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.

Born to be a Midshipman

Before reading this story, bear in mind that the Naval Academy, in Annapolis Maryland, is the supreme Officer’s College of the Navy. Admission to this cradle of Admirals is very competitive–more selective than Harvard or Stanford–with an admission ritual that begins when the kids are still in junior high, and favors those who’s ancestors attended.

I once worked with an Oracle DBA who was also an extremely humorous man. Among his quirks was that he disliked excessively long variable names. Watching me type a column name, once I got past about the eighth character, he would invariably bring up Mavis Beacon, product name of a then popular computer touch typing instructional program, implying that one had a hunger for lots of typing: “Well, if you want to do the Mavis Beacon thing, go right ahead, but…”

So, one day, he starts excitedly telling us that his son had his heart set on attending the Naval Academy. “Oh, he’s on it, he’s nuts about it!” I asked him how old his son was. With a straight face he responded: “Eighteen months.” I burst out laughing.

He moved on to another job and I lost track of him. I wonder whatever happened. As a father, I can imagine how proud any squid would be to see his son graduate from the Naval Academy.

The first task for a new manager

Back at the Soo Line, there was a programmer who felt strongly he should be promoted to manager despite the fact that nobody was working for him. One wag was heard to joke that he would be promoted to manager and that his first task would be to lay off one person in his group.

The Summer of 1978, Forever Autumn

I like to end my Friday Night postings on a reflective note, and the 1978 Justin Hayward (Moody Blues) cover of Forever Autumn certainly does that. In the Summer of 1978, I received my Two Year Computer Programming Certificate from 916 Vo-Tech, and entered the professional journey that would soon bring me to the Old Coders.

I moved to a basement in Bloomington and was missing my friends and a young woman whom, in the fullness of time, I learned I would never see again. This song was on the charts and hence the radio that summer, and it has become bound in my mind to that time. So, to a time of painful goodbyes, humble beginnings and unbridled dreams of the future, I give you Forever Autumn.

Boz Skaggs, soundtrack of my Vo-Tech years

I attended Area 916 Vocational-Technical institute from roughly 1977 to 1978. I earned a two-year programming certificate qualifying me to program mainframes in COBOL. Out of all my over-educated years in school, this was hands down the most enjoyable learning institution I attended, due to the good friendships, the relaxed atmosphere, and many enjoyable parties. Due to its independent study competence based program, and the fact that I got high school credit for attending it in high school, I spent about a year and a half there.

It represented for me at the time a big expansion of my scope of experience, which I often viewed with a wide-eyed fascination. Learning the principles of computing, new friends, romance, and attending parties with classmates who lived in apartments! I was living at home and apartment living seemed the height of adult sophistication.

And behind all that, the music of Boz Skaggs. In 1976 he teamed up with session musicians that later formed the band Toto, and created his masterpiece, Silk Degrees. While the ‘Lido Shuffle’ topped the charts, I much preferred ‘We’re All Alone’, dubbed with the detested appellation “MOR” by a clueless wickipedia author, and the peerless slow-dancer, ‘Harbor lights’.

I recall some 30 odd years ago, a callow young man who would take a beautiful young woman to the dance floor, slow dance to Harbor Lights, become intoxicated in a cloud of pheromones, and enter a dreamlike state of bliss…