How 9/11 changed my IT consulting career

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.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
Image:Jason Perlow

September 11, 2001. It was 17 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.

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

The photo that accompanies this article depicts me in all my former glory, at age 25, newly married, with all of my hair.

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 the awful flu.

I was supposed to go downtown that morning, as I had an appointment with 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 8:30 am, 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 pharmaceuticals 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 9:02 AM, 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 a 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 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.

In June of 2012, I moved out of the New York Metro area to South Florida. I left IBM and joined Microsoft later that year.

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 over-sized, 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 feel empowered.

Today, I'm happy to have a career and proud to be associated with a company which is as successful and has such strong industry leadership as Dimension Data and NTT Inc. 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.

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

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