Jeff Barr's Blog

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A Good Lesson

I’m working on cleaning up my Inbox (1164 messages to go) and just approved a nice LinkedIn recommendation from Ben Slivka. This recommendation came about due to something I did over 30 years ago!

At that time I was 16 years old and working part-time at the Retail Computer Store in Seattle. This was an amazing place for a teenager. One of the first computer stores in the country (or the world for that matter), we carried products from Altair, IMSAI, Cromemco, Northstar Computers, and Processor Technology. I worked alongside such to-be luminaries as Tim Paterson (author of MS-DOS), Bob Wallace (author of the first Microsoft Pascal compiler, and to-be inventor of Shareware), and Mike Courtney (where are you hiding, Mike?). Visitors to the store included Bill Gates, Gary Kildall, and Bill Atkinson.

My friend Steve Herber “hired” me as the store janitor, with the understanding that I could use the store’s computers in exchange for doing some unpacking and cleanup work. I would take a bus from Mercer Island to the University District, and then transfer to another bus that would take me up to Greenlake.

I got to know the store’s product line pretty well within a week or two, and managed to sell an Altair one weekend. At that point the store’s owners decided that they would actually have to pay me, and so I started earning the minimum wage at the time, about $2.10.

One of the first things that I learned was to treat all visitors the same, regardless of how they looked or how they dressed. I still remember selling several thousand dollars worth of hardware to a very scruffy looking guy in torn jeans. These were 1976 dollars, so this was (and still is) a very substantial amount.

Ben Slivka was another kid just like me. He apparently spent some time in the store, typing in some BASIC programs on our Processor Technology Sol-20. I doubt that we ever exchanged names, but I’m sure that we talked. People often came into the store with bits and pieces of code to try out on our hardware. There were several Saturday afternoons when I was more or less in charge of the store, due to people’s shifting work schedules.

Fast forward to the middle of 1997 on the Microsoft campus in Redmond. I’ve been interviewing all day. My last interview is with Ben Slivka, bold and resplendent in a Hawaiian shirt, not your average Microsoft developer. Unraveling our respective histories, we realize that we had actually met 20 years earlier! I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that being friendly and helpful to Ben 20 years earlier helped me to land that job at Microsoft.

Flip the calendar forward 9 more years and Ben left me this nice recommendation:

“I was a 16 year old high school student, and Jeff let me come and hang out at the Retail Computer Store (a few blocks from Greenlake) and type in BASIC programs on the Sol 20 microcomputer!”

It would have been easy enough to ignore that scruffy guy who bought all that hardware, or to dismiss the kid typing in code at that Sol-20, but that’s not what I did. I have to say that treating everyone I meet with respect and dignity has been one of those simple actions that’s made a big difference in my life.