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Thursday, December 09, 2004


I Owe It To My Bro'

That's My Bro!
"Saaaaaaaaaaaaaay, Bro!"

That's the standard telephone greeting my baby brother Mark (see photo at left) and I have been using since at least the late '70s (I think it originates from the time I sported a "Jewish Afro.")

It was August 1984, a workday afternoon in my cubicle on the 9th floor of the Gas & Electric Building in downtown Baltimore - I was spinning away on some dinky mechanical engineering detail for the nuclear power plant at Calvert Cliffs.

"Hey, I just registered as a special student for a computer science class at [Johns] Hopkins in Columbia," Mark told me.

"That sounds like fun, Bro!" I replied. "Hey, I should sign up too, and maybe we can take the class together."

That last sentence changed my life, and I owe it all to my Bro'.

With a little help from my Rich Aunt Wanda, the educational assistance coordinator at Baltimore Gas & Electric, I was soon sitting next to my brother in an evening grad school class at the Applied Physics Lab campus of Johns Hopkins University.

Class was 2 nights a week, and our routine went something like this: Mark would stop by our house about 6PM, and Sandy would feed us pizza or spaghetti while the two of us watched Star Trek reruns on a little TV in the kitchen. Following the adventures of Captain Kirk lasted until 7:00, and class started at 7:15. Now, APL was 20 minutes away from our house. Which explains why the Brothers were habitually late to class.

But we both enjoyed the class and did very well. We decided to marticulate as genuine grad students for the next semester.

Over the next several years, we took our courses together whenever possible. It was an excellent adventure, and we enjoyed sharing it with each other. Bear in mind that Mark is ten years younger than me, so we never had this opportunity before.

Our favorite course was on the architecture of the IBM PC (remember, this was 1987 or so,) and how to interface with it. That was with Rick Henle of APL, our favorite instructor. We spent long hours in the lab, cobbling together breadboard-y circuits, plugging them into the PC's bus and writing little assembly language programs to make lights blink or whatever.

Having the same last names, Rick thought that we were cousins until mid-semester. From then on, he referred to us as "The Binary Brothers." We liked the sound of that.

After 5 years, Mark and I graduated on a beautiful May morning in 1989 at Homewood, the main Hopkins campus. Having graduated from a dinky little engineering school, I wasn't prepared for how spectacular the ceremony would be at JHU.

Our commencement speaker was scheduled to be Zhao Ziyang, then General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. But events that would only weeks later culminate in what we now think of as "Tiananmen Square" had demanded his return to China. Our quickly-arranged stand-in speaker was - get this - the Secretary General of the United Nations! Hopkins obviously has a lot of clout.

Later that year, still a mechanical engineer at BGE's Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, I got an opportunity to work on a "12-month temporary assignment", a project to revamp and consolidate the many disparate databases on site into a coherent architecture. My part was as a functional expert, being responsible for the requirements for the engineering and equipment segment of the project.

Part of the reason I was chosen was because I had always been the engineering section's informal "PC guy", but what clinched it was my shiny new Master of Science in Computer Science degree.

Well, to make a long story short, that "12-month temporary assignment" morphed into ten good years working in IT at Calvert Cliffs. Along the way I discovered and developed a real feel for database design and database application development. I liked it much better than engineering, and the thing is, I'm much better at that than I ever was at engineering because I have an intuitive feel for the subject. I never really had that connection as an engineer.

Since leaving BGE in 1998, I've worked for several IT consulting firms and two health care companies. The work is interesting and varied, and I'm still learning and growing in it every day. I'm truly blessed to be able to work at something I love as much as this.

And every once in a while, Mark will say in passing, "You know, Bro', you owe it all to me."

To which I reply, "It's true, Bro'. It's true."

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