Chapter 08 – IBM

I was only 19 years old when I was hired at IBM for a summer internship as a software engineer. Though I hadn’t even finished my freshmen year of college and I was no where near the top of my class (due primarily to the intense focus I put on my social life), I was able to get the interview with IBM through the Inroads internship organization.

Inroads is an amazing company that specialized in working with minorities to give them the proper corporate training necessary to succeed in the corporate world. From interview and resume workshops to hand-shaking workshops and etiquette lessons, Inroads grooms each candidate and then holds a career fair with Fortune 500 Companies. That’s when I first met Shokey. He was looking for someone to manage his test lab at IBM. We hit it off immediately and he hired me on the spot! As there were hundreds of other candidates at that career fair, I can’t say for sure what Shokey saw in me that day, but I was the only person he hired. Until that moment, I had never even thought about working at IBM. I guess some things are just meant to be.

I started my internship the week after classes ended. I didn’t have a car at the time and IBM was thirty miles away from the NAK House (where I was staying on a futon in the corner of the living room for $200 / month). Fortunately, my brother-in-law was kind enough to give me a car he had bought off a friend for $300. It was a 1985 Ford Escort with a stick shift, an oxidized paint job, no a/c, and no stereo. It wasn’t pretty, but it got me to work everyday and I was extremely grateful for it. Even so, it was a bit of a surreal experience rolling into a parking lot full of luxury sedans and sports cars in my 15-year-old hooptie.  (That fall, when it completely broke down and left me with a 90 minute commute where I took the train, to the light rail, to the bus, to the shuttle in order to get to work, it became way more surreal.)

As I didn’t work during the school year and I would’t get me first check for a few weeks, there was no way I could afford to eat lunch in the cafeteria everyday. So, I headed to grocery store with the little money I had and I bought a loaf of white bread, 10 cans of tuna fish, a jar of mayonnaise, some pickles, a back of chips, some plastic baggies, and pack of brown paper lunch sacks. That’s what I called lunch and dinner for the majority of that summer. I would have called it breakfast too, but I’ve never been much of a breakfast person.

Despite the humble lunches, that first summer at IBM was great. Being an intern a large tech company really is a great job! You have very little responsibility, you get paid well, and you get some great experience. The only downside is that you can’t stay an intern forever.

At the end of the summer, about a week before my internship was about to end, Shokey called me into his office. He told me that the job market was very competitive and that he could risk losing me to a competitor. He said that he wanted me to continue working with the group through the school year and that he would do whatever he could to accommodate my school schedule, even if that meant installing an IBM terminal in my dorm room. At the time, my Mom and I had already agreed that I needed to focus on my schoolwork and that it didn’t make sense for me to work during the school year. But that was in reference to working at a coffee shop or the bookstore. This was IBM!

At first, I was very hesitant to accept Shokey’s offer. I already had a lot on my plate with an average school load of 18 units (when 12 units was considered full time) and a lot of responsibilities within NAK. But, this was a really great opportunity and the extra cash would be great. Since we were in the midst of the dot-com boom (1999), I decided to go in with what I thought was a ridiculous request and let Shokey shoot me down.

“Shokey, I’ve thought about this a lot and I just don’t think I can make this work with my schedule. Unless you were to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse, I’m going to have to respectfully decline”, I said with a straight face.

“An offer you can’t refuse?” he responded. “What does that look like?”

“8-hours a week, all on Saturdays. And a raise.” I said sarcastically with a smile.

“Done.” he said. “Glad we could work this out!” as he shook my hand.

And that was that. He bumped my pay to $13 / hour and gave me the go ahead to work all of my hours on Saturday. The funny thing was that no one else worked on Saturday. The campus was open, but no one was there. In essence, I had the entire place to myself. I would come in, complete whatever tasks my supervisor would leave for me and then do my homework. Many times my supervisor would completely forget about since we never saw each other, so I would simply get paid to do my homework. Initially, I felt a bit guilty, but once my school schedule settled down a bit a started coming in a couple of days during the week. This is something I assume Shokey knew would happen when he agreed to my ridiculous terms.

It turns out that Shokey was a rising star within the company and was promoted shortly after we made our deal. As such, I got a new manager named Dave. Since Dave didn’t hire me nor did he make the deal with me, he pretty much just signed my time cards and left me alone. Shortly after that my supervisor left and I became even more of island. By the time my Senior year rolled around, Dave had been promoted and I was inherited by another manager whose name I can’t even remember. He was a nice guy, but I knew the system by this time so he just let me hang out with other engineers for a couple of days a week and kept giving me raises. By the end of my Senior year, I had been an intern for three full years and was making $24 / hour. Not bad for having zero responsibility!

Halfway through my Senior year, it was time to start looking for a full-time position within the company. As much as I admired IBM, the most valuable thing that I learned from working (hanging out) there was that I really didn’t appreciate the lifestyle that the full-time software engineers led. I once shared an office with a 25-year-old software developer who kept a sleeping bag and a mat under his desk so he could take short naps when he pulled all-nighters. In addition to the super long hours that many developers pulled, they had very little interaction with other people. I liked coding a lot, but I’m an extreme extrovert and that work environment just wasn’t for me. Rather than just quit, I
did everything I could to see if I could make the jump to Technical Sales. Unfortunately, IBM didn’t hire engineers to do their sales. Go figure.

Fortunately for me, Texas Instruments did!