The real world
Each year while I was in school I looked for summer internships, but had no luck. The economy sucked. In my final year of school I started looking for permanent work, and I felt almost totally lost. I asked CS grads about it. They told me “You’ll never find an entry level programming job.” They had all landed software testing jobs as their entree into corporate software production. Something inside me said this would never do. I wanted to start with programming. I had the feeling I would die inside if I took a job where all I did was test software. About a year after I graduated I was proved right when I took up test duties at my first job. My brain became numb with boredom. Fortunately that’s not all I did there, but I digress.
In my final year of college I interviewed with some major employers who came to my school: Federal Express, Tandem, Microsoft, NCR. I wasn’t clear on what I wanted to do. It was a bit earth-shattering. I had gone into CS because I wanted to program computers for my career. I didn’t face the “what” (what specifically did I want to do with this skill?) until I was about ready to graduate. I had so many interests. When I entered school I wanted to do application development. That seemed to be my strength. But since I had gone through the CS program, and found some things about it interesting, I wasn’t sure anymore. I told my interviewer from Microsoft, for example, that I was interested in operating systems. What was I thinking? I had taken a course on linguistics, and found it pretty interesting. I had taken a course called Programming Languages the previous year, and had a similar level of interest in it. I had gone through the trouble of preparing for a graduate level course on language compilers. I was taking it at the time of the interview. It just didn’t occur to me.
None of my interviews panned out. Looking back on it in hindsight it was good this happened. Most of them didn’t really suit my interests. The problem was who did?
Once I graduated with my Bachelor’s in CS in 1993, and had an opportunity to relax, some thoughts settled in my mind. I really enjoyed the Programming Languages course I had taken in my fourth year. We covered Smalltalk for two weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed it. At the time I had seen many want ads for Smalltalk, but they were looking for people with years of experience. I looked for Smalltalk want ads after I graduated. They had entirely disappeared. Okay. Scratch that one off the list. The next thought was, “Compilers. I think I’d like working on language compilers.” I enjoyed the class and I reflected on the fact that I enjoyed studying and using language. Maybe there was something to that. But who was working on language compilers at the time? Microsoft? They had rejected me from my first interview with them. Who else was there that I knew of? Borland. Okay, there’s one. I didn’t know of anyone else. I got the sense very quickly that while there used to be many companies working on this stuff, it was a shrinking market. It didn’t look promising at the time.
I tried other leads, and thought about other interests I might have. There was a company nearby called XVT that had developed a multi-platform GUI application framework (for an analogy, think wxWindows), which I was very enthusiastic about. While I was in college I talked with some fellow computer enthusiasts on the internet, and we wished there was such a thing, so that we didn’t have to worry about what platform to write software for. I interviewed with them, but that didn’t go anywhere.
For whatever reason it never occurred to me to continue with school, to get a masters degree. I was glad to be done with school, for one thing. I didn’t see a reason to go back. My undergrad advisor subtly chided me once for not wanting to advance my education. He said, “Unfortunately most people can find work in the field without a masters,” but he didn’t talk with me in depth about why I might want to pursue that. I had this vision that I would get my Bachelor’s degree, and then it was just a given that I was going to go out into private industry. It was just my image of how things were supposed to go.
Ultimately, I went to work in what seemed like the one industry that would hire me, IT software development. My first big job came in 1995. At first it felt like my CS knowledge was very relevant, because I started out working on product development at a small company. I worked on adding features to, and refactoring a reporting tool that used scripts for report specification (what data to get and what formatting was required). Okay. So I was working on an interpreter instead of a compiler. It was still a language project. That’s what mattered. Besides developing it on MS-DOS (UGH!), I was thrilled to work on it.
It was very complex compared to what I had worked on before. It was written in C. It had more than 20 linked lists it created, and some of them linked with other lists via. pointers! Yikes! It was very unstable. Anytime I made a change to it I could predict that it was going to crash on me, causing my PC to freeze up every time, requiring me to reboot my machine. And we think now that Windows 95 was bad about this… I got so frustrated with this I spent weeks trying to build some robustness into it. I finally hit on a way to make it crash gracefully by using a macro, which I used to check every single pointer reference before it got used.
I worked on other software that required a knowledge of software architecture, and the ability to handle complexity. It felt good. As in school, I was goal-oriented. Give me a problem to solve, and I’d do my best to do so. I liked elegance, so I’d usually try to come up with what I thought was a good architecture. I also made an effort to comment well to make code clear. My efforts at elegance usually didn’t work out. Either it was impractical or we didn’t have time for it.
Fairly quickly my work evolved away from doing product development. The company I worked for ended up discarding a whole system they’d worked two years on developing. The reporting tool I worked on was part of that. We decided to go with commodity technologies, and I got more into working with regular patterns of IT software production.
I got a taste for programming for Windows, and I was surprised. I liked it! I had already developed a bias against Microsoft software at the time, because my compatriots in the field had nothing but bad things to say about their stuff. I liked developing for an interactive system though, and Windows had a large API that seemed to handle everything I needed to deal with, without me having to invent much of anything to make a GUI app. work. This was in contrast to GEM on my Atari STe, which was the only GUI API I knew about before this.
My foray into Windows programming was short lived. My employer found that I was more proficient in programming for Unix, and so pigeon-holed me into that role, working on servers and occasionally writing a utility. This was okay for a while, but I got bored of it within a couple years.
Triumph of the Nerds
Around 1996 PBS showed another mini-series, on the history of the microcomputer industry, focusing on Apple, Microsoft, and IBM. It was called Triumph of the Nerds, by Robert X. Cringely. This one was much easier for me to understand than The Machine That Changed The World. It talked about a history that I was much more familiar with, and it described things in terms of geeky fascination with technology, and battles for market dominance. This was the only world I really knew. There weren’t any deep concepts in the series about what the computer represented, though Steve Jobs added some philosophical flavor to it.
My favorite part was where Cringely talked about the development of the GUI at Xerox PARC, and then at Apple. Robert Taylor, Larry Tesler, Adele Goldberg, Andy Warnok, and Steve Jobs were interviewed. The show talked mostly about the work environment at Xerox (how the researchers worked together, and how the executives “just didn’t get it”), and the Xerox Alto computer. There was a brief clip of the GUI they had developed (Smalltalk), and Adele Goldberg briefly mentioned the Smalltalk system in relation to the demo Steve Jobs saw, though you’d have to know the history better to really get what was said about it. Superficially one could take away from it that Xerox had developed the GUI, and Apple used it as inspiration for the Mac, but there was more to the story than that.
Triumph of the Nerds showed the unveiling of the first Macintosh in 1984 for the first time, that I had seen. I read about it shortly after it happened in 1984, but I saw no pictures and no video. It was really neat to see. Cringely managed to give a feel for the significance of that moment.