I was whizkid. That was what they called the computer genius kids in the '80s. Yes, we had a TV show about kids like me. But I was born on the wrong side of the tracks, so money didn’t exist to find out I was a whizkid. That took luck, and it changed the course of my life forever.
I was in third grade when I first got my hands on a computer. The small town library where I spent much of my time reading books above my age level just purchased an Atari 800 XL, an early personal computer. I spent all summer reading the system manual and learning to program it. By fifth grade, our school setup Apple IIe’s. My teacher noticed I was lightyears ahead of the kids on Logo, so I got my own floppy disk and could program on my own. That was a big deal back then. Still no computer at home, so my life revolved around the library and staying in the computer lab after school.
Then we moved four miles out of town to a cabin in the woods where nothing cool tried to kill me. No more staying after school. No daily bike ride to the library in the summer. That meant writing programs in a notebook, with the plan to type them in later. That might have contributed to my loathing of pen and paper now I think about it.
One summer day when I was twelve, all two neighbor kids along my stretch of dirt road weren’t home. So it was boring, and all there was to do is ride up and down the dirt road up driveways and back. Or go into the woods and get eaten by mosquitos. As I am alive today to tell the tale we know which choice I made that fateful day.
I looped around in my immediate neighbor’s driveway, right across from mine. My house was on a hill, theirs was not. It took all summer to build up strength to pedal up that hill. Good thing, too. I noticed something papery fluttering on the ground. Money. Two crisp one hundred dollar bills. Nobody was around. My neighbors were not home to bring it to them. So I picked it up, put it in my pocket and rode up the less steep way to my cabin across the road.
Being raised a proper honest Minnesotan, I showed the money to my mom. She was wise, which isn’t useful for a job, but worked well for raising children. She put the money away in one of those metal band-aid brand tins. I still have it (the tin, not the money). Mom looked at me and said, “keep quiet about this. Wait until I talk to the neighbors and see if it is theirs.”
A few nights later, mom is over at the neighbor’s playing canasta. She came home and told me, “You can keep the money, but don’t tell anybody you got it.” Turns out, while she was over there (and this next bit is almost a quote of her words, rest her soul), their asshole drug dealer brother showed up. Swore up and down about how he lost two hundred dollars in the Twin Cities that weekend. So she surmised he was the original owner and a better asshole couldn’t sooner be parted from his loot.
That money sat in that tin for a few months. I didn’t have a burning need to spend it. One day my mom presented a COMB catalog, which was a liquidation company selling a variety of products. She pointed to a Commodore Plus-4 computer for $80. Compared to the C-64 or Vic-20, it was a thing of beauty. I ordered it and was soon spending far too much time programming and learning how to write for multiple platforms with a common code base. I taught myself 6502 Assembly on it. The computer itself lasted until my senior year in high school, when some chip malfunctioned.
That was thirty plus years ago. My CEO and business partner always asks me to tell this story during dinner with clients.
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