The First Place programmer

When I was learning programming at 916 Vo-Tech, there was an organization called the Office Education Association. They sponsored contests for various skills among all the vocational schools in the nation, such as typing and shorthand, including a computer programming test. It was a multiple choice test. I did so well on the Minnesota test that I was sent to the national competition in Detroit Michigan–paid for by a sponsor, Burroughs Computers. I believe this happened in 1978.

I recall a few moments of that exam. One question asked which was the smallest unit of time: a) Microsecond, b) Nanosecond, c) Picosecond, and d) Justasecond. I had a quick laugh and other examinees have me a dirty look, wondering how anyone could laugh during the test. I marked the correct answer, C.

There was one question I felt was impossibly hard. It showed a flowchart with various processes and conditions and the questions related to what the output of the process would be. I just guessed on that one.

I felt I had done very well on the exam, and in the evening, we were all gathered in a large auditorium for the awards. I think the programming started with 5th place, and when my name wasn’t called, I felt certain I would get one of the higher awards. 4th, 3rd went by and my heart was practically hammering out of my chest. “And the second place winner is Mark Knutson!” I went up and got my award plaque–I still have it.

Later that evening, all of us kids wandered around the hotel visiting each other’s rooms, many with bathtubs full of iced down beer or booze. In one of these I saw the kid who got first place and had a chat. I brought up the test and how I thought the flowchart-based questions were unreasonably hard. He responded “That sort algorithm? That was easy.”

I was astounded at the way he saw the pattern I could not, and if I was to be bested, I was proud that it was by such a brilliant man. He said had ¬†secured a programming job at Josten’s upon graduation, and I never saw or heard of him again.

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