How I Got Started in Computers


I first started working with computers in 1983.

As I mentioned earlier, my Mom was an administrator of a hospital and I tried just about every job there was to try.  My favorite was the computer room.

I worked the midnight shift printing reports, changing out the hard drives for backups, changing the tapes in the tape machines for backups, rebooting with punched cards, and helping nurses figure out how to use their terminals.

The computer room was bigger than my RV and was a room to itself so that the temperature could be controlled with air conditioners. These computers and their accessories produced a LOT of heat.

The computer itself, the mainframe, was bigger than most luxury refrigerators.

The tape machine that stored backups on magnetic tape was also bigger than most refrigerators.

The hard drive machines looked and worked more like washing machines than the hard drives we see today.

The hard drives themselves were the size of wedding cakes and were stored in covers that looked like cake covers.

Backing up the computer required me to pull out one of those huge wedding cake shaped hard drives (that weighed about 50 pounds each) from the top-loading washing machine and put in another.

The hard drives in the cake covers were stored on shelves and I  chose the backup disk that had been used last week so that we had backups for at least a week. We did this daily so that we had rotated backups.

The magnetic tapes we used in the tape machines were 10 to 12 inches in diameter - big reels that had to be taken off the spindle and replaced with a newly rotated tape.

The printer was as big as my desk with it's own legs so that it was more like a table.  It printed on reams of green bar printer paper with sheets that were 12 to 17 inches wide.

The keypunch machine where we added data to the 8" floppy drives was a desk with a keyboard and terminal built in.  As we typed we could see the black screen with big amber or neon green letters appear.  It was magical.

We were not writing code, we were entering data. Data entry operators were hired to type on these machines all day.  Then we would take the big 8" floppies to the floppy drive on the mainframe computer in the air conditioned computer room.

I loved every minute of my job.  I was fascinated with how these mega machines could process so much data to keep everything straight and produce new results and statistics.

What I thought was a lot of data back then wasn't even a drop in the bucket compared to what the computer sitting on my desk can process today.

Personal Computers were just getting their start in the hobby world.  Only real nerds had them and got them through mail order or radio shack.

They were not common household appliances like they are today.  They weren't even common in the business world.

One day while shopping at target in the electronics section where the Atari video games were kept, I saw a Vic 20 computer made by Commodore.  I had to have it!

It had cartridges like the Atari that had games already programmed.  The computer was a box that plugged into the TV, but instead of game controllers, it had a keyboard so that I could write my own programs.

I bought a magazine that had computer code in it so that I could start writing my own programs.  I fell more in love with programming, even though I had little to no idea what the cryptic looking code was doing.

All I could really do was to type the code exactly like it was printed in the magazine and then run the code.  It was so cool!

As soon as I turned off the computer, my code was gone.  I had to retype it to get it back.  There was no hard drive, no tape drive, nothing to store my code.

But, it didn't matter.  I was hooked.  I didn't miss the hard drive because I didn't even really understand what a hard drive was for a personal computer.  I only knew what I found in the magazine.

My Vic 20 only had 8K of memory.  That is not a typo.  A kilobyte of memory is only 1024 bytes (or characters) as opposed to the Gigabytes (1,073,741,824 bytes) (or Terabytes - 1,099,511,627,776 bytes) of memory we have in our computers now.

That was RAM (Random Access Memory) or internal memory, not hard drive space.  I could not store anything.

Soon, Target stared carrying the Commodore 64 which had 64K of memory.  It would allow me to do SO much more, so I bought that too.

Then I read about a tape drive for the Commodore so that I could save my programs instead of having to type them again.  I bought one.  It was better, but fast forwarding and rewinding the magnetic cassette tapes was time consuming when you were trying to find the correct place for the program you wanted to start.

But, that's all I knew, so I didn't mind.  It was still better than retyping everything all over again.

Then I discovered a hard drive for the Commodore at the only electronics store in my area at the time, Circuit City.  I practically lived in Circuit City so I could find all the new cool computer stuff they carried.

I remember wanting that hard drive so bad!  But, they were $300 and I didn't have that kind of money (that was a lot back then - at least for me.)

I applied for credit at Circuit City, but they turned me down. I was so disappointed.  I started saving my money and was SO very excited when I finally had enough to add the external hard drive to my computer.

I also bought a color printer, which consisted of a printer with a gel cartridge that had 3 colors of gel on the printer ribbon.  The printer would combine those three colors to produce some pretty good printouts. It was very slow, but I didn't care.

Color printers were not a real thing that most places had until much, much later.  I often think about that printer and how far ahead of it's time it really was.

I really wanted to buy a TRS-80 (we called it trash 80) from Radio Shack, but I couldn't afford it.  Only real enthusiasts who had enough money or businesses were buying these at the time.

The Commodore computers and working in the computer room at the hospital made me decide to pursue a computer career.

One of my fellow workers in the computer room was going to Nashville State Technical Institute to get an associates degree in computers.  He was so smart, but I knew I could do it too.

I had already been to college and dropped out because I couldn't decide what I wanted to do.  I tried everything from accounting to wildlife biology, Graphic Arts to Recreation, but nothing was interesting or exciting to me.

I may have stuck it out in Wildlife Biology and/or Recreation if it hadn't been for the snake classes I would have had to take.

Since I wasn't interested in the classes my first time at college, and was more interested in partying and finding a husband, my grades were awful.  I finally dropped out to work at the hospital, where I found my passion in computers.

Going back to school was something I had always planned on doing and now I knew what I wanted to do.  I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could about computers.

When I was at my first college, Murray State University, trying to decide what I wanted to do the rest of my life, I had never even heard of a computer degree.  I didn't even know it was possible.

Now that I knew, I knew I had to do it, no matter what it took.  I continued working full time at night in the computer room and taking classes in the day and evening.  I absolutely loved everything about it.  I couldn't get enough.

Several years later, I finally got my Radio Shack computer, but it was long after the TRS-80 days.  I got a Tandy 1000, which was awesome!

It was my first IBM compatible computer which opened up a whole new world to me.  IBM was dominating the mainframe world and now they were entering the PC market.  It only got better from there.

That's how I got started.  I can't believe how much I've learned since then.  I am so thankful I found that Vic 20 computer and got the job in the computer room of a small hospital.  It launched my long, passionate career.

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