Down Memory Lane


  • Jam session and recording a song with a few colleagues for an open mic
  • Heartfelt conversation about how I was feeling with a close friend.
  • Deep meaningful conversation in person with another dear friend.
  • Getting on the earlier late running train home
  • Multiple small victories in several projects I’m coordinating

Do you recognise, from your own experience, that there is a continuum between specialism and generalism?

Yes. (that was not an open ended question, was it?)

It wasn’t so clear to me when I started my working life. Working for a professional accounting firm, I see now how there were two clear camps: the professional specialist with impressive sounding credentials, and the staff, who were not yet there (& as I discovered later, most would never get there). The specialist was once in the former camp, & through sheer hard and long hours of work & the memory of an elephant, was able to pass an exam, the test of fire that society accepts as the mark of a professional specialist. The others would have done the hard yards but being unable to withstand the stress of these exams, didn’t make the cut.

I have never been ‘passionate’ about accounting. It was a path chosen for me. But since I was there, I figured out I might as well learn what it was about. The whole experience, in hindsight was fertile ground for my temperament. I knew little. I didn’t know how to say no. When asked for any help, being eager to please, I took on whatever job was necessary. Copying documents, conversing with clients to get details that weren’t on documents, transcribing them into notes, learning how to turn on a computer, type in documents, edit them, use email…. oh, the only experience I had with computers at age 20 was having seen one at a friends place about a few years prior. Speaking with the variety of clients had its advantages: I learnt what customer service meant, what financial stress showed up as, the problems of plenty, the importance of cash flow, selling services as a professional services firm, building lasting client relationships, resuscitating them from apathetic colleagues. Few of these skills were about specialising in the field of tax and accounting.

In early 1999, the computer world was abuzz with the Y2K bug that was going to destroy everything digital. Software engineering was in high demand. Branded PC’s sold for a huge premium, so a clear market existed for affordable yet reliable machines in the home market. A client started a computer assembly business. The principal I worked for was a generous man, allowed the client to build his PC’s in the office.

It was manna from heaven. I knew by now how Microsoft Word worked: I was doing tax calculations with pen & paper & calculator, & then typing them into Word to be printed out on a dot-matrix printer, transcribed again into a form to be submitted to the IT department. That printing out was the Value Add which fetched a service premium at the time !!! Anyway, watching the guy assembled PC’s got me very interested. It was a time consuming task with the software install taking the longest. It was still the days of 3.5” floppy disks, and corrupted disks were the biggest loss-causing problem. I offered to assemble the PC’s while the chap focused on the software install. I earned enough trust with the assembly part, & possibly a lot more because of my incessant questioning about hardware and software. I learnt quickly enough – and the demand for PC’s was so high – that the client entrusted me to start building them on my own, both assembling hardware & installing software. Of course I messed up a couple but also knew enough about how to fix the issues.

It was also around the same time I met a guy whose job was ‘computer networking’. He came into the office one day, & hooked up the 3 computers and the 1 printer we had by then. That meant none of the computer users had to change the printer cable connection, & could print from whichever PC they were working on. Amazing time saver for everyone else. A confounding problem for me, curious as I was. I learnt what it meant to be “networked”. I learn about the 7 layers of the OSI model (a specialist topic I realised) along with tons of generally useful information & skills. By the way, that guy is now married to my sister 🙂

It was the heydays of Windows95. Netscape Navigator was a thing. We’d got a 56kbps dialup connection in the office by then. I was working 18 hour days, doing tax returns.

Two particular incidents are memorable & in hindsight helped me change the trajectory of my working career.

A friend of the boss, who worked at one of the (then) Big 5 accounting firms, and who frustratingly had never cleared any of this umpteen attempts at the chartered accounting exam, rocked up one day when I was typing out these tax returns in Word. He was a usually gentle guy but I remember him visibly agitated at what I was doing. A few minutes later, he had opened up another application on the computer. He didn’t use a paper, or a pen, or a calculator and did an entire tax return in about 30 minutes. I had to run out on an office errand (remember I did any job that needed done) and when I got back about 30 minutes later, he had done not one, but a dozen more! Seeing my shock, he explained what I saw as not magic, but the power of Excel, and within it custom templates & formulas. My world changed in that moment. I didn’t know how it worked precisely but it knew it was momentous.

I was spending more time at work because of the dial-up access to the Internet. I was spending time on Excel newsgroups, reading the problems, & creative solutions on there. I learnt about anonymity & generosity, about arrogance & kindness, and networking around the world without ever meeting someone in the flesh, an alien concept to me at the time. I was soaking up news, particularly about technology and the business of technology. I had heard about an antitrust case against Microsoft but didn’t quite understand what that meant. I was about to learn, with some pretty serious consequences. Late one night, with a tax return deadline looming, I was shutting down the computer when I noticed an icon I had never explored before. This particular computer was not connected to the internet, so Internet Explorer was never obviously used. I used Netscape Navigator on the internet accessible computer. Why is it on the desktop if it’s never used, why not delete it I thought to myself, & proceeded to do it. I learnt moments later what the antitrust case against Microsoft was for, what a bundled software implied.

Generalist knowledge learnt in highly specialised world around me. I’ve never thought about these incidents in these terms before.