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Alan And The Change Of Life

I was in the pub sipping a beer and reading a book, as one does, when a voice said, "Are you Alan Robson?"

I looked up, still half lost in the story I was reading. A man was staring at me. "Yes," I said tentatively.

He smiled. "John Simeon," he said.

Three decades of my life raced across the room and walloped me around the head. "John," I said, delighted. "It really is you!"

And it was. We spent the rest of the evening swapping scandal and playing catch up on each other's lives.

So now let me tell you all about John Simeon, the man who brought me to New Zealand in the first place, the man who completely changed my life.

# # # #


England in 1980 was a pretty depressing place for me. Ian, my best friend, had just moved to Holland, my family was being more than usually poisonous, and there were rumblings of big changes in my job. I'd survived one round of layoffs. It wasn't clear whether or not I would survive another. I wasn't even sure if I wanted to survive another. So I was fed up and more than half looking to move somewhere new. Preferably somewhere a lot further away from my immediate family.

Then one day Ian rang me all the way from Dordrecht in Holland.

"Have you seen today's Times?" he asked.

"No," I said. "Should I have?" I didn't normally read the Times, but Ian had it air-freighted to him every day at vast expense because he was addicted to the crossword puzzle.

"Yes you should," he said. "The New Zealand Dairy Board is recruiting programmers and they are holding interviews in London. You need to apply."

"Why?" I asked. "I don't want to go to New Zealand."

"Yes you do," explained Ian. "I want to come for a holiday and I'll need to sleep in your spare room."

"Oh, I see," I said. "You'd better give me the details then."

He read out the contact details and I scribbled them down. Interviews were being held in a posh London hotel and the advert said that all the candidates who were invited for an interview would have their travel expenses to London refunded. Suddenly I got interested. London was full of science fiction bookshops and I was running short of my favourite recreational drug. Here was a perfect opportunity to get a free trip to my dealers so that I could top up my bookshelves. There'd be a boring half hour in the middle of the day while I answered interview questions, but I was sure I could cope with that.

I polished up my CV and posted it to the address that Ian had given me. A few days later a letter arrived inviting me for an interview. Apparently I would be interviewed by John Simeon, the IT manager at the Dairy Board. I packed an empty suitcase that I intended to fill with books and set off for London.

I arrived at the hotel where I was greeted by a tall, sun-tanned man with an antipodean twang to his voice. "I'm John Simeon," he said. "Come in, sit down, make yourself comfortable."

He had papers spread out on a desk. He picked up my CV and we went through the details of my life and career and he scribbled some notes as we spoke. John told me all about life in New Zealand and about what the Dairy Board did. I found him very easy to talk to, and because I was really there just to visit the bookshops, and because I wasn't all that bothered about the job itself anyway, I was very relaxed as the interview progressed. I just answered John's questions with the plain, unvarnished truth. I made no attempt whatsoever to bullshit or to gild the lily. In retrospect, I think that must have made a big impression on him. I remember one question that he asked.

"What do you know about indexed-sequential files and ISAM?"

"Nothing at all," I said. John made a note.

The interview proceeded and eventually we got to the point where John said, "And have you got any questions for me?"

"Yes," I said. "Why have you come all the way from the far side of the world just to recruit programmers?"

"Oh there aren't any programmers left in New Zealand," said John airily. "They've all gone overseas, mainly to Australia. So we decided to look further afield."

"But why come to England?"

"Because I want to go to Wimbledon," said John. "I just love tennis!"

I was beginning to understand how John's mind worked. We may have been from opposite sides of the world, but nevertheless we were very similar people.

"Can I take a photo of you?" asked John. "Just so I remember what you look like. I'm interviewing a lot of people and there will be many different faces sitting where you are over the next few days. I don't want to get confused."

"Yes of course," I said. John produced a polaroid camera. He pointed it at me and pressed a button. The flash went off and a small piece of paper slid out from the bottom of the camera. We waited while the image developed and then we examined it and we both agreed that yes, it did look a little bit like me. John stapled the photograph to my CV, together with the notes he had made.

"What did it cost you to get here for the interview?" John asked. I told him, and he gave me the money. We shook hands and I left to buy my books. It had all been a very successful day.

A week or so later a letter arrived from John. He was offering me a job. Goodness me!

Without pausing to think, I immediately wrote back accepting the offer. I knew that if I thought about it too much, I'd chicken out because the idea of uprooting myself and going so far away was very scary. But once my letter of acceptance dropped into the post box, I felt I was committed. I couldn't back out now.

The bureaucratic wheels began to grind. I had to have a medical exam. I had to apply for permission to come and live and work in New Zealand. I was invited to come for an interview at New Zealand House so as to determine my fitness to live in the country. I was greeted by another tall, sun-tanned man with an antipodean twang in his voice. Good heavens! Did they all look and sound like that?

He sat me down and gave me some leaflets and we chatted a bit. I flipped through the leaflets and was appalled to find that New Zealand didn't have colour TV yet and that when I arrived in the country I would be eligible to be conscripted for military service. I asked the man about those two rather worrying details.

"Oh, no," he said. "Don't bother about that. We've had colour TV for donkey's years and we got rid of conscription ages ago. But unfortunately we printed far too many of those leaflets and my boss won't let me update them until we've run the stock all the way down." He looked mildly embarrassed, and he blushed slightly through his sun tan.

"There is one formal question I have to ask you," he said in his official voice. "Do you have a criminal record?"

"No," I said.

"Oh come on," he said, relaxing again. "Surely you can do better than that? Look, it's Friday. I've had a really slow and boring week. Can't you be an axe murderer or something?"

"I got a speeding ticket about five years ago," I offered.

"No, no," he said. "That won't do at all. Damn! I suppose we'd better let you come to New Zealand then. I can't see that I have any other choice." And he stamped several bits of paper rather viciously with a large rubber stamp. It looked as if I was on my way.

A few weeks before I was due to fly to New Zealand, John Simeon left the Dairy Board to start up his own software and consultancy company. So when I finally arrived in the country I was met at the airport by yet another tall, sun-tanned man with an antipodean twang to his voice. Yes, they really were all like that. Goodness me! "Hello," he said. "I'm Mike. I'm your new boss."

Mike got me settled in and introduced me around. "Because you are new," he said, "and because you don't know much about how the Dairy Board operates, we are going to start you off in our maintenance section. The Dairy Board was one of the first companies in New Zealand to get a computer and we started developing our systems in the 1960s. You'll be looking after those older programs, fixing bugs and adding new features. Once you get really familiar with how everything works, we'll see about moving you to the development area where you can start writing new stuff."

In the 1960s, everyone involved with computers was an amateur. Computers were very new and nobody fully understood how to program them properly yet. Everybody was learning together on the job. I found myself trying to understand and tweak stuff which, by modern standards, was the most appalling junk.

"Who wrote this nonsense?" I demanded. I looked at the name of the author at the top of the program listing – John Simeon! I called down curses on his name as I struggled to cope with his legacy.

Actually, I quite enjoyed the technical aspects of my job at the Dairy Board, but the office politics were byzantine, distinctly unpleasant, and sometimes quite vicious. The staff turnover was enormously high and I quickly came to understand that the real reason they had been recruiting programmers in England was because they'd used up all the programmers in New Zealand and Australia, and nobody wanted to work for them any more. So now they recruited their staff in places where their reputation hadn't spread to yet.

It wasn't long before I too handed in my notice and so found myself at a bit of a loose end. I went to talk to an employment agency where a tall, sun-tanned man with an antipodean twang to his voice said, "There's a small software and consultancy company looking for a programmer at the moment and I think you might fit the bill. I'll arrange an interview for you with the company's owner. He's called John Simeon. I'm sure you'll like him."

Somewhat to my surprise, John remembered me from that interview in London all those years before. We chatted backwards and forwards, reminiscing a bit and contemplating the future. It was all very informal and comfortable and, just as before, I found him very easy to talk to. We laughed at each other's jokes and we had similar opinions on many things. John backed his original judgement and offered me a job for the second time. I accepted immediately.

The next few years were very happy ones as I worked directly with John on a variety of projects. We both had a lot of fun and we enjoyed each other's company. But the late 1980s were a time of great change. Sharks swam in the business seas. Big companies gobbled up small companies and grew fatter as a result. Eventually time and circumstance caught up with John. His little company vanished from the scene, and each of us went our separate ways.

It was quarter of a century before John and I met each other again. But then one day we both chose to go to a certain pub in Auckland at exactly the same time...

Only one thing worries me now. In the past, every time I've bumped into John after a few years of separation, he's profoundly changed the course of my life. So now, of course, I'm starting to wonder just what's going to happen to me next?

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