Leo Delperdang has been sharpening his IT skills for 20 years as a hobbyist, college student and de facto IT administrator.
A self-taught computer hobbyist, Delperdang's home tinkering paid off in the early 1990s when his employer, Tredegar Industries, a plastics manufacturing plant in Manchester, Iowa, asked him to help oversee the company network and workstations. Delperdang was a production technician, but his foreman considered Delperdang the resident computer expert. When necessary during his shift, Delperdang assisted the IT department and monitored the AS/400 network with a PC that ran Windows 3.1 and later Windows 95.
"I had become the expert who knew everything, only because no one else cared to learn more than how to run a game or word processing program," he said.
Despite his IT knowledge, Delperdang, 52, doesn't earn a living working with computers today. He does janitorial work and spends time managing a local charity, Fraternal Order of Eagles. Things didn't go as Delperdang planned.
Delperdang first started playing with computers in the early 1980s, when he bought his teenage son a Commodore VIC-20 for Christmas. Before putting the gift under the tree, Delperdang learned the operating system. He was hooked and wanted to know more about this new "toy." Delperdang rushed out to buy his own Commodore 64. Along the way, he upgraded the system from a tape drive to a 5 1/4-inch floppy drive and then to a 3 1/2-inch floppy drive. Eventually, he set up the Commodore 64 with a graphical user interface and Berkeley GEOS.
"GEOS was completely floppy disk-based and ran on the 64-kilobyte system," Delperdang said. "I doubt that Microsoft was ever capable of such tight coding with Windows."
He wanted to add a numeric keypad to the Commodore 64. Delperdang bought a dumb keypad, plugged it into the joystick port and wrote a small program to return the values of each number key to assign a hex value (0-9 and A-F) to corresponding keys.
"Using the operational keys on the pad, I was able to write a routine module that returned all 16 hex values, and then I inserted the routine into the compiler," he said.
He picked up programming tips from computer hobby magazines like Compute!, Compute's Gazette, Run and Ahoy.
Delperdang's next computer was an Amiga 500, which ran Amiga DOS. He upgraded it to 8M bytes of RAM, installed a 2 1/2-inch hard drive onto the motherboard, and plugged in an external IDE controller.
One of his first troubleshooting experiences was when he solved a printer problem by replacing an Amiga controller chip.
"I became the computer guru with the people I knew," Delperdang said. "I used MaxiPlan on the Amiga to research and answer questions about Lotus 1-2-3, including installation and printing routines."
A work colleague trusted him to install a Sound Blaster card in his PC, even though Delperdang had never seen the inside of an Intel system.
"The card did not fit into the expansion slot, so I shaved the ends of the card to make it fractionally smaller," he said. "Then I manually decompressed and installed files that the installer program failed to install."
During the late 1980s, Delperdang bought a 386SX-16 for home to better understand the computers at the plastics plant. Around 1990, he purchased his first modem, 2800 baud. Next was a Radio Shack handheld computer that be brought to the plastics plant to simplify his work. Delperdang wrote small programs for the handheld that helped match varying plastics orders with correct measurements. The computer helped him avoid math errors.
"Even the old man on the shift discovered that my little computer was a useful tool and would borrow it when he had an order change," Delperdang said.
The next computing challenge was to assist with the monitoring of Tredegar Industries' new network of AS/400 machines, but that was his last professional IT opportunity.
Job loss forces change
On July 31, 2000, Tredegar Industries closed its Manchester plant, and Delperdang lost a manufacturing job he'd held for 25 years. A severance check allowed him to custom build a computer, an Athlon 700, and go to school.
Delperdang enrolled in the computer network program at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, Iowa, where he flirted with a 4.0 grade point average. He graduated with a 3.6 GPA and an associate's degree in applied science.
But after graduation, the recession was in full swing, and the IT job market in Manchester remains tight. Delperdang still hopes to be part of an IT department, where he'd like to help users with tech issues and continue to learn about computer technology.
Twenty years after he bought his son a Commodore VIC-20, he can troubleshoot an AS/400 network and Windows, NetWare and Linux workstations. His home computer dual boots Windows 98 and SuSE Linux 8.0.
"I understand that the stress level can be high in the IT field, but to me it just means the challenge is occasionally tougher and more satisfying to solve," Delperdang said. Plus, he's ready for the hours: "After 25 years of swing shifts, there are no hours that are foreign to me."
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