My path to geekdom

2005/11/15 at 15:07

The latest trend to sweep blogdom, it seems, is to tell how you got ‘into computers’. So, I thought I would add my story.

When I was in high school (around 1980), a couple of my friends had TRS-80 computers, and they had shown them to me, but I didn’t really get what they were good for. Then our math teacher Mrs. Sparks (also wife of our wonderful band director and mother of my good friend Robert) managed to get her hands on several TRS-80 computers for the school. She wasn’t able to get class time for a computer course, so she offered one before school to any student who was interested. Mrs. Sparks taught BASIC programming, but again, I didn’t see what it was good for, so I didn’t stick with it long.
I think the problem back in high school is that I was not a computer USER before I started learning to be a computer PROGRAMMER (which, I understand, was a common path at the time). And since I wasn’t a math geek, I didn’t really get into the programming itself. I didn’t learn what computers could be USED for.
When I was a sophomore in college (1984-85), I worked for Ralph Read, a professor of German who had been blinded several years before by diabetes. He typed much of his academic work on an IBM Selectric typewriter. He was shocked that I didn’t know how to type, so I bought a used typewriter and a typing book and taught myself to type.
As I started to type my own papers, the first stand-alone word processors came on the market. I bought one that stored a few pages of text in memory, had a one line LCD display and an attached thermal printer. It was a pretty rudimentary word processor, but it was heaven compared to manual typing.
One of my duties for Dr. Read was to help him prepare to teach his beginning German courses. Dr. Read kept his class materials on memo masters in a filing cabinet, and he tended to reuse the same materials from one year to the next with no modifications (which, I guess, was pretty common in the pre-computer era). At this time, the UT German department got its first Macintoshes, and I was one of the first to try them out. I quickly mastered the word processor program (MS Word, I believe) and discovered that I could remove the ribbon from the dot matrix printer and print directly onto the memo masters. This produced high quality masters. Pretty soon, Dr. Read had a new set of masters with the accompanying files on diskette. This way, they could be modified from semester to semester or re-printed easily when the memo master got worn out.
Soon after this, Katie and I bought our first Macintosh, and I went to town with it, mostly with word processing and desktop publishing. I wrote my academic papers on it, of course, and, once I was in grad school, prepared materials for the courses I taught. I also started writing and formatting resumes for other students as an extra small income.
In 1993, I was getting close to completing my Ph.D. in German and translation studies. I had begun to realize that academia was probably not the best career choice for me, so I consciously started looking for other career options where I could use my graduate education. As it happens, I was successful: I got into software development as a computational linguist.
My first full-time job in software development was as a quality assurance engineer. The job required my linguistics background, but it was primarily regular old software QA work. Once I got into it, I realized that I had a high technical aptitude and that I enjoyed the constant intellectual challenges of software development.
Thinking back on my early experiences with the stand-alone word processor and the Macinsoh, I also realized that I had long enjoyed technical challenges, but that I had not previously given much credence to my technical aptitude. I’d always been a geek, but I just hadn’t realized it.