Other Mother’s Children
J. Francois Barnard – 11 April 2014
Why it always worked like that, I do not know. As if it was not enough for me to bring up my offspring, I also had to raise other mother’s children too! At times I felt like sticking a label on a forehead, send the kid back to mommy with the words: “Job incomplete!”
I started my Information Technology business in 1992 and worked alone for a long time. By 1996, I made my first staff appointment. It was a young man 20 years of age.
This man came from a distinguished family of doctors and engineers. He had surplus brains and quickly mastered the required IT skills. He did, however, lacked a few life skills. One of them, for instance, was to be disciplined enough to wake up in time for work. His mom had to wake him and soon got fed up with the situation.
One day she left him sleeping and notified me. I left without him to go to a customer. He phoned me and pleaded with me to turn around to pick him up, but I told him to sit at the office and imitate working. He was never late again.
One day he convinced me to appoint his best friend as well. I taught his friend to drive and almost lost my life in the process. He knew where the accelerator was but not the brakes. But he was clever too and quickly became productive.
I sent the pair of them to Durban in a small panel van. They stopped over at Pietermaritzburg and somehow picked up a stomach bug. They could not hold anything down. They finished the job and decided to go to the beach. The panel van’s back window was tinted dark, and they used the load bay as a change room to get into their swimming trunks. I do not know how it happened, but they got themselves locked into the load bay with no way to open it from the inside. Fortunately, they had a mobile phone on them and called me.
I phoned a locksmith and gave him the registration number. He found the little van in the sun. As he unlocked it, the two rushed off to Joe Cools to rehydrate themselves with beer.
“Sir,” the locksmith said, “the stench coming out of that vehicle was terrible!”
“That’s the odor of fear, sweat, and old, shitty underpants!” was my reply.
They were a good team. My customers liked them. But I could not compete with the salaries offered by large corporates. They resigned and left with more skills than what they had before.
“Uncle Francois, you don’t perhaps have a job for me?”, Stoffel wanted to know.
He was eighteen years old, but the little pimpled face looked not a day older than fifteen. He was from a rural town where all adults were “uncle” and “aunty.” His mommy taught him well.
When I paid him his first salary, he exclaimed: “Uncle! I cannot believe I get money for doing stuff which feels like playing!”
Stoffel worked well, but my customers at the Johannesburg Security Exchange had one complaint: “Your technician called my ‘Uncle’!” The executive was upset. “He can say ‘Mister’ or ‘Sir,’ but I am not his ‘Uncle’!”
The most common skill I had to teach the young people working for me was time management. In the IT-industry it is difficult to be on time for every appointment. You arrive to do one job, and the customer says: “Now that you are here…”. That way, your schedule is quickly messed up, and the next customer is upset.
“I give you a cellular telephone,” I would teach them, “when you see that you cannot be on time for the next appointment, use the phone and notify the customer! Apologize and reschedule. But in the name of all that is holy and just, DO NOT LEAVE A CUSTOMER IN THE DARK!” I wish I had a penny for every time that I repeated those words.
Stoffel met a girl in a romantic chatroom on the Internet, and it was love at first click. Three months later, he proposed marriage to her. He had never laid eyes on the girl.
My wife and I were stunned. “But,” said I, “let’s not judge this generation. They are growing up in a world which we are not familiar with.”
“What does your mom say about this, Stoffel?” I asked him.
“Mom says I am crazy, Uncle.”
His parents were recently divorced, and I thought his father would try to dissuade him.
“Dad says it’s great! He wants to know how the chatroom works.”
Stoffel resigned and moved to Bloemfontein to be with his fiancé.
Frans’s mother’s best friend’s neighbor asked me to give him a job. I was desperate and interviewed him over the phone. He assured me that he knew everything about computers.
Do you know that feeling you get deep down when you know you are making a mistake, but your circumstances say that it cannot be that bad? Well, I ignored that feeling.
“You can start on Monday,” I said with the premonition that I was doing something wrong.
Sunday Frans phoned me. “My girlfriend is ill. She has pneumonia, and I have to take her to the doctors on Monday. Can I start on Tuesday?”
Now, what do you say? Can you be as heartless as to say no?
“See you on Tuesday,” I said while ignoring that feeling again.
By Tuesday, I was running behind already. I gave Frans my manual with text and pictures, which tells the technician exactly how to assemble a desktop computer. The components were in boxes, and I left him with instructions to assemble the computer and load Windows XT on it. “I don’t know what you will do for the rest of the day, but I have urgent appointments ahead of me. See you this afternoon.”
That afternoon the computer was assembled, but no operating system was loaded. It looked neat, but it took Frans eight hours to do a 45-minute job. That night, I loaded the operating system so that he could visit his pneumonious girlfriend.
The following day I gave him a map book and an address in Kempton Park where he had to deliver a hard disk drive for data recovery. It was the time before GPS’s and Google Maps on a mobile phone. I expected him back in two hours, but there was no sign of him.
At 1 o’clock, I learned that the hard disk drive was delivered, but my new member of staff was absent from work. Two hours later, Frans arrived at the office.
“Where were you the whole day?” I asked him.
“I got lost!”
“Bring me the map and show me the address I gave you.”
The way he held that book made me realize that he was not familiar with any printed matter. I wondered if he could even write his name? I got his banking details, transferred two days’ wages, and some petrol money for getting lost, and he was gone.
His mother’s best friend’s neighbor called me, and I told her what happened. “You know why his girlfriend has pneumonia? Teazer’s in Waverley fired her, and she went dancing topless in Klerksdorp. And that in the winter!”
Computer work can be dirty. One common misconception about the industry is that you only type away on a computer keyboard while the air conditioners keep you cool. Not so when your customer is a cattle feedlot. I wrote a database system to manage cattle feedlots, and one installation was at Ranch Estates.
My new technician was a young girl, Annie. She was doing her A+ technician course at night and wanted to get technical experience with my company. We drove to Ranch Estates. The problem was that the wind would blow a cloud of fine dust from the feedlot to the offices and into the computers.
Cow manure dust.
This dust would settle in the fans and heatsinks, and the computer would overheat. To resolve the problem was easy. You open the casing, take the computer to the workshop, and blow the dust out with compressed air. The VGA card's cooling fan was seized up, and Annie replaced the component.
On our way back, a frown on her forehead told me that something was wrong.
“What’s up?” I asked her.
“Please stop at the next gas station? I want to wash my hands.”
“But you washed it ten times at Ranch Estates?”
“Yes, but I still smell like a farm girl!”
I left the IT-industry in 2007 never to return to it again. But never say “never.” Presently I am the IT-manager of a large organization and appointed a new technician in December 2013.
What a skillful young man! It is his first job, and within one week he was already productive. I could send him all over town, and he returned with success stories. The staff liked him too.
On April 1, I saw something was amiss. I told him that he had completed his three month probation period successfully. We were happy with his performance. But his face showed that something was desperately wrong.
“What’s the matter?” I enquired.
“I’ve got another job,” was his reply.
He did not actively look for work. His father saw an advertisement and prompted him to apply. They offered him what we could not afford to pay. I told him to give me his resignation in writing.
And there I saw it again. This man was so good at so many things in IT, but he could not write a simple letter. Eventually, I wrote his resignation, and he signed it. What on earth do they teach these children at school?
Over many years I have raised other mother’s children — plenty of them. I taught them basic life skills, which one would have expected them to have at the age of eighteen. Some absorbed it, and others rejected it. Nevertheless, it was my attempt to making investments in their lives.
Today I still have contact with a lot of them. It is so fulfilling to see how many of them have exceeded beyond me in their careers. Kids! You are making your dad so proud!