Learning to Code

I learned to code a long time ago – when teletype terminals were pretty common. Programming on a mainframe was, in some ways, similar to the internet today (if you’re reading this and you don’t know what the internet is, then I’ve probably been dead for a while now).

We used terminals (dumb terminals) to interact with a mainframe over some sort of network that was private. Companies had networks that allowed their employees to communicate – but they would work only in the context of the mainframe computer, or computers, the terminals were all connected to. I remember an IBM system named PROFS that was used while I worked at EDS in the mid 1980s to send messages to other employees. I don’t think I ever used it, but companies had ways, systems like this, for their people to communicate with each other.

Before this, in the 70s, we didn’t have things like email that we have now. I remember using systems that could be dialed up to (tying up my phone line, and hopefully nobody picked up the phone while I was connected) like CompuServe. They were based in Columbus, Ohio, as far as I remember, and basically had programmed a community sharing-type system on their mainframes. Subscribers, like me, could dial in, connect to the mainframe with a home computer (I used a RadioShack Color Computer – because I liked color, who doesn’t?). Once connected, you could use text commands to enter chat rooms, upload files to private or shared areas, read news, etc., and yes, to send email, but only to other subscribers. There was no way to connect these systems together. AOL was another – and as the internet began to develop, you were able to send and receive email to and from these distinct systems, but it was very primitive. I remember my sister having an AOL account (which was very popular), but I can’t remember if I could send her email from my CompuServe account or not. I think, at first, I could only email her from my own AOL account. It seemed cool at the time though.

I remember once, at one of my first jobs, we used CompuServe to upload data to a central repository, or shared file area. Customers would use a piece of software, that we created and provided for them to run on their PC. The software downloaded their latest file and loaded it so they could see reports on their activity with our company. Very primitive, but it allowed us to give customers some data that they could use to look up information whenever they wanted to – without letting them have access to our mainframe directly. Very crude in a cool, techie kind of way.

In my early years of coding, maybe 1980-ish, I remember showing my cousin, who was already working in IT at a bank, some code I was writing. I kept wanting to run my code after each change I made. I was learning – and I wanted to see it run! My cousin, who was far more analytical than I was, didn’t want me to hit run until he went through each line of code, and checked everything twice, reviewing in our heads what the code was doing to do, to be sure it was going to work. Obviously he learned to code on a mainframe – shared by, maybe, hundreds or thousands of other users, and actually cost discernable money every time someone ran a program. My code didn’t cost anything to run – or at least, since I didn’t pay the electric bill, it didn’t cost me anything.

I guess I’m showing my age by sharing these stories. Hopefully I’ve shared something that you find interesting – and maybe even brings back some good memories for you – of the way things were, and how far we’ve come with technology. It’s been fun to see things change so much – even though I hate change!