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In Which Alan Travels In Time

It was twenty years ago today
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play...

                    John Lennon / Paul McCartney

"I've booked you onto a Unix training course," said my boss.

I was puzzled. "I use Unix every day," I said. "My extensive knowledge of Unix is one of the reasons you hired me for this job in the first place. Why do I need a training course?"

"You don't," he said. "I want you to evaluate the course to see if it's worth sending your clients on it."

I was having major problems with my clients. They had a nasty habit of ringing me at all hours of the day and night.

"The computer's broken!"

"Can you describe what happened?"


"Type this magic spell for me..."

And then I would listen to the clatter of the keyboard in my headset as their fingers fumbled and failed to find the correct keys. Generally whatever they ended up typing would make the situation worse, not better. It wasn't really their fault -- they had very little understanding of their computer systems and as far as they were concerned, what I was asking them to type really was a magic spell. Any education that could ameliorate this irritation had to be a good thing. It seemed that for once in his life my boss had had a good idea.

"Where and when?" I asked.

"There and then," he said. And so it came to pass.

The training company was called Auldhouse. It was a very new company and the course I was attending was one of the first they had ever run. The trainer was a charmingly vague American lady called Cathy Curley who appeared to be somewhat overwhelmed by the sea of faces that stared stonily back at her.

"OK - let's get ourselves logged on..."

It soon became clear that there were far too many people in the class, and Cathy was in danger of losing control as she tried to deal with all the questions and pleas for assistance that were coming at her non-stop from all sides. It also didn't help that at least two of the students were pompous idiots who kept trying to show off by constantly interrupting with questions whose sole purpose was to impress the rest of us with their grasp of obscure minutiae. Hey, everybody -- look at all the clever stuff I know. It was clear to me that all their depth was in shallow places.

Cathy was obviously very knowledgeable about Unix. She knew the subject backwards, forwards, sideways and upside down. She made everything look easy, even when it wasn't. I discovered later that she had actually worked at Berkeley with some of the original developers of the operating system. I began to wonder where I'd left my autograph book...

I was particularly impressed with the way she handled the training material. There was always a spoonful of sugar to take with the medicine -- lots of nice jokes, and amusing exercises for us to do. Cathy was also extraordinarily good at varying the pace and rhythm of the lessons; we'd grind slowly up a peak of learning and then pause for breath and race down the other side with a joke followed by a relaxing cup of coffee. If you drew a graph of her class showing achievement versus time, the shape would be a saw-tooth or possibly a sine curve.

In an effort to ease the pressure on her (and also to curb the excesses of the showoffs who were annoying me), I tried to help Cathy with some of the questions and the practical exercises. Nothing was ever said in any formal sense, but it quickly became understood between us that when the students were doing the exercises, Cathy would look after one side of the room and I'd look after the other. It seemed to work, and I had a lot of fun.

At the end of the week I went back to the office.

"How was it?" asked my boss.

"Pretty good," I said. "I think we ought to start sending my clients on the course as soon as we can."

"I'll see to it," he said.

Unfortunately he was overtaken by events before he could organise anything. Not very long after our conversation took place, mysterious men in shiny suits and tightly knotted ties appeared. They held whispered conversations in locked offices with all the managers. Something was obviously going on, and it wasn't long before we were all summoned to a meeting at which it was revealed that the company was to be reorganised along more efficient lines. This was, of course, a very positive thing and the future was bright with promise. The light at the end of the tunnel, we were assured, was positively blinding in its intensity. All we had to do was travel through the tunnel together -- well, those of us who remained would travel together. It seemed that a lot of people would be exploring other options instead, and perhaps spending more time with their families.

The next few months were total chaos. My boss was an early casualty and I was shifted from department to department as my job description and responsibilities were organised, reorganised and then modified again. I changed managers like other people changed underwear and on one never to be forgotten day I was introduced to my new boss in the morning, and then I was introduced to his replacement in the afternoon. It was not a happy time and I was not a happy vegemite.

Then I saw a job advert -- Auldhouse was looking to hire a Unix trainer. Well, why not? I sent off an application.

A couple of days later, across the other side of town and quite unbeknownst to me, a conversation took place between Cathy and her boss Judy.

"Cathy," said Judy, "is there any way you can postpone your trip back to America? We're finding it terribly difficult to replace you. Would you believe that we've only had one response to the job advert?"

"I'm sorry Judy," Cathy was firm. "It's far too late to change the arrangements now. I'm getting married at the end of the month. The church is booked, the relatives are making travel arrangements. I'm sorry, but I'm flying home to California at the end of the week. I'm going to miss you, and I'm going to miss New Zealand, but I'm definitely going back to America."

Judy frowned, and her partner Duncan said, "Have you any suggestions about who we might find to replace you? Perhaps one of the students you've been teaching over the last few months? Do any of them stand out in your mind?"

"The person you really need," said Cathy thoughtfully, "is the guy who helped me out on that first course. He was really good. I can't remember his name though."

"The only person who's responded to the job advert," said Judy, "is somebody called Alan Robson."

"That's him!" said Cathy firmly. "I remember the name now. That's the guy. He's the one you want."

"I'll send him a letter inviting him to come for an interview," said Duncan who liked to do things very formally.

The job interview was an absolute farce.

"Hello, Alan. I'm Judy," said Judy, "and this is Duncan."

"Hello, Judy," I said. "Hello Duncan. I'm Alan."

"When can you start?" asked Judy.

And so I had a new job. I went back to the office and handed in my notice to my latest manager.

"Why are you leaving?" He sounded honestly puzzled. "There are so many exciting opportunities just around the corner."

About two months later, the company ceased to exist. But by then I was long gone...

On the morning of my very first Unix class I didn't have butterflies in my tummy, I had vultures. I could feel them bumping into my stomach lining and pecking hard to see if I was dead yet so that they could start to feed. I looked at the faces of my students, and the faces looked back at me, some with enthusiasm and expectation, some with disdain. What was I supposed to do now?

I tried hard to picture all the teachers I'd had in my life. What did they do? How had they handled things? The only example that came to mind was my Latin teacher screaming that I was a steatopygous bushman when I declined to decline mensa for him. Somehow I felt that this would probably not be an appropriate teaching technique to use on my Unix students. I tried to remember how Cathy had done things. Surely I couldn't go wrong if I followed her example?

"OK - let's get ourselves logged on..."

And we were off and running!

Then somebody blinked and twenty years passed; just like that. A lot of things happened during those years. Judy and Duncan sold the company and retired to live a life of sybaritic luxury and golf. I got a new boss called Melanie and a line manager called Craig. I ran an awful lot of Unix training courses. And even today, twenty years down the track, I'm still using some of the teaching techniques and jokes that I heard Cathy use on that very first course. By now I've got the timing of the jokes honed to absolute perfection.

Mind you, it was fifteen years before I managed to get my first laugh.

"Let's go for lunch to celebrate your twentieth anniversary," said Melanie.

Lunch was in one of Wellington's most magnificent restaurants which sits in the heart of one of Wellington's sleaziest areas. I suspect that tired and emotional businessmen searching for fleshy pleasures of the evening often use the restaurant as an excuse when they bump into acquaintances and colleagues beneath the red lights. "Oh! I'm just on my way to Logan Brown," they say. "Got to dash!"

Lunch began at 12.30 and it finished about 4.30. Surprisingly it wasn't particularly liquid, just particularly magnificent with precisely timed pauses between each course. A wonderfully gastronomic time was had by all.

I was given some extra special twentieth anniversary presents to mark the occasion. A t-shirt with appropriate anniversary embroidery, a leather document case with the word "Auldhouse" embossed on the front, and a truly superb Parker pen with a Unix joke engraved on the barrel. It is a positive pleasure to write with the pen (early drafts of some parts of this article were written with it -- it's easy to tell which parts; they're the best bits). I'm going to have to be very, very self disciplined about putting the pen away whenever I finish writing something. I don't ever want to lose it.

And now I'm back at work. It's my twenty first year as a trainer and I have a Unix course to teach. Let me see. How to begin?

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Unix System Administrator walked into a pub...

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