I’m 69 years old and I have a confession.
I’ve watched very little TV and I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything.
That’s why I’m surprised that a TV series, Halt and Catch Fire, has changed the dramatic arc of my life this late in the game.
It is the story of boomers in their prime who built the foundation for the modern world — personal computers, video games, social networks, the world-wide-web, internet search, and more.
And yet, what was the coming-of-age story for these people?
As I watched I could not help but remember my freshman year in 1970 at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. In Humanities 101 that was required of all students, Professor Peter Vari said:
“Let us begin with a question: What does it mean to be human? It is vitally important that you understand what it means to be human because the job of the engineer is to rebuild the modern world every generation. It is more important that you understand what it means to be human than the students in humanities departments because although they talk a good game, you get shit done and we all have to live in the world that you build.”
Contrast those words with these:
“The sole objective of the professional manager is to maximize the net present value of the wealth of the owners.”
Those were the first words out of my finance professor’s mouth a decade later as I began working on an MBA in Finance from New York University.
Because of what I learned at engineering school I knew this finance professor didn’t have a formula for business.
He had a formula for evil.
Business isn’t about maximizing anything for any one stakeholder, but rather keeping everyone satisfied: customers, employees, investors, vendors, creditors, regulators, the public — everyone. And owners come last, not first. That’s not a statement of moral or economic philosophy but rather a legal and accounting fact. It’s called retained earnings; a claim on what’s left over at the end of the day.
Engineers who know what it means to be human know that it’s not the NPV of the future that counts.
What counts is the future impact of what you are building today.
It seems many engineers have forgotten that, and so-called “financial engineers” are the worst offenders.
I know because my career arc took me to Wall Street in the 1980’s so I got to rub elbows with these folk. It’s telling that every single securities firm that I worked for between 1982 and 2014 has either been shut down by regulators because of nefarious activities or needed a government bailout because of spectacularly bad decisions.
That’s what happens when you concentrate on the present value of an imagined future rather than the future implications of what you are working on today. As Joe MacMillan in H&CF says, “Computers aren’t the thing, they are the thing that leads to the thing.”
Similarly, sub-prime mortgages aren’t the thing that gets you a bonus today. They are the thing that leads to the financial collapse in 2008. Student loans that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy aren’t the thing that gets you a degree today today. They are the thing that leads to the a million students who are considering never returning to college post-pandemic.
And, for me, Halt and Catch Fire isn’t the thing I merely watched, but the thing that led to an interest in screenwriting.
In 1963, my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Rieur, taught me that we must pay attention and learn not just in school during our Act I but also from life in Act II because in Act III we all must teach those coming up behind us otherwise civilization ceases to advance.
In 1966 I spent a summer with my granddad, who was a journalist, and my grandmother, who was an artist and entrepreneur. After listening to dozens of their stories of adventure — each of which had a lesson to teach — I asked them, “How can I live a life of adventure?”
“It’s easy,” my grandmother said. “When you have a choice, choose adventure. The problem is, most people think adventure is the thing that promises the most excitement. They are wrong. Adventure is the thing where you don’t know what is going to happen next.”
“Your job,” she continued, “is to have stories for your grandchildren. And remember, the worse it gets, the better the story.” Since then I’ve known my job in my old age would be to tell stories that will help young people make sense of the world we’ll be leaving them.
But, what’s the best way to tell such stories to the widest audience?
H&CF gave me the answer.
The series begins with slick visionary ex-IBM salesman, Joe MacMillan, walking into a class of young people and saying, “Let me start by asking you a question. How many of you desire to be computer engineers?”
The series ends more than a decade later (spoiler alert) with Joe MacMillan, now a professor of Humanities, walking into a class of young people and saying, “Let me start by asking you a question.”… fade to black. THE END.
“What does it mean to be human?” I blurted out, as my wife will attest. They were my professor’s words on my first day at college words that swirled around in my head for all four seasons — the obvious question that MacMillan must have asked.
It was in that moment that I had a vision of a new series that follows the lives of young people who all attended a class like the one I had freshman year at Rose. The engine behind H&CF is “Computers aren’t the thing; they are the thing that leads to the thing.” Similarly, the engine for the series that I envision is “Educators and technologists who don’t know what it means to be human can build a world that even they won’t want to live in.”
This strikes me as important because — tell me if you’ve noticed — we’ve become so good at automating everything that soon the only job left for us humans will be “being human.” Yet, who among us knows how to do that well?
Because of H&CF I’m studying screenwriting and I’m absolutely loving everything about it. A screenplay is an elegantly simple blueprint for a story and business all rolled into one, which is what I’ve been doing for half a century, just in a different medium.
Because I’m new to the industry, would you consider helping me? I can use readers who can give me notes and experts who can suggest leads on resources. I’d especially love to meet a TV writer or even a showrunner.
Because I just want to tell a story rather than launch a new career I am particularly interested in finding a young writing partner who is in the early stages of building their career.
P. S. If you’ve had anything to do with making Halt and Catch Fire I would absolutely love to meet you so I can thank you for changing my life.