My First Job: Do You Know What a Dollar is Worth?

I started reading personal finance blogs with the discovery of My Open Wallet.  Since then, I’ve started following more than a dozen of these sites, where real people anonymously provide significant details about their own finances, questions and progress towards their own financial goals.

Today, for some reason, the post on the blog “2Million” really resonated with me:

Do You Know What a Dollar Is Worth?

It’s a simple post about his first job as a dish washer, and the incredible realization that after a whole day of work, the end result was a $35 paycheck.

If you don’t count the times that my brother & I went door-to-door with a wagon selling lemons from our tree for a quarter, my first job was actually in the software industry.

It was the summer of 1991, and the father of a friend of mine hired me to work at his software company, an enterprise software play focused on one of the hot themes of that era: “Expert Systems“.   The company was called Expert Edge Software.  I was 16 years old, and it was the summer before I started college at Stanford University.

Like any normal Silicon Valley start-up, we had a small office space in a non-descript building in Mountain View.  My job was to actually make the software.  No programming – I literally was in charge of:

  • Copying the final build to production 3.5″ floppy disks
  • Testing the floppy disks
  • Typing labels for the floppy disks
  •  Packaging together the floppy disks and manuals into the production boxes
  • Shrinkwrapping the boxes (which I did by wrapping them loosely and then using a hair dryer to shrink the plastic around the box).

8 weeks, and I was paid $4.25 per hour (minimum wage), before taxes.

Ironically, I almost worked myself out of a job in the first week.  I quickly learned the task, and spent the first day forming an assembly line.  On day 2, I made 20 copies of the disks (4 per set).  I then tested them all, typed all the labels, made 20 boxes, and shrinkwrapped them all.  On day 3, I met with my friend’s father (the CEO), and showed him the progress.   He wasn’t thrilled.

Apparently, what I didn’t understand at the time was that for an enterprise software company, especially a startup, 20 copies was more than they were likely to sell in a year.  Previously, the lead engineer had been packaging the software, but because he had much more important things to do, he rarely made more than 1 or 2 copies in a week.  I guess somehow no one realized that making 20 boxes of software wasn’t going to take a whole summer, even for a high school student.

Fortunately, there is always more to do at a startup.  I spent the rest of the summer learning about direct marketing.  There was no email back then, but I learned how to purchase and mine commercial databases of contacts, and I put my assembly line skills to work sending out thousands of marketing brochures to manufacturing executives.  I am still a force to be reckoned with, when it comes to Microsoft Word, Filemaker Pro, and Mail Merge.  🙂

Most of my memories from that summer are not from the work, but from the people at the company.  I didn’t know them well, but I would hang out with the engineers, and we’d go to lunch in Los Altos or Mountain View.  It was actually the summer I discovered Bueno Bueno Burritos & Yogurt, still my favorite burrito place (on El Camino, near San Antonio).  I remember getting my lunch and realizing that at about $8, I was working almost half the day, after taxes, just to buy lunch.

Just one of those experiences that help frame your life.  Thought I’d share.