Ralph Pratt, My Career-Changing Mentor

My first professional job was in the M.I.S. (Management Information Systems – what they used to call IT) department at Washoe County, Nevada. I had a variety of responsibilities, including mainframe computer operations, backup tape librarian, programmer, and creator of training materials. I had developed software to track the hundreds of 9” magtape reels in the backup tape library in a language called MAPPER.

MAPPER was a bit like Excel and a bit like MS-Access. One could develop a variety of “lists” and even mimick some of the characteristics of a relational database management system. Also, various input forms, query forms, and reports could be developed. I maintained some MAPPER-based applications and wrote the tape library system to track the inventory of backup tapes, some of which were on long-term retention, as long as seven years.

I was one of the first MAPPER programmers at Washoe County, and was asked to teach a course on MAPPER programming to the other programmers in the department (about ten in all). The course was a two-day, all-day course in the M.I.S. training room. I took the programmers through all of the basics, and had them develop their own little application to get some hands-on practice. Two such courses were completed, and they went pretty well.

My boss’s boss, Ralph Pratt, was the operations manager at Washoe County M.I.S. Being in my mid-twenties, I considered him an old, crusty dude who was grumpy most of the time, and I considered him mostly unapproachable. I was not much of a relationship builder in those days. Anyway, Ralph called me into his office one day. He told me that he would like me to teach a modified version of the MAPPER course to the Washoe County Commissioners, the elected officials who oversee all county operations. The prospect of teaching this course to the commissioners was exciting and terrifying to me.

Ralph asked me to shut the door to his office. He told me that we would practice what it would be like to teach the course to the commissioners, who were all very non-technical. This was the time before the IBM PC, so the commissioners had little keyboard experience.

Ralph instructed me to begin the first course segment in his office in a role-playing exercise. I began to speak, and in my first or second sentence, Ralph barked, “Stop. You used a technical term – they won’t understand it. Start over.”

I started again, got a bit further, and then, “Stop.” Same reason.



We discussed for a moment. Leave all technical terms behind, Ralph told me.

I tried again and got a bit further.

Ralph stopped me half a dozen times or more. Our session lasted thirty or forty minutes.

In retrospect, this was the most valuable thirty minutes of my entire career.

This was the beginning of what I now call being “bilingual,” in an unconventional sense. When I use the term “bilingual,” I’m referring to the ability to speak to technologists in technical terms, and to speak to businesspeople in non-technical terms. Over many years, I would hone this skill in training and public speaking events, eventually writing numerous books on technology. I needed to explain complex technical concepts in easily-understood terms. I’ve gained the reputation of doing this well.

It all goes back to Ralph Pratt. Thanks, Ralph, and may you rest in peace.

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