Professional Tradesman

1200px-1963_volvo_122s_b18_4-door_sedan_(2016-01-04)_02It is 1968.

I have just turned 16.

It’s a Saturday.

My father says, “Hop in the car.”

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“You’ll find out when we get there.” He drives. I sit in silence and look out the window.

“There” turns out to be Bolek’s Foreign Car Repair where Bolek is the Polish mechanic who services my parent’s blue Volvo 122S.

“This is my son,” my dad says. Bolek looks curious. “He needs to learn how to work and get his hands dirty. I’m going to drop him here every Saturday, and you give him something to do.”

Then my father takes a $100 bill from his wallet and says, “Don’t pay him anything; he isn’t worth anything. This is to cover any damage that he does.”

My dad drives off. Bolek looks at me blankly. Neither of us know what just happened.

Bolek looks around and spies a broom. “Here,” he says, “clean up the shop.”

On the way home my father says that every man needs both a trade and a profession.

He says most people don’t know the difference between the two, especially professionals.

A trade, he says, is where a craftsman sells his skilled labor for money. Tradesmen are limited in how much money they can make by the market value for their skills, the demand for those skills and the number of hours they can work. What a tradesman wants is an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

A professional, on the other hand, is paid for something quite different.

A professional, he says, is paid for putting the interests of others ahead of his own. You should always be honest in all your dealings and in most cases jump at the opportunity to put the interests of others ahead of your own because it usually pays better, but not always.

Sometimes the business you work for might be destroyed by so-called professional managers. At other times they can even destroy the whole economy.

During those times it is important to be a skilled craftsman so you can trade an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

I have no idea what he is talking about.


I graduated from Rutgers in 1974 with a degree in Mathematics and I got a job as a computer programmer. Starting in 1982 I went to school in the evenings and graduated with an MBA in Finance from NYU in 1986. Merrill Lynch hired me as a manager. It paid better than programming but was less soul-satisfying because the job mostly involved fighting for resources whereas previously I’d been a “resource” people fought over.

That job took me to Japan in 1990. While I was there the Nikkei dropped from above 38,000 to below 16,400. Then I was let go.

I returned to the States in August 1993 with a wife, two kids and no permanent place of residence. The economy was in recession and I found only one guy who was willing to talk to me. He said he had no jobs but he’d give me the opportunity to practice interviewing.


IBM_Model_M_Space_Saving_Keyboard.png“I’m sorry but we have no jobs,” he says. “We need programmers but we have a hiring freeze.”

“Then how does the work get done.”

“We use contractors,” he says.

“I’d work on a contract.”

“Are you incorporated,” he asks.

“No. Do you need me to be incorporated?”

“Yes, we do. I’m sorry to have wasted your time but we can’t hire you. Now I have a meeting to go to.”

“May I use your phone while you are gone.”


I call the 800 number for The Company Corporation.

I say, “I’d like to incorporate in Delaware.”

She says, “Will that be Visa or MasterCard.”

When the manager returns, I say, “I’m now Bravo Alpha, Incorporated.” I write my new Federal Employee ID number on a scrap of paper and slide it across the desk to him.

“I thought you said you weren’t incorporated.”

I say, “That was then. This is now.”

He says, “OK, how much do you want to make?”

I say, “One hundred dollars an hour.”

He says, “The most we pay is $87.50.”

I say, “I’ll take it.”

He says, “How do I know you are any good?”

I say, “I guarantee my work. If at the end of the month you don’t think I am worth what I billed you then cross off my number and write in any number you want, including zero.”

He says, “When can you start.”

I say, “A week from Monday.”

He says, “Good.”

Two weeks after I was hired he was fired. There wasn’t enough money for both of us so they decided to keep the guy who was doing the work.

Boy, it felt good to be a tradesman again.


by Brooke Allen

In February of 2014 I retired after 30 years of navigating the moral minefield that we call Wall Street.

I was looking forward to a stress-free retirement.

Fat chance.

My problems began when I spent the month of August, 2014 in Edinburgh for the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The summer I was there 23,762 performers from 51 countries put on 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues.

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I owe EVERYTHING to some funny symbols.


The only thing I’ve ever been expert at is programming in a language called APL that requires a special keyboard just to type the weird symbols that it uses. This is how it  happened…

In the Fall of 1972 I took a class that introduced me to APL two weeks before the semester ended at which time the computing center took the language off the mainframe rather than pay $5,000/month to IBM in licensing fees. But I’d fallen in love with the language and I really wanted to continue learning so I wrote to Ken Iverson who invented APL and who had just published a high school algebra text using the language. I asked if I were to round up 10 students for a free summer course using his book would he give me 10 copies. He sent 11 and a note saying I’d forgotten to ask for one for myself.

It only took a day to find 10 students to give me their summers so next I asked IBM if they would waive the license fee. They did and then I told the computing center they were the only missing piece and so they let me use their computers for free. That is how I began learning APL one chapter ahead of a bunch of high school students.

That landed me a student work-study job at the computing center in the spring and later when my boss left I got her full-time job in the fall of my senior year. I worked for a pittance at the university for nearly four years after graduating and it was by maintaining code and teaching classes that I became good enough to land a job in operations research at American Airlines. When they moved headquarters from New York City to Dallas I took a job with a small systems house where I got to see the inner workings of a few businesses. When I completed an MBA at NYU I was a middling student but an awesome programmer.

When Merrill offered a full-time job at Merrill Lynch in 1986 it was to write programs, not to build a career in trading or management. Everything I’ve done since has involved APL including all the software I wrote to support the trading desk I built and ran for the last 18 years. APL has made me rich.

So, if you want to become expert in the only thing I learned really well then do what I did and – lucky for you – today it will take half the time and cost virtually nothing. Simply download the APL Manual for free and get yourself a cheap copy of the language interpreter. Get to work using it for 7-10 hours a day for the next four or five years and see where that takes you.

Before you whine that you will only do all that work if you know where it is going then you must know that the only way I got to where I am today is because I wasn’t afraid and I didn’t care where I was going. I learned APL because I could not help myself – it was that cool.

Should Caring Be Part of Every Job description?

About a decade ago someone in accounting, or personnel, or wherever, asked me for job titles.

I said, “We don’t have job titles in our group.”

She went away.

Soon she was back saying that a new policy required that we have job titles, and that I had to give them some.

I said, “I can’t think of any.”

She said, “Make something up.”

I said, “OK, we’re all Senior Executive Vice Presidents.”

She went away.

She was back the following day saying, “Those titles won’t do. Nobody in your group is a vice president, senior, executive, or otherwise. Besides, we need functional titles.”

“As opposed to bullshit ones?” I asked.

She didn’t laugh but waited around until I came up with some stuff… Group Head (me), Analyst, Programmer, Trader … make that Senior Trader (never mind that we don’t have any junior ones)… I don’t remember and don’t care, although I can now find out if need be by asking everyone in my group for their new business cards.

Since our first day in the mid-1990′s, we have had a daily checklist, similar to what pilots find in airplane cockpits and janitors find on bathroom walls: do this by 8:15, start that computer before this one, run that program, file this report by 5:00, etc. The checklist gets updated as needed and has gone from perhaps 15 items to over 50 in 16 years.

A while ago our organization was restructured to come under a German parent, which meant that now we became subject to new regulators and rules. Auditors from Frankfurt arrived and were very impressed at the length and detail of our check-list, and apparently it got a glowing stamp of approval.

But they were back, and with a frown, said, “We can’t find your job descriptions.”

I said, “That’s because we don’t have any.”

“That won’t do; how can you run a business like that?”

I pointed out that we’d been doing fine for over a decade, but they would have none of it, and demanded something pronto.

I said, “We all do what needs to be done.”

They were not amused. They gave me a sample of what they wanted that looked like a checklist for somebody else. I complained to someone in compliance, and she explained that we must now comply with new German risk rules that require detailed job descriptions, among other things.

So we complied and divided up the checklist, assigning things by who does what. They were satisfied and went away.

However, the German regulators, (who are “principles based,” rather than “rules based” as are the regulators in the USA), our management, and everyone in our group all know that compliance with rules isn’t enough, and faithfully following a task list alone isn’t really doing your job.

We have a mission statement specific to our group which states, “Our goal as a group is to act such that every person associated with our endeavor will feel that at the end of the day they were better for it.”

We have a detailed document itemizing who exactly those people are, and we update it when stakeholders change. We document our principles and values, and update them too, although infrequently, since they seldom change. We have procedure manuals that remind us of how to do things, policy manuals that tell us what and why, and checklists that help us remember when to do things, and document when we forget.

But a job description is not doing its job if it only lists tasks better itemized in a checklist.

In essence, we all have only one job description, and that is “to care.”

All jobs and their descriptions must begin with an understanding of what it means to care, about what, and for whom.