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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How I came into software

My original background is in electronics, which lead me to software. I found I could make more money in software, so I moved full time into that occupation back in the 70's.

Computers were hard to come by in the 70's. The first computer I ever saw in person was at the New York World's Fair (I think it was 1967). I was chosen, as a boy of 14 or so, to play against the computer in tic-tac-toe at the IBM pavilion. I battled it to a draw.

I read a book in 5th grade about a boy that was very smart, and he had access to his Uncle's work computer. He was able to program it to do his math homework. I thought that would be really cool.

A small town would not have any computers. Typically, only the larger cities had computers, and they were generally used by banks. I never got to see one of those.

In college, for my electronics project, I decided to build a restaurant table locator at a steak-house chain of restaurants where you went through a line and placed your steak order and picked up everything else, including a number they would assign to you - they would bring the steak to your table. It was a stupid system - they called out your number over a loud speaker.

My project lead me into digital electronics, which was new at the time. This was pre-chips, so we're talking asynchmultivibrators and shift registers here! But this lead me into independent study on boolean logic, etc. I continued this independent study after I graduated from college. Soon I had all the knowledge for the basis of a CPU. Soon I knew I understood the bigger picture of computers, and that I wanted to work with computers. But this first entry into computers was at the hardware would be a while before I got into the software.

In 1977, while working as a consultant, I was given a chance to work on a computer - at least we all thought it was the computer (remember, none of us had even seen one in person at that point). It turned out to be just the keyboard, which was in a little room at Abbott Labs in Rocky Mount NC....the actual computer turned out to be in Chicago - I was connected via a 120 baud modem, and the keyboard was a 30 keys/sec Dec Writer.

The data analysis I was doing was tiresome on calculators, and I mentioned we needed a computer. This is how I got access to the Dec Writer above. They had the keyboard, but no one at the plant knew anything about computers, so they told me to have a go at trying to use it.

In the little room was a garbage can, in which there was a real old Fortran program. Also, there was something like a 100 page User's Manual on DEC PDP 11-45, which was the computer in Chicago. This book told me how to log in, and I was able to use the information provided by people in Chicago to log into my account.

I manually typed in the little short programs in the DEC User's Guide. It was a tedious, slow way to learn how to program - no one to ask any questions of, and no understanding of anything about software. I drove 2 hours to buy a used Fortran book at UNC. And that was the start of my software career!

I later built a microcomputer, which is what PCs were called back in the day. It was a kit from HeathKit, and included a motherboard from DEC for the PDP-1103. The kit was a collection of springs (for the keys on the keyboard), solenoids (for the paper tape punch), yokes (for the monitor), transistors, chips, wires, etc.....all of which had to be hand soldered into the boards to build the computer. I think I forgot to mention I only had a warranty of 90 days to get everything together, and I was working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day at Three Mile Island at the time, where we were getting ready to go critical.

This kit cost as much as a new car at the time - $3600 in 1978 dollars!

But this gave me my start in computer hardware and software. And by buying the DEC PDP-1103, which was used in the nuclear industry, I was able to jump into a fresh technology field that offered big incomes and big demand.

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