Ken Schiff joined the Peace Corps and spent 1967-1969 in Chile

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By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, June 23, 2001 - 2:48 pm: Edit Post

Ken Schiff joined the Peace Corps and spent 1967-1969 in Chile, teaching house construction in a rural self-help housing project and working in community development

Ken Schiff joined the Peace Corps and spent 1967-1969 in Chile, teaching house construction in a rural self-help housing project and working in community development

Ken Schiff's Eclectic Background

My eclectic background has given me the opportunity to live and work with a great variety of people in very diverse situations and environments. I am writing about it here because I feel that my clients - and their software products - are the beneficiaries of this experience.

I started the pre-med curriculum at Brandeis University and finished at New York University (NYU) with a major in Sociology. In the process of trying to decide what I "wanted to be when I grew up," I also completed minors in Anthropology, Biology, Psychology, and Comparative Religion.

Peace Corps

Having had enough of academia for a while, I decided not to even apply to medical school. Instead, I joined the Peace Corps and spent 1967-1969 in Chile, teaching house construction in a rural self-help housing project and working in community development. I was invited to join the local station of Chile's prestigious national volunteer fire department, an honor rarely bestowed on foreign nationals, and served actively for 18 months. During my Peace Corps vacation time, I traveled in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. But the most memorable two days has to be the two days I spent on Easter Island .

On leaving the Peace Corps, I received an rating of 4+ (the highest score possible for a non-native speaker of a language) on the US Foreign Service language examination in Spanish. I maintain my fluency to this day.

Tree Surgeon and Paramedic (no connection)

For a couple of years after the Peace Corps, I tried my hand at several different trades: tree surgery, fence building, part-time cowboy and wrangler, warehouse manager, and security guard. Having been active in first aid in the past, I became certified as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT-I) and in my spare time, built two ambulances for a volunteer fire department. I went on to join the Los Angeles County Fire Department and became a certified Paramedic, eventually leaving the fire department to take a paid position with an otherwise volunteer fire department and ambulance squad.

Sales and Management Consulting

After three years of fire-fighting, search & rescue, and emergency medical work, I spent a number of years in sales of advertising specialties, and it was there that I first found an outlet for my graphic creativity. Designing corporate identity programs and marketing promotions, I became one of the top producers in the industry.

My work with corporate management evolved to the point where I was consulting in employee motivation programs. This involved delivering seminars, designing incentive programs, and developing empowerment tools. It was here that I studied the Deming philosophy and Continuous Process Improvement. In 1989, finding that the consulting group I was working with was not interested in adopting any of the technology that I was trying to introduce to the group, I left them to enter the computer industry. (The consulting group is now defunct.)

How Did Computers Enter The Scene?

While I was racking up the various life experiences I have described above, a parallel thread was happening. In 1978, I joined nine friends as we each pitched in $50 to purchase a Radio Shack TRS-80, Model I personal computer. I dutifully loaded the operating system via a tape cassette, and saved my work in the same way. (Floppies were not yet in the offing…did you say hard drive?)

Retrospectively dubbed my "4K screamer," the "Trash 80" served me well as it kindled my romance with computers, a relationship that, to this day, sometimes borders on a love-hate relationship.

Working in sales at the time, I bought a portable, calculator-like version of the TRS-80 and wrote a program for amortizing fixed costs across quantities.

I bought my next computer in 1983. It was a Seequa Chameleon, a dual processor (Z-80 and 8088) machine that allowed users to hedge their bets since DOS and CPM were still contenders for the OS title. This 30 pound luggable had a 9" CRT, 2 single sided 5¼" drives, and 128K of RAM. I used programs like Condor 3 and Volkswriter, and dragged the machine all over the country, spending more energy hauling it than time actually running it.

In 1985, I made the commitment to PC-DOS and bought my first, and last, true blue IBM PC. Bulging with 256K of RAM, dual 360K floppies, and a 10MB hard disk (78ms average access time) this 8088 propelled me headlong into the process of becoming a "power user" (whatever that means). Needing a way to track my customers, calls, and to-do lists and unable to find commercial software that worked for me, I used the Smart Software Integrated System from Innovative Software (eventually bought by Informix) and wrote a program that, today, would be called a contact manager. When I traveled, I lugged reams of paper reports with me.

In 1988, I bought a Toshiba 1200. This 14 pound laptop sported an 8086, 1MB (yes, that's a whole megabyte) of RAM, a 20 MB hard disk, and a small, CGA, non-backlit LCD screen. Now I was able to print just a few reports and carry all the data with me. A year later I started working in the computer industry.

The Big Shake-Up

I joined a national retailer of computer systems and services and was working at a store in the San Francisco financial district. I was waiting for my bus to the train depot at shortly after 5PM on October 17th when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. As small particles of grit, sand, and concrete from the high-rise buildings began to fall, I looked up, and in a classic case of time elongation, saw the buildings curving and swaying like cobras hypnotized by a fakir.

I saw sheets of glass fall from the sky like guillotine blades. They hit the overhead power lines and they fell to the ground, arcing and whipping back and forth like garden hoses spitting fire. I was thrown to the ground and crawled under a parked car, grabbing someone next to me and dragging her under the car to share my shelter. Fitting only partly under the car, I later realized that I must have sensed the enormity of it all when I remembered that I had put my Toshiba laptop over me instead of shielding it with my body!

It lasted only a few seconds, but it felt like it lasted for several minutes. Picking myself up and doing some minor first aid to people around me, I joined the others who were waiting for the bus for a walk through the ravaged city in an effort to get to the train station. An hour or so later we arrived, only to find that the trains were not working--they had to inspect all the tracks in both directions from San Francisco to San Jose before any trains could run. Nine hours later, the train departed, traveling at a maximum of 25 mph. The normal 40 minute ride took almost two hours, but getting home to find the family safe and sound was the best homecoming a man could ask for.

After two days of what I found out later was post-traumatic shock syndrome, I wandered into the local Red Cross chapter to see what kind of help I could offer. I must admit that I went there intending on doing my paramedic, search & rescue thing, but when I arrived I found a disaster of a totally unexpected kind: disorganization. The outpouring of the Peninsula community was so enormous that the Red Cross was drowning in a sea of papers, scraps of papers, and jottings anywhere something could be written down. Food, clothing, money, offers of housing and storage, volunteers, entire companies--everyone was pitching in and helping. The problem was that the Red Cross chapter was drowning in bits of data that was totally unorganized, unretrievable, and therefore useless!

Recognizing the need for organization, I asked if there were any computers around. The two PCs they had in the office were hopelessly underpowered from both the hardware and the software perspectives. One of the volunteers said they had a MacPlus and offered to bring it in. We grabbed--yes, I'll admit it, pirated--a copy of FileMaker and I got to work creating a database. As I was not the only one with that idea, and I ended up coordinating my work with the people at Apple on what became known as "The Red Cross Database Project." In two days we had seven Macs networked to a server and had all seven stations working 'round the clock with data-entry volunteers. The biggest thrill came when the Mayor of San Francisco's office called looking for housing for a family. In less than three minutes, we had located the resource and had faxed the information back. The family had shelter.

For ten days, from 10-15 hours a day, I worked at the Red Cross. My experience while waiting for the bus, plus that work at the Red Cross caused me re-evaluate what I was doing. I quit working at the computer store.

On the occasion of the five year anniversary ofthe Loma Prieta earthquake, in a moment of reflection and solitude, I wrote a poem.

Technical Support

I joined Intuit as a Supervisor in Technical Support in November, 1989, in a high call-volume, multi-product, multi-platform telephone technical support center. I oversaw the growth of the department from 26 to 51 people in my six months as acting manager.

Having seen just about every possible scenario that arises in a technical support center, I now build support avoidance into my designs. With this approach, potential problems and error conditions are prevented rather than coped with. As I say in my tutorials,

"To err is human. To prevent an error is divine."

Teaching & Training

I have been a teacher and trainer for most of my adult life. In fact, I take a teaching approach to my consulting work, preferring to enable my clients. My writing has also focused on teaching and training materials.

After years of teaching first aid and water safety, I added fire-fighting and house construction to my repertory. I wrote and taught a 120-hour California State approved Emergency Medical Technician training course. I was also an instructor-trainer for the American Heart Association and American Red Cross, and taught Advanced Life Support to non-clinical physicians.


A believer in continuing education, I have been a participant in the following courses and seminars (latest first):

* Designing Icons and Visual Symbols: Horton

* Contextual Inquiry: Duncan & Beabes (DEC)

* Improving Usability with Metaphors and Icons: Kalin & Lovgren

* Product Usability Survival Techniques: User Interface Engineering

* Presenting Data and Information: Edward Tufte

* Windows User Interface Design: Microsoft University

Prior to my involvement in the computer industry, I had completed the following:

* Quality: The Continuous Improvement Process and Statistical Process Control (nine-month biweekly workshop series on the principles and methods of W. Edwards Deming)

* Mobile Intensive Care Paramedic: Los Angeles Fire Department/Los Angeles County, (USC)

* Bachelor of Arts, Sociology: New York University, Washington Square College

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By Howard Burkhart ( on Tuesday, February 05, 2013 - 9:50 pm: Edit Post

If anyone can reach Ken, I'd like to thank him. At age 32, he gave me my first first-aid course since Boy Scouts. Little did either one of us know that it would result in my becoming an Emergency Medical Tech at age 38, or keeping that certification for the last 30 years! Have him call (310) 339-3600. Thanks.

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