Look out below! A young techie is coming through

Asbestos and hazmat, fire drills and overhead spills -- they're just a few challenges in a new techie's early days on the job

When I started in IT decades ago, it felt more like the Wild West. Rules and best practices either didn't exist or were incredibly rudimentary, so we found ourselves in all sorts of sticky situations. We got our hands dirty, did the heavy lifting, and yes, made a mistake or three. But you did what you had to do, even if it meant kicking up a mess.

I started off by learning on the fly and through trial and error, working on IBM mainframes back in the days of the 370 and 3090, then moving over to VAX 760 units. When the opportunity arose, I applied for and landed a VAX job as a civilian contractor at a military base.

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For some reason, the VAX job wasn't yet ready upon my arrival. To bide the time, they handed me a stack of manuals about a foot thick on these things called "personal computers," of which I knew nothing. But neither did anyone else there, and they figured I was resourceful enough to make it work.

I was intrigued, so dove in and taught myself all about dual floppy disk drives, 10MB hard drives, 16KB of RAM, token ring, ARPANET, the whole nine yards. This was back when computers were transitioning from IT-AT units to the 386 models. These personal computers sucked me in -- I never saw a VAX ever again.

Cabling, cabling everywhere

Along with the job came the need to lay a lot of computer cabling -- enough for a huge building using 10Base-T and 10Base-2. The building was reportedly built back in the 1940s and full of asbestos. Rumors abounded that certain areas had been used for radioactive experiments.

At the time, there was little to no concern about rules and best practices. As young civilian tech contractors, we did what was required, and nobody looked over our shoulders to make sure safety requirements were met. Fortunately, we picked up fast. For instance, I now know that you should never lay cables on the false ceilings over fluorescent lights, which I discovered the hard way. Tip No. 2: Never drill holes through walls to put in cables unless you have permission from facilities. (I did that too.)

One day I headed up into the ceiling to lay more cabling, decked out in one of those white disposable plastic suits and a felt-type face mask. I didn't bother telling anyone where I was -- we hardly ever did. I then climbed up above the tiles and went way, way back into the farthest reaches of the massive building, laying wiring into the rooms I was connecting.

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