Tribute to My Grandfather
Last night I received the news that my grandfather had passed away. He had lived a long, full life. This story is about how a small act of his set in motion what would become the primary character trait of mine and set in motion a series of events that would define who I am as a person.
At the age of 10 years old my family packed up and moved 1,000 miles away from the rest of our family to Redmond Oregon. This was back in 1975, there was no cable TV, no internet, no personal computers, no smartphones (hell, no cell phones), no microwave ovens, really none of the modern technology we have today. TV remote controls were still “clickers”, and homes never had more than one TV in their house.
My grandfather was a very smart guy, he had been an electrician that worked on the construction of Disneyland and was an engineer at Bell Telephone. That summer, my grandparents drove their RV up to visit us and a very small act on his part changed everything.
My grandfather brought me a box, in the box was what most people would consider junk. There was a couple of phones, some of those tall, cylindrical 1.5v batteries, some bells, switches, wires, and other misc parts from the phone company. There was no place to look up how this stuff worked, there was no Google, we didn’t live anywhere near a library, and there were certainly no instruction manuals. I looked at him and asked “What am I supposed to do with this stuff?”. His answer, just three simple words, the most powerful thing anyone had ever said to me, three words that would later define me as a person, three words that would become the tagline of my entire life, those three words “figure it out”. He knew that I could, he believed in me that through trial and error, through experimentation and determination that I could figure out what to do with this box of junk.
I spent countless hours experimenting, testing, using logic and reason, trying my own theories and deductions. Eventually I was able to actually make things work. You could have a conversation between two phones, a switch could ring a bell. I had figured it out. Four years later I used this same setup to build an intercom system at my other grandparent’s house when my cousins and I slept out in a detached garage for a few days when they came to visit.
In high school during the early 80’s, Apple introduced their first computers. The potential was mind-numbing, nobody knew what to do with them, but I knew I had to learn. Because I wasn’t in Algebra II/ Trig, I didn’t qualify to take the computer programming class. This didn’t stop me. I would go into the classroom at lunch, get the day’s assignment, go home, and figure it out. My Apple //e looked like a science experiment gone wrong, wires everywhere, the expansion bus maxed out on cards. If I wanted to learn how these things worked there was only one way….figure it out.
At 17 years old, a product came out that would have a profound impact on my future even if I didn’t realize it at the time. The AppleCat modem expansion port was released. This device allowed you to control external devices such as a cassette recorder. I knew I had to do something with this. Using this equipment and the programming skills I had figured out I built what was the first personal computer based phone system. It could answer a call, play a message, and then record the caller’s message. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but it was quite the accomplishment and people around the world (thanks to Bulletin Board Systems) duplicated what I had done. This was my first 15 minutes of fame, all thanks to an attitude of figure it out that I had come to live by.
Over the years I learned to program in about 10 different languages, created the first content management systems (database-driven websites) that ran numerous websites. These accomplishments weren’t because I had formal schooling or people to learn from, I was able to do it because I figured it out.
Almost 20 years to the day that I built my little phone system, I got involved in the Asterisk open-source PBX project. Essentially a software-based phone system that could play messages, route calls, and record calls all through software (sounds a little like my project from right?). This stuff was brand new, revolutionary, and the people that would use it only had one choice…figure it out. I built and sold systems based on this software, I wrote some of the first technical articles on how to use it, and eventually wrote two books about it. For the past decade, my career has been based on this modern day phone system, things have gone almost entirely full circle from a box of miscellaneous phone parts, to being on the cutting edge of modern telephony for one simple reason, I could figure it out.
I know this story seems to be a biography of myself and what I have accomplished but it is the result of a simple gift, a box of parts and the words “figure it out”. Regardless of the challenges I have had in life, personal, financial, technological, or whatever the case may be, I have got through them all with the attitude that I can figure it out. I have been laid off from work and my wife asks what are we going to do and my answer is always “I will figure it out” and I always do.
Why tell this story? Because its an example of how a simple gesture, a simple phrase, a simple vote of confidence, a belief in someone can set in motion a profound movement that can change someone forever.