Flower Children in the Chamber of Commerce
by Shelly Masar
Originally published in The Octopus: Champaign-Urbana's Alternative Weekly, June 4, 1999
It's easy to imagine that two stars shone the night Sigfried Gold was born. One, red-hued, would beam down alternative vision; the other blue-white, would aim rays of hardcore realism. When his sister was born a few years later, the stars would rekindle again, in reverse order.
Or perhaps it was not the stars but genetics. Sigfried Gold and Lori Gold-Patterson, born in the '60s to a radically liberal UI professor and his similar-minded wife, inherited big hearts and good heads. As adults, they have put it all together: idealism and high-tech commerce.
The brother/sister team heads up an informationtechnology consulting firm, On the Job Consulting, Incorporated (OJC), located in downtown Urbana. Sig, only half-facetiously, describes OJC as "a kind of Morrow Plots on the socio-technological landscape, hybridizing the traditional data-services firm with a kind of radical cooperative." In Lori's words, "The bottom line is that we deliver quality software to our clients for better than reasonable prices." In the pest year OJC has completed programming projects for the Center for Children's Books, the Ul Department of Agriculture, the Illinois Math and Science Academy, and Music Browser, Incorporated. "All of our clients have come back to us with more work," Sig says.
But there is a bottom line beneath the bottom line. In Sig's words, OJC was founded "to further a society that promotes the life, health, happiness, creativity, and selfdetermination of all people rather than privileging the powerful and fortunate." To do this, OJC reaches out to the people who are likely to create such a society: artists and activists. In addition to its for-profit consulting work, OJC offers free computer training to technophobe and naturalborn computer genius alike. Sig explains that the purpose of the training is to give good-hearted, committed people "the skills necessary to support themselves with highly paid part-time work."
The classes, tutorials, and projects are taught by seasoned programmers and corporate professionals through a program known as CLAM (Computer Learning and Mentoring). The stated mission of CLAM includes fostering an environment in which people share their knowledge and interests, and turning "the daunting task of learning to program into a challenging game.amongst friends."
Yes, the classes are free. These days, the idea of something for nothing stirs up suspicion. But, Sig explains, "The training program is a way to get to know good people who might eventually work for OJC. The teachers teach for free, because they enjoy teaching. It hones their communication skills. They feel good about empowering people with skills that will increase the amount of leisure time they have in which to do socially productive things that are not remunerated."
The hybrid of polished profit-making and an ideology of "from each according to ability, to each according to need" comes naturally to Sig and Lori. In its May 14, 1999, issue, The Octopus ran a story about the cooperative ventures of the '70s that eventually evolved into the trendy granola-bin grocery store Strawberry Fields. The story included a photograph of the co-op community and their dogs. Just left of center sit Ronna and Marc Gold, and their two young children, Sigfried and Lori.
Sig smiles at the memory of his father's career achievement. Marc Gold, a professor of psychology, pioneered a way to offer mentally handicapped people financial independence via the emerging high-tech industry: He trained his special clients to put together electronic circuit boards. The high factory wages they earned enabled them to move out of sheltered workshops into assisted-living situations. Sig recognizes irony in the profound challenge computers pose for some of OJC's artist/activist students.
Sigfried understands. He completed an MFA in creative writing in 1987 and fell headlong into the real world. "I got out of [East Coast private college] Sarah Lawrence with $20,000 of student loans that I couldn't pay back. I had no skills;" he says. He took a job as a bookstore clerk in Grand Gntral Station, lived on the Lower East Side, and made $~ a year. Teaching jobs, which was all I was trained for, were impossible to find. Friends taught composition in community colleges, and they fought like hell to get those jobs and made very little money. The choice seemed to be between following some lucrative career path or doing something important like writing, or political activism. I chose the latter and ended up in debt."
Sig took a job as a secretary in New York City's Victim Services Agency, where he begged his boss to let him try programming. When the programming staff quit, it fell to Sig to create an application to track victims of domestic violence. It took him a year to teach himself the hardware, the operating system, and the database programming language. It was a sizable application, but these days, Gold says, "I could do it in a month."
Sig stresses that he got into programming because it allowed him to do other things. But his friends thought he had sold out. "I had to convince them that my real work in life would be served by having a career that would pay me well and not take up all my time."
In 1996, Sigfried moved back to Champaign. It was clear to him that the many projects he was being hired to do would be easier if he were not working alone. Returning to his roots, he decided to form a programmers cooperative. In the summer of '90, the circumstances were right and pieces fell into place: "I had more work than I could handle, including jobs at the university and lucrative ($75-an-hour) offers in Chicago." Sig decided to pass on his local jobs (paying about $20 an hour) to his friends brilliant poor people who didn't have the skills they needed to do them but who were highly trainable." He taught programming out of his apartment.
Meanwhile, sister Lori was ready to leave her job as a manager at Solo Cup. With her husband William Patterson, who is the education director of the Urban League, she too was involved in visionary social enterprise. The Pattersons own the Rap House, a Center for hip-hop music and culture on the corner of Chestir and First streets in Champaign, and Studio 109, a recording studio that seeks to serve the community by offering a low-cost, high-quality recording facility with a knowledgeable staff. Lori, who has a mechanical-engineering degree from the UI and is a highly organized, task-oriented person with considerable experience with corporate re-engineering, scheduling, evaluation, and system design, was the perfect complement to her brilliant, ofEbeat brother. With help from their friends, the two formed the consulting business.
OJC's first client was the Center for Children's Books (CCB), a program of the UI library school. CCB wanted Sigfried to do its job himself, but it was willing to take a chance on the new, experimental consulting firm. The result was an online bulletin that includes reviews of children's books, searchable by age category, author name, and type of story. The software gives CCB the ability to make their decades of bulletins accessible to teachers and librarians over the World Wide Web. OJC student and teacher William Gillespie learned to program over the course of the CCB project. He now has a full-time job as a webmaster at the university.
In November l990, OJC rented a beutiful space in downtown Urbana that it shares with Studio 109. Over the course of its first year, the OJC staff has completed 12 projects for well-satisfied clients. (The OJC website, http://www.onthejob.net, provides links to the sites of those customers.)
Sig and Lori were not perfectly comfortable in the interview spotlight. Sig stresses the fact that they formed OJC with "a host of activists-turned-code-crunchers" who, while paid for consulting, handle many OJC/CLAM chores on a volunteer basis. They are also obviously enthusiastic about th¢ 20 to 30 students who have just completed the CLAM spring semester.
Lori concluded the interview with a slightly different perspective. "I may. have been the child of activist parents, but my own life choices have often been decidedly mainstream. At first I was uncomfortable at the thought of walking away from corporate life, even though I couldnt stand it any more. But I couldn't be happier. There is room here for professional people who care about their lives and want more control of the structures of their work."
Last month, OJC joined the chamber of commerce.