I read this quotation from Abraham Lincoln on Twitter just now: “Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.” It reminded me of a situation I was once in, and for the first time I can recall, I did just what Abe would have advised me to do. It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. I thought someone else might benefit from my experience, so I decided to blog it.
This episode happened in just after Christmas of 1984. I was in the habit at that time of going to a particular restaurant in the neighborhood for breakfast on the weekends. After I ate, I was enjoying a cup of coffee before leaving, and I found myself in a conversation with an older couple at the next table. We talked for a while, and I liked them a lot. We said good-bye, and they left just before I did.
After I paid my bill and went out to get in my car, I noticed that they were still sitting in their car. He was having trouble getting it started. It was quite cold, and I was pretty sure I knew what he was doing wrong. So I went over and asked if I could help. There was still enough charge left in the battery to give me a couple of tries at starting it.
I had learned about this type of car (a big Detroit V8), and I was pretty sure what it needed was just to put the gas pedal all the way down and leave it there till the engine started. Not exactly rocket science. But most people would pump the gas, or take their foot off the gas pedal or something, and that just made things impossible.
So, I got in, put the pedal to the metal, and turned the key. It turned over a few times, and then began to chug its way to life. Soon it was purring like a kitten. I told him I’d follow him home just in case, and he thanked me.
They only live a few blocks away, and when we got there, he motioned me that he wanted to talk. I waited while he walked over and asked me if I liked music. I said that yes, I did. He invited me in to hear something very special. I couldn’t resist.
It turned out that he had retired young for health reasons, and kept himself busy by helping young inventors and innovators develop their ideas and found people with money to help them make their dreams come true. One of his recent protegees had invented something that we would now call a sub-woofer. I’d never heard of any such thing, then. And it was indeed very special. I’d never heard bass sounds that realistic.
He then played an audio recording for me of an interview with a couple. The man had been severely crippled by two strokes, and had be receiving physical therapy from a practitioner who had developed a new device. It read the electrical impulses that nerves emit when you think about moving a muscle, but that were blocked from reaching the intended muscle. His device used wires to carry (and amplify) these electrical signals past the blockage, and connect them to the intended muscle. In this way, the man was again able to think about moving his leg, and the leg actually moved in response.
The point of this part of my story is just this. When the man was asked how this device affected his life, he broke down and cried. His wife had to answer for him. She said that he had thought his life was over, but now he could see where he had a chance of recuperating. This experimental gizmo changed everything.
As I listened to this recording, I was reminded of a similar situation that had happened to me some years before. I had written a computer program that was able to collect text from the screen of an ordinary computer and send it to a voice synthesizer so that it could be spoken aloud. This allowed a totally blind person to operate the computer without being able to see the screen. Before my program, the best way for a blind person to read computer output was by using a pin to find the holes in an IBM punch card. Obviously, this was a major improvement.
Soon after I got the first prototype working, I received a call from the Executive Director of a non-profit foundation in San Francisco. He had heard about what I had done, and was very interested in talking about it. He himself was an engineer with two advanced degrees, and he was also blind. I sent him a copy of my program the next day.
A week or two later he called me back and we talked for a long time about my program. Clearly there were lots of things that could be improved, and we both were full of ideas of what could be done. After quite a while, I was going on about some of the shortcomings of the existing program, when he stopped me. He said, “You’re right. The program leaves much to be desired. But let’s keep this in perspective. I’ve had this computer for six months, and all I’ve been able to do with it was hold down paper. Now I can actually use it. So no matter how much better the software could be, it is already a black and white difference to me.”
That stopped me dead in my tracks. I had been so caught up in the technology that I had totally lost track of the human aspect. My little program–all 500 bytes of it–had turned on the lights in the computer room. Period. By the time our conversation was over, we had reached agreement on a substantial grant that they would give me so that I could take things to the next level. In less than a month, it was done. The next month the only computer the program would run on was discontinued, and the whole thing became academic. For a while.
Now here I was in 1984 listening to the recording of another man’s life being changed by a new technology, and I got to thinking that maybe it was time for me to resurrect my talking computer. Within 24 hours I picked up a copy of a computer magazine and saw an ad for a new type of voice synthesizer that had all the features that the one I had started with lacked. And it was cost only a quarter as much.
I called my new friend and asked him if he’d be interested in helping me put this new project into the real world. He said he sure would, and we got together to talk about it. He said that he knew someone who represented some Oklahoma oil money who might be interested in financing the venture.
The following week he and I met with the money man, and the three of us talked about how we could put the whole thing together. It seemed to me then that these two old war horses were having the time of their lives talking about how we could form one corporation for R & D, and another one to do the manufacturing, and yet another for marketing and distribution, and one would license this to that one and on and one and on. When the meeting was over, I didn’t feel any closer to anything useful than I did walking in. But at least we scheduled another meeting in a few days.
The second meeting just continued where the first one had left off. And when all was said and done, nothing had really changed. I guess I had expected us to reach some kind of decision, though I hadn’t really thought it out that far yet. But after the second meeting, I did.
What jumped out at me immediately was that no one was talking about whether we were going to do anything or what it was going to be, but only about how we could do it. That seemed totally backward to me. By that time I had made my decision: I was going to do it regardless of what anyone else did.
So I got to thinking, maybe I didn’t need them or their money or anything else. Maybe I could just do it myself. But I would need to find a way to take the time off to do the work. And that’s when the inspiration hit. I’d go back to the well once again.
My original work was paid for by the state blind commission on behalf of one of their clients. He wanted to attend college and study computer programming, but he couldn’t because he couldn’t use the computer. So they paid me to allow him to do that. Why not go back to them and suggest that they help me take it to the next level, with the newer technology.
I made an appointment with the Directory of the agency, and made my pitch. I asked him to buy two copies of my new program (which I hadn’t written yet) and that I would have six weeks to deliver them (twice as long as it had taken me before). His first comment was that if he did that, he would have a problem, because no one in his agency knew anything about computers. His solution was to buy not only the software, but 100 hours of my time, over the next year, to help them make the technology work for them and their clientele. All of which would be prepaid.
Needless to say, I jumped on it. We still had to pitch it to the board of commissioners, but that turned out to be even easier. As one man said, “I don’t see that we have any choice in the matter.” The vote was unanimous. Six weeks later I delivered the programs on time. Six months (and several more copies of the program) later I had provided my 100 hours and started billing for additional time.
Meanwhile, I called my mentor to tell him that I had made other arrangements. He was delighted. It wasn’t like he needed the money. He really did just want to help people and have something interesting to do himself.
So when I saw Honest Abe’s words today, I thought, “You were right then, Abe, and you still are. First decide that you are going to do it, then figure out how.” If you get those reversed, it is highly unlikely you will ever get anywhere at all.
Oh yes, it is also worth mentioning that the business I started in that way lasted almost a decade, went through 7 generations of software, and changed the lives of thousands of blind people all over the planet, many of them students. Among my users were: a microbiologist and computer scientist who played a key role in the Human Genome Project, an international economist who worked for both the Department of State and Peentagon, and many of the finest examples of humanity it has ever been my honor to know.