Confessions Of A Wannabe Geek - III
Welcome To The Future...

Ray Levasseur (c) November 14, 1999

A vertical learning curve and culture shock.

It was like my first day at Kindergarten, "mommmmiiieeee!" I met with HR, my new boss, and the basic cast of characters I'd be interacting with. I do have to say, they had my extension and e-mail all set up, and a nice frisky 400MHZ workstation with 192Meg of ram and Trinitron monitor. Even though I had worked for a computer company for most of my life, an ongoing gripe of programmers was that the executives and other suits seemed to always get the most powerful work stations, while developers had to settle for floor sweepings. Yup, brass need the cutting edge power and 21" monitors, so that they can read their mail (actually their secretaries do) create Academy Award winning PowerPoint slide presentations (secretaries should get the credit here also), write memos (secretaries again) and impress their peers.

My new employer was in the beginning phase of re-inventing the company, so everyone seemed to be on an even playing field as far as office hardware was concerned. Back in my DEC days, when you changed jobs, it sometimes took weeks to get computer accounts, phones, mail and office supplies established, so the new place impressed me by having all the nuisance stuff taken care of. I didn't get much done for the first two weeks, since we were in the midst of the holiday season, but very shortly afterward my brain began to ache from trying to assimilate too much at once. I had to pick up the essentials and quirks of the IBM mainframe environment, which was like comparing apples to mushrooms, at least I thought so. I came up to speed fairly quickly in a new language (to me), SAS. After getting over my initial fear, SAS shared a lot of basic logic with other languages I had struggled with. I was beginning to see that, if you know one or two computer languages (C++, Java and assembler aside), then mastering the basics of others come in fairly short order. It was all the same church, but different pews.

My prior MS Access skills came in handy right from the start, along with learning what I needed to get by using Crystal Reports. Even more important the company had an excellent cafeteria with dirt cheap prices. There were other little things that made life there enjoyable; an occasional pizza party or afternoon ice cream buffet.

They had also recently gotten a new CEO, a rather friendly and personable guy, who seemed to be very progressive. Tons of training was offered and I have to say I attended more desktop and client-server oriented classes in my first 6 to 9 months than I was able to weasel out of Mother DEC during my last 5 years of tenure. During my first interview, the hiring manager was concerned that I might find the company boring and not enough of a challenge. I'll be coming up on my first year anniversary soon, and it's been anything but "boring". There always seems to be something new to migrate from the old mainframe, some brand new application or reports to create and the constant need to learn and master new skills.

My employer did keep to it's word in the job description, "COBOL programmers, learn, VB, SQL, Access, etc." This past year has been a whirlwind of learning and fumbling around with new tools. After years of wanting to learn to write real database programs in Visual Basic, I'll get my change very soon. I'm also applying my web skills and learning the basics of Active Server page creation, which is sort of fun.

At times, the work is frustrating and my stress levels soar. Everyone is also on a learning curve, and this is all new uncharted territory for many associates. At times I ask myself, "do you really want to be a programmer for the rest of your life," but it's been what has taken up the vast majority of my free brain processing power for the past 15 years. I guess I like and enjoy what I do because it's creative and keeps my mind a workout. I was never one to go off job hopping every 1 to 3 years, so HOPE this is the last stop on the career bus until I die or retire...we'll see, time will tell. SO far, it's a pretty good place to work, but I'm still adjusting to the culture change.

Just an aside, I also learned the straight poop on the media flap regarding my new employer. It seems that the AIDS group misunderstood what my company did, and went off half cocked protesting. My employer is a 100 year old firm that investigates insurance fraud. I was never aware how big a problem insurance fraud was until recently. They also provide other statistical services to the insurance industry.

I still don't feel like a real computer geek.

Many years ago, I made a pledge never to touch a computer again; then I went into the Navy and spent 4 years as an Airborne Data Systems Tech. After military discharge, swore again that I would never touch a computer again after suffering through 3 semesters of FORTRAN and COBOL. Funny, but as much as I hated these course, I scored 4.0 in each. After graduation I swore once again that computers were the Devil or the Marquis de Sade's work and wound up working for, what was once the second largest computer company on Earth. Five years after working at DEC, fate threw me into programming, which I learned to enjoy doing. NO longer did I have to toil over keypunch machines, dropping card decks off at the data center for processing. Full screen editors, and later platforms like Visual Basic, made my life a lot easier, but also harder.

Many times I don't feel like a real programmer, since I don't have a clue about what's going on at the machine code level, how to optimize disk I/O, memory optimization, API calls, what every DLL is up to, and all that jazz. Some of my programming mentors over the years admitted that very few application programmers have to worry about every bit and byte; just write the programs to get the job done. Since I had a finance/business background, this has helped me a lot on creating solutions for the bean counters I work with.

For all the talk about simplification, the programmer's life has certainly gotten a lot more complex. Gone are the days when all you needed to know was either in FORTRAN or COBOL. Many moons ago book stores did not have isle after isle of computer books. When I first began tinkering with HTML, there were perhaps a dozen or two books on the subject, but today entire book sections are dedicated to HTML and web publishing of every sort. It's the same with any other language or application. There are probably hundreds of 6 inch thick titles dedicated to Microsoft Office products alone, "kill a tree, learn a computer language :-)"

It's really become mind boggling, especially for us older fossils who learned programming by brute force. Look at the kids today, even the little wee ones. They can click mice and push buttons before they're potty trained. Kids take to computers like a duck to water. I worked with a number of people at DEC who said that their kids amazed and scared them with their innate computer friendliness. One guy had an 8 year old son who was writing some mighty impressive games in Visual basic, and he said his kid created this stuff totally on his own. He was a finance type, who admitted all he knew about computing was reading his mail and creating presentations.

What is becoming clear is that many languages and operating systems share a lot of similarities, at the same time being fundamentally different. I also had to start thinking logically. Wow! that's scary, sometimes I think in "do loops", "do while" etc. But then, normal tasks around the house are sort of like program modules. I'm not sure how long I can keep up with the rapidly changing pace of high tech, "doctor, DOCTOR! MY BRAIN HURTS!" Programming for fun is one thing, doing it to meet deadlines is another. Today across many industries, companies are re-inventing themselves, getting online and web enabled, migrating old fossilized mainframe applications, to desktop oriented, GUI, client server stuff, downsizing, cost cutting. All this while wanting more and more for less.

Ahhh, sigh...where will it all end, and when will all the high tech "Hoopla" collapse under it's own weight and complexity...

Cheers, Ray