I was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, USA in 1966, during the short period of time my father Barry, and mother Merle were living in Woods Hole, a small town on Cape Cod. My father had accepted a post-doctoral fellowship, leading them to travel with some borrowed winter clothes from their home in Kingston, Jamaica to live several thousand miles away.
We returned to Jamaica just after my first birthday, and I spent my formative years growing up in Jamaica, an American citizen by birth and a Jamaican citizen by parentage.
In my early years, my family lived on the campus of the University of the West Indies, and my sister and I grew up with kids of university professors and lecturers from all over the world. It was a unique situation for a child growing up in Jamaica, with neighbors from Trinidad, Sri Lanka, Scotland, England, Barbados and other countries.
At age 7 we moved to live in a traditional Jamaican neighborhood, on a street that had not a single foreigner. That was a big change.
However, a 9 month stint living in Tampa, Florida, USA in 1971, a summer trip to New York and Europe in 1975 plus some side trips to Belize and Canada gave our family a broad exposure to life outside the Caribbean.
I was always a big reader, and a lover of books, something my sister and I learned from my parents. This love of reading was transformed into a thirst for knowledge and interesting questions, that lead me being near to the top of my class each year from St. Andrew Prep School (elementary) to Wolmers Boy’s School (high school). Not only did I love learning, I also enjoyed sports and just about any physical activity that I could get involved in. I represented my schools at different sports, even while holding positions such as School Captain, Head Boy and President of the Students Council.
The average sixteen year-old in the Caribbean faces a standard set of external exams (known by their acronyms: GCE/CXC) that are the ticket to a future of further education. In order to prepare for the exams, in my final year I decided to not play my favorite sport — cricket — at all. It was a calculated decision to devote as much time as I could to excelling in these exams.
While I did not need to create that much extra time in order to pass, I did have a commitment to excel. In prior years at Wolmers I had come fourth, then third, and then second in the class, steadily improving my annual ranking. I believed that it paid off when I came first, for the first time, and while I was overjoyed, I knew that I had given up something I loved in order to ensure the result. In other words, I didn’t trust myself to play cricket AND do that well. I just didn’t think that I knew how to do both.
In my remaining two years, I refused to sacrifice playing cricket, and instead took on the two highest student leadership roles — one in each year.
Near to the end of high school, in 1983, my father made a choice to forgo the purchase of a VCR, and instead brought home from his travels a TI 99-4A mini-computer, with 16k of RAM. It took only a few days to fall in love with the device, and a few weeks to teach myself TI-BASIC, and to learn to run simple programs to show my friends and parents.
A summer job I had that year, and the next, introduced me to the some of the first personal computers in Jamaica — it was the year of the IBM-PC. I vividly remember working in the computer room, and using the little that I had learned at home to quickly master the dual-floppy drive PC, and the “state of the art” XT that came out a year later.
I could see, from using VisiCalc, WordStar and a modem the size of a large breadbox, that this device was going to help those who could leverage its power to be much more effective. To me, the PC had a certain inevitable quality about it.
While I was able to learn a lot from the latest technology on the job, our school suffered from a lack of basic resources during my years as a student. For example, at different times we had to share chairs, or sit on the floor. In technical drawing class, there were simply not enough drawing tables, leading us to race to class at full speed at the sound of the bell, wooden T-squares in hand, in order to secure a seat. Those who were late, lost out, and had to do their drawings in their laps.
Also, it was a time when teachers were very low paid, and there were significant gaps in instruction. For example, we had 5 different teachers of biology in the last two years. When teachers were absent, or sub-standard, we were forced to teach ourselves, or take extra classes. We learned, and told each other, that our future was in our own hands. We believed that no-one would care how many teachers we had when they were grading Wolmers Boys’ GCE papers in England. How we used the resulting “free time” was very much up to us.
In a way, I was lucky. My parents never had to pressure me to study, or use my time productively. I had a lot of energy, and no small dose of ambition, and I remember being determined to out-study everyone else in order to do well. All this, without a single ounce of prompting from them.
Looking back, I believe that the circumstances at school helped push me to believe that my destiny was in my hands, and when I took myself to the top of the class when it really counted, it confirmed that belief. I continued on at Wolmers to complete further external exams — the GCE A’levels, which are the equivalent of freshman university studies. During that time I applied to universities and colleges in the US, having received decent SAT and Achievement scores. One day, in Physics class, I got a message that there was an overseas call for me at the school office. It was Cornell University, letting me know that I had been accepted, and urging me to accept the offer. I told them that it all depended on the financial situation, and told them I’d let them know.
“How did they know where to find me?” I wondered, as I meandered back to class, no longer able to listen to the teacher.
I did eventually choose to attend Cornell, with a financial aid package that included a blend of scholarships, loans and part-time work. I left the island and made my way to Ithaca to face my first winter as a young adult.
I had an idea of what I wanted to do — a kind of engineering that applied to people called Industrial Engineering (combined at Cornell with Operations Research – OR&IE). I had learned from the college catalogs that it had to do with the efficient allocation of man, money, materials, equipment and time. The other engineering disciplines did not appeal to me, as I could not imagine working on my own in the bowels of a lab, away from people, on some micro-chip of some kind.