The David Story
We're often asked how we got started in business, so here's the story, which I've told on any number of occasions:
Toward the end of the l970’s Cal and I were looking for a new business opportunity - it was at the height of what people in shareholder services often refer to as "the paper crunch."
It happened that Cal had a personal friend at First Jersey National Bank – now extinct but then a leading provider of shareholder services. The friend was Jaan Viise. He and Cal had met in night classes at NYU in the early sixties – Jaan a young immigrant from Estonia, and Cal fresh from South Africa. They remained friends, as a matter of fact, until Jaan’s death a couple of years ago.
On a social occasion toward the end of the seventies, Jaan mentioned that First Jersey was looking for a backup supplier for a particular data-processing service. (In those days this meant mainframe – PC’s hadn’t yet arrived.) At the time, Jaan explained, First Jersey had only one vendor for the service and wanted to stimulate competition. In the course of their conversation, Jaan asked Cal if he thought this was “something Ellen could do.” The rest is history, so to speak.
Early Experience on G.E. Mainframe
Jaan was aware that in the sixties I’d learned programming in Paris on the first mainframe General Electric, then a competitor of IBM, had sold in Europe. (This was a mammoth machine with what is now a laughable amount of memory. At times it got parity checks when the sun shone brightly through the windows, and four field engineers were needed on site to keep it going.) Since then I’d moved on to other things, and my programming skills had become rusty. But I understood the business requirements of the system Jaan and some colleagues subsequently outlined, and I had an idea that my son, David, would be able to deal with the computer.
David was about 16 at the time – a student at Stuyvesant High School. He thrived on math, logic, languages. He was the sort of kid who could open Grey’s Anatomy for bed-time reading and explain all the bones in your hand at breakfast the next day. Somewhere along the way he’d picked up a book on COBOL programming and had taught himself that language - purely out of his own interest. I felt that if I could explain the business application to him he would be able to program the logic. And that’s how it worked out.
David shut himself in his bedroom one long weekend and came out with a program he’d named BLOCKJO. This was an abbreviation for Block Journal, one of the key components in a system to handle corporate reorganization, or reorg as it’s commonly known. (A reorg system controls share transactions when one company buys another.) BLOCKJO was at that point by no means a working program - something ready to be punched onto cards (yes, this was during those days) and fed into a computer. But the core logic was in place.
IBM Expert Helped in Debugging
To help debug BLOCKJO and get it operational, and also to help develop ancillary programs, we brought in a seasoned IBM programmer, Sy Rush, as a consultant. He remains a friend. Although we didn’t know it at the time, Sy had helped write a well-known mainframe diagnostic tool called DITTO –something we use at times to this day, as we do parts of BLOCKJO. For $50 an hour we rented time on a mainframe at Restaurant Associates, in midtown Manhattan – starting work when their day’s processing was done, and often going through till the early hours of the next morning. A couple of months later we had something concrete to show.
POSTSCRIPT: First Jersey was impressed by the system we developed and became our first client. In 1981, for First Jersey, we acted as processing agent in what was at that point one of the largest corporate restructurings ever - the Du Pont/Conoco/Seagram's bidding war... Eventually David went off to Dartmouth and pursued interests other than programming. He currently lives with his wife in Kyoto, where he teaches English and studies Japanese language and culture.