Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why I Took Computer Science

I went to college to get educated, back when people thought they could be successful even if they didn't go to college. (Taking manufacturing jobs. Wonder how that worked out for them?) I took this two credit class called Math 111A, which featured programming the pdp-8, and CDC Cyber 6600. And programming the pdp-8 emulator on the CDC 6600.

Of course this course was taught by a grad student. And it was arguably the worst instruction I received in college. Someone asked how to name variables. The teacher said, "Name them anything you like. Call them Kirk, Spock, and McCoy." So my first program had variables called Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. I didn't understand the difference between symbolic constants that named memory locations (variables) and symbolic constants that named constant values. It was amazing I ever got my programs to run.

There was an actual pdp-8, a filing-cabinet-sized microcomputer with almost 8,000 gates(!) and actual magnetic core memory. You fed it programs using the paper tape reader on an ASR-33 Teletype. First you toggled in a simple loader on the front panel switches. Then you used that loader to load the RIM loader off paper tape. Then you used the RIM loader to load your program. The machine was so mechanically flakey that it was even money it would stay up this long.

On the strength of this vast experience, I applied for a programming job, which ended up making me spending money the rest of the way through school.

My college GPA intersected with the Department of Computer Science's requirements during exactly one academic quarter, which coincidentally turned out to be the quarter I applied. After that the decision seemed to have been made.

The summer between my Junior and Senior year was The Energy Crisis; the first time energy stopped being ridiculously cheap and infinitely available. Campus authorities went around turning off the A/C to all the buildings on campus. The only exception was the Hospital. And the Academic Computer Center. Seems the mainframes like it cool. This cemented my already firm intention to go into software.

After school, I took my first full-time software job at Fluke in Everett WA. Of course by then I had a lot invested in being a software engineer, but there were two more events that confirmed my decision. I watched a summer EE intern destroy an irreplaceable prototype display tube. He powered it up. There was too much current in one column driver, and the column wire burned up, making this sad little "tink" noise as it died. This increased the current in all the other columns. You could hear it die, "Tink. Tink. Tink, tink, tink, tink-tink-tink-tink-tink." It was totally not his fault. The driver chips for this display weren't available yet, and we were were overdriving chips for a lower voltage display. But he felt so bad. I liked the notion (not completely correct) that when software crashes all you lose is time.

I had an EE colleague at Fluke named Jim Lenker. Jim was a thrill-seeker. He drove too fast. He went scuba-diving alone. He was missing a finger on one hand that he had cut off in an accident. But I noticed that when he worked with high-voltage circuits, he put his left hand in his back pocket to prevent making a circuit across his heart. Computers were all 5 Volts at the time. You can scarcely feel 5 Volts on your tongue. I liked that.

No comments:

Post a Comment