How PCs Saved My Career

Many people today grew up with CDs and wonder what a vinyl record is, have always been around a personal computer with a graphical user interface and wonder what a command line is, and do not know a world without cell phones. I started in the older world, crossed into today’s world, and here is why PCs saved me.

I first became a computer programmer in the Summer of 1985, working on a Digital Equipment Corporation factory automation product called Baseway, whose largest installation was at a General Motors plant in Michigan. Baseway was a fascinating product, and was called a supervisory level application. Using DECnet, it controlled PDP-11 computers, which in turn controlled the Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), and finally held the instructions that were downloaded to each device like a welder or paint unit.

Life seemed easier, and I was working in a traditional programming environment. We knew a little about the computers to which were connected with “dumb” VT220 terminals. Soon we would know about computers at a much deeper level, because personal computers (PCs) were really taking off. That happened for me in 1990. Long before the advent of the Windows 95 Registry or even Windows NT, there was DOS and the joint IBM/Microsoft operating system, OS/2. On both systems, there were two files you had to know about , config.sys and autoexec.bat .

As a software developer, you had to know how and why you needed to edit these files to change the configuration of the PC. This was to make sure your development tools worked, and to understand what your customers would encounter, when your software was installed. Configure these files incorrectly, and your computer would not boot, let alone work correctly. At first, I resisted diving into this new area. I wanted to go back to the old way of doing things, but as your job has a habit of doing, I found myself being dragged more or less kicking and screaming into this new world, that included not only programming, but a knowledge of computer architecture and configuration as well, both for configuration and for programming.

PCs injected a spirit of poking around to solve problems, like configuring config.sys. It was something I had previously not been comfortable doing, even though I knew good software engineers had to have this knowledge to configure Digital’s flagship VMS operating system. Installing VMS, required a lot of knowledge, even though the hardware and software were both produced by the same vendor.

I have to confess, this style of learning turned out to be well suited for me, and I have grown to enjoy it.

The knowledge required to use, configure, and program for PCs has made its way even into computer programming languages, some old, like Common Lisp, but others new, like Haskell, Scala, Clojure, and Python. Programmers and enthusiasts are encouraged to poke around, to experiment, and learn.

Now, there is a need in our environment for more technology knowledge, how to use at an expert level, Excel, Access, and other desktop applications, while still supplying systems integration tools, those software utilities needed to transfer data between systems, like readying water meter reads for billing.

I can’t say I’m in love with the new direction, but it is inevitable, and my experience has been to take an exploratory attitude towards the change, and besides, it’s much better than being dragged.


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