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Autobiography: Lynn Torkelson

Lynn Torkelson, CFO of SoftMedia Artisans, Inc.My early life was so close to ideal that I cannot in good conscience hold it responsible for my later descent into the compulsive manipulation of ones and zeroes. The eldest of seven children, I grew up on the shores of beautiful Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior, a three-hour drive west of where I live today. The southerners we met as children came as summer tourists, and most of them were from Chicago. We observed with satisfaction that none of them could swim in Lake Superior as long as we could.

Our family life centered on music, school, religion, and the joy of taking on intellectual challenges. Humorous word play dominated most of our family discussions and, even though most of it was at my expense, I became permanently enamored of the power of language.

Discovering a Profession

In college I immersed myself in mathematics and other things. When one particular mathematics course required that I use a computer, my life changed forever. For one thing, the slight tendency toward obsession that had manifested itself during my childhood now emerged more strongly than ever. To minimize the time not available for programming, I began to eat all my meals in the computer room. As luck would have it, university rules prohibited me from sleeping there.

My favorite mathematics professor had once worked as a computer programmer for a major aviation manufacturer. He warned me about the kind of life awaiting anyone foolish enough to aspire to be a computer programmer for a large corporation.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I began work in Milwaukee as a computer programmer for the catalog division of offsite link.a large corporation. The company assigned me to a small group of IBM mainframe assembler programmers responsible for writing software utilities used by the much larger group of COBOL programmers. Soon my assignments expanded into writing software that handled high-speed (for that time) transmissions between the company's data centers. During that period I worked closely with some fine programmers and I naturally took advantage of the opportunity to study the features that made their code so robust and maintainable.

Learning While Earning

When I started my career, "structured programming" was revolutionizing our profession by describing the characteristics of reliable software modules. Soon modeling techniques evolved for breaking large problems into pieces amenable to the creation of reliable software modules. Organizations that measured productivity found that spending considerable up-front time in analysis and design paid huge dividends over the lifetime of a computer system—results that corroborated the evidence that we saw first-hand.

To keep up with advances in software engineering, a small group of us spent many of our off-hours devouring and discussing, often heatedly, the works of writers such as Constantine, Yourdon, Warnier, and Orr. Over time, improvements in software engineering progressed to the object-oriented programming techniques we use today. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Expanding My Horizons

Although I enjoyed programming immensely, after four years or so it became clear to me that our company was not realizing many of the savings possible through the proper engineering of our software. Our managers, many of them very bright people, had (correctly) arranged their lives to spend time with their families rather than immersing themselves in books and discussion groups about cost-effective software development. Therefore, despite what the programmers had learned—sometimes at company expense—our managers were not comfortable managing projects with substantial time commitments to analysis and design.

Never an introvert, I asked the company to consider me for a management career path rather than an increasingly technical one. Soon the company honored my wishes and I began supervising computer programmers. A couple of years later, I was managing supervisors.

During that period I continued to follow developments in software engineering, but I spent most of my study hours on management topics: project management, software engineering management, quality management, and general management. Some of the stuff was nonsense, but I found and used much practical material also.

Buying a Brand New Tool

Although my programming days with the company were over, I got in on the ground floor of personal computing. For $6500 (about the cost of a new car in those days) I purchased a micro-computer with 48K memory, a terminal with CRT and keyboard, some floppy disk drives, and an IBM Selectric typewriter equipped with solenoids to perform as a printer.

That computer allowed me to satisfy my continuing desire to program, and I could use it to program anything I wanted! What I wanted was good software support for my management tasks, so most of my programming now focused on developing tools for estimating, planning, and tracking projects.

Making the Big Move

A few months after I bought that first computer, Milwaukee was experiencing a particularly nasty winter. In a lull between blizzards, a visiting delegation from corporate headquarters in New York announced that the company planned to start a new systems department in Atlanta. I was one of those asked to move to Atlanta. As it happens, I had visited Atlanta once during February and did not need to wear my topcoat. I immediately agreed to move.

Starting a new department turned out to be hard, but fascinating, work, and I continued to advance up the management ladder. Although I had free rein to manage my area, I had hoped to influence the department to adopt good software engineering practices throughout. If events had followed a script written by me (as of course they never do), I'd have found myself in a team of managers working closely together in the pursuit of excellence—much as in my early programming days.

In reality, though, (and naturally so) experienced managers liked their customary methods and weren't particularly eager to adopt the unfamiliar practices advocated by a young technician. I found that I lacked the patience and the skills in persuasion to effect the changes that I thought necessary, and gradually decided that I wasn't making the best use of my time.

Adjusting Priorities

Shortly after moving to Atlanta, I found myself spending many of my off hours with another transplanted northerner, the lovely and talented Constance Petersen. Once again, my life changed forever. My idea of the good life gradually took on many new dimensions, and none of those dimensions involved spending long hours at the office. I decided to do my best to win her heart, and early in 1982 Constance and I married.

Now we're an old married couple with three young adult sons, but I still like spending time with her as much as ever. It's good that I do, because Constance and I are partners in work as well as in life.

Taking an Independent Path

By the middle of 1983, I'd had my fill of life in a large corporation. I left to become an independent software developer. Except for one four-year period, that's what I did until (and even after) Constance and I formed our own company.

During that exceptional four-year period, I joined a small, but rapidly growing, software company. There I managed the development of their newest software package, and later managed the department responsible for ensuring the high quality of all the company's software products. When a larger corporation swallowed up our company, I went back to independent software development.

Returning Home

In January of 1999, we completed our family's move to a home on the shores of Portage Lake, a couple miles south of Dollar Bay, Michigan and a short boat ride from Pequaming, where my great-grandparents met and married. This location puts us within easy driving distance of most of our extended family. And we can boat to majestic Lake Superior from our front yard. I wonder what the local swimmers are laughing at when they see me stumble, shivering, from the lake after I take a short dip...

Constance and I moved our company, SoftMedia Artisans, Inc., along with us. Our corporate clients are spread about the country from coast to coast and up to Alaska (Hawaii, are you listening?), and they don't care one bit where we work.

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