Confessions of an Accidental IT Professional, Chapter One

 

It’s Easter 1979.  Mr. She and I are living in a tiny house we bought for the princely sum of $7,200 (all we could afford), somewhere in Pittsburgh’s low-rent district, amongst the druggies and the motorcycle gangs. Monthly mortgage payment: $71.97.  Rather abrupt investment in learning necessary self-defense techniques and maneuvers on the part of this English girl: Priceless.  Dad, I hope you’re proud.

Also around are a few lovely older neighbors of varying ethnicities who welcome us, and make it bearable when the drug-sniffing, dog-fighting, knife-throwing, house-burgling, and shooting stops.

Mr. She’s three kids, ages at that time something like 12, 10, and 9, come to stay for the weekend.  Mr. She retires to bed with a filthy cold.  Fortunately, he’s borrowed for the Easter break, an IBM 5100 portable computer from Duquesne University’s Business School.  This gives me something interesting and new to do with his still-rather-resentful kids from his first marriage.

We investigate how this thing works.  We discover, among the magazines beloved at that time by Mr. She (it may have been in BYTE), a printed BASIC program for a game called “Hunt the Wumpus.”

This, dear readers, was my first exposure to computer programming. (I’d been an English major in both the BA and MA program at Duquesne University myself; that’s where I met Mr. She.)

We typed the instructions (hundreds of lines) into the computer.  We fixed the typos and debugged the errors.  We figured out what all the instructions meant and how they worked.  We figured out how to save the program to tape and send the program printout to the primitive dot-matrix printer, along with the rest of it. (I still have the output; see photo at the top of this post. Imagine, if you will, children typing this in and getting all the words, the numbers, and the punctuation exactly right.) We played the game. What a hoot!

Then–because we’d figured out the underlying logic, we made alterations.  Changing the number of rooms.  Changing the directions.  Changing the prompts.  Changing the alerts.  So, “I smell a Wumpus!” became “I smell Michael’s stinky feet!” and the directions changed to match the new conditions as we went.

We had a blast.  And we were sad when, after the Easter break, the machine had to go back.

But we remembered.

Over the next couple of years, Mr. She, who always led this project, immersed himself in the new technology.  We bought an Atari 400 (not the strictly game player, but an actual programmable computer).  I didn’t like the membrane keyboard, so I found a “clickable” keyboard that could be wired in and attached to make it easier and more enjoyable to use, and I did that.  When my stepson Michael suffered a catastrophic head injury in December 1981, Mr. She invented and programmed (using player-missile graphics, quite an advanced concept for the time) some games for Michael to play that could be manipulated with a joystick using his then very basic motor control.

We joined the local Atari Users Group. And we enjoyed every moment of it.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, I finished up at school.  I loved writing, and–much as I loved literature–I mostly loved writing factual, technical, instruction manuals, something I’d had a bit of exposure to in my last year at university, and which, as a result of my efforts, a few folks had told me they thought I might be quite good at, taking technical concepts (which I’m not always completely fluent with, but the outlines of which I can usually grasp), and translating them for non-technical users).

So I thought I’d be set since–at that time–Pittsburgh still retained many of the Fortune 500 and other major industrial company headquarters within its city limits: Westinghouse, Rockwell International, US Steel, PPG, Koppers, Bayer, and so on.  Surely, I thought, one of these outfits would recognize and value my obvious talents and possible contributions!

But, no.  Hard to accept at the time; yet, ultimately and as it turned out, the most felices of culpae.

Late in 1979, I signed on with Kelly Services (Kelly Girls!)** a temporary agency that got me a short-term job at a Pittsburgh law firm, answering the telephone and getting coffee for the clients and the partners.

That turned into my first full-time real job, at the princely sum of $500 per month (well below, however you slice it, the current “living wage)–and yet, as luck would have it, the next chapter on my IT career journey.

**Thank God for the summer between my junior and senior year in high school when I decided that learning touch typing might be a good idea.  No idea why that entered my head.  Grateful that it did.  I’ll never forget my instructor, Allen Walbert, a US WWII Army veteran. He was a hard-charger and a hard-[expletive].  I earned a “C” for the course, the only one in my entire high school career, but the skills I did learn (even without any particular distinction) stood me in excellent stead for the rest of my life.  The only reason I got the “Kelly Girl” gig was because I could pass the typing test.  Thank you, Mr. Walbert.

Published in General
This post was promoted to the Main Feed at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 43 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald
    @Jose

    I’ve heard multiple veterans recount how, if one could type, no matter what ones training or assigned job, one would be snatched for orderly room duty.  Not a great job, but indoors, mostly office hours, and out of the weather. 

    I never took a typing class – had no interest and saw no potential.  During my first duty assignment I realized my mistake and taught myself.

    • #1
  2. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Our high school offered a typing course for college prep students, so I signed up for it. I realized that typed essays were favorably viewed by my teachers, but typing without knowing how to type was sheer drudgery.

    We learned on big professional office manual typewriters, with one trick: all of the keys were covered with metal caps, so you never once had the option of looking at the key to cheat. It was remarkable how quickly we learned how to know where we were by touch. Moving from manual to electric keyboards was easy.

    I could produce an essay faster than just about any of my peers, and when I entered the computer era I could work faster than most people.  Even in my dotage, I’m a pretty quick typist.

    It was probably the single most valuable high school course I took.

     

    • #2
  3. OccupantCDN Coolidge
    OccupantCDN
    @OccupantCDN

    I remember the Atari 400/800 computers. I wanted one so badly back then – but ended up with a VIC 20… Mostly because it was cheaper, and was sold at the local “Bay” department store…

    Had very similar experiences, typing in dozens if not hundreds of lines of basic code, read from a magazine. To spend hours debugging the game…

    For years Byte magazine was one of my consistent monthly purchase at the local book store, where I first read Jerry Pournelle, Chaos Manor was often the first article I would read on the bus home after school.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    J took touch typing one summer in junior high school so I’d be able to type my own term papers.  It made the computer science degree a lot easier.

    • #4
  5. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Youngsters… Sheesh…

    First computer I used/programmed, in 1973:

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    P.S.  I might still be able to type “CONTINUE” faster than anyone alive.

    • #5
  6. Chuck Coolidge
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    You made me think of an IBM salesman that came by my office in Dallas to demonstrate the IBM5100.  

     

    • #6
  7. Chuck Coolidge
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Youngsters… Sheesh…

    First computer I used/programmed, in 1973:

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    P.S. I might still be able to type “CONTINUE” faster than anyone alive.

    Built an Altair a year or so later. Still in Dallas.

    • #7
  8. Chuck Coolidge
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    I remember the Atari 400/800 computers. I wanted one so badly back then – but ended up with a VIC 20… Mostly because it was cheaper, and was sold at the local “Bay” department store…

    Had very similar experiences, typing in dozens if not hundreds of lines of basic code, read from a magazine. To spend hours debugging the game…

    For years Byte magazine was one of my consistent monthly purchase at the local book store, where I first read Jerry Pournelle, Chaos Manor was often the first article I would read on the bus home after school.

    Loved Byte! 

    • #8
  9. Chuck Coolidge
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    Percival (View Comment):

    J took touch typing one summer in junior high school so I’d be able to type my own term papers. It made the computer science degree a lot easier.

    Would have been about 1961 took typing.  Manual typewriter.  (Best I did was 50 WPM.)

    To this day I’m glad I took it!

    • #9
  10. Chuck Coolidge
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    Thank you for your writings:  Many memories you stir up, mostly warm.

    • #10
  11. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Chuck (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Youngsters… Sheesh…

    First computer I used/programmed, in 1973:

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    P.S. I might still be able to type “CONTINUE” faster than anyone alive.

    Built an Altair a year or so later. Still in Dallas.

    Yes, I was a subscriber to Popular Electronics then.  The Altair 8800 issue was dated January ’75 but actually came out in December ’74.

    But of course all of those were pretty useless on their own.  You had to add interfaces and stuff, even for a “TV Typewriter” which was another separate gadget, a way to save money over having a “real” terminal.

    And the IMSAI 8080 was far superior in many ways.

    Not that I was very interested anyway though, I was using computers in school that could do real things and would have cost $20,000 or more to buy.

    What bugged me about all of those newcomers, though – and kinda still does today really – is that all of their “front panels” are basically fake.  None of those switches actually does anything the way the PDP-8 did.  Nor are the lights (or LEDs) actually showing true machine status.  The switches are just “inputs” and the lights are just “outputs.”  The “front panel” is actually a small ROM chip with short programs that instruct the CPU to input switches or output “lights” when triggered.

    The “fakeness” of all that is what keeps me from even buying a PDP-8 or PDP-11 simulator box that, while it has an authentic-looking front panel, is actually software running on some kind of programmable chip.  Like Kirk said to Picard, “it’s not REAL.”

    For “realness” it’s hard to do better than the PDP-12.  I had a few of those, starting with one that I more or less had to rebuild (most of the modules had been removed, but fortunately I had a chart of where they belonged), in my parents’ garage.

    It didn’t look as nice as this, but it was the same model:   (The “screen” there isn’t actually a monitor, it’s basically a 12″ OSCILLOSCOPE.  But there was software available to “DRAW” text on it so it could be used as a console display and the teletype keyboard was used just for input and without using paper.  The display was of course also much faster than printing, and the software made use of A/D inputs that were standard on the ’12, as a kind of “cursor” for easy scanning through programs etc.)

     

    MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

     

    • #11
  12. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    In the 80s, when I was planning to start a computer school, I had collected some PDP-12 models and -8 models and even a couple -15 models (THOSE are gorgeous!  Possibly my all-time favorite computer ever!) and some mainframes (a dual-CPU PDP-10 system from Intel in Hillsboro, a 2065 from Columbia University where among other things it was the repository for KERMIT development) and more, but that’s when my ulcerative colitis started, I couldn’t work, and I lost everything in storage.

    • #12
  13. Juno Delta Whiskey Coolidge
    Juno Delta Whiskey
    @Cato

    My first was an Amiga 2000, back in 1991. Determined much of the course of my life.

    • #13
  14. Casey73 Coolidge
    Casey73
    @Casey73

    Mad Gerald (View Comment):

    I’ve heard multiple veterans recount how, if one could type, no matter what ones training or assigned job, one would be snatched for orderly room duty. Not a great job, but indoors, mostly office hours, and out of the weather.

    I never took a typing class – had no interest and saw no potential. During my first duty assignment I realized my mistake and taught myself.

    I volunteered for the draft in 72 right out of high school. College after high school wasn’t the world I grew up in. After high school you got a job if you didn’t already have one. If you lived at home you paid room and board. But I wanted to get out of the small town I’d grown up in and the army was happy to have me as Vietnam was winding down.

    I needed one credit to fill my senior year academic requirements so my dad, a national guard officer, suggested taking typing as he did much hunt and peck typing for his national guard duties. I would never have been drafted as conscription ended in 73, but the army wanted 3 years for guaranteed training and I wasn’t willing to risk an extra year if I didn’t like army life. As a volunteer I was only committed to 2 years. The army recruiter couldn’t guarantee they’d make me a clerk, but said if I could touch type, most likely they would, and they did.

    My first job after training was as the company clerk in a supply and transport battalion in Korea. It was a great job for a lowly E2 private. You worked for the first sergeant and company commander and, because you were required to do the Morning Report early each day, you were exempt from extra duties such as guard duty, and other unpleasant after hours work. I replaced the outgoing clerk who was 4 years my senior. He trained me in the official day to day routines and the unofficial, somewhat illegal, but common under the table transactions that army clerks did as favors for friends and sometimes for senior NCOs and junior officers for little extra income.

    And like many company clerks, I kept a forged liberty pass in my wallet which gave me unlimited freedom off post after hours. As long as I showed up for work each day and did my job, nobody questioned it. Back then infantry guys called clerks REMFs. It never bothered me because it beat humping the DMZ with live ammo 13 miles north of us. Our Quonset huts kept us relatively warm, dry, and I had access to coffee all day long. I ended up spending 6 years in the army as a happy REMF doing two tours in Korea.

    • #14
  15. She Member
    She
    @She

    Mr. She, who came by his creds a bit more honestly than did I, started out with two years at Carnegie Tech, before he decided that a lifetime of math wasn’t in his future, and he bailed and joined the USMC.  While still in the reserves, he worked his way though a BA and MA in English at Duquesne University, and his PhD at Pitt, where he studied with Allan Markman, who created the first computerized concordance of a Middle English poet and is still recognized as a pioneer in the field.  (A concordance is an alphabetized word list from a work or works (leaving out the obvious, such as conjunctions, prepositions, and pronouns, etc), together with citations of passages in which each word appears.)  Markman and Mr. She continued the work and the programming for other Medieval writers, on–I think–an IBM 350.  This would have been in 1964 or so.  He never lost his fascination with the technology.

    • #15
  16. She Member
    She
    @She

    Chuck (View Comment):

    OccupantCDN (View Comment):

    I remember the Atari 400/800 computers. I wanted one so badly back then – but ended up with a VIC 20… Mostly because it was cheaper, and was sold at the local “Bay” department store…

    Had very similar experiences, typing in dozens if not hundreds of lines of basic code, read from a magazine. To spend hours debugging the game…

    For years Byte magazine was one of my consistent monthly purchase at the local book store, where I first read Jerry Pournelle, Chaos Manor was often the first article I would read on the bus home after school.

    Loved Byte!

    I loved BYTE too.  We also picked up COMPUTE! and Antic (named after the Atari chip), both of which had plenty of type-in programs for games and other useful tasks.  We ended up with several 400/800 cartridges, numerous third-party games and (tremendous upgrade this!) a Rana disk drive for long-term storage and retrieval, as well as a Covox Voice Master, a rudimentary voice recorder and playback, with which the kids very much enjoyed teaching the computer to swear.

    Along the way, we picked up bootlegged  pre-release copies a couple of real treasures from the early days of George Lucas’s partnership with Atari, Ballblazer and Rescue on Fractalus. I remember being quite shocked by the sudden appearance of the bad guy banging on the spaceship window in the latter.

    It’s probably been about ten years since I’ve fired it all up, but last time I tried, everything still worked.  Perhaps I’ll give it a go here soon and see what happens.

     

    • #16
  17. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Casey73 (View Comment):

    And like many company clerks, I kept a forged liberty pass in my wallet which gave me unlimited freedom off post after hours. As long as I showed up for work each day and did my job, nobody questioned it. Back then infantry guys called clerks REMFs. It never bothered me because it beat humping the DMZ with live ammo 13 miles north of us. Our Quonset huts kept us relatively warm, dry, and I access to coffee all day long. I ended up spending 6 years in the army as a happy REMF doing two tours in Korea.

    You just reminded me of my days in USAF Officer Training School. The second half of your training was practicing some kind of cadet officer leadership. I was not a star, so my ‘promotion’ was to Cadet Captain in charge of barracks maintenance. It turned out that I was the conduit for people in each flight who needed to pass the weekday inspection so they could spend the weekend in a motel in San Antonio instead of cleaning up demerits. I soon discovered that I had the right to drive on campus (instead of marching alone) if I was involved in getting cleaning machinery repaired. So as soon as I figured that out, I put a broken floor buffer in my car’s trunk (we were allowed to have personal cars at OTS). Then I could drive anywhere I wanted on Lackland because I could say that I was eventually headed for the buffer repair shop.

    It’s pretty funny how fast you can figure out interesting ways around the rules in the military. And how a mundane looking job could make your life a lot easier.

     

     

    • #17
  18. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Chuck (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    J took touch typing one summer in junior high school so I’d be able to type my own term papers. It made the computer science degree a lot easier.

    Would have been about 1961 took typing. Manual typewriter. (Best I did was 50 WPM.)

    Our teacher could do 100-120 wpm, and I tried to emulate her. I think I got to 80+  by the end of our course.

    To this day I’m glad I took it!

     

    • #18
  19. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    My mother always bitterly said that a girl should never learn how to type, because then she would be pigeonholed into secretarial work. 

    Which was always kind of funny, since she typed like a demon, and had a long academic and professional career without ever being a secretary. 

    • #19
  20. GlennAmurgis Coolidge
    GlennAmurgis
    @GlennAmurgis

    I got into IT in a similar manner. I had 1 computer class in university (my major was business/econ double major). I also had a background in construction (worked summer jobs) – I was in a job fair and got in line for what I thought was a general contractor but turned out it was EDS (Ross Perot’s old company) – they just got bought by GM and needed lots of people. I gave them my resume and didn’t think I would get a call back – they called me back, hired me and I have been in this fields for 35 years. All of the knowledge was done on the job. 

    • #20
  21. She Member
    She
    @She

    GlennAmurgis (View Comment):

    I got into IT in a similar manner. I had 1 computer class in university (my major was business/econ double major). I also had a background in construction (worked summer jobs) – I was in a job fair and got in line for what I thought was a general contractor but turned out it was EDS (Ross Perot’s old company) – they just got bought by GM and needed lots of people. I gave them my resume and didn’t think I would get a call back – they called me back, hired me and I have been in this fields for 35 years. All of the knowledge was done on the job.

    Good for you.  It’s one thing (or maybe it’s two) to be in the right place at the right time, but it’s another to step through the door and take the win.  I’ve always felt incredibly lucky that things turned out as they did for me, and also known that–once I got my foot through the door–I worked incredibly hard to deserve the chance that was offered. 

    • #21
  22. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    I had an Atari 2600, then an 800, then a 130xe.  Ahhh, the dawn of computer gaming.  Brings back memories . . .

    • #22
  23. She Member
    She
    @She

    Stad (View Comment):

    I had an Atari 2600, then an 800, then a 130xe. Ahhh, the dawn of computer gaming. Brings back memories . . .

    They were fun times. 

    • #23
  24. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    I took a typing class in summer school circa 1978 or so.  But it never really took.  I’m very fast two-fingered typist.  I took a timing test back in the early ’90s and I could type 40-some words per minute with decent accuracy (Several years as a COBOL programmer will do that to you).   As I’ve gotten older my accuracy has gone way down.  I was typing in a chat window to a co-worker a few years ago and had so many typos that he replied back “What language is that?”

    I also learned while  answering middle-of-the-night support calls that I can’t type at all in a dark room.  I’m not really aware of looking at the keyboard, but apparently I do.

    I have an uncle who was a clerk-typist in the army.  He could type more than 90 words per minute.  About 20 years ago he had a snowblower accident and lost the tips of a few fingers at the first knuckle.  Once he healed, he said the biggest problem he had was that he couldn’t touch type anymore.

    • #24
  25. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    It’s interesting to me that, at least around here, the schools don’t teach keyboarding classes, despite pretty much requiring every student to use a computer for every class.

    • #25
  26. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Stad (View Comment):

    I had an Atari 2600, then an 800, then a 130xe. Ahhh, the dawn of computer gaming. Brings back memories . . .

    Actually the dawn of computer gaming was SpaceWar on the PDP-1, in the early 60s.

    That was before even the simple text games of Star Trek, since Star Trek didn’t begin until 1966.

     

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDP-1

     

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spacewar!

     

    • #26
  27. Daphnesdad Member
    Daphnesdad
    @Daphnesdad

    When Wife.1 was in law school (1972), her class was invited to see a new (personal) computer.  One of her classmates

    exclaimed, “It’s a TYPEWRITER.  I don’t TYPE.”

    Wife.1 was quite the typist, however, and confided to me that without her shorthand and typing skills she may not have finished law school.

    • #27
  28. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Daphnesdad (View Comment):

    When Wife.1 was in law school (1972), her class was invited to see a new (personal) computer. One of her classmates

    exclaimed, “It’s a TYPEWRITER. I don’t TYPE.”

    Wife.1 was quite the typist, however, and confided to me that without her shorthand and typing skills she may not have finished law school.

    I’m trying to think of what “personal computer” existed in 1972, the Intel 8080 didn’t even come out until 1974.  The 8008 was in 1972 but it wouldn’t have made a useful PC.

    Was it really just one of those IBM Selectric typewriters with some built-in memory?

    • #28
  29. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Headedwest (View Comment):

    Casey73 (View Comment):

    And like many company clerks, I kept a forged liberty pass in my wallet which gave me unlimited freedom off post after hours. As long as I showed up for work each day and did my job, nobody questioned it. Back then infantry guys called clerks REMFs. It never bothered me because it beat humping the DMZ with live ammo 13 miles north of us. Our Quonset huts kept us relatively warm, dry, and I access to coffee all day long. I ended up spending 6 years in the army as a happy REMF doing two tours in Korea.

    You just reminded me of my days in USAF Officer Training School. The second half of your training was practicing some kind of cadet officer leadership. I was not a star, so my ‘promotion’ was to Cadet Captain in charge of barracks maintenance. It turned out that I was the conduit for people in each flight who needed to pass the weekday inspection so they could spend the weekend in a motel in San Antonio instead of cleaning up demerits. I soon discovered that I had the right to drive on campus (instead of marching alone) if I was involved in getting cleaning machinery repaired. So as soon as I figured that out, I put a broken floor buffer in my car’s trunk (we were allowed to have personal cars at OTS). Then I could drive anywhere I wanted on Lackland because I could say that I was eventually headed for the buffer repair shop.

    It’s pretty funny how fast you can figure out interesting ways around the rules in the military. And how a mundane looking job could make your life a lot easier.

     

     

    My father was drafted into the U.S. Army late in World War II. Because he could read, write, and type, he was assigned to clerk/typist duty in a motor pool that was part of the effort to chase the retreating Germans back to Germany. He was always surprised at how many of his drafted peers were functionally illiterate. The clerk/typist job not only kept him indoors most of the time, but also gave him access to communications intended for the officers, knowledge of which he exploited to get himself sent home sooner than many of his peers. Because he could also do math, philosophically wouldn’t gamble, and didn’t drink alcohol (so he was never drunk), he always served as trusted scorekeeper for the group poker and other gambling games. 

    • #29
  30. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Percival (View Comment):

    J took touch typing one summer in junior high school so I’d be able to type my own term papers. It made the computer science degree a lot easier.

    When I was in junior high (1969) my school had a summer typing class for boys, which was an experiment. There had long been typing classes for girls, since girls would be going on to jobs that required knowing how to type. But trying to get boys to try it was a new idea. Summer was the time to try it so the other boys wouldn’t make fun of those of us who chose to take typing. That turned out to be one of the most valuable classes I had, as I have used that skill ever since.

    When our children were in elementary school (early 1990s) the school district in which they were enrolled anticipated personal computers becoming common, and taught all students touch typing. Which both of our children found very useful as they continued schooling. We were surprised therefore when we moved to a different school district (different state) and found that their school peers had not been taught touch typing. 

    • #30
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.