The Computer and Me
How computers were introduced in my life and what they mean to me today.
I never knew that the first computer I had access to, the BBC Micro, was commissioned as by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as an educational machine, to spread computer literacy, in response to a popular TV Show. I now know that, courtesy of the Wikipedia, and the internet, that today connects probably more than a billion computers. My intention is not to bore you with my nostalgia, (ok maybe a bit) but it is also a reflection of how far we have travelled within a couple of decades.
When I was a school kid, computers were an exotic accessory. I was probably ten (1989) when those BBC commissioned computers landed in our school. My school had started a short course on computers in the summer vacations, and my parents had enrolled me into it. I recall that I “got” computers right from the beginning. I did not feel any anxiety or confusion that I often felt in school otherwise, specially when I had to deal with teachers and older students. No, I was not a recluse, but like most children, I was not designed to be a machine that produced answers when some teacher pointed at me. Which is why I always found them very over-powering and dangerous. Computers, on the other hand were a piece of cake.
The very first program I wrote was a calculator. You had to input some numbers, choose an operation and the computer would promptly display the answer. It was just a few lines of instructions that seemed to read like poetry with short sentences written on separate lines. It was written in a language called BASIC, that I would use for many more years to come.
The course also had an exam. In the exam, we were asked to make a billing program where a user would buy, say a television or a radio and the program would spit out the total bill amount. All this was many years ago, but I still remember that this was one test I scored well. I remember standing next to my school captain, the haughty Sachit Balsara, and I can remember he kept looking at me as I went up to the instructor to get the test results, probably surprised that how a clumsy kid like me could score more than him.
I don’t know what small victories can do for you in life, but that one probably changed mine. I was an average student in class and never generally did very well, but this was one time I was better than everyone. It just gave me the confident start I needed. It was like I had discovered a super power for myself and life suddenly had a new dimension.
The second computer I got access to was a Sinclair machine, another British import. My best friend Amit’s dad was an enthusiast and an entrepreneur, who had also started computer classes. He had a small shop in our neighbourhood where he would repair televisions and in the tiny attic, he would run computer classes. He had just moved back from Britain to settle in India. I still remember that we could write and read programs on audio cassettes on those machines. Shrikant uncle had a nice collection of games in those cassettes that he allowed us to play occasionally, till they went bad.
When I was probably twelve, I remember waking up once in the middle of a dream where there was a computer at home that I could write BASIC programs in. Luckily for me, that dream was about to come true. One of my uncles, who was working with one of India’s first computer companies, had done a deal to replace a bunch of old computers from a bank with newer ones. He needed a way to get rid of the old computers and what could be a better way than giving the opportunity to one’s own family members. Hence courtesy of the nameless bank, I had a PC in my house. I remember it cost us something like Rs 3,500 ($70) at that time.
The monitor was old fashioned monochrome and could display very little graphics. It was probably good for me because the only thing I could run on it was the DOS operating system and BASIC programming. And I remember I explored it fully and wrote tons of kid programs, egged on by Shrikant uncle. Amit, his dad and myself were the only computing community around and we had a lot of fun making a all kind of programs. Games never interested me because they made me anxious. I loved watching them though. Amit would play games and I would watch and then I would program and he would watch.
I remember Amit got a brand new 286 machine and we loaded a new kind of program called “Windows” on it. You could use a mouse and it had a graphical interface. It was really cool. Immediately I went back on my old machine and wrote up a program that would emulate the Windows look. You had a bunch of boxes on the screen that you could use to list and start programs on your machine. I quickly realized that running my “fake Windows” was taking up half of the computer memory, and the main program was left limping.
Since we had no access to the wider computing community, nor was there any such thing in our school, our only real access was via books and pirated disks that you could buy at Mumbai’s computer street, Lamington Road. The first computing book I bought, for better or worse, was Peter Norton’s Guide to the Assembly Language. That book took me under the hood of the operating system and showed me how the microprocessor, which is the heart of the computer interacted with the memory. Memory is where programs, their inputs and outputs were stored. The microprocessor would read very basic and dumb instructions from a memory location, like add this or move this here, and how with thousands of such micro-instructions, you could create something very interesting and complex.
In a couple of years, my community was expanded as my elder cousin Samir started to take a lot more interest in computers. I figured that like me, he instantly “got” computers and was happier dealing with them rather than other human beings. Unlike me though, he loved playing games. He then became my source of cool things. He showed me advanced forms of BASIC alike QuickBasic and VisualBasic along with new games like Wolfenstien and we would spend hours discussing new types programs and ways we could hack into the operating system to do something cool.
Samir later went on to become a successful software product designer and entrepreneur and was an inspiration for me to start my own software company. My touch with programming diminished in the years of board exams. By the time I was in college, Samir was already on his own and operated out of his own small office. I would spend my summers with him working as an apprentice, and often pair programming on complex geometric problems for his product. Later I learnt that pair programming is an established practice even though we just happened to stumble on it.
These days I have a love-hate relationship with computers. Computers have now moved on from solving complex mathematical problems to becoming embedded in the structure of our civilization. They have also become a means of communication, transforming lives and replacing or enhancing other popular forms like books, newspapers, telephones and televisions. Even though I love writing programs like I always did, I am not fully comfortable making it my profession. The reason is that I am very anxious to deal with customers, who like my teachers, are always asking questions, that I am not fully prepared or capable of answering. Which is why I think hobbies should become professions only when its on your terms.
Rushabh is a software developer and founder of ERPNext. He usually writes about the startup experience, open source and the technologies he is working on.