Just Shelley

Me and computers

When I was a child living in a town about as far away from any city as you could get in the United States, a friend of my Mom’s who shared an interest in science with me used to give me his Popular Science magazines to read. I loved those magazines, particularly reading about the kits for the build it yourself planes, or how to make your own radio, or how to build your own computing device — just like them big computers the gov’ment has. Damn, but that was cool.

However, we weren’t rich and the closest I came to a computer in my youth was through those pictures in the magazine — the same computers that Bill Gates eventually helped write software for when he was a kid (I have a clue for you, Bill and I are very close to the same age).

Fast forward: My first true exposure to computers came when I was 19 years old and working for an insurance company. I was a workmen’s compensation underwriting assistant the year the company decided to automate its systems. We were given these paper forms to fill out whenever we added a new policy or made a change in an existing one. On the forms, each letter of each field in the form was carefully delimited with a box to ensure that we didn’t exceed the number of allowable characters and that we provided all the required information. Once completed, the forms then went to the data entry folks who would enter them into “the system”.

Every day, our boss would get an error report listing the mistakes we had made in filling out the forms; he would then, kindly, share these mistakes with us. Every single day, without fail. And he never got sick. And he never took a vacation.

I really hated computers at that point.

Fast forward: I’m in college, a pre-law major taking a required logic class. My teacher suggests I try a computer class. I think back to the computers in the insurance company, and I’m more than reluctant. Then I remember back to when I was a little girl, dreaming over the “computing devices” in the Popular Science magazines. Okay, what the hey. I’ll try a class.

Fast forward: I’m sitting in front of this ugly beigy/gray terminal with this small black screen with green letters. I’m writing my first computer application. It will be in Basic, on a VAX/VMS, and I write a program that adds one and one together. That’s it, nothing else. 1 + 1. A simple little task. However, all of a sudden, I had the power of the universe at my fingertips. The little fishy was hooked and reeled in, all by some sexy lines of code that did the incredible feat of adding 1 and 1 together.

Fast forward: I’m standing on the podium, getting my computer science degree — the first one for software programming and language compiler design for the college.

Every time I start to look at technology as a matter of dollars and cents, every time I start to see it as nothing more than market share, or lines of code, or number of bugs, or website hits, or the number of failed dot coms, or open source versus closed, or standards-based or not, I remember back to a time when I was sitting in front of a terminal, teaching a machine how to add 1 + 1 together. And I have all the power in the universe in my fingertips…once again. And to me, that’s really all that matters.

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