How I got into the computer field

How I got into the computer field

So where do you start? Well, that’s easy. You start at the beginning. –Richard Lowe, Jr.

My life changed on a fateful day, way back in 1979. You see, on that day fate dealt me a card, a very interesting and unexpected card, which caused me to open my eyes and begin, for the first time, making my own decisions. Before that day I was a youngster who did what he was told … afterwards I tentatively began to put the future under my own control.

Up until that fateful day I didn’t think much of computers. In fact, I didn’t know much about them at all. Instead, I was your typical nineteen year old, still living at home, unhappily trying to figure out a way to get out on my own but without any real concept about how to go about it. I was extremely intelligent and extraordinarily naive, with no plans for the future, because, well up until that time I didn’t have to think about the future at all. Others had always thought for me.

I was about to begin my second semester of college, and was desperately trying to find 3 units to fill in my schedule. I needed to take 18 units and I only had 15. It was late in the registration process and all of the “good” classes were taken. I signed up for a number of things, and on a whim (perhaps it was the hand of fate) I penciled in a computer science class as third alternate.

That’s how I got into my very first computer science class – by accident. The class was about the BASIC computer language and I must admit that I was not very excited about it at all. Especially this thing called “computer science lab”. Hey, I was nineteen and believe me, I had better things to do with my time than type away (I was a one finger typer) one some silly machine.

That changed within five minutes after logging onto a computer for the first time. It was instant love. As soon as my fingers touched the keyboard I was enthralled. This was better than anything I had ever experienced before. You see, up until that time I was a young man who got told what to do by everyone. I had to obey my parents, teachers, professors and virtually every other adult. Sure, I did things myself, but I was more or less a puppet on a string.

I remember walking up to the keyboard, the distaste plain on my face. I had just sat through two hours of boring lectures from my teacher, Mr. James, and I wanted to go home. It was so boring!

I sat down and stared at the computer screen. Better get this over with fast, I thought, and pressed the return key. The computer asked me for my username and password, and I entered the values supplied to me by the teacher. I sighed and began laboriously typing the simple ten line program supplied to us by Mr. James.

It took me about fifteen minutes to enter. I ran it and the program produced the desired results. It was pretty simple … the program simply printed a few words and numbers. But … when I typed “RUN” and the program printed these things I felt a chill run down my spine. I know it seems silly, but it had an electrifying effect on me.

My Very First Computer Program

80 LET G=P*H
90 LET N=G-W
120 GOTO 70
900 DATA 2.25,40,3,41,2.97,35,3.1,49
999 END

I looked at the code and began to make changes. I started having fun (this was the first time I had actually had fun at school in years)! This was exciting. Before I knew it, it was ten o’clock and time to go home! I panicked for a few minutes, until kindly old Mr. James came by and showed me how to save my masterpiece.

Another of my first programs

120 LET N=O-N
130 LET N=N*100
140 LET A%-N/500
150 LET B%=(N/100)-(A%*5)
160 LET C%=(N/25)-(A%*20)-(B%*10)-(C%*2.5)
170 LET D%=(N/10)-(A%*50)-(B%*20)-(C%*5)-(D%*2)
180 LET E%=(N/5)-(A%*100)-(B%*20)-(C%*5)-(D%*2)
190 LET F%=N-(A%*500)-(B%*100)-(C%*25)-(D%*10)-(E%*5)
200 PRINT "# OF 5 DOLLAR BILLS:"; TAB(23); A%
210 PRINT "# OF 1 DOLLAR BILLS:"; TAB(23); B%
220 PRINT "# OF QUARTERS:"; TAB(23); C%
230 PRINT "# OF DIMES:"; TAB(23); D%
240 PRINT "# OF NICKELS:"; TAB(23); E%
250 PRINT "# OF PENNIES:"; TAB(23); F%
265 LET N=N*.01

The next few days were incredible. During every spare minute I rushed to the computer lab to work on new creations.

I wrote a simple game (tic-tac-toe), then a more complicated thing called “Wizard War”. Within a few weeks I began learning how to create simple graphics on the special monitors, and I discovered this device called a modem (it ran at a whooping 300 baud!)

Needless to say, I passed that BASIC class with flying colors. I could hardly wait for the next semester, and I signed up for three computer classes. I was so completely enthralled that I even signed up to be one of the student helpers.

One of those classes was about how to program a computer in assembly language. This class was taught by a man who was almost seven feet tall. His name was Frederick, and he was a genius. He could make computers dance, and under his guidance I learned how to make a computer system do exactly what I wanted. During this semester I began to get more serious with my newfound love. I wrote programs to modify the operating system itself.

My First Primitive Assembly Language Program

       .LIST TTM
       MOV #4, R1
       ADD R0, R1
       .END START

Frederick was a good teacher, but what really impressed me was his love of the computer and his ability to make them do what he wanted. I remember one incredible day when two of his friends showed up as a kind of show-and-tell. These two guys spurred me to even greater dreams – Steve Davis and Steve Edwards. As I watched the two of them perform magic on the computer that night I realized that I had found Nirvana.

My Second Assembly Language Program

       .PSECT RGL02
       .LIST TTM
       TST (R0)
       BNE AGAIN
       EMT 46
       .WORD 17.
       .WORD 5
       .WORD 0
       .END START

It was with deep regret that I began the summer break. How would I survive with no computer to play with! Along came a friend name Don – a friend with an extra ticket to an event called DECUS. This was the Digital Equipment Corporation User’s Society and at the time it was one of the biggest events in the computer industry.

At this event I was in complete Heaven. It was one entire week in San Diego, jam-packed with seminars – over 200 of them! I met all of the greats: Ken Olsen, Kirby Altman and hundreds of other people whose names I no longer remember. It was like going to Heaven and meeting all of the Archangels, and for me it was a true religious experience. I had found my calling. I was convinced that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Now all I needed to do was figure out how to turn it into a career.

I didn’t need to worry, as I soon received an offer for a job from Fred. My old friend Don (the guy who had the tickets to DECUS) had recommended me to him. You see, Fred wanted to start a company and he needed a programmer. He knew I was entry-level and that was fine with him.

They would have hired Don, only they had just placed him at Costa Mesa Water District. It would have looked very bad if they turned around and hired him themselves. Instead, they asked Don if he knew of anybody else who’d be interested in working for them. Don recommended me, and Rick asked him to give me a call to find out if I’d be interested.

That phone call from Don changed the course of my life. I still vividly remember that conversation as if it were yesterday.

“Hi”, Don said, “remember me?”

“Of course, stupid”, I replied, “we were just together last week.”

“Yeah, yeah”, he replied, “Boy, have I got news for you. You’re going to love me, you’re going to die.”

“Well, why don’t you spit it out?” I replied.

“Rick, you remember Rick? started his own company called Software Techniques. Well, they need to hire someone quickly, someone willing to work for peanuts. When Rick mentioned this to me, I naturally told him all about you.”

I was absolutely stunned, speechless, for several moments. Then I said, with a quiver in my voice, “Tell Rick I’d like to talk with him.”

“Better, yet”, Don said, “why don’t you call him yourself. Here’s his phone number.”

I wrote down the phone number, thanked Don and hung up. Then I called Rick. A woman answered the phone.

“Hello”, she said.

“Hi”, I said, very nervously, “is Rick in?”

“Yes, hang on a minute. I’ll get him.”

After a few seconds, Rick picked up the phone. “Hi, this is Rick”, he said.

“Hi Rick. My name is Richard Lowe. I was in your MACRO class last semester. Remember me?”

Rick laughed, “That was quick. I only talked with Don a few minutes ago. You sure don’t waste any time, do you?”

“Always fast, always efficient, that’s me.” I said, pleased.

“Well”, Rick said, “I assume you’re interested in the position with our company?”

“Of course”, I said, “When can we talk?”

“Why don’t you come on over to my place for an interview tomorrow, say lunchtime?” he responded.

“Sure”, I said. He gave me directions to his place and bid me good-bye.

I was thrilled. I was elated. I was incredibly happy. I didn’t sleep well at all that night, you know, being super nervous and up-tight. It seemed to take forever for the next day to arrive.

I estimated it would take me two hours to get to Rick’s house, so I left at 8:00 AM. I figured this would give me plenty of time to get lost. I thought I’d need this time since I had never been to Orange County before.

Naturally I got completely lost. Rick told me to travel west on the 15 freeway, then to continue west on the 91. He didn’t bother to inform me that the 15 branched away south, while the 91 continued west. Since I had never traveled this route before, I followed the 15 just like I was told. Thus, I went south for about 40 miles before realizing I should have continued going west. I eventually realized it was the wrong direction, turned around, and went back up to the 91. After that it was smooth sailing all the way to Orange county.

I arrived at Rick’s house two hours early, in spite of getting lost. Since I didn’t want to make a bad impression, I stopped at a nearby restaurant called the Claim Jumper and ate an early lunch. I managed to kill an hour in there.

Finally, I couldn’t wait anymore, so I drove over to Rick’s apartment. This was a large, three story white building. I knocked on the front door, which was answered by his girlfriend, Dorothy. She said hello, and let me in to see Rick.

“Hi Rick. I’m Richard”, I said, extending my hand.

He took my hand and shook it vigorously. “Hi. I remember you from my assembly language class. How was the trip?”

“It was fine”, I said. “In fact, I’ve been sitting in the restaurant across the street for over an hour.”

Rick laughed at that. “I hope you’re this early in all your programming projects”, he said jokingly.

I grinned, totally at ease by now. That was part of Rick’s special magic – he could make anyone feel totally at ease within seconds. He had a powerful gift, and knew how to use it effectively.

“Would you like anything to drink?” Dorothy asked. “We have tea, soft drinks, beer …”

“Tea would be fine”, I said, as she went off to pour everyone something to drink.

“You’re a little early, so just settle back for a while until Steve Davis and Steve Edwards get here”, Rick said. “You remember them, don’t you?”

“How could I forget?” I said. “They’ve been my idols for quite some time. I was really impressed with them when they visited the college.”

“Good. They liked you also”, Rick said. After that, we chatted for the next forty minutes or so. He asked many questions about my personal life, habits, desires and so on. I think he was very happy with what he found out about me.

Steve Davis and Steve Edwards arrived, right on time. I later found out this was one of their hallmarks – they were always, without fail, on time.

The interview went well. This was obviously their first interview, and they didn’t really know what to do. It was also evident that Rick had already decided to hire me, and was now trying to convince his partners of my worth.

I’d brought along some program listings, especially my SPRUTL program that I’d worked on the previous semester. Steve Davis was very pleased with the way I commented the code. He spent quite some time examining that program. I think this little piece of code is what made him decide in my favor.

I later learned that both Rick and Steve Davis were highly in favor of hiring me right away. Steve Edwards, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t that he had anything against me – it was just that he thought hiring an employee was premature. Fortunately for me, Rick convinced him that I was the right person at the right time.

A few minutes later they wrapped up the interview, thanked me, and told me they’d be in touch. I left, and made the long trip home. I knew that I had a job.

When I arrived home, I told my parents I thought I might have a new job in Orange county. They were not happy with my decision. In fact, they tried just about everything they could think of to discourage me. They said they wanted me to continue college and get my degree. I told them I didn’t want a degree, I wanted a good job and my own apartment. I know they had my best interests at heart, but it was time for me to get out on my own.

The code below is a small fragment from my SPRUTL program. I am convinced (based on later conversations with Steve Davis and Rick) that this program is one of the primary reasons I was hired. It not only showed that I knew how to write code in a very difficult programming language (MACRO), but it showed I knew how to make a program more understandable through the use of ample comments.

; Okay, its time to get the user's PPN.
1$:   Jsr Pc, Clrxrb              ; Clean out garbage again (Ugg!)
      Mov #520., (R0)             ; Get ready to find address of JOBDA.
      Tst Firqb  ; Did the Peek succeed?
      Beq 2$     ; It Did (Hurrah)
      Jmp Erpeek ; It failed. (Ye gods)
2$:   Add #8., (R0)               ; Calculate the first offset.
      Tst Firqb  ; Did this peek succeed?
      Beq 3$     ; It worked (Again!)
      Jmp Erpeek ; It failed
3$:   Add #24., (R0)              ; Calculate second offset.
      Tst Firqb  ; Did this Peek succeed?
      Beq 4$     ; It sure did.
      Jmp Erpeek ; It didn't.
4$:   Mov (R0), Uacct             ; Save PPN for later.
.Sbttl Get System header, User Job # and Keyboard #
; Do the UUO to get the system header, users job number, and users
; keyboard number.
      Jsr Pc, Clrfqb               ; Clear out the firqb.
      Mov #Uu.Err, Firqb + Fqfun   ; We want to get error message.
      .Uuo        ; Hah, that was easy.
      Movb Firqb + Fqfun, Ukb      ; Save Keyboard number.
      Movb Firqb + Fqjob, Ujob     ; Save job number.
      Mov #Buffer, R1              ; Point R1 to beginning of Buffer.
      Mov #28., R2; Maximum length of text.
      Mov #Firqb + Fqerno, R0      ; Point R0 to beginning of text.
5$:   Tstb (R0)   ; This character a null?
      Beq 6$      ; Yes, we're done.
      Movb (R0)+, (R1)+            ; put the text into a buffer.
      Sob R2, 5$  ; get another character.
6$:   Clrb (R1)+  ; Make sure text ends with null.
.Sbttl See if user is on a [1,*] account
; See if Uprog, (The user's programmer number), is equal to one. If
; it is, then this user has all privileges, and can do everything, so
; lets not bother looking up his number in the operator table.
      Cmpb Uprog, #1               ; Programmer number a 1?
      Bne 7$      ; Nope. Do all the BS work.
      Mov #2., Upriv               ; Give user full privileges.
      Mov #-1, Uword1              ;
      Mov #-1, Uword2              ;
      Mov #-1, Uword3              ;
      Jmp Priv    ; and go around a lot of work.

The next morning, at 8:00 AM, I called Rick. I wanted to know if I had a job. He was already awake, working on a terminal in his apartment.

“Well Rick”, I asked, somewhat boldly, “did you like me? Did I get the job?”

“Sure”, he said, “We’re offering $12,000 a year.”

This was much more than I would have settled for. I was only making $5,000 a year at Jensen’s market at that time. I estimated that, with a roommate, I could easily survive on that amount.

“Sounds great”, I said. “When can I start?”

“How about tomorrow?” Rick replied.

“Oh, that’s a bit close. I need to quit my current job and find an apartment down in your area. Why don’t I start on Monday.” Monday was five days away. I figured that would be plenty of time.

“Fine. Show up at my apartment on Monday at 8:00.”

Man, did I feel great at that moment. I felt on top of the world. I was happy! Finally, I could leave home. The world would be mine to conquer.

Of course, there were a few details to work out first. To begin with, I had to find a roommate, rent an apartment, move, drop out of college and quit my job at Jensen’s Market.

Finding a roommate turned out to be easy. I called Don to tell him the news, which he already knew.

“Yeah, Rick called me and told me last night”, he said. “He thought you were great.”

“Oh. Now I’ve got to find a place in Orange County”, I said.

“Well”, Don began, “are you looking for a roommate?”

“As a matter of fact …” I began.

“I thought so. Just so happens that I want to move a bit closer to work myself. This one hour commute is killing me.”

“Great, let’s look for apartments this weekend”, I said, very happy with the way things were turning out.

Leaving The Nest

Quitting the job at the market was easy. My boss Mike was a nice guy, but he had a habit that I really hated. Whenever he fired someone, he didn’t give them any notice or severance pay. He was perfectly fair – he never gave anyone this benefit. Because of this, I didn’t see any reason not to return the favor. I had no plans to return to that job, so didn’t see any need to keep that bridge intact. So I just walked into his office, told him I quit, and left with my final paycheck. I’ve never done that before or since, but it sure felt good giving this guy a taste of his own medicine.

The most painful task left was to drop out of college. I didn’t feel too badly about it, since I’d already decided college was pretty worthless to me. I was just continuing because there didn’t seem to be anything better to do.

Mr. James, the head of the computer science department, was flabbergasted. I think he saw me as his star pupil. The thought of my dropping out came as a bitter blow to him.

“Why don’t you continue your education at night?” he asked.

“No way. I’ve achieved my goal. I’ve gotten a job in a good, solid field. I may come back to college in a couple of years, after I’ve gotten some experience.”

I think both of us knew that was a lie the moment I said it. There was no way I’d ever come back to school, and Mr. James knew it.

I found an apartment without difficulty. Don and I simply looked in the newspaper, and found an ad for a place in Garden Grove for $325 a month. That seemed pretty reasonable, so we checked it out. It was fine, and we paid the $200 deposit and made our moving plans.

Don and I rented a U-haul truck. My dad offered the use of his van, but I didn’t really want his help. I wanted to do this on my own. I think my dad helped us out by paying for the U-haul, however.

Since I lived in Lake Arrowhead, we loaded all of my stuff into the van first. This took most of the morning, since I owned a lot of junk. I emptied my bedroom, but left some stuff in the basement of my parents’ house. I intended to retrieve it in a few months, after settling in.

My parents donated some furniture – a couch, chair and bookshelf. This was fortunate, since Don and I didn’t have much other than our beds, dressers and some bookshelves.

Next we went to Don’s house to load his stuff. That was relatively easy, since he didn’t own very much. We made the long, boring trip to Orange County without incident, and unloaded the truck. We finished at about 10:00 PM, and were totally exhausted.

At about this time, just as we were unloading the last pieces of furniture, we heard sirens. Lots of them. We looked down the street, and saw about a dozen police cars scream by. A few minutes later we heard shots ring out, curses, and lots of police radios.

We both looked at each other, thinking, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

The next day, we found out there had been a shoot-out in a local restaurant. Nobody was hurt. The criminal had surrendered after firing some shots towards the police.

First Day On The Job

A couple of days later, it was time for my first day of work at my new job. This was an incredibly exciting day – the first day in a new career as well as a new job.

I woke up early, showered, dressed and put on a nice set of clothes, along with a tie. I wanted to look good, maybe impress the boss.

Soon it was time to go to work. I jumped in the car and drove over to Rick’s apartment. I knocked on the door, and Dorothy answered. She led me upstairs, to where Rick was working.

I saw the office for the first time. In those early days it was just a bedroom in Rick’s apartment, directly over the living room. The company did not own a computer, so we did our work either over dial-ups or on-site. We used our customer’s own computer systems to develop software.

Rick turned around from his work and smiled at me.

“Hi, Richard”, he said. “How are you this morning?”

“I’m great”, I replied, “Wow. Is this our office?”

“Yep”, he said. “We do most of our work from here. We have two modems, each 1200 baud, which we can use to dial in to any of our customers computers. One of the modems is connected to that printer over there, and the other is connected to this terminal.”

While he was talking, I looked around the office. It was a bit disorganized, loose papers all over the floor. The only things in the room besides the printer and terminal were a few boxes of computer paper, a sheet feeder for the printer, and a stack of computer books.

“Steve Edwards, Steve Davis and I started Software Techniques a year ago, after I quit Digital. Before I left, I made the rounds to all of my support customers, and managed to talk most of them into hiring me as their consultant. Now, we have maybe a dozen clients, one just a few miles down the road and one as far away as Chicago.”

“Any questions so far?” He said, pausing.

I shook my head, no. This was very fascinating.

“Good. Your job is to help us write custom software for these clients, as well as to perform other miscellaneous consulting tasks as required. Why don’t you look over my shoulder for a few minutes while I finish this letter. Then we’ll grab a bite to eat, and head on over to Regis Homes, one of our clients.”

Rick turned back to his letter, and finished typing it in. It was to Harvey of Four Lakes Village, whom, in the coming months, I was to come to know very well. In the letter, Rick was extolling the virtues of a new system we were writing, which he called The Apartment Information Management System – AIMS for short.

When he finished, we went over to the Claim Jumper for breakfast (my second of the day, but since Rick was buying, I wasn’t complaining). Rick filled me in on the status of each client while we ate, and talked with me about my desires and goals within my new company.

After that, we drove around to several of our clients. We stopped at Mesa Consolidated Water District, who was responsible for supplying water to all of the homes and businesses in the city of Costa Mesa. We continued onward to Regis Homes, a very large real estate broker, who also happened to own Four Lakes Village.

In the afternoon, after lunch at the Velvet Turtle, we continued onward to Turner Data Systems, who had written the current water billing software for Mesa Water District. Then we drove north to Glover’s Mills, in the city of Industry, and joined Steve Davis in a talk with some people from Price Waterhouse, who had designed an accounting system that we were to develop.

That first day was bewildering and wonderful. I felt great, meeting the people whom I was to work with for the next five or six years. By the end of the day, I was euphoric. This new job looked great, Rick was great, the clients were wonderful. Nothing could stop me now!

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