How I Got Started

From Radio to Physics to Computer Science

By the time I was in my last year of high school (Grade 12 in B.C.), I already knew that Radio was not the Career for me. I had had some concerns before I read the article in Billboard magazine about being Washed Up in Radio when you hit 30 years of age. But that clinched it.

Career Planning in those days was: pick a high school subject and pursue it into the relevant post-secondary institute. I picked Physics because it encompassed my primary interest, the Propagation of Radio Waves, but figured that I could not make a career of it, so thought I would end up as an Astronomer, which was also within Physics. Which is why I ended up in Pre-Honours Physics at UBC.

Unfortunately for me, UBC’s specialty in Physics did not interest me: Nuclear Weapons research. Fortunately, the eager beaver that I was, I had fast-talked my way into taking 7% more course work than normal: Math 140, a course called Linear Programming that was scheduled for two hours a week during the second Term of my First Year.

I was in the first year of Math 140 to have its students use a computer to replace the wasted time normally spent doing the hundreds of manual calculations required to solve a single problem in Linear Programming. Remember, this is 1971 when the only affordable calculation aid was a slide rule.

First, we learned how to use a keypunch, even though some of us could not type. Next, what to punch on those cards to login, initiate the program we were using, and properly format the numbers for the calculations. Finally, how to find and operate the card reader, and where to find and properly rip off the printed output.

Based solely on that experience, I switched my Major from Physics to Computer Science, without losing anything in the process, since the entry level Computer Science course was a Second Year-level course. That summer, a Seattle friend send me some simple computer programs written in the programming language BASIC. I could understand them just by reading them and was intrigued enough to write some programs of my own.

Of course, I had heard of computers prior to University. They were all the rage in the 1960s in popular media. Even one of my high school teachers had attended a hands-on demonstration of computers. Somehow, I got it into my head that all computer work was as boring as the junior high school bookkeeping courses I had avoided. Listening to a Chicago radio commercial I recorded back in 1969 may hold the answer, as it did not seem to differentiate between keypunch operators, programmers and system analysts.

IBM Mainframes

A 1974 Bachelors degree from UBC in Computer Science only exposed the graduate to IBM Mainframe Computers using the Michigan Terminal System (MTS) operating system, a combination found in only seven other places worldwide, all universities. Fortunately, my 1973 summer job took me to Ottawa where I converted a large set of COBOL programs from an IBM OS/360 mainframe to a CDC 6400 mainframe.

Until well after I retired in 2007, the IBM mainframe was still my favourite, and best understood, computer environment. It was only in 2015 that I discovered that it was finally possible to do what I had always wanted to: afford to have a complete IBM mainframe computer system to myself, so that I could safely develop Systems Software that would interact with the Operating System. An even bigger irony is where I read it: in an article about the MTS operating system of my university days, and how someone had installed it on $40 Raspberry Pi computer on a circuit board, using the Raspian version of Linux and the Hercules mainframe emulator software.

Getting That First Real Job

The year before I graduated saw the quadrupling of two key prices that really hurt the B.C. economy:

  • Oil costs – $3 to $12 per barrel (OPEC)
  • Lumber costs – Stumpage Fees (B.C. government)

The prospects of finding a job in my field as a fresh graduate seemed pretty grim, so I went all out, beginning in January, sending out resumes and cover letters to every company that had advertised for a computer person in the Vancouver papers since the school year had begun in September. 85, in all, by the time that I found a job in early April.

Where I’ve Worked