For Father’s Day 2009, I’d like to take you back to 1984 and how I learned a valuable lesson in life and work from my father.

I still had shooting pain in my groin when my Dad walked in for lunch.

It was my third day working at the McDonald’s in Durango, Colorado back in 1985. I was 17, going into college, and had just started my first job in the real world. I’d been trained for about two minutes total. “Here’s how you make hotcakes,” Vic showed me, and I’d make hotcakes all morning. Then at 11:00 when lunch rush started, I was moved to the lobby to mop and clean tables. I didn’t even need training on that.

My most important training was the harshest kind, that mop wringers can be dangerous. I’d put my mop in the wringer, leaned over the bucket and pushed down hard on the handle. My wet hand slid off the spring-loaded handle, leaving it to arc up and whack me right where it counted.

I was not having a good day.

A few minutes later, my father walked in for lunch. After a while my mopping duties took me past his table. “How’s it going?” he asked me.

My frustration came out. All the barked orders, being treated like a peon, my scratchy polyester uniform, and to top it off I just got cracked in the family jewels because the wringer handle was wet! It was just too much!

I looked at him, tears welling in my eyes, and as emphatically and dramatically as I could, I sniffled “They don’t pay me enough to take this shit!”

Dad chuckled. “Yes, they do,” he said, “they’re paying you minimum wage.”

It wasn’t I wanted to hear. He might have said something else more concillatory and sympathetic. But later that day, as I slopped away with that mop, I thought about what he’d said. He was right. It was silly of me to think that I would have a life of luxury, only doing fun tasks, on my third day of work at a fast food joint.

It’s like that in the technical fields, in our cushy white-collar worlds. The first year I was a professional programmer, I spent hours separating the carbon paper and tractor feeds from thousand-page reports on 5-part fanfold paper. It wasn’t programming, but it was part of the job. As I got better as a programmer, my value as a programmer increased, and my boss assigned me report duty less and less.

I never thought that it was beneath me, either. I knew that different jobs had to be done, and that’s part of working on a team. My patience and learning paid off down the road.

Lessons for the working geek

  • Everybody has to start somewhere, but it's never at the top.
  • No task at your job is beneath you. If you have to string cable, you string cable.
  • Wisdom can come from anywhere. Sometimes that might even be a parent or boss, surprising as that may sound.
  • Stand on the side of the bucket opposite the wringer.

What low points did you have at the start of your geek career? What important work life lessons has your father taught you? Post them in comments below.