How I became a programmer

You know those kids who learn to program in assembly at age 12?

I wasn’t one of those.

I grew up around PCs, I was even the first kid on my block with a Local Area Network, but I didn’t program for a long time. I didn’t even know it was possible.  My journalist father was on the cusp of the Computer User revolution; but he didn’t know enough to know how computers were programmed.

Ergo, he didn’t tell me.

In 1993, my school’s computer lab received 386 and 486 PCs. I found the BASIC interpreter and did stupid things like:

20 GOTO 10

I was sure I could do more with it; but didn’t have the vision to know what the ‘more’ part was. It was a novelty, but not a terribly interesting one without context.  Later on that year I opened up the GORILLA.BAS file; but I just didn’t have the vision to play around with it. The game worked the way I wanted it to; why muck with it?

Gorilla.Bas - An oldie and a goodie


Then I was introduced to the TI-93+; a programmable calculator with its own assembly language. Cool, now this has potential, I thought. I had no idea what to do with it; but I at least knew it was there.

I gamed through High school; but never took Mathmatics past Algebra III — I had a high school teacher who was more interested in her Yearbook duties than she was in teaching math.  That was a bummer because up until that point, I thought I was pretty good at math.

I attempted to get into a public university for Computer Science, but was told quite pointedly that I didn’t have the math pre-requisites to do so. I ended up winning a four year full Leadership scholarship for a local Catholic college — and they had Computer Information Systems. Huzzah.

I took Java the first semester along with Introduction to Computer Architecture and Systems; but again the vision thing blocked my path. The Architeture class took me through the physical bit flipping and memory address allocation and whatnot that happens at the very core of the microprocessor, but the Java course was so far removed from that that it didn’t make sense to me how they connected. I needed to go lower level. So I took C++. At the time the public view of Java centered around rotating cubes, and while I dig rotating cubes, I didn’t see how a rotating cube mapped to a memory address instruction.

While taking C++, I had a healthy dose of Data Structures and Algorithms and Database Design. Now this had potential. Finally, something that made sense. The courses were a lot of fun, and although I momentarily bombed on Pointers, I figured those out and was well on my way to doing fun things… Except for the fact that these classes were for the lowest common denominator, in a school that was defined as a Liberal Arts school.

Once again: bummer.

To pass the time, and because someone told me that it was the basis for all web development at that time, I learned Perl (this was right around the time PHP 4 was released, back when it was called Personal Home Page (yikes!)). and proceeded to use it for every day scripting.

Junior year I rounded out the rest of the undergrad CS curriculum (save the senior project courses that closely mirror what software developers actually do on a day-to-day basis), and started drawing up ideas for websites. My first idea was a website that users could log on to to rate and share their experiences at private retailers, a la (which came 2 years later). I never got very far because I was called up, but I always wonder what would have happened if I had launched that site.

Right as I began my senior year, the government decided that it needed me to fulfill my reserve obligation. My Army National Guard Unit was called up and off I went to Iraq.

After I got back from Iraq, I wrote VBA code in for the Army unit I was assigned to. They used an Access Database to track everything that happened in their unit. My job was to make it generate pretty reports and create whizbang features that allowed them to track the disposition of members of the unit daily, and then generate pretty reports for multiple government agencies.  Before I got there, it took an entire day and coordinating with 5 people to do. After I finished, it took 10 minutes and no coordination.

Not bad, huh?

After that ended, and three years after I was called up, I took off the uniform for the last time and went to finish college.  My senior year consisted of a senior project that required us to pick from a stack of problems and fix one of them.  Typically, the local non-profits would ask the College’s CIS chair if he could spare a few students to write a program for them; we were those few students.

I led a group to design, implement, and deploy a Winforms based client-tracking system for a local non-profit charity. The code wasn’t tiered very well, it had an ugly 1-form-tabbed interface, and it crashed a lot. But it worked. This was my second real taste of success.

Due to domestic constraints at the time, I lived in an area that had very little programming prospects for me; and ended up taking a job as a Perl Web Application Developer about 60 miles away.  The work wasn’t much fun, but that was because I was the lone contractor on that particular project.  Thinking that this was how programming was, I opted to leave the job when the contract was up and go into Systems Administration.

How different these two worlds are!  As a programmer I rarely spoke with others, but as a System Administrator, I was in a new environment almost daily, doing something new and different. The job was as varied as the day is long; and there were always improvements to be made.  I promptly used Perl to automate system administration tasks (like waking up the PCs for disk defrags, keeping an active display of which computers were up, etc). Once I finished there, I used C# and the SendKeys API to automate the startup of the Point of Sale computers.

I was good at System administration, but I was in a place where there wasn’t much of a future.  How many SysAdmins do you know that start their own company?

So I went back to programming, and have been for the past few years.

Did I mention that I love every minute of it?


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