Sunday, April 18, 2010

One of Many Forks in the Journey

I wanted today to write an entry in this blog to convey a little part of my history. It often amazes me the paths we all take in our journeys and there were many forks in mine. The reasons I took some had to do with actual contemplation of the possible outcomes and others were the paths of least resistance. This one fork I want to tell you about today was the first step towards my current career.

Today I'm a self identified computer geek, but growing up my persona wasn't so firmly set. I didn't know it at the time, but my habits and delights did follow a pattern known to others by a rather dismissive name. I had a proclivity for math and sci­ence. I loved reading and watching anything science fiction, fantasy, Lord of the Rings. I was profoundly uncomfortable around people I didn't know, especially women. -AND- I played D&D. It all but screamed NERD.

Years ago I saw a BBC mini-series on PBS dramatizing the life of Charles Darwin. It went from his early college years through the aftermath of the publication of his ground-breaking book. I don't know if this is true or not, but in the first part he's depicted as being pretty aimless and not knowing what he wants to do with his life. I'm not trying to compare myself to his greatness, but at the time I felt the same way about my life.

My father of course wanted me to join the family business and be a salesman. To spend my days calling florists in the region, trying to compel them to buy our flowers and sup­plies. -AND- I of course wanted to do anything but that. Firstly, I'm the oldest among my siblings, which meant that I was the practice child. I had issues with my dad at the time and we didn't get along that well. Second, I'm a nerd, who could barely speak to people and I would have to cold-call florists all day? Please. Finally, florists have to get up before their customers and wholesale florists have to get up before the florists, which of course means that I would spend my entire working life rising before 4:00 am every day, including Sundays. Those of you who know me are probably smiling at the thought of me getting up that early on a daily basis. I mean I have enough trouble getting to work by 9:00 am.

Being rudderless I wasn't sure what to major in when I contemplated college. As it happened, I was a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and since it was math/science/engin­eering related I started out studying architecture at a small college in Rhode Island. I did excel at my technical course requirements, but something for me was lacking in archi­tecture. I was to Frank Lloyd Wright what Salieri was to Mozart in the movie “Amadeus”. I loved architecture, but when it came right down to brass tacks I lacked the necessary talent.

Two years in I decided to leave there with an associates degree and enroll in Rutgers to study civil engineering. However by the middle of the semester I knew that major was a mistake. I may have lacked the talent for architecture, but civil engineering was the total opposite. My first course in this discipline was on water: reservoirs, aquifers, aqueducts, dams, water and sewage treatment, etc. The math was both turgid & difficult and with all due respect to Civil Engineers everywhere, the subject matter bored me to death.

There was however this one little introductory course that all of us TI-30 calculator types at Rut­gers had to take: Intro to Computers for Engineers. They taught us how to use FORTRAN and we had to do our homework an IBM 370 mainframe. Our professor spent a couple of weeks acclimating us to the computer system and JCL using a pre-written “Hello World” program that we had to punch onto cards and run through the card reader. On the next assignment we had to write a new program all by ourselves and I have to admit that I was totally lost.

Remember now that this was 1978. The Apple II computer had only been on the market for a year and a half and no one in my circle of friends had even seen one. (Years later I would learn that most of the computer greats, while their contemporaries were out riding bicycles or playing ball, spent their formative years trolling computer centers. But for me, aside from playing pong on my home TV, I'd never had any previous experience with computers.)

In desperation I went to the professor's office asking for help. He tried to get me to see what I needed to do without actually writing the program for me. After much confusion on my part he finally revealed the missing pieces and I don't know what changed, but it just clicked inside my head. That moment changed my life and long story short I ended up acing the course, changing my major to computer sci­ence, and have spent my working life writing computer code.

At the end of that mini-series on Darwin's life, he's an old man and the actor narrates that he was always thankful he took the job on the HMS Beagle because it gave him something to do with his life. At the time I thought it was an odd thing to say consider­ing how his life's work changed the world, but today I understand what he actually meant. Even if he hadn't changed the world he still would have been thankful for the dir­ection it gave his life and that's how I feel too. I'm thankful that I was able to take that introductory computer course because it really did give me something worthwhile to do with my life.


  1. You dare misspeak the words of our
    secret language of FORTRAN!