It was fall 1969, my junior year of high school, and a time of great inspiration for students with any inclination towards math, engineering, and/or science. The moon landing was months previous, and kids like me, we thought we could make stuff happen.
In particular, it was exciting for me, a totally hard-core nerd who'd never developed any social instincts nor any useful social skills. Seriously, I was wearing a plastic pocket protector and thick black glasses, taped together.
The well-defined world of math and tech, that's what I could do. I never needed the approval of anyone to plunge into any related field; only talent and skill mattered.
Well, IBM contributed an IBM 1620 to my high school, a system focused on math and analysis, different from other systems, which focused on business computation.
It was the shiniest toy that could attract a young nerd -- piano-sized, 16KB of memory, and banks of flashing lights, just like the cruder science fiction movies of the time. It could be programmed using punch cards, in the engineers' programming language, FORTRAN II, where that's short for "formula translation." (The following year we got a hard disk, but in this first year, we carried around stacks of those punch cards.)
I wanted to use that shiny toy, had to qualify for it, and that meant getting through introductory material and convincing the physics teacher, Bruce Lontka, that I might be a natural.
That meant first understanding what an "algorithm" is, and that's basically a decision-making process implemented in an information processor. Note the irony today as we discuss the role of algorithms in processing news feeds, particularly in Facebook. Those algorithms are far more complex than my challenges in 1969.
Taking a look at what was demanded, I reflected that the world of coding was the simple world of information -- free of mysterious social concerns -- where everything was pretty well-defined. I was, and remain, a natural at it.
That was a flash of inspiration, of “knowing” there was a fit. If you have this skill, you'll just know it.
I plunged into FORTRAN II coding on that 1620, even programming a simple game which would cheat when I flicked a particular switch.
At Case Tech, Math Lab was basically introductory coding in ALGOL 60 on a Univac 1108, a much more serious language on a much more serious platform. From there, I gave up on physics, since I wasn't good enough for that, but I realized that I was a really good programmer.
I got a couple degrees in computer sciences and went to work for IBM. Even years in IBM marketing didn't diminish my coding aptitude, finding it easy to code in Pascal, then C.
At the beginning of the dotcom boom, I picked up Perl, then Java, the sole challenge involving learning object-oriented coding.
Around then, I started coding something eventually called craigslist, which has helped some tens of millions of people, like helping put food on the table, and getting that table, and finding a roof under which to put the table. That ain't bad, resulting from a flash of insight maybe twenty six years prior.
I stopped coding in two thousand or so, after turning over all such duties at craigslist to people who're better at it than me. After that, I did one minor coding effort, in support of the 2001 reunion of the 1961 Freedom Riders, who rode into the South in support of everyone’s voting rights and many of whom wound up imprisoned or worse.
These days, I feel that I could easily pick up coding again, but it's way better to help other people get there, like via Girls Who Code, which I've supported since nearly its beginning. GWC and similar classes are great at helping people either getting that flash of understanding, or otherwise.
The social skills thing, though, still eludes me, and I can simulate social skills briefly, but that's never going to be natural.
The Moment I Knew I Could STEAM Ahead is a new blog series geared towards encouraging the next generation of leaders in science, tech, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM). When did you achieve confidence in your ability to master a discipline in STEAM? Let us know at email@example.com.