I love my father.
Since I was 4, my father filled my life with gadgets and tech toys. But more importantly He was always, also, on the lookout for people who were already in the line of work that my father would have wanted me to be in. In the tech world.
Anytime my father came across anyone that had anything to do with computers, electronics, physics or math, he would make sure to befriend them and just as soon as that, he would invite them over for dinner or take me over to their place – to introduce his son (me, at ages 4 and above) to his new friends.
I had a buzzing social life. And most of it did NOT come from school. It came from all of these interesting meetings. I have met with physicists who would at the request of my father, explain to me their doctoral thesis. I met with musicians who would teach me to play. I met mathematicians who would introduce me to concepts in Math that were way above my
pay school-grade. I also met bikers, biker-gang members, car mechanics, political figures, rally organizers, artists and I would often stay with these folk for hours alone.
I don’t know if my father was getting away with getting me a babysitter, but heck, it was a lot of fun.
By the time I was 11, my Intel 486 Dx2, 8 MB RAM, 600 MB Hard Disk, Monochrome monitor running MS-DOS and later Windows 3.10 had taken over all my senses.
When I think back to how I figured out how to use that machine, it makes me realize how resilient and persistent kids are. I had no one to teach me what to do with it, I had no books, no ‘YouTube’ and certainly no Internet access. Yet, I remember spending hours on that thing. It was a mystery world, a puzzle and I had to figure it out.
Eventually, I did figure it out and I began teaching myself GW-Basic. It took me about a month to finally figure out how to write a successful If-Else statement. I still remember the day very well. The reason I tell you all this is to tell you how I ended up having a part-time job at the age of 13. All my computer tinkering got me really fast at typing. But, I did not learn it the ‘official way’.
I just got fast, because I did a lot of it. I was a 4 fingered machine. I would have thought, that is the fastest I could go. My father thought I was as fast as anyone (He always over-estimated my abilities). And then one day, he met yet another interesting person.
Abdulkareem was sitting across from my dad’s desk at the embassy of the state of Palestine. My father was commissioning and discussing with Abdulkareem about printing business cards for the embassy staff. While they were talking about the quantity, material and design, Abdulkareem probably said something about how he will ‘redo’ the design on the computer. And that was it. That was the only word my father needed to hear come out of that man’s mouth – and he became my father’s best friend!
Curious to know how he used computers in his printing world, he asked Abdulkareem if he could go with him to the shop to see how he designs the cards. And when Abdulkareem fired up his computer and began typing, touch-typing, all ten fingers, without looking at the damn keyboard, without mistakes, my father was hooked. He had to show me.
And as was customary, probably the very next day, right after school, my father came home, had lunch and asked me to come with him.
We parked our car outside of Munirka enclave, New Delhi. Then we began meandering through very narrow alleyways, to a super tiny shop. And in that shop, the moment you would enter it, there was a computer desk. And there was a printer right above it. A laser printer. I had never seen a printer before. I had never seen a laser printer before. This was going to be fun.
My father introduced me to Abdulkareem and told me to look at what he does with the computer. And he left. He probably went to buy vegetables and meat for my mom and probably to smoke his 11th cigarette of the day. I did not care. He did his father’s job. He got me to where I want to be!
I stood there, still in my school uniform observing diligently. And as soon as he began to touch-type, my jaws dropped. But that… was just the tip of the iceberg.
I did not say a word. I kept looking at the entire operation. People coming in, with instructions on how to fix a design or how to print a letter head or a business card and Abdulkareem would fire up one of the most iconic software for me back in the day, Aldus PageMaker 5.0. I would see him move blocks of text, zoom in and out of an endless landscape of white screen where he would with quick shortcuts and super fast mouse movements play with letters, designs, placements like it was no big deal.
He would make measurements to the 0.1 millimeter. And within 20 minutes, out would come the design on a ‘butter paper’ printed by that laser printer. The customer would look at the work, pay him money and promptly leave.
He then realized I had been standing there just staring at the screen for an hour (and he probably wrongly thought I was bored) so he asked me if I would like to play a game (solitaire, pingball or something).
But I said… no, I would like to try to type like you do!
I sat on his chair and opened notepad and began typing. After a few minutes he stopped me and said, you type well. I have never seen a young kid type so fast. But if you want to get faster, you have got to stop looking at the keyboard! And I looked at him, slightly confused and concerned and I said, “Wouldn’t I make a lot of mistakes?”. And he very wisely said, “Yes you would, but eventually, you would reduce your mistakes to the point that there are none.”
And a new world opened up before me. For weeks from then on, whenever I found myself in front of a computer (which was as frequently as I could be), I would practice typing. I had to get good. I wanted to go and show Abdulkareem how fast I got.
So a few days later, after probably hours of practice, I had a few questions I needed to ask this man.
On my way back from school the next day, while we were riding our school bus, I realized that one of the stops where the bus stopped was exactly where my father and I had parked our car!
I could NOT contain my excitement. I promptly looked at my sister and said, “Leena, I need to get down here, I have some ‘work'”. And she was like, “huh”…but before she could ask me anything, I screamed to the bus conductor and with the confidence of a businessman, I said, I need to get off here… I got some urgent work!
Nobody stopped me, nobody questioned my intentions, I was a man on a mission. I have no idea to this day, how a responsible school, a responsible teacher and a responsible bus conductor could just let me get down at a bus stop that is not mine.
I got down… and began meandering the same alleyways. I got lost… but I was not to give up. I kept going round and round into every corner and every alley like it was a game of super mario bros level 8 and I had to figure out a way out.
Eventually, I did. I reached Abdulkareem’s shop. He was not there. His workers who were busy screen-printing saw me and said, I should come later because he wasn’t there. BUT, I was a man on a mission. I sat down on the chair and I told them, I have some urgent work to do… I will wait for him here, while I complete my work.
And again, I got away with it!
This time though, I was feeling quite adventurous. And I saw that icon on his desktop. With a big P. Aldus PageMaker. And I double clicked it. And I tried to start typing. No letters appeared.
I closed it and tried again. But, nothing! I began doing what I always do. I started checking out every single menu option and button and trying them one by one.. till I finally got to the insert-textbox option.
And voila! I began practicing my typing skills. When Abdulkareem got back, I wonder if he was pissed off that someone else was at his machine. Poor guy could not have said anything to me.
I was his customer’s little son. His customer, who works at an embassy! God, was I lucky!
He saw my typing progress and began teaching me more. He explained how I need to use my thumb for space bars and how I shouldn’t move my hands around a lot. My brain was just filled with dopamine. I was learning as fast as you would these days train a machine-learning algorithm to detect cat pictures.
I just kept going. I was Neo, plugged into the matrix learning mode. And then it happened. A client walked in.
As soon as he explained the work to Abdulkareem, I started to get off the chair so that the maestro could do his work.
But, something way more fun happened!
He showed me the design and said, you do it! Oh boy! My first assignment. I placed a textbox in the middle of the screen and typed out the full contents of the design.
And then he began giving me instructions. Ctrl + i. Ctrl + t. Shift + Alt + A. And wow. What was happening. Harry Potter’s magic spells???
I was so high on keyboard shortcuts. Within 10 minutes, I had transformed my straight word-wrapped typing into a beautifully formatted invitation card.
He took over and completed the process and seeing how receptive I was, how eager I was, he continued explaining to me the process of his job. He explained the difference between pixels and mm units. He showed me how we could play with letter spacing, line spacing, font kernels.
He showed me how keyboard shortcuts coupled with mouse movements could make work so much faster.
I had to get Aldus PageMaker at home! I had to have this tool. So I asked him how I could have the same software at home. He went through his cabinet, pulled out a CD and said here you go!
And I realized my limitation. I did not have a computer with a CD-ROM! So, I told him so and he said, oh well, just keep coming here and I will teach you everything.
And every day on my way back from school, I would announce to the bus conductor my intent to go to work!
Over the next few months, I learned to use Corel Draw too! Vector graphics! But what was most exciting was learning the full lifecycle of screen-printing.
When Abdulkareem was busy typing boring letter heads or wedding invitations, I was in the store room with the printing guys. This is where I learned the beauty of work. Of diligent persistent constant work.
These guys would meticulously take butter-printed paper, stick it to a perforated sheath on a wooden frame.. soak it with chemicals to etch the ink on it… dry it out in the sun… bring it back and prep it for screen printing.
I was often tasked to go and collect the papers which will be used to print on. I was given shop numbers, order numbers, paper names, sizes, quantities and I would run to get it for them. I became their office boy.
I understood paper qualities, paper types, paper colors, paper sizes. I understood how to count quickly, to do random quality inspection.
And when I brought back the papers… the fun was about to begin.
They would teach me the art of mixing ink. The smell of paint and ink and toner was intoxicating. Probably literally. But I did not care! We would test out the new colors we would form, match it with our color swatch and fine tune it to perfection. And then we would proceed to do the labor work. The mechanical lifting of the frame, tucking in the paper, perfectly squared with the frame, pinning the frame down, dipping our squeegee rubber in the ink and make a quick clean swipe.
Oh, and before that, masking the areas that would have required a different color; for round 2.
I used to manually screen print 100’s of business cards, wedding cards and letterheads a day.
When Abdulkareem was out to deliver and/or tend to other business, I was next in command. I would make designs for clients, make corrections, take orders, charge the correct amount of money for work done and when it was a quiet time of the day, I would be busy helping the guys in the printing room, either sorting out printed papers, checking if they’ve dried or just mixing paint for them.
I don’t know when I stopped going to him. I think it was when I stumbled upon Visual Basic. Then a whole new world opened up for me. But the lessons I had learned were invaluable.
I learned to work with a team, to take instructions, to be accurate in my work. I learned to measure twice and cut once. I learned to queue my clients in the right order.
I learned to type. Touch type like a pro. I learned to use 2 of the most professional software tools of the time, Aldus PageMaker and CorelDraw.
I learned about printers, printing presses, offset printing, screen printing and everything in between. And I had a grand social life with all of these people in the process.
I was a part time employee at the age of 13. And it was probably one of the best times of my life!