How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

Summary: It felt great to have full command of one's destiny, to report to no-one. To not have to climb any ladders or engage in corporate politics. It was invigorating to be one's own man and my own boss. I was an independent consulting badass.

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September 11, 2001. It was 11 years ago. Yet for me, it seems like only yesterday.

My wife and I had been married for five years, and we had just moved into our house we had bought in Tenafly, New Jersey.

All Coverage: September 11, Ten Years After

Being close to the city was an absolute requirement when we were looking for where to live and buy our first home.

September 11: Ten years afterSpecifically, I wanted a house in which I had the option of being able to either drive into work and park my car in downtown Manhattan within 40 minutes, or to make a short 25-minute drive to the Port Imperial ferry in Edgewater and take the downtown Ferry to Water Street or the World Financial Center.

I was an independent computer consultant, with a one-man computer consulting firm that I named "Argonaut Systems". And every single one of my clients, which was a large financial firm or a major investment bank, was located within a three or four block radius of the World Trade Center, or they had large branch offices in Midtown Manhattan which I would sometimes also have to work at.

Still, more often than not, I found myself working in those two 105-story towers.

Back in the day, I had a working arrangement which was known as a "1099 Corp-to-Corp". My little company was a C-corp, and I was a subcontractor for any number of larger computer consulting companies -- known affectionately as "body shops" or simply "headhunters" which were looking to place people with particular skill sets in certain kinds of work in long-term contracts.

If you had the specific skills that these companies wanted, you could find pretty much perpetual employment and make a very good living at it.

Which I did.

I had daily e-mails from competing headhunters filling my inbox on a non-stop basis, and I was able to tell anyone I wanted who didn't offer me the rates I expected to go jump in a lake.

Actually, I didn't say "go jump in a lake", I used much more colorful language. But I digress.

For the previous 10 years up until that beautiful September morning, almost every single company had I worked at was an investment bank or a financial services firm, with huge trading floors, and with complex financial trading systems that used sophisticated Windows NT and UNIX-based workstations and back-end systems which had mainframe and enterprise server connectivity.

I was a general systems integration expert with a specialization in banking, real-time data and financial trading systems. That was pretty much worth its weight in gold. I was a Ronin of technology. A gunslinger. I served no permanent master, I was a samurai for hire, as long as you could afford my services.

Since I was spending so much of my time downtown, I actually opened my main bank account at Chase Manhattan, at their One World Trade Center branch located in the downstairs promenade/shopping complex.

For years after the 9/11 disaster, I still kept the checks.

That morning is still very much ingrained in my memory. I had planned to drive into work that day, but I woke up with an awful flu.

I was supposed to go downtown that morning, as I had an appointment at my current client, who had offices in One World Trade -- on one of the higher floors -- to come in and meet with a couple of potential subcontractors and "Tech them out", to see if they had the skills and experience needed to work on a large trading floor.

Knowing that I was not going to make it in, I phoned in early and left a message with my head-hunting firm to call the customer and let them know that I wasn't feeling well, and that if they needed to, they could call me at home and I'd have a phone conversation with them over the Polycom.

So I took a hot shower, put on my terrycloth bathrobe, microwaved a hot mug of tea, and went downstairs.

Around 8:30am, I get a knock on the front door. It was the DirecTV guy. I had completely forgotten that I had an appointment to install some multi-tuner DirecTivos, one in the living room and one in the bedroom, to replace the boxes we were currently using.

For about 20 minutes I sat on my couch in the living room, watched the guy swap out some electronics and do some additional coax wiring, and we turned on the TV to test the system. The first thing that popped on was the local news.

They were talking about a fire at One World Trade Center... possibly caused by a collision of "a small aircraft."

Great. Some idiot with a Cessna who didn't know how to fly smacked his damn plane into the building. That was gonna be a mess to clean up, for sure. I tried calling the client to make sure nobody got hurt, but the phones were jammed busy.

I tried calling a few cellphones of colleagues as well, but to no avail.

The DirecTV guy went upstairs to my bedroom to continue work, which needed a more sophisticated wiring job.

I continued to watch the news. The reports and media coverage was evolving, the choppers were flying around the towers, and by then it was clear this was no small plane crash caused by an idiot in a Cessna. The fire was huge. A large airliner had struck the building.

I was thinking, "Holy crap. That's a major league air disaster right there, probably one of the biggest in history." I wouldn't learn until later in the morning that it was American Airlines Flight 11.

I called upstairs to the DirecTV guy. "Dude, you gotta come down and see this."

My wife was at work at a local pharmecuticals distributor only a few miles away from my house. I called her and told her that she needed to go to her office lounge and turn the TV on right away.

The DirecTV guy sat with me and watched as the events unfolded over the next fifteen minutes. At 9:02AM, United Airlines Flight 175 slammed into the second tower, and we got to watch it in real time, in sheer horror.

Shortly after, United 93 crashed into rural Pennsylvania, foiling the plans of the Al Qaeda hijackers from hitting the White House or the Capitol due to the bravery of a few passengers.

And then American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon.

From that point on, we knew it was an attack on our country.

Our country was now at war. With who, we had no idea. But whoever it was, they would pay.

The DirecTV guy looked at me, extremely concerned. "My wife works at the US post office right next to those buildings. I'm really worried about her."

"Get the hell out of here. Now. I'll call DirecTV and tell them they can send someone else to finish the work."

The technician grabbed his tools and left. I called my wife again and told her to get home, immediately. We had friends that lived in Manhattan and I knew for sure they would probably have to evacuate and come over.

Within the next two hours, ten years of my career would be reduced to pile of smoldering rubble. The trading floors that I helped to build, the systems that I installed, the human beings that I worked with... all of them, gone.

Over the next two years I faced huge challenges finding work as an independent consultant on Wall Street. Big firms such as IBM, Accenture and EDS would end up getting the data center and infrastructure rebuild contracts for the the big banks that started to move their trading floors and major operations to Jersey City and the outlying suburbs.

Strategic Outsourcing also started to eat away at the independent contractor's bottom line. If you weren't associated with one of the big firms, you were going to go extinct.

I wandered for about a year, working odd contracts here and there. It was a feast or famine sort of existence, where I'd work for three months here and have no work for a month or two there.

In 2002, my Linux/UNIX experience got me contract work over at Sharp, where I worked for about two years doing developer program work on their Zaurus handheld, which ended up failing in the US market.

For the next year after that, I pretty much subsisted entirely on freelance writing, but it became very difficult to pay my mortgage and my other bills, which were substantial.

I now had an expensive house in New Jersey I couldn't pay the bills on because the lucrative 1099 contracts I depended on to make my living were now non-existent. I couldn't even get a stinking W-2 for half the amount of money I used to make.

Eventually, I swallowed my pride, cut off the expensive leases to my SUVs, bought some (very) used cars, folded my company, and went back into the corporate world as a full-time employee.

In 2005, I joined Unisys as an Open Source systems engineer, focusing on building the company's Linux consulting business and going back to my old banking customers in their new out-of-state datacenter digs and interfacing with globally outsourced resources.

Two years later, in 2007, finding better employment elsewhere, I joined IBM as an Infrastructure Architect.

I went from gun-slinging freelance Ronin to corporate citizen with health benefits and a 401K.

Do I miss my consultant days? You bet. I loved the money I made. I loved the power lunches in New York City, and the $400.00 per month parking garage spot next to Goldman Sachs at 85 Broad I kept for my ridiculously oversized, gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe which I leased and wrote off for $600+ a month and replaced every two years.

I loved the expensive steak dinners at Smith & Wollensky with my consulting buddies and the vendors who wanted our ear on corporate purchases for upcoming projects and migrations at the big banks. And I loved not having a single care in the world about which bill I had to pay next.

It felt great to have full command of one's destiny, to report to no-one. To not have to climb any ladders or engage in corporate politics. It was invigorating to be one's own man and my own boss. I was a badass, and it energized me. It made me virile. Empowered.

Today, I'm happy to have a career and proud be associated with a company which is as successful and has such strong industry leadership as IBM. But if I could erase everything that happened to my world and to my industry on that sunny September morning and go back to my old life, just as the way it was, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Even today, the blood of the independent gunslinger still pulses through my veins. And my samurai sword is always at the ready.

Were you also an independent consultant in the financial sector on September 11, 2001? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Disclaimer: The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Topics: IT Employment, Banking, Data Centers, IBM, Outsourcing, Travel Tech

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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34 comments
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  • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

    Amazing story. If you really want to go back to that life, you should do it.
    themarty
    • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

      @themarty I was also independent computer consultant & your story is very similar to mine. I worked consulting for clients on the mercantile exchange floor in building #1. But most of my work was uptown @ 39th & park on the 39th floor. As I was watching the north tower burn I saw the 2nd tower go up in flames. I knew from the tv coverage that it was time to get out of the city. walked over to GS & got on the first train out to Connecticut at 125th st. the train was held up for more passengers & saw the south tower collapse. (note: I also liked to eat steak dinners at Smith & Wollensky maybe we crossed paths) As one gun gun-slinger to another I miss those days Too!
      alltech_comp@...
    • Go back in time?

      @themarty

      Those times are gone; you cannot go back. I was a consultant working the AT&T beat. That nose dived prior to 9/11. I landed work at the World Trade Center and they were moving everything they could offshore prior to the attack. The corporate lemmings were all running full speed in that direction before the first plane hit.

      I too found a job in corporate world; there is no going back.
      KZ900b
  • It blew mine out of the water

    I was an employee of a small but moderately-successful consulting company in Austin, Texas, writing code in various languages, doing database work, project management, analysis and design, all sorts of fun things. After 9/11 the market for our services collapsed. I was on the bench for a while, and eventually was let go. I had a few lean years there, off-and-on gigs, until I finally hired on at a major computer manufacturer, where I have been ever since. There's something bracingly real about getting paid only for your billable hours, but there is something comforting about getting a steady paycheck and benefits. It's nice not to have hustle the next gig while working on the current one. As a consultant I learned how to keep myself employed at a gig and have used those skills to remain a corporate citizen through several layoffs. At this point I am content where I am.
    bmeacham98@...
  • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

    Great Story.
    Ram U
  • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

    I was working on Slashdot, sorting through thousands of story submissions from readers in NYC, debunking rumors like the one about a commando raid on the State Department, the explosive-filled van on the GW bridge, and so on. A lot of people told us Slashdot was the only news site working for them for some hours on 9/11, and we were in crisis mode, with all graphics turned off and our servers cranking as hard as a server could crank.<br><br>And I remember talking with you a day or so later, Jason, about all the people you knew who worked in the WTC buildings and were suddenly dead.<br><br>I probably seemed a little cold to you at the time, since I'd been in the Army and dead people were not new to me AND because I frankly didn't see 3000 people as a major loss, considering that we lose 50,000/year in car crashes. <br><br>I'm not saying I wasn't pissed, or unsympathetic. In fact, I was ready to head toward the middle east immediately and whack me some madrassa dudes.<br><br>I didn't go (ended up being to Jordan) until 2003, though, and I didn't kill anyone during that trip. <br><br>Ah, my. I wish we hadn't gotten into that whole Iraq thing but had gone after the Saudis even though they were Bush buddies and co-owners of News Corp. And Pakistan. I am not a lover of that country for many reasons starting with their treatment of Ahmadiyya Muslims and continuing with their treatment of Jews.<br><br>Enough yammer. I have a new 25-round magazine for my .22 Marlin (rifle) that needs a little filing so I can drop it out and slap in a new one quickly. <br><br>I am a nearsighted Jewish great-grandfather with diabetes and high blood pressure, but I'm still able to keep my rounds within a 3" circle easily out to at least 100 yards. <br><br>So, Muslim extremists and other people who want to ruin the U.S., I suggest that you stay away from my part of Florida. And to make you think that way even more, know that before long I'll probably get an SKS or Mosin Nagant ("oldie but goodie" Russian sniper rifles) with a 3X or 4X scope, which will extend my danger range out to 500 yards, with cartridges as large as an American M60 machine gun shoots. <br><br>Interesting and useless factoid: my street address is 911. Cute, eh?
    robin@...
  • I think 9/11 changed IT as a whole.

    Prior to 9/11, if you had the skills, you were a god. People worshiped the ground you walked on, and begged you to put your magic touch on their systems. The internet was really picking up steam, and companies were learning how to adapt to the ever changing playing field. I interfaced with many of the early players in the online world. Names that would be lost on many here, as they are now either long gone, or have been absorbed by someone else. One of them was a little known early cloud storage provider by the name Myspace. They would go on to end up in the hands of News Corp, and become the social networking site, MySpace.

    After 9/11, the entire face of IT was warped. Especially in less populared areas outside of major urban centers like NYC. As catastrophic as it was there, tighter margins, and mangements lack of understanding of computer systems led to widespread layoffs. Consulting went to nothing, and only big firms could land contracts, because only they had the financial backing (or deep pocketed credit with banks) to pull the jobs off. It was a ripple effect from all this that would catch up to us now, not helping our current economy. But we won't go into the politics of all that.

    I'd say 9/11 had a much more profound effect on IT than any other industry. In this day and age, IT is to big to fail. All our critical systems rely in IT, and most peoples lives, directly or indirectly rely on IT as well. Without IT, there is no internet, no facebook, no fast communications between banks, etc. Without the people and infrastructure to support all this, we are back in the stone ages. Very few other services, would set us back that far. Our two main reliances are on transportation, and IT systems (and this day and age, the power grid is included in IT.)

    Did we invest in IT to help the economy? Nah. Did we invest in our aging transportation system that helps people get to their jobs, and ship our products? Nah. What did we do? We invested in the banks, and car companies that were already a burden on our system. Had we not, they would have done what any normal company that mis-manages their money does. Folded, gone bankrupt, and got out of the way. New ones would of sprang up as need dictated.

    It was this type of major oversight in priorites, both during 9/11 and currently that is setting this nation back.

    I now work for an IT outsource company. The trend toward outsourcing is favorable among smaller to medium companies. Most major corps just make a handful of inhouse IT do everything now. What they can't handle, they outsource. Most of that outsourcing usually ends up coming out of India or China.
    ShadowGIATL
    • Well...IT hit the same road bump many professions hit.

      If people on the inside of IT do not realize the following they should because just about everyone on the outside does.

      It was right around 2001 that many in the world were starting to realize just how big IT was starting to become. I know many of my friends and family were investing in their first home computers between 1999 and 2001. More and more I would hear about kids going off to school to take computer related courses, it was almost turning into a bit off a craze.

      Its no joke that by 2001 the education system was pumping out a vast number of graduates that were fully trained in IT, without much on the job experience, but all looking for work.

      And there in is the true problem that enveloped the IT workplace. It was quickly beginning to glut with people with skills. Its like many professions where those who get in on the ground floor whhen it starts taking off can make lots of money and often write their own ticket so to speak. But the word gets around very very quickly.

      Schools begin to quickly promote their education programs they see as up and coming hot career makers, and of course it was just in around that time when the word had indeed gone out that computers and the internet were quickly exploding as a new employment pathway. High school grads who are trying to think of what kind of further education they need to pick up a great paying interesting job will do a lot of research quite often, and like I said, word quickly got around that computer sciences and other IT related education was a very hot prospect and the IT grads started getting pumped out like crazy.

      It rapidly became a labor force glut of prospective IT graduates all looking for work.

      Its what really started hurting the IT labor force noticeably by 2002-2003, and taking IT courses by 2005 had become like so many school programs that came before it, the workforce had been pretty much filled up. To get a job in IT quickly, a grad had to either be good and a bit lucky or know someone. Other than that it was get in line and wait for something to come open.

      While Im sure 911 had some impact on the industry, in so far as getting and keeping a job in IT, by 2001 the wheels had already put in motion for the training of so many IT workers, being able to land and hold a great paying job in IT was no longer anything other than a much much harder task than it used to be before 2000.
      Cayble
  • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

    It's the old saying "Nice work, if you can get it".
    NedRyerson
  • My Career Got Derailed Too

    While I didn't live in the NYC area, I did have a very lucrative consulting career back then. After 9/11, the jobs dried up and hourly rates dropped out here in fly-over country too. Then offshoring boom hit, putting a big dent in careers as well. It's been a rough 10 years to have a career in IT but I've managed to find work eventually, even at my 'advanced' age. However, I've been 'unemployed', not having an official job, almost 3 years out of the 10. However, I've managed to have enough money to get by doing things like Internet marketing, building web sites for local businesses, investments and so forth.

    My biggest guide over the past few years has been the writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Black Swan Theory. 9/11 was a huge black swan event.
    ancientprogrammer
  • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

    Thanks for sharing this experience!
    jeanshack
  • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

    Jason,

    NOW I understand why you are such a ... I mean why you changed careers and became a commentator for ZDNet. I may be wrong, but I believe since the company I was an outsourced consultant to became bankrupt, I am no longer bound by their NDA. It could be that you and I worked for the same company. 9/11 changed a lot of things for many people.

    As it happened, I was in Egypt on the morning of 9/11. My wife and I had been diving in the Red Sea at Sharm al Sheikh, and flew from Cairo to Amsterdam, on our way back to Tokyo.

    We were sightseeing in Amsterdam, and I noticed people standing in front of shop windows looking at TV screens. I thought there must be a soccer match on. We did not find out why trains were delayed until later. The next day we flew back to Tokyo and saw airport staff setting out chairs for US passengers whose flights were cancelled. We bought a cheese knife in the Airport shop.

    By sheer chance, as part of my work for that financial company, I had upgraded their antiquated and ineffective security systems. Without that, I do not think they could have survived the uncertainty and suspicion of the days after 9/11.
    Andrew Sheppard
    • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

      @Andrew Sheppard "NOW I understand why you are such a ..."

      Oh don't be shy. You're correct, I've become a lot more hardened and angry from the experience.
      jperlow
  • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

    I did a ton of IT consulting before 9-11. I flew all over the US for clients and even a few clients outside of the country. It was heady times in deed. Then 9-11 happened and it all just dried up instantly over night. Projects were cancelled, products were dumped and suddenly they didn't need or want those consultants that helped them make and save boat loads of cash. It was hard to take going all of a sudden from word of mouth referrals to no work at all and people slowly returning your calls saying they had no new work or projects and were in fact laying people off. I too miss those days but I don't see them coming back any time soon.<br><br>I worked out of my house doing a lot of consulting over the phone and internet. I was late getting up that morning and my wife said to get up a plane crashed into the World Towers. I told her very funny, she didn't need to get all dramatic to wake me. She said she wasn't kidding and to come watch the news. It was only a few minutes later that the second plane hit and I knew we were under attack. Things were no longer the same in that moment. We sat glued to our TV watching the news all day and only 2 of my clients called to say that the call conferences would not happen that day because of the news. The entire day the internet traffic was spiked for the network connections I ran and provided to clients. News web sites were slow to respond if at all. I was very glad that day that I was transparently caching all web traffic for my clients. I will never forget any of it.
    tim.w.jung@...
  • Somebody was going to pay?

    Truth is that you and your country paid. The Muslim world is largely unchanged today. America, not so much. More troubling than the money you lost is the freedom we've all lost. There were no winners from 9/11, but there were lots of losers. Mostly in your country.
    johnnydoe1894
    • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

      @johnnydoe1894 "Mostly in your country."

      Not so, if you consider how it has affected the global economy.
      jperlow
    • What?? Where are you from?

      That comment of yours, while I could predict there are some people that would say such a thing, it dosnt change the fact that you have it so wrong your way off the mark.

      I will start by saying I am not from the U.S.

      Lets now have a closer look at your nonsense.

      "Truth is that you and your country paid"

      Ok, no question that the USA certainly did pay. Starting with the impact of the planes, followed by all the political, social, military and financial fallout thereafter.

      But I suspect that given the rest of your commentary your trying to imply some further deeper loss overall than the Muslim world. And that being the case,, either you need an education, which I am about to give you or you’re a bare faced liar and you do know better.

      The U.S.A. lost 2 towers and about 3000 lives.

      The Muslim world, as a result lost 2 entire countries and about 100,000+ dead in Iraq alone and thousands more dead from Afghanistan. I know people who are from both countries, people who still have family and friends who still live there and I am advised, and have every reason to believe what I am told that in fact the lives of every person in those countries HAS been affected profoundly and in many ways will be different forever. I can also say that the people I know from those counties have told me that every, and any person they know would give up everything to leave one of those two places just to have the chance to live in the U.S. or Canada.

      While the costs of war in those two countries have touched many families who have members serving in the armed services on a personal level, the sad truth for other countries attempting to take on the military might of the west, and most particular the powerhouse that is the U.S.A., that aside from the misery of families on a personal level who lose someone in such wars, the people as a whole in the west sustain these wars without barely breaking a sweat. There is no comparison to how incredibly different and severe the impact of those two towers going down was in the end, so light in the U.S. compared to the impact it ended up having in the Muslim world.

      If you think you can simply divorce everything that is now going on in the middle east right now generally from the 911 fallout, you simply live in dreamland and there is no use in trying to educate you further.

      You are right when you say no winners. You are right when you say there are lots of losers.

      You are radically wrong when you say “Mostly in your country”.

      As the old saying goes, “the problems from the 911 attacks the average U.S. citizen now has to live with are only rich people problems”

      Unfortunately for just about every soul on the other side the problems they had to face were much much worse and profound to this day, but its everyones hope that the end results will be a better and safer world for everyone.
      Cayble
  • Unfortunatelly you also described the economic collapse

    Probably you didn't see it at the time. I have no idea if you see it now. but the financial collapse was due to the excess you describe as "Power lunches" and "oversized, gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe ".

    Have as much as we can, just because we can. Something morally and financially unattainable.

    Capitalism is great, but you have to generate wealth in order to spend it. Financial bubbles created from borrowed money are no more than artificial wealth.

    I hope you along with all of us learned the lesson and start spending today's money instead of the promissed one.

    That's what smart money people do.
    rarsa
    • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

      @rarsa The IT consultants serviced the banks. If you lived and worked in New York City, and you were an IT consultant, the money was in banking and financial. To a large degree, it still is, but the difference is the large companies like IBM GBS and HP's EDS are cost consolidating for them instead of the independents. That is where the IT growth sector is now.<br><br>Nobody who worked in IT for these firms looked at the overall health of the banks and how they did their business and scrutinized their books. It wasn't our job to do that, it was to keep their systems running, which we did. Did some of us spend a lot of money and enjoy the spoils while working our asses off? We sure did.<br><br>Would I do it again if I had the opportunity and the climate was right? I sure would.
      jperlow
      • RE: How 9/11 Changed My IT Consulting Career

        @jperlow Oh, I am not blaming you, that faithful 9/11 day I was at work at a financial company in Canada. As an IS employee. Enjoying also a decent check and security and wondering if there would also be attacks in Toronto where our Corporate offices are.

        The question is: Knowing what you know now. Would you spend what you didn't have in a large house and large gas-guzzling car or would you be more careful knowing that it is better to save (or invest) first and spend once there is really excess money?

        People in the US (and at some extent in Canada) were tricked into buying large houses and cars based on an unaffordable future. Asking that question next time will be important.
        rarsa