I Used to be A Systems Engineer….

I had gotten my BS degree in computer science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, otherwise known as the University of Last Resort. Well, this certainly brings back some memories…

I had originally intended to become a therapist after earning a BA in psychology. (See my post, Why I’m Not a Therapist.)  Serendipity had landed me in a position of clerk-typist in the Department of Computer Services at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  I typed computer programs into the old monitor with black screen and florescent green letters.  I fell in love with computers and the magic they could do.  It was a temporary holding pattern for me, and homesick, my partner and I moved back to Arkansas after 6 months.  But I’d had a great boss who thought I had talent and promise, and she gave me books on programming to read.  This all happened in 1978 – 1979.

Back in Arkansas, I had to get a job to survive, and I was hired as an accounts payable clerk at my alma mater.  However, the job offer came with some “issues.”  With my new-found love of computers, and having been disappointed at the obstacles I encountered toward becoming a therapist in Tennessee, I decided that I would like to try to get a degree in computer science.  I was immediately accepted into the program at Last Resort.

Fate threw me one of its infamous curve balls. I was waiting to learn if I would be awarded work-study and financial aid, but registration for classes was the next day.  Meanwhile, I was simultaneously offered the position as accounts payable clerk.  My mother, who had already poo-pooed my efforts toward getting a master’s degree in social work, harangued me with tripe about how I should be working and not “going to school forever.”  I didn’t know if I should register for my computer science classes without yet knowing if financial aid would be forthcoming, or if I should accept the position as an accounts payable clerk.  “A bird in hard is worth two in the bush.”

I succumbed to my mother’s pressure and took the job.  Next day, I learned that I had been awarded the financial aid I would have needed.  But in accepting the job, I’d made a commitment, and I take my commitments seriously.  So an opportunity was lost…

Later on, knowing I had more in me than clerical work, I entered the graduate school of social work at Last Resort, chronicled in Why I’m Not a Therapist, which went awry as described.  I did the tedious 9 to 5 thing, and the droning clerical work.  (I’m not bashing clerical work by any means.  It just wasn’t right for me.)    Personal computers hit the market, and I bought my first computer, a Commodore 64 — must have been around ’82 or ’83?

Commodore 64

What joy!  I taught myself to program in BASIC, and I used a cassette tape to store my programs.  I had a 300 baud modem, and I discovered the thrill of online communication when it was in its infancy.

Skimmed through many adventures and tangents, but glory be!, finally found myself enrolled in the computer science program at the University of Last Resort.  I had a work-study position in the computer lab in 1989.  This was long before I transitioned from female to male.  So I was approaching 40 in my female body.

I was an aficionado at Tetris.  When we weren’t busy assisting lab patrons, lab assistants would play our games competitively.  I was only one of two female students in the program.   It irked the male students that they couldn’t beat my high scores at Tetris.  They thought they were very clever, and began to erase the “high scores” file each day.  Well, I got them!  When I had a spare moment, I’d sit in front of the computer and decimate whoever had made the latest high score on the game.

The university used an old PDP-11 minicomputer manufactured by Digital Equipment Corporation:


Without a doubt, my favorite class was assembly language.  Here’s a snippet of assembly language code for the PDP-11:

movb 2(r1) r2
movb 3(r1) r3
movb 7(r1) r4
movb 11(r1) r5

It was one of the hardest courses in the curriculum, and so the professor announced on the first day of class that he would be “curving” our grades.  We wrote our programs, handed in our assignments, and took our exams.  On the last day of the semester, the professor informed us that he would not be able to “curve” our grades after all…  Why?  Because I’d made 100% on all my assignments, and even on the final exam!  I was not popular, and the male students who were incensed that it was a female had wrecked their GPAs.

The course I most detested was software engineering.  It was boring.  You cannot teach someone to be a software engineer any more than you can teach someone to be a true violin virtuoso.  Either you have it or you don’t…  You can learn to be “average,” but you can’t learn to be really, really good at software design.

Still, though I was bored to tears, I made 100% on all my tests and homework assignments in my software engineering course.  The drama came at the end of the semester, when we were due to take our final exam.  I was going through some problems in my relationship with my partner at the time, Donna.  So on the day the final exam was scheduled, I completely forgot!!  I didn’t show up for the final exam…

Next day, I received a telephone call from my professor.  He said, “I don’t know why you didn’t attend the final exam, and I’m not going to ask.  You got 100% on all the other tests and assignments, and so I’m giving you an ‘A‘ for the course.”  God love him, and kind people like him!!  I earned my BS degree with something like a GPA of 3.81.

Now Donna and I were back together, and I wanted nothing more than to get away from Arkansas.  I think I might have some kind of Guinness World Record for being accepted into the most graduate programs.  I applied for, and was accepted into, the MS program in information science at the University of Pittsburgh, and we moved to the steel city in 1991.  But this was when my eye problems were at their worst, having one surgery after another to control my glaucoma.  I was not working and had no health insurance, and my eye pressure hit the all-time high of 55 (normal eye pressure is about 12 – 15).  The pain I experienced is indescribable.  So I was forced to abandon this further venture in education.

Broke up with Donna in 1993, and moved to the Washington, DC, area, and finally at long last, realized I needed to transition from female to male.  Although the circumstances were right, the finances were not.  I decided I had better get my $$$ ducks in a row.  With hopes of becoming a software developer, I landed a job in technical support.  A surgery had been done to implant a tube in my left eye to reduce the pressure, so no more endless surgeries.  I was promised that I could advance from technical support to software development.

But that didn’t happen…  From technical support, I went on to become a software quality assurance engineer.  And there I remained “stuck,” until I was offered a job doing COBOL programming with Bell-Atlantic, the precursor of Verizon.  It would have been a life-changing career move, but from my side, transportation was a problem.  From my employer’s side, I was too valuable to be let go.  I was counter-offered a $20K raise and title of systems engineer.

What is a systems engineer?  Heck if I know!  But I can tell you what I did…  I wrote software specifications for the developers.  We used the Solaris version of Unix on a several Sun Microsystems servers:


I also translated technospeak into flowery business proposals for potential customers.  My writing was scavenged to lure venture capitalists to invest in the company.  This is the company I worked for, and it was partially owned my American Express:


Sadly, no matter how many new recruits I trained to do my job, I could not be moved into software development, because I knew too much and was too good at what I did.  When I threatened to leave the company, and was finally transferred to software development, I was now the unappreciated “black sheep” of the company and was given no support.  Disappointed at my years of contributions and efforts, I took a new job with a new company as a computer scientist, raking in an astounding yearly salary of $75K.

Well, what a travesty!  My supervisor at the new company had promised me that I’d be doing C++ programming.  I should have been dubious, but I was still going after my dream.  I had zero experience in programming in the Windows environment, and was forthright about that.  In my initial interview, my supervisor-to-be had said, “That doesn’t matter — if you know one programming language you know them all.”  True to some extent, but there is a world of difference between doing Perl and Python, or C, on a Sun box, or BASIC on a Commodore 64, or assembly language programming on a PDP-11, from doing C++ in a Windows environment.

I was nothing short of astounded after I accepted the position to learn that my supervisor’s education was in geology.  One day, he brought me in for a meeting to teach me the history of the ENIAC, something I’d learned decades ago!  Here’s a picture of the ENIAC:


Heck fire, when I got my psych degree, they were still using paper tape for programming, and my first course in COBOL was done using Hollerith punched cards!  Who was teaching who what??

Everything converged at one and the same time.  My current relationship with Kim was on the skids.  and I could no longer put off transitioning from female to male.  At my new job, I was sat in front of desk that would have been a K-Mart blue light special reject.  It had no tray for the keyboard.  My chair was not adjustable.  And since I could only see out of my right eye, I had to hunch over the desk like Igor from Young Frankenstein.  Net result, I suffered so much neck pain that I had to have 3 months of intensive physical therapy, three times a week.  This is what I looked like when I held that position:


Overwhelmed and depressed, I went on 3 months of short-term disability leave for the physical therapy and to deal with the depression and all else that was going wrong.  The terms of my employment included both short-term and long-term disability.  At the end of the 3 months, I was still in no state to return.  My neck pain was better, but my depression was not.  I had sought out a psychiatrist and a therapist to help with the issues of my floundering relationship and my burning need to transition. The psychiatrist had signed off on the short-term leave, but he refused to extend it.  Now I had a *huge* dilemma.  Either I had to return to work, for which I was not ready, or I had to face the possibility of being fired for not returning, or I had to resign.  I’d never been fired from a job in my life, and so I chose the latter.  Far from being fired, I’d always received the highest reviews at every position I’d held.  I’d worked hard for what I’d achieved, and did not want to see my future career prospects decimated.  This all culminated on July 3. 2001 (or was it 2000? would have to go back into my records to be sure).

Every damn thing happens in July.  My wife-to-be arrived for her first trip to the US on July 3rd, 2010.  Had I been granted long-term disability by the psychiatrist, I would have gotten by on a disability income of $45K / year, and could have pulled myself out of the quagmire and gone on to fulfill my dreams and the promises of the future.  His rationale:  “You’ve only worked for the company a few months.  It wouldn’t be fair to make them cover your disability.”  Never mind the contractual agreement or the facts of the situation, or my emotional crisis.

It was a turning point in my life for the worse, but I’m still here in front of the keyboard to write about it … so far.  I went on to transition, and to have more adventures and calamities.  And I will write about them all honestly, and spill my guts, until my last breath is drawn.


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About DogDharma

Dog Dharma is written by a human who loves dogs and who believes dogs have attained enlightenment. The human behind Dog Dharma came from humble origins, has faced many trials, enjoyed many adventures, and taken a path less traveled. He claims no special privilege or expertise, and remains humble. Dog Dharma‘s author has learned a few things along the way, and has much yet to learn. He has been told by many people that he has a talent for writing, and aspires to write a book, but is a little too lazy and disorganized, so his blog will suffice for now. He opens a window into his life in the hope that some of his words may be of comfort, some may be a beacon or warning, and perhaps he will connect with like-minded souls. Everything shared comes from a place of openness and honesty, but with no claim that he possesses the Truth. People and places mentioned should be taken as pseudonyms. In many cases, details may be an amalgamation of actual events disguised to protect the “innocent.” Nothing written is to be taken as actual fact, but as the author of Dharma Dog‘s limited understanding. From the mouths of the Beatles: In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make
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2 Responses to I Used to be A Systems Engineer….

  1. Pingback: Miracles | Dog Dharma's Blog

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