Not a lot of people work for the same company for 35 years.
Not a lot of people find a company to work for which uses their gifts, passions, and education to the fullest potential.
Not a lot of people experience success and recognition on a global scale during their career.
Not a lot of people change the world with their accomplishments and inventions.
Not a lot of people manage to be an amazing, involved, model father, husband, and volunteer, while also being a self-proclaimed “workaholic.”
But my Dad, Les Wilson, is one of those people. And today is the day of his retirement from IBM, 35 years to the day after he started in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where he wanted to work on defense projects to win the cold war. I’m in awe of my Dad, and I want to take a little time today to celebrate him! He is not a person who likes to toot his own horn, so I’m going to go ahead and toot it for him, if you don’t mind.
Many frequenters of this blog are already familiar with my Dad in his volunteer capacities – as Director of Video at church or Technical Arts/Production Director at school. You know how much he loves working with middle and high schoolers to teach them how to use technology in a creative way to solve problems and make mundane events turn epic. You might have seen him at school late on a Saturday night, scaling 2-story-high scaffolding, adjusting stage lights so that they will be perfectly aimed and colored for a specific scene in the upcoming high school musical. Maybe you were touched by one of his short documentary films shown in church, telling a story of a missionary engineer who built pipelines to bring clean water to thousands of people in rural Haiti. You might have admired his dedication for coming in at 7:15am every Friday morning to teach 12-year-old boys how to properly wrap microphone cables and run a sound board. You may have heard in passing about an online training session he conducted for missionaries living in Moldova or India. You might have wondered how he managed to fly a kite or a guitar through the air on an indoor school stage.
And, like me (his own daughter), you might have thought to yourself, “Does he actually have a day job, or does he volunteer full-time?”
The answer to that question is, “Yes.”
One of the hallmarks of Dad’s career from my perspective is that he managed to keep his home life unpolluted by the worries and cares of his work life at IBM. Granted, the company moved us cross-country three times, and there were a few scattered weeks in the 90s when Dad was working so late that he’d still be at the office in the wee hours of the morning. But my memories of growing up center around a loving father who attended all of my school events, took us on vacations, was home at 6:15pm for dinner every night, and was involved in guiding and shepherding the hearts of his family. Even after I’d gone to college and became a teacher, Dad’s most time-consuming volunteer efforts were the school productions in which I was also involved. But through most of the years that Dad was a software architect, I was either too young or too distracted to understand his current IBM projects. His career was not often in the forefront of my mind.
But today, on the day of his retirement, Dad and I sat down and had a two-hour-long cup of coffee. For the first time in my life, I asked him to tell me the story of that part of his world which had been obscured from my consciousness for too long. And beginning in 1978, he walked me through it, patiently, lovingly, and enthusiastically.
He talked about the transition from text-only computers to graphics based systems that had “windows.” He told me about what a revolutionary achievement it was when his team managed to perform graphics processing on a small graphics card instead of taking away processing power from the CPU. Dad recounted the struggle of integrating things like sound and video into a computer that was structured with neither of those things built in. And how they figured out how to not only play videos on a PC, but build into an operating system the ability to digitally create and edit video. They had succeeded in being the first to add features that we now take for granted, but at the time, they made IBM the first ones to make them available on regular computers.
He also told me about the times when his teams had done the impossible, broken into unchartered territory, produced what Academia had thought only theoretical, only to find the industry wasn’t quite ready and there wasn’t enough business sense to bring the project to market. Very common, but still a disappointment.
My Dad sometimes found himself a little too far ahead of his time.
In our two-hour heart-to-heart today, I learned a lot of things about my Dad that I never realized before. Not just about what he has accomplished in his career, but who he is as a person. Here are the three things that impacted me most:
• Don’t think of “work/life” balance as a pendulum – as if you either are in “work mode” (and neglect your family) or “home mode” (and neglect your work). View it as two dials – have your work life cranked up to the max, and have your home life cranked up to the max. Sometimes you may have to dial back one to compensate for the other, and that’s okay, but try not to always do one at the expense of the other.
• Always pursue what is right with everything you have inside of you, regardless of the outcome. If you have the opportunity to create or innovate something world-rocking, DO IT full-throttle ahead. Even if the literal bits and bytes you produce don’t end up on the store shelves, you will at least be requiring the competition to race after you. This is what drives the world to be a better place.
• At the end of the day…at the end of a career…what lives on the longest is captured in the people you influenced. Relationships are everything.
My career (motherhood) is in a different category. I may not ever really have a definitive “retirement.” But I am really, really thankful for the opportunity to celebrate my Dad’s career today! I know that there are a lot of people who lack a positive father figure in their lives, and I do not take mine for granted. He is the man I look up to most in the world, who has shaped who I am by more than just giving me his DNA. If it were possible, my respect and adoration for my earthly father increased to a new level even this morning.
By writing this post, I wanted to process everything Dad’s career has inspired me to do and be, and encourage you to live life today in such a way that you will be proud of how you spent your working hours and your “home hours.” My dad can look back on the past 35 years with an immense amount of pride and satisfaction, and I hope I can one day do the same!
P.S. If you are interested, you can read his memoirs of his career (written to an audience of fellow IBM-ers) here: