How I Got Started

Stevi turned me on to this meme, expressing curiosity about how other people (i.e., not me) got started writing software for a living. I thought it would be an interesting exercise in that my career in (mostly) software development has in many respects not been typical.

How old were you when you started programming?

Seventeen. FORTRAN A01, freshman year at Northwestern. I had stupidly tried to CLEP out of it on the basis of having learned to write calculator macros, but crashed and burned rather flamboyantly.

How did you get started in programming?

I went to a school where they had computers. (Hey, it’s how Bill Gates got started, except that he had computers at his high school, and I had to wait until I was in college.)

What was your first language?

I said FORTRAN, right? I guess you could count TI SR-56 calculatorese if you wanted to.

What was the first real program you wrote?

The first I got paid for? I wrote a lot of ATE code in HP BASIC back in ’84-’85. I did some antenna design simulations in BASIC on an HP 9836 back in that timeframe somewhere, but I forget which was first.

What languages have you used since you started programming?

At least five different dialects of BASIC. FORTRAN. Pascal. FORTH (actually a FORTH-based stats package called ASYST). C. Occam. Four or five different assembly langages (I disassembled about 5 kB of RCA 1802 code once with pencil and paper). KHOROS/Cantata. MATLAB. S-PLUS. sh, csh, and awk, pretty much all at once, then Perl. Then more Perl. Then way more Perl than I ever wanted to do. Then Java, and then C++ that was actually C++ and not just a lame excuse for C. More recently, XSLT, PL/SQL, and JSP. And more Perl. Oh, and don’t forget the Javascript.

That’s what’s on the resume. Unofficially, a little bit of Python, a little bit of Ruby, a little bit of Tcl, probably a bunch of other stuff I don’t remember. A little bit of Smalltalk, a little bit of Objective-C, a little bit of Scheme. Probably the last working code I wrote was elisp macros.

What was your first professional programming gig?

ATE programming in BASIC, at ITT in Fort Wayne in 1984.

If you knew then what you know now, would you have started programming?

I knew all I needed to know back then: that the world was going digital, and that my BSEE wouldn’t do me a helluva lot of good in five years or so if I didn’t start building a software resume.

I like to eat.

If there is one thing you learned along the way that you would tell new developers, what would it be?

Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Don’t specialize. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Solve problems, and look for new problems to solve. The world needs more problemsolvers.

What’s the most fun you’ve ever had … programming?

Can’t say. I’ve written a lot of stupid programs, and most of them were fun. I’ve written a lot of really boring code, and most of it was fun. I’ve written a lot of code that sucked, and most of that was fun too. But maybe the most fun I’ve ever had programming was when I had well-defined jobs, could put my head down for forty hours and code, and then get up and GO DO SOMETHING ELSE.


now THIS is insulting

I have never been much given to making donations to my ridiculously overpriced alma mater, but this year they have given me a new excuse.

Evidently one of the Republicans running for the local seat in Congress thinks she’s running against Barack Obama.

vote george

I’m still getting used to having a camera on my phone. Eventually I will get enough used to having a camera always at hand that I will capture pictures of signs like the one I saw this afternoon in the Costco parking lot. The part that was legible against the red, white, and blue background read

Vote George

I couldn’t read the small print at the bottom of the sign that explained who George was and what office s/he was running for.

I understand that a person can’t choose the name s/he is born with, but personally, if I were seeking public office this year, I would consider it spectacularly bad luck to have the name “George”. It would almost be worth seeking a name change in court, I would think.

I am sitting here in my living room. I can easily think of enough COMPLETELY UNPRODUCTIVE things to do right here in my lounger, on my laptop, to keep me busy for the rest of the day.

Keeping up with my Google Reader feeds alone could easily be a full-time job. I’m going to have to cull the newsfeeds again sometime real soon.

speculative peace

I like Al Gore.

I wish he were running for President. I would gladly vote for him rather than any of the people who are actually running. Gore is a legitimately admirable man, meeting all of the criteria I could imagine defining a great American.

Giving him the Nobel Peace Prize, though, just doesn’t make any sense.

However important you think the crisis of global warming is, however much you think mankind is at fault and that human intervention can ultimately significantly impede its progress: writing books and making movies about it do not (at least yet) contribute to world peace.

It’s none of my business, I guess, really. The Swedes can give their prize to whoever they want, for whatever reasons they want, and I have no recourse, or even a good excuse to complain about it.

But it doesn’t make any sense to me, and I’m sure the ignorant rednecks will have a field day with this one.


Back in 1999, a lot of people already had George W. Bush figured out. Back when the press was going on about “compassionate conservatism”, we knew that Bush was really just a cowardly, ignorant, dishonest, incompetent, alcoholic, run-of-the-mill schoolyard bully. (Anybody who’s watched “Li’l Bush” on Comedy Central will know exactly what I mean.)

He wasn’t a conservative; he wasn’t compassionate; he wasn’t particularly well-qualified to do any of the things a head of state needs to be able to do. Lots of us already had that figured out, but apparently enough people fell for the act not just once, but twice (well, just once, actually, but that’s beside the point).

Some of us knew that Bush couldn’t possibly be a conservative as far back as 1991 or 1992, because his father certainly wasn’t. I was still voting Republican back in 1992, and I was so thoroughly disgusted by G. H. W. Bush that I swore I would never again vote for anyone named Bush.

So pay attention: I’m about to give you the benefit of that prodigious insight.

Republicans: Either McCain or Ron Paul is your man. They’re the only legitimate conservatives in the race who aren’t embarrassing flat-earth ignorami (Sam Brownback? Duncan Hunter? Mike Huckabee? TOM TANCREDO??? Come on, you’ve got to be kidding).

Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson are just trying to shake you down, the way Bush did.

But since the GOP is pretty much already doomed, here’s another pearl of wisdom: Don’t worry, Republicans. Hillary is your friend.

Yeah, she’s promising to do the things that uptight, cheapskate, mean-spirited Republicans have refused to do for decades now. But she’s going to do them in a Republican-friendly way. She’s not talking about single-payer national health care; she’s not talking about immediately pulling out of Iraq; she’s not talking about throwing the borders open. I don’t know why she’s not doing these things; many of us wish she would. But she isn’t.

I’m somewhat dismayed that Clinton seems inevitably destined to get the Democratic nomination. I prefer the policy positions of Edwards, Richardson, and Kucinich – even Obama, although he’s starting to look more and more like Hillary Lite. But it really doesn’t matter, because whoever the Democratic nominee is, the Republican will be worse, and so I’m going to vote for whoever gets the Democratic nomination, even though I might very well not be excited about it.

So, Republicans, here’s your free tip: Just like George W. Bush is not really a conservative, Hillary Clinton is not really a liberal. Get comfortable with the idea of another President Clinton. Hell, you might even see some fiscal responsibility (and a budget surplus or two) before it’s all over, which would be better than the Republicans have been able to do since at least Eisenhower.