One Chapter Of Many, From My Life: MIT Undergrad

Note: In the Innovation section of this blog I posted six chapters briefly describing my life, from youth through my Wall Street days. As a sample, I’m posting one of these chapters, the one covering the possible influences of my MIT undergrad period on my later career. Blogs describing my experiences at Gartner, Soundview, Giga, and currently, will eventually be posted in the Gartner, Inc. category and elsewhere.

MIT 1952-1956

Gideon Gartner on the MIT experienceAt MIT as a freshman, I quit the orchestra after one year due to academic pressures. From the beginning of my MIT freshman year, the European, South American, and even Israeli students (there were few Asians then) were light years ahead ahead of the Americans. In fact, I was so pressured and backlogged all the time academically, I felt I had to come up with ways to save time, and I did. For example,  I experimented with my sleep habits in order to reduce the number of hours required per night by waking myself up at 3 am each morning to work for one quiet hour followed by a bit more sleep, thus surviving on less than six hours. That experimental initiative lasted one month! I  more successfully figured out how to fast-shave with a razor in 12 short strokes and shower in 10 seconds; minor savings and generally ridiculous but possibly indicative of my personality. Essentially I was questioning the status quo in bathroom habits in order to generate more time for studies!

As a still introverted freshman I was amazed, and in retrospect, influenced by the pranks that were constantly being perpetrated by other MIT students (MIT is quite renowned for its student’s pranks and there are several books describing these, e.g. “Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT”). For better or worse I evolved into being somewhat aggressive for the first time, although not nearly in the same league as the major pranksters, who in retrospect seem ludicrous but which may have subtly affected my future. My pranks were relatively trivial, not at all like the metal testicles which the “Jolly Boys” welded to  the John Harvard statue in Harvard Square, or their dressing up as auxiliary policemen and bringing traffic at Boylston and Tremont to a grinding halt, and so forth ad infinitum. An example of my developing extrovert initiatives: I created a short length of music tape upon which I recorded and played continuous repetitive and very loud sounds of belching or of barking dogs. I owned large speakers which I placed at my window, and I broadcast the tape loops across the MIT East Campus (at appropriate times of course). I also developed some sense of humor for the first time, sometimes even arguably strange (or mean?). I recall a discussion with an MIT classmate who was very smart but with zero sense of proportion; we were deciding where to play a chess game on East Campus with the late spring sun shining bright. Should we play chess in the courtyard, or on the roof of our three-story dorm? Jerry wished to play in the courtyard, and I wished to play on the roof. “Why”, he asked? “Because I’ll get a better suntan”, I responded. He insisted that my tan would be the same in the courtyard as on the roof, but I pointed out that we would be closer to the sun on the roof, and we continued to argue the point! My analysis was obvious, no?

One day when the Metropolitan Opera was performing at a Boston theatre and was sold out, I found the nerve to climb the theatre fire escape, and “sneaked” in. Another time, sitting in the balcony at a Boston Symphony concert in Symphony Hall, I saw two empty front orchestra seats; at intermission I ran down to grab the seats but found someone else just sitting down in them, but I guessed that they had the same idea. I asked to see their tickets and they quickly departed, embarrassed. Was I guilty? I trust this was not criminal, just somewhat opportunistic! My big entertainment those days was attending every Boston Symphony dress rehearsal on Thursday evenings, standing on line early and rushing to grab the best seats (first balcony, first row, right above the stage). Charles Munch was usually conducting, and I learned the names of all the first chairs, especially the horns, but essentially I had my books with me and managed to study some.

Perhaps during this period I also developed some level of opportunism. At MIT I took my first business chances, which I now recognize as possible early signs of a future entrepreneurial career. These included  starting a sandwich business on East Campus to provide me with extra cash. My food source was the Harvard Square take-out shop called Elsie’s which made the best roast beef sandwiches ever! I also worked with a Swiss classmate friend to obtain the U.S. distribution rights to a well known diary system called the “Seven Star Diary” which had near 100% penetration in its Netherlands home base, somewhat less in Great Britain, and virtually nothing in the U.S. (today, many firms have licensed its terrific characteristics)! We failed. I also designed and built a product called ”Solo Chess”, its general concept admittedly inspired from the combination of an instructional bridge device (then called Auto Bridge) and a Chess Review Magazine column where the reader was asked to guess each “next” move, and was graded. My “invention” was an aluminum device I had fabricated in a shop, which similarly facilitated the learning process, but after interesting the chess grandmaster and ex-U.S. champion Sammy Reshevsky in lending his name to the innovation I dropped the Solo Chess project because of my MIT workload. Similarly, after a semester I dropped the sandwich business. Bottom line: regardless of my insane workload, I pursued several business opportunities, and must have learned important lessons in the process!

Perhaps my background should include the various part-time jobs which possibly affected my career, like working a deal with the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC which agreed to hire me as an occasional “super” (supernumerary, those who are extras onstage carrying spears and the like). In the summer I also worked as a vendor at Ebbets Field home of the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, with Lloyd (his last name withheld to protect the guilty) a classmate from both Midwood High and M.I.T.  The franks and beer were sold by the older regulars, we were assigned the cheaper ice cream, peanuts and orange drink. A large and heavy tank strapped on our back contained the orange drink, with a spigot up front. We’d dispense a paper cup with our right hand, and work the spigot valve with our left hand. One afternoon Lloyd, who was always off-the-wall and a certified MIT prankster, had to suffer a Dodger fan complaining, “this orange drink tastes like piss”. Lloyd went to the bathroom, urinated in the tank, and proceeded to sell the contents. Suffering such internal embarrassment was the exception, not the rule. I simultaneously had to buckle down and “cram” hard, even in summer, to fulfill my Dad’s expectations and not embarrass myself when I returned to school. But all the seemingly external and insignificant activities  (not including Lloyd’s disguisting caper) may have contributed to entrepreneurial inclinations in that they were light years different than my MIT studies, were activist in nature, and possibly or even likely served as preconditions to what was to follow. Of course, making it to MIT itself and surviving, was the most important precondition of all.

Most of my Mechanical Engineering courses at MIT bored me to tears, except for one called “Creativity”, which possibly was a long-term influence. We were given a 300-page manual describing a fictitious planet called Arcturus IV which was similar to, but which possessed different characteristics than earth, e.g. gravitational pull, soil and atmospheric characteristics, plus weirdly conceived inhabitants. Our task was to design furniture, farm implements and so on for the Arcturians, considering the fresh set of physical laws which we were dealt. The course was clearly designed to push us beyond the framework of standard thinking. It’s quite possible that this course alone had some influence on my thought processes, as the writer Lisa McGurrin, in an article about me called “A Wild Duck Who Doesn’t Follow the Leader”, wrote “creativity took precedence over accepted beliefs and going out on a limb was invariably more attractive than security”.

During my junior year, now on MIT’s “cooperative” program, I took extra courses in the first semester, and worked at Curtiss Wright Corporation during the second semester and through the summer (CW was designer/manufacturer of large jet engines). A year later after finally obtaining my BS in Mechanical Engineering with an average but respectable 3.65 “Cum” (which stands for Cumulative Average….but before you commend me, note that at MIT the “Cum” is divided by 5, not 4, so I was between B and B-) I began career interviewing. I was turned down for a job at Burroughs Corporation, but immediately Curtiss Wright asked me to return, and despite the fact that I already hated the idea of being a mechanical engineer, I reluctantly acceded and withdrew from the interviewing nightmare my classmates were suffering. Within the first month working  I designed a simple solution to measure the clearance between a jet turbine blade and its housing, during tests of the engine designs. Despite some weak kudos, I was nevertheless very depressed because of my job, my long commute from Brooklyn to Woodridge New Jersey, and my seemingly hazy future.

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