Last summer, I took Fridays to write about technology museums. I planned to do a series on Fridays this summer on the odd jobs that I have done in my life before I started what you might consider my real career. But then Cadence Cloud took precedence. But now it is the dog-days of summer so I'm going to take a week of these, plus, for reasons too boring to cover, I need some lead time on next week's posts.
One challenge with blogging is that there is a sort of announcement year. From late-July to early September it is summer and we don't make major announcements (and neither does anyone else). Then there is a flurry between mid-September and Thanksgiving. Then nothing until January. February seems to be quiet too, the only other time of year when I have a few days when I wonder what I'll write about.
But I can leak to you all the major announcements Cadence has in the pipe for the next few weeks...crickets...crickets...ok, I'm back. Enjoy some weird jobs.
There is an old rhyme that is supposed to predict what career you will have (or, since it is very old, for girls, what sort of man they will marry):
Tinker, Tailor,Soldier, SailorRich Man, Poor Man,Beggar Man, Thief
Tinker, Tailor,Soldier, SailorRich Man, Poor Man,Beggar Man, Thief
Well, I've done none of those. I suppose I was a "poor man" when I was a student, like most of us, but by any reasonable standard of destitution, we were not. And although I'm not enough of a "rich man" to have retired to my desert island, again I'm rich compared to most of the world, and even most of America. The US median income is $30K/year.
Although, through a couple of random twists, I've ended up as a writer, I was an engineer (or engineering manager) for most of my career. But when I was in high school and a student, I did some interesting jobs far from where I ended up. I even worked in a chocolate factory—yes, Charlie in the Chocolate Factory is practically a documentary! Since not a lot happens in the semiconductor industry in the middle of summer, I thought I'd write about them.
I learned a lot of skills I have never used again in these jobs. But, in a deeper sense, I learned how to be an employee: show up on time, get the job done, pitch in when crises arose. Plus, I learned to appreciate the social side of these jobs, mixing with people who I was not going to meet studying computer science. I've lived most of my life in the top-university/silicon-valley bubble. But these jobs let me see outside the bubble in a way I still appreciate today.
My first job was working on a friend's farm. Well, of course, it wasn't my friend who was the farmer, we were both 14 or 15. It was his father. In Britain, you are allowed to drive an agricultural tractor on the road at age 14 without any license, whereas the minimum age to drive a car was (and is) 17. So that was cool for a young teenager. But mostly I was driving tractors on the farm itself. It was summer, and we were harvesting wheat and barley. If you've never been beside one, let alone on one, a combine harvester is huge and insanely noisy. When the guy who drove it needed to check that the ears coming out the back were properly threshed, I'd get to drive it for a minute. It was like suddenly being handed the helm of a supertanker. I've never driven a bigger vehicle of any kind.
But mostly my job was to drive up alongside with a trailer, and the combine would empty into the trailer. We did this without stopping, so I had to pace the combine so that the flow of grain all went in the trailer, starting at the back, and then ending up at the front (if you tried to do it the other way around, you couldn't see how close you were to having the stream of grain go off the back completely onto the ground). It would take somewhere between two and three full loads of the combine's tank to fill a trailer. We'd keep going after dark often. The combine could turn off one headlight, so you had a fighting chance of peering back into the darkness to see whether the grain was going into the trailer correctly.
Then I'd take it back to the dryer/storage. This required a skill that is not obvious, especially if you have never tried it. How do you reverse a trailer? To go left, you have to first go right, so that the trailer gets going the correct way, but then you have to eventually go left to follow it. It would be nice to do it slowly, but the dryer chute that the trailer had to be emptied into was up a little rise, so you had to have enough speed to get up it. Otherwise, even a tractor would spin its wheels. So, at 14, I had to learn how to reverse a trailer at speed. Emptying the trailer just required the tractor hydraulics to tip the trailer up. The first year, the trailers required the tailgate to be opened manually, but a year later they were automatic, and would undo automatically once the trailer was sufficiently elevated.
The other thing we were doing was bringing hay and straw bales into the barn, or delivering them to people in the area who had horses but no farm to grow their own hay. Straw bales weigh about 50 pounds (hay can be as much as 80 lbs) so tossing them around is an art (this was before the big round bales wrapped in plastic). I didn't even realize it was a skill until years later I was at a friend's house with a crowd of kids and adults. We helped the neighboring farmer unload a wagon of straw bales. The kids were barely strong enough to lift a bale, even in pairs, but the adults were equally clueless as to how to pick a bale off the wagon and bounce it on your thigh to get it up onto the stack of bales being constructed. "You've done this before. How'd you learn?" the farmer asked me. I told him about my teenage farming experience. It's not a skill I've needed in Silicon Valley!
I did the job for a few weeks each summer for three years. The first year, I considered it just something fun to do during the summer, so I was completely surprised when my friend's father handed me an envelope with a few hundred pounds in it when he drove me to the station to go back home. I hadn't considered the possibility that I would be paid, or even thought too much about the fact that what I was doing had real value. Then, out of the blue, I had more money than I'd ever had before in my life. I never negotiated a rate, but I wasn't an idiot, so it wasn't a surprise when I got an envelope of cash the following two summers too. Since I had been working most days from 7am to 9pm (or even 11pm occasionally) I don't suppose my hourly rate was great (I was exploited child labor!) but I had a blast, learned a lot, and did things like drive a combine, that most people never have the opportunity to try. Being paid was icing on the cake.
It turned out that my second job, my first real one where I had to go and get a National Insurance number (the equivalent of US Social Security number) was a sort of farming too. But urban farming. At that time in my life, I lived in Chatham (if you are a Navy brat, you get to live where all the dockyards are) and I got a job with Chatham County Council mowing lawns. In Britain, it is too cold in winter for grass to grow much, but summer is sunny and wet enough that they need a lot of attention, so they hire a bunch of students every summer to help out.
As well as mowing the grass around the public housing, we had to clear various land owned by the council that was simply overgrown. The big problem with that, for me, is that I'm left-handed. Using a sickle (like the one on the old Soviet flag) has to be done either with your right hand or using your left hand backward. I expect they make left-handed sickles since they make left-handed versions of lots of things like scissors and golf clubs, but CCC didn't have any. So I had to manage as best I could and avoid hacking my leg.
So that was my first encounter with the tax system (since I had previously been paid in envelopes of cash—yeah, I didn't pay tax) which was another eye-opener since tax and National Insurance contributions (like FICA in the US) were just abstract concepts I knew little about as a school pupil. Suddenly I was losing a good amount of real money.
A printer and at a bakery with a baker who used to work on the Queen Mary going back and forth from Southampton to New York every week.
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