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Working Remotely in 1990

I began work­ing remote­ly in 1990. You read that right — 34 years ago as I write this arti­cle. There was no inter­net ser­vice where I was. There were few remote access tools, and I did­n’t have access to any that did exist. What was it like to work from home back then?

The Reason

In ear­ly 1990, my hus­band accept­ed a new job with a firm that hap­pened to be 150 miles away from the MTW offices in Atlanta. Hel­lo, South Georgia. 

Since 1987, I had worked for Mis­sion to the World, the for­eign mis­sions board of the Pres­by­ter­ian Church in Amer­i­ca. I ran their self-insured health insur­ance fund, pro­cess­ing claims, sub­mit­ting claims to the stop-loss insur­er, doing all the account­ing, and main­tain­ing oth­er records. I reg­u­lar­ly ran ben­e­fit ori­en­ta­tion and enroll­ment ses­sions for 50 or more mis­sion­ar­ies. (The board had 400+ mis­sion­ary fam­i­lies enrolled at any giv­en time.) I was also involved in a project to devel­op soft­ware to keep the fund’s records and inter­face with the orga­ni­za­tion’s account­ing soft­ware. I col­lab­o­rat­ed with the out­side devel­op­er and MTW’s IT direc­tor on the project. It was a very spe­cial­ized role. My pre­de­ces­sor, who ran the fund from short­ly after its incep­tion in the ear­ly ’70s until I took over, trained me and then retired.

I had few job prospects in South Geor­gia, and MTW did­n’t have any­one avail­able who was will­ing and able to run the fund in my place. (I had an assis­tant, but she flat­ly declared that she had no inter­est in tak­ing over.)

I sub­mit­ted a pro­pos­al to MTW. I would con­tin­ue run­ning the fund as an inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor from our home in south Geor­gia. The only thing that would change, as far as most peo­ple were con­cerned, was the mail­ing address and phone num­ber for the fund. I would have a job, and they would­n’t have an inter­rup­tion in fund admin­is­tra­tion. They agreed, so I got started.

The Equipment

After a crash course on com­put­er hard­ware and soft­ware, I bought my first PC. It was a Gate­way 386DX. I added a dot-matrix print­er, and after see­ing its (lack of) qual­i­ty I added an HP Laser­jet IIP). I got a 2400 baud modem so I could do data entry and send fax­es, which were very impor­tant at the time. A pho­to­copi­er and a postage machine round­ed out the office equipment.

I had to dual-boot MS-DOS with OS/2 because of some require­ment from the devel­op­er on that soft­ware project, but that was­n’t too painful after a brief learn­ing curve. Installing OS/2 required swap­ping the A (5–1/4″ flop­py) dri­ve with the B (3–1/2″ flop­py) dri­ve, which was a fun lit­tle task for a new PC user. I was ter­ri­fied of let­ting the mag­ic smoke out when I opened the com­put­er’s case that first time! Had I still been in Atlanta, I would have left all of that up to my father, who was pret­ty tech­ni­cal. Being 150 miles from him or any of the oth­er geeks I knew, I had to be independent.

I adjust­ed eas­i­ly to using a PC instead of a dumb ter­mi­nal. Even the MS-DOS-based ver­sions of Microsoft Word and Excel were much bet­ter than the word pro­cess­ing and spread­sheet pro­grams avail­able on the mis­sion board­’s VAX-8250. (I tried out Word­Per­fect and Lotus 1–2‑3, but pre­ferred the Microsoft pro­grams over­all.) Win­dows 3.0 was released that year, and it added the abil­i­ty to switch between appli­ca­tions. That was convenient!

I was ready for busi­ness after set­ting up a desk and file cab­i­nets, get­ting voice and fax phone lines installed, and rent­ing a post office box.

The Actual Work

Pro­cess­ing the claims from home was­n’t dif­fi­cult at all, as I had all my ref­er­ence books around me. It involved lots of pho­to­copy­ing, but that had been true in the office, too. Arrang­ing for pay­ment of the claims required log­ging in to MTW’s VAX-8250 via modem to do data entry. Because long-dis­tance rates were much low­er at night, I’d wait until after din­ner to do that each evening.

Each morn­ing, I drove to the local post office and picked up the mail, then went back home and processed the claims. Once a week, I drove back to Atlanta with pho­to­copies of the claims that need­ed to be paid, print­ed a batch of checks at MTW’s head­quar­ters, and got them signed. I would stay the night with my par­ents, then dri­ve back to South Geor­gia to mail the checks.

Since there was noth­ing like Slack or Teams, I relied on the phone and week­ly vis­its to stay in touch with my co-work­ers. The VAX-8250 had email on it, but MTW did­n’t use it. When mem­os came out, a sec­re­tary faxed or mailed them to me. Iso­la­tion set in quickly.

Transition to Geekery

I knew about BBSs thanks to an old friend who was an expe­ri­enced PC user. I start­ed log­ging in to them for some much-need­ed social con­tact. I soon learned about Q‑Link (pre­cur­sor to AOL), Prodi­gy, and Com­puServe. I tried all three, but only Q‑Link (soon rebrand­ed to Amer­i­ca Online) had a local dial-in num­ber, so that’s the one I was able to stick with despite Com­puServe being more inter­est­ing overall.

I was one of the founders of a local PC user group, which led to my first tech­nol­o­gy con­sult­ing job. I soon found that doing any­thing com­put­er-relat­ed was much more inter­est­ing than run­ning the insur­ance fund. I kept doing that, of course (until late 1992, anyway).

When I returned to Atlanta in 1993, I did­n’t have the con­fi­dence to seek a job in tech yet. I worked anoth­er two years in admin­is­tra­tive roles. I also did more and more tech­ni­cal con­sult­ing and train­ing on the side. Soon after return­ing to Atlanta, I start­ed doing tech­ni­cal sup­port on AOL in exchange for a free account (you had to pay by the minute back then, oth­er­wise). I final­ly tran­si­tioned to my first tech job in 1995, doing tech sup­port at my ISP, Mind­Spring Enterprises.