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Adventures in Computer Land

"I'll hire you as a data entry clerk."

And thus began my first job in the industry. The speaker of those words was Don Trojan. I had met him almost by accident. I had been looking for a job as a programmer at that point for well over a year and was becoming desperate. Then one cold winter's day, as I was walking along Manhattan's Fifth Avenue near 50th street, I noticed through a large plate-glass window people working at computers. These were minicomputers, the current wonder of the computing world. It was the mid 70s and these machines were literally changing the course of human history. Because of these machines, even small businesses could afford their own computers. One result of this was a tremendous surge both in the effectiveness of small businesses and in their profits. Another result was a surge in the demand for programmers of business applications. Unfortunately, I was not a programmer of business applications. The only program I had completed at that point was a controller for a machine used at Columbia University Hospital to examine the brains of rats. I had written the program in assembler code with no prior training, much to the amazement of Mike Tobin, who was the man who had built the hardware for the system. But my program had little relevance to business systems written in higher level languages.

Looking back on that experience, I am frankly impressed with myself. I knew instinctively, for example, that one should never change code without first changing the flowchart for the code. I also understood instinctively that a program of any size must be broken into constituent parts in order to maintain ones clarity about the system and to maintain ones energy for the project. I had done little reading on the subject of programming, and learned mainly to program by simply doing it, proceeding from very simple programs to the more complex. I had been programming on whatever machines I could get time on for about a year at this point. I began too to understand the "spirituality" of programming, the core of which is to always maintain a clear conception of the project.

I entered the building and knocked at what seemed to be the door to the room where I had seen the computers. A woman came to the door and opened it. Beyond her comely shoulders I saw the machines and people I had seen from the street.

"Hi," I said to her. "I saw your computers from the street. I've worked on that type of machine. Are you looking for programmers?"

"Not sure really. Please come in and have a seat, and I'll tell the manager you're here. He may be looking for people."

Soon a man came out from a door in the back of the room and came over to me. I explained why I had come to his office.

"Well, no, we're not looking for people right now. In fact, none of the people here work for me. They are independents who use the machines to do work for their clients. We're really a sales organization. But there's a guy in an office upstairs who may be looking for people. He's on the fourth floor. I think the office number is 411, but I'm not sure. But if you ask anyone up there where Don Trojan is, they'll tell you. The whole floor belongs to the people he's working for."

So up to the fourth floor I went and found a door with "411" on it. I knocked, and a very handsome young woman opened the door. I told her my reason for coming, and she asked me to come in and have a seat. As she walked away, I sat down in a chair in front of a computer terminal and began examining it. After a few minutes, she came back and pointed to the door she had come out of. "Don's waiting for you."

I walked to the door and entered the room. A thirtyish man of medium height was standing behind the only desk in the room. He was dressed in a slightly ill-fitting suit and vest. On his face was a dark, thick mustache and a beaming smile. The vest, as well as the mustache, had a few tiny flecks on it of what I guessed were the remains of a snack or his breakfast. As I approached him, he held out his hand. I told him my name as we shook. "Glad to meet you. I'm Don Trojan. Please sit down," he said as he pointed to a comfy looking, leather-upholstered chair.

I told him I was looking for work as a programmer. He then began to grill me about my experience. It didn't take long to describe it.

"Well, you don't have the experience I'm looking for, but I'm impressed by the fact that you have done assembler programming and the fact that you have a friend in high places in the industry. (The friend was Mike Tobin.) You were very lucky to find him."

"Well actually he found me, through a mutual friend," I replied.

"Hmm," he grunted as he rubbed his chin. He then began to tell me of his troubles in finding qualified people.

"Well, I answered when he stopped, "the boom in minicomputer development is, it seems to me, the basic problem you're dealing with."

"Yes," he said with a grimace.

"Well, here's my situation. I can't hire you right now, but I'm definitely interested in you. Give me your phone number. I'm sorry I can't do more at the moment."

"Well, I appreciate your time and have enjoyed our discussion," I answered.

We shook hands again and that was the end of my first encounter with a man who would become a great influence on me, both professionally and personally.

Meanwhile, I did have a job in the industry, but not as a programmer. I was supervising the data processing center at Columbia University Hospital. (Mike Tobin had found the job for me.) The hub of the center was an IBM 360 with all of 256 kilobytes of core memory. (To put the latter number in perspective, a smartphone contains at least two billion bytes of core memory.) It was my job to make sure that the computer was booted up in the morning. It was also my job to ensure that as users placed their punch cards in the computer's input tray, they did not place them in front of other cards, i.e, try to butt in line. Basically, I was part low-level technician and part low-level policeman. It was the phone number of this room which I had given Don Trojan, since he was most likely to call me during business hours.

Besides being the source of a more than adequate income, the job gave me access to the mainframe for some of my own programming projects, that is, for the development of my programming skills. It also gave me access to the minicomputer I was using to do the controller project.

One Tuesday afternoon, about three months after my interview with Don Trojan, the telephone in the computer room rang. I picked it up; the caller was Don Trojan. "I would like to hire you," he began. "When can you come to my office?"

"How about day after tomorrow? I'll need to give my manager some time to arrange for a sub while I'm gone from here."

"Sure. Would nine in the morning work for you?"

"Yes, that would be perfect."

"OK, good. So it's Thursday morning at nine then?"

"Right."

"See you then. Have a nice day."

***************

And so it was that, at our Thursday meeting, Don said, "I'll hire you as a data entry clerk. And I'll have you doing programming. If you turn out to be what you say you are, I'll change your title and increase your salary."

The first programming job I got was a print program which reported orders in process. The company manufactured word processing systems. The program was actually one that another programmer had written before she left the company. It didn't work, and the code was poorly written. I tried to save the thing by making changes to it but finally ended up rewriting it.

While I was doing this work, which took almost a week, I got to know one of the other programmers. We both worked after hours and so were alone in the place for a few hours every evening. For her name I'll give only the letter B, because she is a public figure and because during our hours together we became more than colleagues. She was extremely good looking. She was mainly about work and had a very good mind, which, tho' she was barely 23, was already well developed. She had an excellent command of the English language and was a reader. I bring her into this narrative because she taught me a lot about the art of business-applications programming and was a lot of fun to work with. Eventually I would be returning some of her help by creating various programming tools, which I always showed her before anyone else, even the boss.

Within three months, Don had hired a data entry clerk to replace me, and I was doing nothing but programming. Within another three months, it was clear to all but one of the other programmers that I was the best programmer in the company. Don often asked me for advice about dealing with technical problems and always gave me the the most difficult projects.

Soon I was traveling between New York and Houston in order to deal with programming work in Houston as well as work back in New York. The reason for the work in Houston was that the company had its factory there and needed processing in both locations. It also needed communication links between the computers in the two locations. This was a real break for me, because I was assigned the programming for the communication links. For this work, I had the help of a man from an associated company. His name is Gene Gaines. Gene was one of the pioneers of the communications technologies which we now take for granted. At the time, there was no internet available to the general public. As a result, we had to fashion for ourselves crude versions of some of its features. In doing this work, I came to understand a lot about communications and the combining of communications with data processing. I enjoyed the work immensely and was euphoric about the possibilities I saw in it.

Gene and I soon became friends and often dined together, along with B. All of us favored Chinese foods, and I will always remember Gene serving B and myself tea from the nice tea pots that Gene insisted on having at our favorite restaurants. Gene, then about 50 years old, had an enormous fund of stories about the industry and many other things. And he was enormously funny.

And here I will end my story of how I became one of the denizens of Computer Land.


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