computers - I skew towards database applications because they were closer to the business that I loved, and my partner had a contact at a university that needed to index and catalog cryogenic freezer storage (medical samples).  My partner’s biology background allowed us to understand the requirements and my database skills allowed us to build a kick ass database application for the IBM PC that did this, and we got our first client.  We worked night & day on that project.  We made no money on it at all.  But we didn’t care.  The experiences from doing that allowed us to leverage it with other client opportunities and soon I was getting work from Fortune 100 corporations that had inherited IBM PCs in their departments, but few people yet had mastered how to write for them.

I learned very quickly that it was all about timing, and having positive references.  Even if you didn’t make any money, the asset value was the customer relationships you had because that leveraged into more and more business.  After a year or so, we hired employees, got bigger offices, spent more time networking, making more friends and associates, and eventually secured more and more government contracts.  In 1984, when we heard about this new thing called the Macintosh computer coming out, I decided to punt on that, learning to write Pascal software for it, while my partner had moved more towards XENIX (the IBM implementation of UNIX).  Eventually the city I lived in won a massive defense contract to build 5 submarines for the  Australian Navy and decided to outfit their offices with Macs.  This was unheard of, but again there was no software for it, and they needed custom software.

One of the guys I used to work with at the computer place I was programming at had moved to another Apple dealership and they were shipping hundreds and hundreds of new computers to this client.  He called me up and told me that they are going to need software developed, but there were no Mac developers in the local market.  “No problem”, I thought.  I’ll be that guy.  So he lent me a Mac and over a week or so, I got to know it.  I bought all the internals books on it and was amazed at how well it was engineered.  I began to learn the art of object orientation then, and discovered how to code for it in Pascal and eventually in a database environment called 4th Dimension.  Then I got a meeting with the IT director at this defense contractor and landed a major software development contract with them.

I wrote the contract billing application that was billing out a $5 Billion contract at about $50 million per month.  Right out of my little Macintosh software application.  And I was 23 years old at the time.  It was that way for years before they eventually replaced it with an Oracle based application.   This was in the mid 1980s - the years of Miami Vice, RayBan sunglasses, and a lot of cheap money sloshing around.  I bought a sports car, got a model as a girlfriend and thought I’d made it.  I remember watching the Oliver Stone movie “Wall Street” at least 5 times at the movie theater.  I thought that was how business was.  

Nope - nothing could be further from the truth.  I was raised with strong ethics and integrity and I knew I was more the Bud Fox in that movie than the Gordon Gecko.  It was that time when driving down the road with the top down in my sports car, with my beautiful girlfriend next to me was the most shallow and boring thing ever.  Funny how that goes - the girlfriend didn’t work out, the car was sold and eventually I realized I had ended my journey in my business partnership.

It wasn’t because in our business partnership we didn’t like each other, but we had both achieved so much in such a short time period, and it was time to move to the next thing.  I realize that I could sum all of that up with the title of a biography on Steve Jobs - “The Journey is the Reward”.  When we had achieved our level of success, then what?  I was starting to get depressed and realized it was time to get out.

I took a job at my defense contractor client.  The attraction was to get a Secret level security clearance and moved from writing their contract billing application but over to writing the onboard logistical software to keep 40+ submariners alive underwater.   For my partner, he secured a major directorship at the Forensic Sciences department in the South Australian government, building and automating laboratory test equipment.  I mean a perfect fit for a guy with a PhD in Biology and a world of experience as a kick ass software developer.  We both felt successful for what we had achieved although I’m sure that deep down we were sad that the adventure came to an end.

But now looking back, I realize it wasn’t about the money.  It was about the investment we made into us - what we learned.  This was at a time when universities didn’t teach anything about computer science that was in anyway relevant to market needs.  Hence how do you justify spending 4+ years in college to learn something that wasn’t relevant?  That was the key question I couldn’t answer and why I didn’t pursue education.  I got around not having qualifications because I had experience & passion.  When you see on job requirements “Degree X or similar experience” I was in the latter category.  There wasn’t anything like the stigma about degrees in Australia that the US has, but that’s another story.

In 1989, after working at the submarine manufacturer for a while, and being constantly bored there because I wasn’t being given anywhere near enough dynamic projects, and the paperwork was relentless, I took a couple of weeks of vacation and traveled to Hawaii.  I met a girl there, and fell in love.  She lived in Los Angeles, and realizing that I really started to hate my job, I took off a couple more weeks of vacation leave a couple of months later and visited her in LA, and basically never went back. We eventually got married and I got stuck in the immigration merry-go-round of the USA.  I couldn’t leave, but once I got a work permit, I had to find work.   I mean I was in the USA, no real money, living out of a suitcase.  The ultimate “come to America with nothing” start of a new adventure.

I really didn’t know anyone in the US except for a handful of guys that I met who were consultants at the submarine contractor place but there wasn’t any work at the time.  I did manage to get a little money from Australia sent over, and bought a junker of a car and a cheap suit, got a US drivers license and started driving around Los Angeles attending job interviews, etc. I must have had 20 “Nos”.  They didn’t know me, couldn’t vouch for anything I had done.  It was a world away for them.  One day I eventually begged my way into a small Audio Rental company in North Hollywood and landed a gig there managing a UNIX server and network, which I really enjoyed.  Mainly because I was surrounded with audio recording gear that spoke to my musical upbringing.  You see, at the age of 4 my mother stuck a violin under my chin and by the age of 12 I was in the Adelaide Junior Symphony Orchestra.  It was something that I could do naturally, and that eventually turned into guitar and eventually into bands, etc. and I found myself in Hollywood - in the heart of the music industry.  That was an accident, but a nice one to stumble into.

Eventually I met some guys and formed a band in LA, and I started to use my skills of networking, etc. (outside of my day job) to make contacts, meet recording engineers, book gigs, etc.   We were pretty good and eventually won the #1 unsigned indy band in Los Angeles by one of the local radio stations.  That leveraged into bigger gigs, meeting record label people, etc. and although that never ended up with a record deal for us, it did let me meet some pretty amazing people in that space - A&R people, engineers, managers, record producers, etc..  I was a sponge and worked alongside of many, using my skills with computers and the emerging world of digital audio to help me swap my time for studio time for the band.  I did a lot of editing on sessions that I didn’t realize what they were, but included audio editing for Paula Abdul records, working with engineers that were doing Carol King albums, and eventually led me to build my own recording studio and recorded some pretty big acts, including doing freelance engineering around Hollywood.  In my “day job” as a software engineer, I worked with many of the consultants that I met when working in the submarine company in Australia, that led to life long friendships and adventures all over the globe co-consulting with them on some amazing projects.

One day I was given the chance to work as a contractor with about 100 others at a new startup in Ventura County, that were doing this thing called “biotechnology” that I didn’t know anything about.  But neither did most of the guys in the IT space that I worked with, but together we built an organization and then watched as they got approval for their first product from the FDA.  The rest of that is history - that was Amgen, and I was one of the very early guys there.  That led to a job, and eventually I returned back 10 or so years later to consult to them as one of the “original guys” even though today they employ over 40,000 people.  Watching how a startup goes from zero to hero like that was an amazing experience, and the people that I worked with way back when I am proud to say are life long friends.

What was learned here?  Well the most important thing is to be a nice guy.  No matter your age, be the person you would want to be around.  My passion was addictive.  I was always seeking out a new opportunity and never shy of telling what I found.  People wanted to hear my stories because they were not the normal discussions of the football results, etc.  And I understood the value of timing, supply & demand, and that if you can’t get where you want on your own, you have to learn to do it on the shoulders of others who have gone before you.  And push aside fear.  As a friend of mine recently reminded me of the line in the Dune movie, “Fear is the mind killer”.

The other thing that is noteworthy is that when you have nothing, you think you could never get that thing or be that guy.  The reality is that things are done in incremental steps.  Sure, that may take longer but all through my life I have taken small achievements and used those as leverage to get to bigger ones.  And continue that process until you are at the top of the mountain.  If you don’t recognize what you have to offer, as small as that may seem, you won’t realize that it could be a key that opens a door.  But what you do on the other side of the door is up to you.

Always be willing to deliver on what you promise, but never be afraid to promise things that are just out of your reach.  That can be scary - many people find that they have a problem with that.  The thing is that you have to be bold.  If you are not willing to be bold, you won’t advance.  And it isn’t until you realize that until you do something extraordinary, you don’t have anything extraordinary to offer anyone.  I made some pretty bold promises in my past, but I’ve always delivered on them.  That usually meant I had to learn on the fly, but I became pretty good at that.  And it just so happened that in the world of technology, that’s how you have to do it.  You don’t know the next technology thing that is coming around the corner, so you have to pretend you do in order to get to learn from it, and then cram & hustle on your time to be able to actually know it.  Everything is leveraged off something else so if you are already 90% of the way there because you know some part of it, it isn’t a stretch to say you know the other 10%.  

It was Steve Jobs that famously demonstrated the “reality distortion field” in that he could tell a story that created excitement, and often times it was a story of something they didn’t have or couldn’t do - yet.  But that didn’t stop him and Woz creating what was needed.  Even Bill Gates had to lie to IBM that they had an operating system for their PCs because no one else was willing to take a meeting with them, and then he hustled to buy something that would fit the bill.  That’s how you have to do it.  You have to have vision, understand your client’s vision, and have a lot of contacts.  With that, you can be the richest man in the world.

Never be afraid to reach out and connect with someone, even if you think they are superheros and you are nothing.  Because we are all people.  We all get up in the morning and put our pants on the same way.  We all share the same fears & doubts no matter what part of the journey we are on.  We all need to surround ourselves with interesting people.  Those that are arrogant won’t be successful for very long, and therefore they are probably not the people you want to be around anyway.  That’s ok - value your time and focus on making relationships with people like who you want to be.  With every friendship, there is something you can gleem from it.  And sometimes, as in the case with my first business partner, the relationship that you start may not pay off until some time later.   But when it does, it is the greatest gift you could ever achieve.

The thing is that if you are superficial and never look beyond what you need today,  you won’t have a tomorrow.  Life is a marathon, not a sprint, but if you are being chased by a tiger, you better know how to sprint when you  need to.  That means don’t overlook people you may feel are insignificant because we are all at different stages in our journeys and you never know when the person you meet today will resurface in your life.  You know that old saying, “Watch out who you step on as you climb the ladder because you will probably meet them on your way down as well”.

And realize that surrounding yourself with people who all think the same won’t help you.  You need to be challenged.  But be observant because opportunities are everywhere and those that are best prepared for them, ideally ahead of them surfacing, will get the benefits.

You need to have some skill that the world needs.  And some vision for what you think the world will look like by the time you have enough skills to be better than your competitors.  And that you can’t get from zero to hero fast enough - you need to do this incrementally.  So whatever your field, know where it is going and use the position you find yourself in to be the best possible option that a customer needs.

In the 21st century, the world is much bigger.  We are all competing with emerging markets that have billions of people willing to work for next to nothing.  That’s because it is either working for $2 an hour, or nothing.  Nothing means you don’t eat.  And they don’t have any restriction to using the Internet or finding some used PC in a 2nd hand store or rubbish tip to work on.  They can find pirated or open source software if needed and their cost of entry is very low.

Does it make any sense to participate in a market where there are billions of competitors?  Nope, not at all.  And if you think that Fortune 100 corporations won’t take emerging markets seriously, you are wrong.  The opportunity for them to benefit from geo-arbitrage is as high as anyone else, but they can do it at scale.  That’s why many Fortune 100 corporations have already outsourced much of their IT departments to H1B workers or offshored them entirely.

So my techniques that worked really well for me in the 1980s need some adjustment for 2020.  But the underlying principals still work.  Leverage + supply/demand still  works.  Over promising works if you have the stamina to do what it takes and deliver on that.  Just adjust those principals for a future of robots, biotechnology, new energy sources, planetary colonization, etc.  Don’t waste your time on what is or has passed - forget smart phone apps, websites, etc.  You can’t compete in that world if you are serious about having something to offer.  Surrounding yourself with people who only think about those things is the key to become obsolete before your time.

You might think that what I’m talking about is just about jobs.  It isn’t.  I haven’t had a job for 25 years.  I don’t want one.  But there are times when you have to make money - particularly if you are needing capital to acquire income producing assets or to establish a life.  And sometimes the job comes with it something you really desire.  For me, getting a security clearance was something I was willing to sacrifice my independence over to get.  It was an investment that worked out, albeit hard to take doing the 9-5 slug.  There is nothing perfect here - you often have to sacrifice what you want in the short term to get it in the long.

Remember the phrase - “Never sacrifice Good in the pursuit of Perfect”.  There’s always a better way of doing something, a better built product, a better design, etc.  That’s because the world is constantly evolving and improving.  The important thing is that you get on the train when the opportunity presents itself and you probably won’t get on with the perfect solution for what people want.  But you will never know that until you engage and “all aboard!”.  Life is an evolution - not a revolution.

Also If you only work for money, you’ll never stop working.  If you work to establish who you are, so you can offer yourself to a marketplace, then you have a good reason to work.  

Finally I would say that the rewards go to anyone that is willing to reach high, and those that find that uncomfortable will be the 9-5 workers.  Forget comparing what you make with another 9-5 worker who makes $.  It is all fiction.  If you have nothing special to offer, it is because you are doing nothing special in your life.  You won’t find that special thing in a YouTube video, going to CES or reading Facebook.  You will find it going out in the world, opening your own eyes and trusting your gut when you encounter something.  

I know I use this analogy a lot, but it is so true.  The surfer catches the greatest wave when they position themselves ahead of it, are well trained and paddle well before it comes upon them.  That’s the rule of investing, and that is the rule of careers too.  You can’t get the greatest ride trying to paddle as the wave passes you by or after it is past.  If you do that, you will get minimal traction and results and that is what everyone else is getting.  Why the hell would you want that.

Now I realize there is a lot to take in here.  Most of these things I had either forgotten, or just assumed.  Today I don’t need to hustle that much.  I don’t need to over promise because I can do all of those things I didn’t know how to back in the day when I committed to them.  That’s kinda sad.  I often use the analogy that the saddest thing in live is a shelf full of dusty trophies.  So for me, the next chapter has to be helping others which is why I do this podcast & beunconstrained.com.  I thought that maybe the path to being free is really about money, but as I write this I’m underlining the fact that it is to know yourself and to realize that you won’t grow just doing the same thing over and over.  You might think that you want to quit your job because you don’t want to be a slave to it, but for 99% of of people the job is an excuse that they use to justify themselves from doing extraordinary things.  They are fearful of jumping off the cliff into some adventure because the job creates an artificial reality that gives them, what they think, is security.  But it doesn’t.  The security comes from knowing yourself, having confidence in being able to adapt and take advantage of opportunities and that takes courage.  I guess of all the things I learned the most in my 20s was courage.  I never really thought of myself as courageous but now, looking back, maybe I am.  

See, there’s something we can all learn from this tale - even me.

Good luck and I’ll talk to you on the next episode.

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