How I got "into computers"

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 4:38 PM | comments: 0

Inspired in part by Hanselman's post on how he got started using comprooders, I thought I'd write something similar. In fact, it wasn't until I read his post, filled with similarities, that the intense feelings around my own experience started to come back to me.

I remember seeing TRS-80's at Radio Shack and the Atari 400 and 800 in Sears stores when I was in the last years of grade school. Of course, the only computer that most people had in their homes back then was the Atari 2600, which enjoyed a very long run. I think we got ours for Christmas in 1981, maybe the year after. I still have it somewhere.

In grade six, 1984, my Cleveland elementary school, Ben Franklin, had a TRS-80 on an AV cart, meaning you had to sit next to it and look straight up to see the TV on top of it. I was intensely interested in messing with it, and if there's any recurring theme in my childhood about wanting to use computers, is that I always felt guilty for asking to use them, and adults were quick to write me off as a nuisance for asking.

About the same time, my dad went to some time share presentation or something, and scored an Atari 600XL for his time. He would give that to me within the next year. During the summer of 1986, I spent about two weeks with my aunt, uncle and cousins in New Hampshire. They had an Atari 800XL, with disk drives, and a whole lot of software that I don't think they paid for. Of course, most of the time spent was with games, but I was endlessly fascinated by what the little machine could do. I also thought it was neat to see what Print Shop, probably the best selling software of the time, could do.

The bigger tease that summer, however, was from the math teacher at my junior high who made a casual remark about borrowing one of the IBM PC jr.'s for the summer. The intensity of desire around even the idea that I could spend the summer writing BASIC programs that did, I dunno, draw stuff on the screen, was huge. But the oppressive guilt imposed by previous teachers and family members prevented me from ever following up on it.

I did some fun stuff with the Atari, writing little programs and saving them to the cassette tape drive. One of them was a Wheel of Fortune knock-off. It was text based, but the "wheel" spinning made clicks and progressively slowed down. It's probably the only thing I've ever written that I'd consider an "algorithm."

In 1987, my step-dad got laid off, and for his troubles, they gave him an Apple II+, complete with a pair of disk drives, a green monochrome monitor, and a wide carriage dot matrix printer (that printer went to college with me). In addition to playing Might and Magic and other games, I wrote a program that maintained a Dungeons & Dragons character stat sheet, and saved it to disk. That was awesome. I also figured out how to wire a jack to it to plug the audio into the stereo.

Through high school, my attention shifted to video production, as the city's cable TV studio was in the building. I'd actually work there my junior and senior years, after just popping in and asking about what went on there. I did take a Pascal programming class, and aced it, but I mostly thought about how bad I wanted to make out with cheerleaders (I failed miserably at that).

I double majored in college in radio/TV and journalism, but computers were becoming a big deal in our field. In 1994, we scored a pair of networked digital audio machines, one in the production studio, one in the on-air radio station. We also got a still store, a machine that let us save graphics and pull them up for use on screen. I also got my dad's old IBM PS1 Model 25, the last computer I'd ever have without a hard drive. I did nothing beyond write papers and play Prince of Persia with it.

In 1998, digital video was nearly "affordable" in terms of editing (if a $10k system was affordable), and I bought a system at work. At the same time, I was trying to figure out how to put video online, because the Internet was clearly not going away. It was at that point that I realized you had to learn how to write software to do anything useful on the Internet, and with the acquisition of Alex Homer's Active Server Pages book, I began the road that got me to where I am. (Oddly, he did one of the peer reviews when I wrote my own book.)

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