I remember when I first discovered computers. It was exciting to learn how such simple circuits could do such complicated things. I wanted to learn everything I could about them. More importantly, I wanted to own one so that I could experiment with it and learn all the ins and outs of how it worked.
The problem was, I was young and didn’t have much spare income. Computers, it seemed to me, were always priced just slightly beyond my means. At first, the inexpensive computers that were selling for $100 – $250 were tantalizingly close to being affordable. But soon, bigger and better computers came on the market and they started out in the $500 range. For a while there it seemed like the capabilities of personal computers grew exponentially but their entry level price stayed at a fixed price of about $2000.
So, instead of buying a computer, I joined the Army to learn about computers and how to fix them. I told the recruiter that I was interested in enlisting for the computer job that had the longest school. I correctly assumed that they wouldn’t want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary on training so the longer the school, the more it would cover.
Consequently, I learned everything that there was to know about how computers were built, programmed, and troubleshot. I learned how the hardware worked and how to fix it when it didn’t work. I learned how to write programs and debug them when they didn’t work. And most important of all, I got to work with computers every day.
You have to understand that this was before computers were everywhere. Phones were wired to a particular place and had little or no digital components. TVs were big analog radios that used a tube for a display component. Cars didn’t have computers in them. In short, if you wanted to work with computers, you either had to go to college to learn to program business applications on mainframes or find some cutting edge device, like a missile, that used a computer to control the launch circuitry.
I enjoyed my time in the Army, at least the part of it that had to do with computers. I can’t say I enjoyed the marching, and the physical training, and all of the combat related stuff. But I was willing to put up with it to get to work with computers.
When I got out of the Army, the Personal Computer revolution was in full swing. I found a job right off the bat and all my study and experience paid off. I was so well trained that one of the first jobs that I applied for had me interview both as a technician and a programmer. I later learned that the software manager had called the hardware manager to ask if he was going to hire me. If he wasn’t the software manager was going to make me an offer.
I eventually got my own computer. In fact, I have seldom had fewer than two or three computers. Right now, in this room, I have four computers, a Storage Area Network that has a small linux computer for a controller, my iPhone, an iPad, my work PC, not to mention a workbench full of computers that aren’t even powered on right now.
Throughout my career as a computer scientist one thing has remained constant. I am constantly learning more about computers. I am obsessed by them. I want to learn about advances in hardware and software. I am always looking for new computer languages to learn. It has kept me relevant far longer than most of my contemporaries who have long since taken positions in management.
I’m happy to have remained a programmer. I balk at the title Software Engineer. We don’t know enough about building robust computer systems yet for their to be a clear computer engineering discipline. There are some early attempts to codify the profession but a good programmer is still more of an artist than an engineer.
Be safe, wear a mask when you go out, wash your hands frequently, and take care of yourself and each other.