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.

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…


************* Let’s put some Nathan Hales here *****************

As a young programmer, I was reviewing some assembler code and I noted something like this:

  • LA   R6,STDHD
  • BALR R4,R6
  • BAS13     SR   R4,R4

I was used to seeing asterisks as a means of setting out comments, but I asked Sherm what the Nathan Hale part meant. He explained that Nathan Hale, an early American Revolutionary War patriot, prior to his execution by the British, was famously heard to exclaim “I regret that I have but one as-te-risk for my country!” 😉