How a historian turned into a computer programmer
My writing buddy Toby Neal wrote a piece just the other day about all the jobs she’s done, roles she’s played in her life. Reading it brought back my own memories; places I’ve been, things I’ve done. I won’t bore you with all of it, but more than one person has asked me how a BA(Hons) graduate in history ended up a computer programmer. So come back with me, into the dim, dark past. (Late-seventies, actually).
I got a scholarship to go to uni. My only ambition was to go to university. I had no career in mind (having long before decided that I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor), I just wanted that piece of paper with my name on it. So there I was, with letters after my name. Now what? Well, to cut to the chase, I tried the army, teaching, clerical stuff and a few other things thrown in and ended up as a clerk in a Government Department. This one just paid money to people, provided they passed all the criteria, of which (needless to say) there were a heap. There weren’t too many computers around then. Just great big IBM mainframes with their own special machine rooms. But small machines were starting to filter through and one clever man I worked with figured you could a write a program to enter the responses for the criteria and thereby generate the appropriate letter to send to applicants. Saves money by avoiding stacks of form letters.
I’d always been led to believe that a programmer had to be good at maths, which I wasn’t. I’d done an aptitude test for programming when I finished uni, and received a polite ‘no thanks’ letter. So I had no ambitions in that respect. I was a dutiful little clerk and collected all the criteria we employed and grouped them for the clever man who would program the computer. I gave the list to our resident genius on a Friday afternoon just before home time. He looked down his nose at me and said, “I haven’t got time for this. You do it.”
My jaw dropped. “What? Me?” I squeaked.
“Yeah, it’s just if… then statements.”
“C’m ‘ere. I’ll show you.”
So I got a thirty second lesson in if… then statements and he disappeared out the door.
I went home in a fug. Not me. I couldn’t do this. I was trained as a reasonable historian, a pretty ordinary teacher. I couldn’t add up to save my life. I drifted through the weekend, doing I can’t remember what, but those bloody criteria wouldn’t go away. If the client answered 1 to question A then B had to be 2…
Monday morning, I took out my list and started writing.
IF $A = 1 then
$B = 2
IF $A = 2 then
$B = 4
You get the idea.
I remember my mentor (let’s call him Jim) came in with his trademark take away coffee in his hand. I stopped him in front of my desk.
“Is this right?” I said.
He tried to hide his grin behind the polystyrene cup. “Yep. Now go enter it into the computer.”
Yes, me. He took me into the ‘computer room’ where the machine sat on a desk, a Wang micro with 4Kb of RAM (yes, four) and two little cassette tape drives, one for the program, one for the data. The data entry girls entered the data (duh) and the program printed out the form letters. I was introduced to the editor on the system and a manual explaining the Wang variant of Basic for this machine.
And I fell in love. Turns out I have impeccable problem solving skills and a great logic engine. And, I might add, the humility to know that if the program is wrong, it’s not the computer, it’s my incorrect instructions. Soon, I attended programming lessons at night school and because this was a very new discipline, I was able to spend hours each evening playing with a small Vax system at a technical school. Then I gave up work for a year to get a qualification so I could get a job as a programmer. The rest, as they say, is history.
History? Isn’t that where we started from?
For the record, the history degree and the teaching qualification came in very handy. Unlike most people in the industry, I could string a sentence together and write a good report. I also knew how to structure and conduct classes to teach people how to use the systems I constructed, and how to give formal presentations. Nothing is ever wasted.
And now I use my programming background to sketch in some details in Morgan’s Choice. What goes around, comes around.