Family, Life, Memories, Technology

Confessions of an Accidental IT Professional, Chapter One

It’s Easter 1979.  Mr. Right and I are living in a tiny house we bought for the princely sum of $7,200 (all we could afford), somewhere in Pittsburgh’s low-rent district, amongst the druggies and the motorcycle gangs. Monthly mortgage payment: $71.97.  Rather abrupt investment in learning necessary self-defense techniques and maneuvers on the part of this English girl: Priceless.  Dad, I hope you’re proud.

Also around are a few lovely older neighbors of varying ethnicities who welcome us, and make it bearable when the drug-sniffing, dog-fighting, knife-throwing, house-burgling, and shooting stops.

Mr. She’s three kids, ages at that time something like 12, 10, and 9, come to stay for the weekend.  Mr. Right retires to bed with a filthy cold.  Fortunately, he’s borrowed for the Easter break, an IBM 5100 portable computer from Duquesne University’s Business School.  This gives me something interesting and new to do with his still-rather-resentful kids from his first marriage.

We investigate how this thing works.  We discover, among the magazines beloved at that time by Mr. Right (it may have been in BYTE), a printed BASIC program for a game called “Hunt the Wumpus.”

This, dear readers, was my first exposure to computer programming. (I’d been an English major in both the BA and MA program at Duquesne University myself; that’s where I met Mr. She.)

We typed the instructions (hundreds of lines) into the computer.  We fixed the typos and debugged the errors.  We figured out what all the instructions meant and how they worked.  We figured out how to save the program to tape and send the program printout to the primitive dot-matrix printer, along with the rest of it. (I still have the output; see photo at the top of this post. Imagine, if you will, children typing this in and getting all the words, the numbers, and the punctuation exactly right.) We played the game. What a hoot!

Then–because we’d figured out the underlying logic, we made alterations.  Changing the number of rooms.  Changing the directions.  Changing the prompts.  Changing the alerts.  So, “I smell a Wumpus!” became “I smell Michael’s stinky feet!” and the directions changed to match the new conditions as we went.

We had a blast.  And we were sad when, after the Easter break, the machine had to go back.

But we remembered.

Over the next couple of years, Mr. Right, who always led this project, immersed himself in the new technology.  We bought an Atari 400 (not the strictly game player, but an actual programmable computer).  I didn’t like the membrane keyboard, so I found a “clickable” keyboard that could be wired in and attached to make it easier and more enjoyable to use, and I did that.  When my stepson Michael suffered a catastrophic head injury in December 1981, Mr. Right invented and programmed (using player-missile graphics, quite an advanced concept for the time) some games for Michael to play that could be manipulated with a joystick using his then very basic motor control.

We joined the local Atari Users Group. And we enjoyed every moment of it.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, I finished up at school.  I loved writing, and–much as I loved literature–I mostly loved writing factual, technical, instruction manuals, something I’d had a bit of exposure to in my last year at university, and which, as a result of my efforts, a few folks had told me they thought I might be quite good at, taking technical concepts (which I’m not always completely fluent with, but the outlines of which I can usually grasp), and translating them for non-technical users).

So I thought I’d be set since–at that time–Pittsburgh still retained many of the Fortune 500 and other major industrial company headquarters within its city limits: Westinghouse, Rockwell International, US Steel, PPG, Koppers, Bayer, and so on.  Surely, I thought, one of these outfits would recognize and value my obvious talents and possible contributions!

But, no.  Hard to accept at the time; yet, ultimately and as it turned out, the most felices of culpae.

Late in 1979, I signed on with Kelly Services (Kelly Girls!)** a temporary agency that got me a short-term job at a Pittsburgh law firm, answering the telephone and getting coffee for the clients and the partners.

That turned into my first full-time real job, at the princely sum of $500 per month (well below, however you slice it, the current “living wage)–and yet, as luck would have it, the next chapter on my IT career journey.

**Thank God for the summer between my junior and senior year in high school when I decided that learning touch typing might be a good idea.  No idea why that entered my head.  Grateful that it did.  I’ll never forget my instructor, Allen Walbert, a US WWII Army veteran. He was a hard-charger and a hard-[expletive].  I earned a “C” for the course, the only one in my entire high school career, but the skills I did learn (even without any particular distinction) stood me in excellent stead for the rest of my life.  The only reason I got the “Kelly Girl” gig was because I could pass the typing test.  Thank you, Mr. Walbert.

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