A woman who made her way in a computer world

I can count on one hand the number of times my mother accessed the Internet, and I’d still have a few fingers left over. It was among my failures as her son that I never set her up with a decent computer, let alone a broadband connection. Not that she complained, mind you. As far as she was concerned, I was her personal ISP.

“There’s a craft show going on in Toronto next month,” she’d say over the phone. “WWW that for me, will ya?” Google would be relieved that she used the entire World Wide Web, and not just its search engine, as a verb.

It occurs to me that my mother was among the last of her kind in terms of users applying technology to business processes. Yes, she was a Baby Boomer, but she was also among that sizeable portion of the installed base who had never really installed, if you know what I mean. She was afraid of technology and – unlike laters generations who pretend we know what we’re doing with any application or device – was unafraid to voice her concerns about it.

Although she considered raising children her primary mission in life, after my brother and I had been in school for a few years she decided to re-enter the work force. She got a job with a rental office as a bookkeeper, where she was primarily responsible for accounts payable and receivable. It wasn’t long, however, before computers entered the office, and manual ways of doing things were on their way out. Like so many users before (and after) her, my mother resisted the transition.

“I don’t want to use them. I don’t want to learn,” she told me at the time. “I just can’t get this stuff, Shane.” I tried to assure her she could, but it was too late. Her immediate supervisor (whom she disliked) took the requisite computer training and therefore took over some of her favourite duties. She was left with the grunt work, and she resented the technology as much as the staffer who shut her out.

Later, she took a job at a call centre near my hometown, selling everything from books to pantyhose using a customer relationship management system that sounded a lot like Pivotal. “I don’t think I’m going to last a week,” she said, before going on to work there for the better part of seven years. “I don’t think I can do the computer.” By “do the computer,” she meant learn the applications and the operating system. This was someone who had never seen Microsoft Windows, someone who had never even used a word processor, by the year 1999. Her boss (a great one this time) promised her she would not only get the hang of it, but that she would be showing others before too long. He was right.

Susan Lorraine Schick died last week at the age of 59, leaving behind an army of friends and co-workers who were grateful to her for helping them get adjusted to their job. “She didn’t just teach me the computer, she showed me how to sell,” many of them told me at her funeral. Mom never really saw technology as an end in itself. She recognized it for the tool it was and her pride in mastering it was something that few IT managers, unfortunately, will likely experience in the future.

Mom’s success with the computer gave her self-confidence, the respect of her peers and the ability to generate considerable revenue for her company. For all the talk about IT failures being caused by people problems, we seldom look at the people who overcome those problems. To my mother’s great and enduring surprise, she was one of them.

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