Monday, August 31, 2009

Memories of IT - 1980 - Learning to code for real

First day in a real office, wore one of my two jackets and one of my 4 ties, business casual is still decades away. I join the Corporate Systems area within IT (probably called IS at the time), and a team within that area supporting investment systems.

As mentioned before, Crown hired people of all disciplines as programmers, so it starts everyone on a programming course, overseen by one of two IS instructors. I learned that PL/1 code needs to be structured and follow some rules if other people will be able to read and maintain it, so I am quickly cured of some bad habits learned in school. Structured PL/1 means no GO-TO statements, rather one should use procedure calls to sub-routines, with parameters for passing data back and forth. DO statements are another favored construct, both DO x TO y and DO WHILE statements.

Programming technology? Coding sheets, which you gave a group of keypunch people. When ready, you put the deck in a box outside the local operations, who ran it through the reader. The reader and printers are connected by a dedicated line to Crowntec, where the mainframe(s) lived, somewhere in North York.

Given programs of any length, we did use a source management product called Librarian; your card deck would be saved as a Librarian entry/member, and after that you would used Librarian commands to add, delete or replace lines in the entry, again through running punched cards, but just the ones you needed.

Part of running all these decks were cards for JCL, mainly a JOB card with your account and ID, and all the needed PROC statements and such. I think Librarian had JCL in it, but the memory is weak. TSO and partitioned data sets were out there too, but more on that later.

Next time: My First System

Friday, August 28, 2009

Memories of IT - 1979 -Finishing University and Getting a Job

Middle of the school year, employers come on-campus to do job interviews. It is still the olden days, so you had to hand-write job applications for each company on a standard form, could have used copy-and-paste....

I recall 3 interviews; I positioned myself as being a guy who wanted to work on real business systems rather than pure techie stuff like operating systems, fairly prescient I think now, but some of the interviewers viewed themselves as techies, so it did not sell well to them. Of course, I had no idea what a "real business system" was. UofT did not have a co-op program, so I had not worked in any IT department; my summer job was not in IT, but I kept it because I could work part-time during the school year as well, and I needed the money year-round.

I think it was an interview with Bell where I hit the techie reaction most.

General Motors was hiring, but their career path for programmers was that you had to start as a computer operator doing shift work. Neither thing appealed to me, but they gave me a second interview, which meant I had to drive out to Oshawa, east of Toronto, where the interview include a tour of Operations. I remember only a whole lot of printers, so feeding them paper would be the main work. GM solved this problem for me by not offering me a job, I think they sensed my reluctance...

One of the remaining interviews was with Crown Life, a middle-size Life & Health company, located on insurance row in mid-town Toronto. The interviewer was more 'touchy-feely' than others, wanted to know more about me as a person, not just as a set of skills. Their next step was to invite you to the head office building for a tour and to write an aptitude test. There was no Operations room to see, as they had already spun off their computer operations to a separate company, and Crown Life was now one of many of its customers. They also gave the aptitude test to non-CSci majors, believing that programming was a skill people with other degrees could master as well. Anyway, I passed the test, got a job offer that actually paid more than others I had seen, although the annual amount would not buy a compact car today. I also liked that they were a PL/1 shop, as I hated COBOL. So, I accepted and started in May 1979...

Next time: Learning to code (for real)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Memories of IT - late 70's - Finishing University

Moving into the later years of university, it is true in any major that the number of people attending the the 3rd and fourth year courses reduces to a core group. So, I spent a lot of time with such a group, and now look back and wish we had Facebook or something, because I wish I had somehow maintained contact with a lot of those people.

In class, I found myself doing well in more commercial topics, like databases, and not so good in more theoretical topics, like Artificial Intelligence (since AI never really took off the way it was promoted, I don't feel too bad about that). So, it was clear that I was not destined to be a Computer Scientist, emphasis on the 'science'.

In the meantime, being more senior meant access to slightly better technology. One course had us using interactive terminals tied to a PDP computer, but the terminal was tele-type. It printed what you typed, then you typed "enter" or something, off it would go to the PDP somewhere, and it would then comeback and print-out its response. I think I used this to program a B-Tree type of DBMS, which I recall I was quite proud of and got a great mark, but the details have not remained in memory, and the paper print-out disappeared at some point as well.

What this also introduced me to was the first computer game I had seen and played. It was called Adventure, and if you had a user account balance that more than met the need of your course-work, then it was time to play Adventure. It was a text version of what you would recognize as Dungeons and Dragons, or others of that ilk. It typed out that you were standing at the edge of a hole in the ground, you would type 'jump in hole', it would type what you see in the hole, like a key on the ground, you would type "pick-up key" because you would need it later on... turns out I suck at this kind of game, so no D&D play (or WoW) was to be found in my future.

There was also some TSO to be found. If you took on the job of student advisor, you got a TSO account, as long as you sat in a room near the card-reader and helped more junior students with their course-related questions. As was the nature of more senior people, we looked down on junior folks, especially those taking Programming 101 but who were not Comp Sci majors; much sneering accompanied the grudgingly provided answers. I cannot remember using TSO for anything except a text-based golf-game.

Next Time: Getting a job...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Memories of IT - 1975 - Starting at University

So, I am off to college...during the day, still living in my parents' basement off campus.

One coding course to start: I like PL/1, dislike COBOL, can't seem to fathom LISP.

Take college level Calculus and Algebra: how could something I was so good at in high-school turn into something I loathed? lucky I didn't choose to be a math major.

Other courses come and go, always looking for the easy course to fill the schedule. A course in Canadian Economics was taught by Mel Watkins, then known as a real left-winger in the NDP. His statement in the first class was that a professor could change anything about a course he wanted to, except the name... so he proceeded to teach communist economics, can't say it has come in handy since, but Mel was just fun to listen to.

Still doing coding language courses, the environment is still primarily punch cards. You create your deck, and then get in line at the back of the room to feed them to a card reader, and then move down the line to a printer which spits out the results. The paper is the old style, wide, white with green lines, holes on the side for feeding the printer. So, you only have so many runs before the assignment is due...

A separate room next door has tables to sit at and work, shoot the breeze with other students. The big issue was that most people smoked then, but a movement was started by the minority to ban smoking in the work room. Looking back, I can see why, the air in the room was blue, but as a smoker in those days, I didn't care.

Speaking of smoke... there were a couple of card-reading machine rooms on the UofT campus, one in the sciences building that I frequented, and another in the main Engineering school building. Well, the latter building suffered a major fire one night, and firemen were clearing the building when they came to card-reader room. With smoke filling the room, students told the firemen, "I just need to run my deck one more time (!)"

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Memories of IT - 1975 - why would you major in Computer Science?

Last year of high-school, Toronto Canada, 1975... can I recall what was driving me?

Other than my "Fortran Programming" course, my focus is on sciences (physics and chemistry, but not biology) and maths (calculus, functions), a little English Lit, and Music, as a drummer.

I am 18 years-old, shoulder-length hair, playing drums in a garage-band, I momentarily scare my parents with the idea of skipping university and trying to be a rock-and-roll star. However, the band never gets out of the garage, I can't sing or write music, and the number of drummers in the local union is large. I was going to be(and eventually would be) the first person in my family to attend university, I had the marks for it, and my analytical bent won out, seeing a degree as something that would my life more successful.

But what would I take? Thoughts of Law were entertained, but then I looked through the course calendar for the University of Toronto, and there was a whole section/discipline on Computer Science. Well, I was the master of Fortran programming, and computers were becoming more known in general as a source of future careers. I elected for a less theoretical program, with a commerce/business minor, as the road to future employment bliss, and just like that, the next 35 years were based on that decision as a teenager. I applied to UofT and other major local schools, was accepted most everywhere, and signed up for U of T for the fall of 1975.

Next Time: Starting University.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Memories of IT - 1973 - High School Computer Science

Fall 1973, my first introduction to coding sheets and punch-card machines. The class is ostensibly about Fortran programming, but the teacher was barely there. he would write a few keywords on the board, how to define a variable, write an assignment statement, then gave us a problem to solve and program. Most of us looked at each other and said "what the..." but one brilliant guy could figure it out and could be convinced to share some of it with the rest of us.

Once I got a handle on what the teacher was really asking for, I was OK at the basic coding and debugging. We punched cards at the back of the classroom, which were put in a box and taken out of the school to the school board office, where the "mighty computer" lived. Somebody there ran the cards in a batch run, and we got the cards and a print-out back the next day.

If you got the thing working, you got a good mark, and I don't remember any exams, so it was good option course which let you focus on the core math, sciences, english and such that filled up the rest of the day. So, I took it again the next year. I can still recall the classroom and the teacher, but not much at all of what I produced over the two years. I think I learned about GO TOs and DO loops but can't be sure... but it left some kind of impression, because I took it up as my major in university ...

NEXT: Majoring in Computer Science


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Memories of life in IT

I have just been doing the math, and I have been doing IT Projects for 30 years now (I started young...). It made me think that I do have my share of experiences that, if written down, some small number of people may find interesting. Seems to me a blog is great for that.

I would call this memories rather than a "memoir"; the latter would imply I have spent time researching myself and might, for example, be able to name all the people I went to school with or have worked with over the last 3 decades; not gonna happen. People who write Memoirs were also usually prescient enough to keep a diary or journal since a young age, but not I.

But, I don't think anybody will be checking my facts or lack of them; and as a blog, any reader of a certain age who wants to chime in is most welcome.

Where does it start? Spring 1972, 10th Grade ( or "Grade 10" as we called it in Canada), looking at optional courses for 11th grade in the fall, and my eyes come upon "Computer Science"; sounds interesting, what the heck...

About Me

Ontario, Canada
I have been an IT Business Analyst for 25 years, so I must have learned something. Also been on a lot of projects, which I have distilled into the book "Cascade": follow the link to the right to see more.