Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dear Young Geek: I Am You in 30 years.

I'm having an anniversary: I've been programming computers since I was 13. That's not a big deal nowadays --plenty of kids start much younger. I feel old, though: It's my 30th anniversary of programming.

Back when I was 13, I knew no one like me. Folks in Ohio had seen nothing else like me. No one I knew had a home computer. I turned in my homework printed on a dot matrix printer. I was a new thing. People would visit our house and find me, the kid with the computer, remarkable. I don't think it occurred to anyone to call me a geek. Were there even geeks, then? I don't think the phrase computer nerd existed.

Kids, today, are like me, back then. The kids have interesting gadgets, and they learn to program at a young age. Older folks say that kids spend too much time in front of a screen. Today's youth plays cool computer games -- my games were black-and-white with giant pixels, but I thought they were cool. Way back then.

How Did I Get Here?

In 1979, I snuck-in to see the movie Alien. In the film, the shipboard computer, called Mother, blew my mind. That computer could display messages on a screen and seemed to have a personality. I knew right then that I had to make something like that. (I was too young to know about HAL).

A few months later, I convinced my dad to lend me $600 for a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I black-and-white computer with 4K of memory. I was in heaven. The computer couldn't do much, but I learned BASIC from the manual that came with it. And I typed in programs from magazines like BYTE. And I saved those programs on a cassette tape. And I learned. And learned.

In other parts of the world, the seeds of new industries were being sown back then. In California, Steve Jobs and the Woz had started Apple computer three years before. I hadn't heard of Steve Jobs. If I had, I wouldn't have cared -- he was old. Bill Gates and his pals were working on the Microsoft Basic. Hadn't heard of them, either. The IBM "Personal Computer" would be coming in a couple more years. I was pretty sure I'd never be able to afford anything from IBM.

I kept programming, though. In junior high, I got a summer job at an architecture firm. I wrote software to estimate air-conditioning for buildings using an Apple II computer. In high school, I worked after school as a programmer writing some civil engineering software.

At university, I studied Electrical Engineering. They taught me FORTRAN which was ancient, already, on a VAX . The Computer Science department wouldn't even let engineering students audit the C class. The professor told me I probably wouldn't understand pointers -- I'd been writing assembly language for 5 years by then :)

Later came jobs as a C programmer. Then the object-oriented revolution: I was a C++ programmer. Windows! Visual Basic.

Everything really accelerated as the Internet replaced the dial up services in the mid 90's: HTML, JAVA, PHP, Ruby, Python, C#, Haskell, to name a few.

I worked at a bunch of high-tech start-ups, and even got to make some money doing what I love.

Now everybody is a Geek!

Looking back, I sure did a lot of programming over the last 30 years. I spent a lot of time glued to a computer monitor. I think I turned out okay.

Nowadays, I play Xbox360 and Wii games on my HDTVs. And I have a half dozen PC's and Macs around the house. I have a cool cell phone. My job is on the Internet. I work from home, in whatever country I'm living in. I Twitter, Facebook, Link-In, MySpace, and I Google. I don't do Chat Roulette, but I know what it is. I still program a computer every day.

I may be a little unusual. But I know many people, now, who share my interests.

Where Are We Headed?

Thirty years from now, all of today's new-fangled gadgets will sound as ancient as my late-70's TRS-80 Model I.

The pundits wonder what this new Internet generation will grow up to be like. Now, I have a 12 year old son, and I wonder what he will be like...

Will these kids have interpersonal, real-life skills? Will they be able to distinguish between the computer world and reality? Will they find the real world boring? Will they read books or know how to use a pencil? Will they have spent a huge chunk of their life in front of a computer monitor? What will all these computers do to their brains?

I have an answer, and it's based on my personal experience: These kids will be fine. The games won't turn them into morons. The Internet won't fry their brains. They will grow up to be regular people -- some of them may be engineers and scientists.

And with any luck, the geeky kids that are learning to program today will still be having a great time.


Geoff said...

We were born much too soon. But you're a kid. My first computing experience came in high school--1967! Pre Internet? Hell, it was pre video display! Everything was entered on punched tape or Hollerith cards. My first programs were written in Fortran.

I don't program professionally, but I write code and design websites all the time. I also build my own PCs.

I will be 60 at my next birthday and I'll be damned if technology thinks it's going to pass me by.

Jorge Monasterio said...


I hope I still have your great attitude in 27 more years :)

>> We were born much too soon.

I totally agree. And what's funny is that most people pine for the "good old days."!!! In a lot of ways, today is way better.

Jorge Monasterio said...

I hope I can add by then, too: 17.

Gregory said...

I'm just a couple years behind you but not by much.

I loved the TRS-80 model 1. I had great fun getting into programming and BBSs on that thing. Pascal/80 FTW! :)

I have to agree with Jorge that today is much better. Pine for the old days? Fire up an emulator. Better yet, recreate the platform you loved (minimig anyone?)

The abundance, however, can be overwhelming at times but I do love it.

Thanks for the flashback.

Jorge Monasterio said...


I dont' feel enough nostalgia to find a TRS-80 emulator :)

But it would be neat to see the real thing again. I'll have to find out if the Computer History Museum ( has a Model I -- it's not to far from me.

Jorge Monasterio said...

Here is a related article... Pervasive Myths about Older Software Developers

Ubik said...

Nostalgia always make us feel that old days were the good ones. Im sure they were the special ones.

Nice blog!

Ubik said...

Nostalgia always make us feel that old days were the good ones. Im sure they were the special ones.

Nice blog!

chris said...

great story. Yes, I remember 1983, my Vic-20 and piles of Byte magazines. My neighbor would invite me to their house, point to a Timex Sinclair in a TV hutch, and say 'please program it'. I really hadn't thought of it that way until she said it.

Gosh, working from home with an iphone in my sweater pocket. Yes, much better now!

Jorge Monasterio said...

@Ubik: Thanks for the comment.

@Chris: You're right, the future is better ;)