Th Old Coders, Sherman Larson

As a very young programmer, at my second job at the Soo Line railroad, it was my privilege to cross paths with The Old Coders. These men were giants who walked the earth in the infancy of the Computer Age. The railroad, and thousands of other companies, ran on the code they wrote using early computers of extremely low capacity–by today’s standards–making up for the hardware shortcomings through encyclopedic knowledge of the IBM System/370 architecture and tight, efficient, code.

After writing a bit of COBOL at the railroad, I was promoted to a position as a systems programmer, supporting the computer terminal management software, CICS. I wrote programs in assembly language (formally known as IBM Basic Assembly Language–BAL), and loved it so much that after I, perhaps foolishly, left the Soo Line, it would be 20 years or more before I found a job nearly as enjoyable.

The manager of systems programming at the Soo Line was Sherman Larson. A modest man who’s unassuming manner concealed his true nature as one of those giants. His other notable quality was that on the chalkboard in his office was always written the date of his next scheduled vacation to Las Vegas with his lovely wife, Naomi. I will let one anecdote suffice for now:

I was writing an assembler program, and was perhaps asking Sherm a question about some other matter. He must have noticed I had a loop where I was subtracting one from a counter on each iteration. He commented “If you use a BCTR with zero as a parameter, it takes less machine cycles.”  BCTR was the name of the Branch on CounT, Register instruction. I stood in awe as I realized that he knew the number of machine clocks each assembler instruction took. He also had wonderful quality that whenever I exclaimed that some programming task simply could not be done, he would patiently show me how it could be done.

When I install the latest 20 gigabyte version of Microsoft Windows, needing ever faster hardware to lumber along at the same speed as the previous release did on lesser hardware, I think of the Old Coders and how they are a race almost extinct. And I think with pride how, 30 years later, I am perhaps a lesser version of Old Coder myself.

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