Go west, young man

When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, Andreas Marx could be forgiven for being caught a little off guard. For many in Germany at the time, the events of November 1989 seemed a little surreal.

A subtle announcement made by an East German official that no visa would be required for visits to West Berlin went by almost unnoticed. “I didn’t believe it, I got home…and [my] landlady said ‘Mr. Marx, are you going to West Berlin?’ and I totally ignored it, walked to my room, set up my stuff and made some coffee,” he said. Given the fact he had been working on a plan to get out of East Germany, his own response, admittedly, was a bit surprising. He fell asleep and woke up to the radio going on about welcoming “our German brothers and sisters,” so he decided to see what was going on.

“So I walked through the wall and looked at the other side and said, ‘Hmm, so that is what it looks like from the other side…not really any deep thoughts about what had just happened,” he admitted.

Though he spent the night touring around Berlin, Marx was back at work by 7:00 the next morning. Though many East Berliners never looked back, most returned home, almost out of instinct, Marx said.

“That is how you were trained,” he explained.

Back at work, he and his friends decided to take the day off and tour West Berlin properly. He said there was some shock when they entered supermarkets to see up close what they had witnessed for years on West German television.

calgary bound

Today Marx works for SAS Institute Inc. in the Calgary office as a senior consultant specializing in data warehousing.

Marx and his wife came to Canada in the mid 1990s for a vacation and liked what they saw. One of his colleagues from the Heidleberg, Germany office of SAS, where Marx worked at the time, had moved to SAS’s Ottawa office and liked it on this side of the pond. Marx and his wife moved to Toronto in 1996 and then to Calgary in 1998.

“It just kind of happened,” Marx reflected. “There was no intent to move to Canada, but I think it is just part of my nature to move around.”

Marx’s link to Canada was more than an associate working here. His grandmother’s two brothers both moved to Canada, one prior to World War ll and the other after the war. They settled in Nanaimo, B.C.

Back to the time of the wall.

All East Germans were given (by the West German government) an annual stipend of 100 West German marks (about $65) to spend when they visited the West. Senior citizens, who were no longer valued as an integral part of the economy, could travel to the West but the younger generations were more or less forbidden to leave the cloak of the Iron Curtain.

For some time Marx, like thousands of other East Germans, was working on a way out

Running the boarder was never viewed as a smart move, since mine fields and barbed wire distinctly reduced the likelihood of success. The best way to leave was under false pretence, no easy task in a society as controlled as East Germany. One of the few groups, other than athletes, allowed to visit the West was the Communist youth organization. Marx’s plan was to move into this elite group until it got him a trip abroad. He admitted, though, that it would have been no easy task since he was adamant about not joining the Communist party.

“Once you were on one of those trips, you were gone,” he said rather matter-of-factly. “That was my plan.”

So when the wall did come tumbling down in late 1989, it could be viewed as nothing shy of serendipity.

But even then leaving the country was not exactly travelling the yellow brick road. To successfully leave Marx would need some western currency since the East German mark was essentially worthless outside of the iron curtain. The 100 West German marks he got that night crossing over to West Berlin were a start.

Growing up in the east

Marx was born in Zeitz, East Germany in 1965, four years after the Berlin Wall was hastily erected. Like many East Germans, he had relatives on both sides of the wall. His West German cousins were allowed to visit the east but he could not travel to the West. The wall was to keep people in, not out.

Early on, like many East Germans, Marx felt the presence of government everywhere. “I mean you had to play by the rules,” he said. “There were rules everywhere.”

One’s life plan was pretty much laid out from an early age. “If you took the higher class of education you had to be aware that it was harder and less rewarding,” Marx said, explaining the Communist-era belief that bus drivers should be paid as well as doctors.

Since neither Marx nor his parents were members of the Communist Party, the choices were not as great. “If you were a Communist party [member], and married with kids, you were number one,” Marx noted. Since he was none of those, he was batting zero for three. In fact, at 19 Marx almost lost his spot at the Chemnitz University of Technology in Chemnitz East Germany for refusing to join the party.

“This official guy pulled me into his office and said I was to join the Communist Party since the country was investing in me,” he explained.

Marx said it was not a fair return since, to him, they had nothing to do with each other. Marx called the guy’s bluff, and ultimately nothing was done and he was allowed to go to university.

One of his uncles had studied computers and Marx, as a hobby, liked to build circuits and radios. So information technology was a natural fit. He also saw it as a good foundation since it allowed him to study computer science, programming, hardware creation and design, math and physics.

Though the school lacked some computer hardware, it did have a very good library. Since much of what was being learned at the time was on a theoretical level, students could keep up, he explained.

“So as far as science literature was concerned, [the library] was excellent. You had access to all of the latest and greatest,” he said. One of his peers even did a diploma on 286 and 386 architecture back in the late 80s.

“We studied them, we just couldn’t implement them.”

on to berlin

Upon graduating in 1989, Marx had to sign up to work for three years at one of the companies on the government-sanctioned list of potential employers. Since he was not very “high on the food chain,” his choices were rather limited.

“A chemical plant in a polluted environment, to do some IT work, or a radio communications company in Berlin [were my choices],” Marx said. He choose the latter.

Originally he was developing circuits for short wave radios, but because the company had good connections there were computers available. Since tech support was more or less unavailable, Marx learned how to fix problems on his own.

“So that is how I got exposed to computers and programming, really hands-on,” he explained.

Not long after, the Berlin Wall fell and Marx was ready to move to the West. He started to look for a job and his father’s uncle in Heidleberg got him in touch with some West German employment agencies. Marx decided he wanted to get into software development but the companies in that domain were not hiring.

“My father drove me [around West Germany], he took vacation, I took vacation, nobody knew what I was up to,” Marx explained.

Ironically many of the companies told him, as an East German, he would not be able to handle the pressure of working in the West. Luckily for Marx, they were wrong.

SAS Germany invited him for an interview. The company was starting a small data centre operation and needed someone to run an internal help desk.

The company offered him a job which was, as he put it, “a foot in the door.”

His own curiosity led him to create a little database to track the repairs he was doing. Marx also picked the brains of the geeks at SAS. Over time he built up his skills in the client/server area and then eventually moved to consulting, where he remains today.

Originally Marx and his wife were going to stay in Canada for two years but five years later they are still here with no immediate plans of returning.