DigitalFriend Blog

November 2012

The Day a 70-year-old C Programmer turned my Head Around

Sun, 25 Nov 2012 21:46:06 +1000

By: gosh'at' (Steve Goschnick)

Some many years ago now, when I was 29 I was an IT Manager in the then 'high tech' Computer Centre of the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) - Cyber mainframe, multiple peripheral processors, dish-washer-sized 500M hard-disks, Classic Macs, distributed network of PC-clones, and all that jazz. Flushed with my success of also being admitted into the ACS (Australian Computer Society) the same year, I had quite an ageist attitude towards 'old' programmers, the other side of 30. That was, until the day I needed to hire a C Programmer to build an application for Windows V1.0 - yes, there really was a functioning 1.0 version of Microsoft Windows.

A young hot-shot intern Master of Engineering student named Jack Kenyon - who went on to build one of the very first anti-virus programs called 'Virus Buster' in later years - was then into road research, and he had the innovative idea to build a graphical inventory system for the national road network. It involved scrolling around maps of the road network on screen, such that you could click on items of 'road furniture' (e.g. a bridge, say) and get all of the build and maintenance history for that item, with the click of a mouse. Not bad for 1986. What's more he wanted it to work on the desktop in the then brand new Windows V1.0. Jack was truly entrepreneurial by nature, as not only did he have the initial idea, he had also raised the research money to build it, and got himself seconded to the ARRB from his home state of Queensland, to follow it through.

That's where I came in. As a manager in the main research service department, the task of hiring the necessary programming skills fell on my shoulders. The following national advertisement for a "C programmer, preferably with some experience of Windowing systems, doubly useful if it includes Microsoft Window V1" received just two applicants! - ahhh they were the days, if you were a Programmer.

One applicant was a young guy (i.e. younger than 29) claiming the usual mastery of half-a-dozen languages, but about 5 minutes into the interview it became clear that his mastery of the C language in particular, probably came out of a book the week before. The other guy - Tony - clearly had both C and windowing experience on Unix, but, he was 70 years old - which surprised me at the time.

Turns out Tony really was a gun C programmer and he explained to me how he got 'back' into programming at such an advanced age (paraphrasing here): "Its all about Life Cycle - not the tools, not the projects, yours - about where you currently are in your life cycle. If you have young kids around your feet all week and all that that entails - there's no way you can do serious programming. No way you can hold the necessary long term concentration and memory needed. You're better off being a manager, like yourself. A few years ago my kids moved out and they're all now doing their own thing. So I returned to programming, to what I used to do best before kids and before managing, and to my own surprise it all came back to me quite easily - Its about where you currently are in your life cycle, not your age, that determines whether or not you can program well".

We gave him the job, and he did a very good job of it. I like to think I'd have still given him the opportunity even if we had many more applicants but I'm probably being too easy on my younger self. Anyway, I was thinking about Tony a few months ago when I got back into programming properly - don't know why. The insight he gave me regarding life cycle and code cutting then, paved a mental path for me to journey back into it now. Thanks Tony. I imagine you are swapping yarns with Dennis Richie these days, but perhaps not.



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