A Nerd’s Lament

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MS-DOS turned 30 today. I am old enough to remember when the popular saying was “Don’t trust anyone over 30” and although people are still fighting over who actually said that (Jerry Rubin or Jack Weinberg) it hardly matters. 30 is only a milestone until you’re 40. On the other hand, 1981 was a milestone year for me. I arrived in Hartford, CT from Seattle, WA a few days before DOS was born and I started working for Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co a few days after. I met my best friend, my barber and the woman who would eventually become my wife in the first hour of that first day of work. Perhaps leaving Seattle, just as Microsoft was learning to stand upright wasn’t the best career move I ever made, but I like the way my life has gone on the east coast. Suffice it to say, DOS, Microsoft and I have managed to share some time together.

What I stop and think about as DOS turns 30, is how less than five years out of college, a career path opened up for me that didn’t exist when I was a student. I was given the opportunity to learn something new that would form the basis for the remainder of my career (and I hadn’t yet reached the untrustworthy age of 30). All I had to do to get on that bandwagon was to learn something new. The scary thing about DOS’ 30th, isn’t that I remember DOS during its infancy, it’s that so many people my age ignored DOS and the PC it supported. I met a man two days ago, only slightly older than me who says he has never had a computer. I know many people who have computers but who understand them less well than they understand their DVR. I recently sat in a meeting at our local high school, where the administration was defending their decision to drop a basic computer skills class they had offered. It seems the State of CT dropped its meager 0.5 credit in technology graduation requirement, and the school can no longer justify retaining the only teacher they had who was certified to teach that class.

There are so many things wrong with that last run-on sentence that I get spun-up reading it as I try to make it shorter. How can anyone in state government think that exposure to technology shouldn’t be required? How could they ever have thought that 0.5 credit hours was enough exposure? How could there only be one teacher in 2011 who is certified to teach an Introduction to Technology class? Worse yet – at least for someone like myself who works in this industry – is that the course that they canceled was a review of Microsoft Office!

I took my first computer science course in summer school between 8th and 9th grade. We wrote exactly 2 programs: an algorithm to calculate the Square Root of a number and a program that called that algorithm as a function. The rest of the six weeks was spent learning about input, output, storage, communication, bits, bytes, and binary and hexadecimal math. Consider for yourself, how many of those concepts from more than 30 years ago, remain relevant in computer science today. That we would substitute a primer on a Word Processor and Baby’s First Spreadsheet as being equivalent to that summer school course is laughable.

Even worse than all of that, why is there no outrage over this decision? Are the parents in this town so unaware of technology to not see its impact on EVERY career? Are the students so impressed with their own ability to navigate Facebook and their Xbox that they feel they don’t need formal instruction? Is everybody happy being the user of technology, confident that in the future every technical thing will be as easy to use as their iPhone? Doesn’t anyone want to learn how to program their iPhone? Sigh… I am learning how to program my iPhone. When I think back on my summer school class, I was one of three students out of an eventual graduating class of 750+ that took that course. We were nerds, we remained nerds in high school and I would guess we all have nerdy careers. Maybe it’s only us nerds who are wishing DOS a happy 30th today and lamenting the fact that very few of our neighbors can even make a connection between the IBM PC and the technology they rely upon today. It is today, as it always has been, their loss. Happy Birthday DOS!

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  1. I was quite happy as a currency trader in the City and then I studied at the Open Universoty which taught me how to program. When I reached 40, that skill gave me a second career. At that time it was North Star Basic which segued into USCD Pascal. From there I moved to a Pascal engine developbed by a Company called Sage. Reuters bought me an IBM PC as soon as we could get one into the UK. Arounf 1990 I came across Smalltalk and, as they say, the rest is hostory.

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