I began my career in Information Technology in early 1997. I was 20, young and eager and ravenous for any knowledge related to my field. A newborn of the digital age, still raw from the Big Bang of AOL and Compuserve and 14.4K modems.
It was quite the about-face from my teen years.
Growing up, I was exposed very little to computers. We never had one growing up, save for a brief period in 1983 when my mom saw a Mattel Aquarius on clearance at a local KB Toys. The price must have seemed out of this world for my mom. If memory serves, it ran about $50… for what resembled a home computer. Again, this is 1983 and my mom grew up in an age when we were all supposed to be in flying cars and traipsing back and forth from the moon by the time the future (i.e., 1983) rolled around. A home computer for that price must have seemed like a piece of the future had unceremoniously arrived at the local mall and was there for the taking.
Although just 6, I remember the excitement of my mom bringing home this unexpected present. A computer? Were we suddenly living in the Future? And how the hell did she get one? We took the time to immediately unpack and connect it to the mighty high-definition monitor that was our old table-sized television. The device looked amazing to my young eyes. The sickly bright blue keys contrasted with the black and white shell. A disk drive (where the “disks” were actual cartridges that could give 8-tracks a thumping), a controller, and four games came with the system.
It was like the best of Atari and computer science rolled into one. Sure, Atari was the hot item at the time, and in retrospect my mom probably thought this was even better; after all, the Atari was a dedicated video game console. But this? This had a keyboard too. It looked fancy. We were probably the only one in the apartment complex to have a computer. Okay, probably not.
Naturally at the age of 6, I went for the games first. Four came with the system, but I only distinctly remember 3 of them. There was Snafu, a snake game where you controlled “serpents” and your objective was to trap the AI serpent into a dead-end with you or its body. And by “serpents” I mean just thick lines of various colors.
Then there was Utopia, which was like Civilization before Civilization was a thing. It had a couple of lands, and troops would invade or something, and you had to protect your turf. At 6 years old I can’t believe I played this, but I have fond memories of it.
But the true MVP of my Aquarius collection was Night Stalker. You were a player trapped in this maze, along with bats, a giant spider (complete with its own web area) and robots. One of the robots, if killed enough times, would evolve into a more and more dangerous version, until it finally became invisible. You had a lone safe bunker area in this maze of death, but when that robot received enough upgrades, it could destroy your bunker and you would have to be constantly on the run thereafter.
For a young kid, that game was intense as hell. And I loved it.
As I enjoyed the games and looked through whatever else came with this modern-day Difference Engine, I found a curious item. I found a manual; a small, tabbed book with ringed binding. I flipped through this oddity and found something even stranger: code. Because the Aquarius also came with a BASIC interpreter, and with a manual to code several programs.
Initially I left it be and focused on the games. After a couple of weeks my curiosity got the best of me, and I peeked through the pages filled with a strange, almost-incomprehensible language. Why does every line begin with a number? What are these words that end in a “$”? I ascertained that I needed to type in these words into a program on the computer in order to make the computer do things that I (technically) told it too. The idea was intriguing. On one bored morning, I cracked open the manual, fired up the Aquarius, and set about writing (re: transcribing) my first computer program.
I wonder where my parents were and how my dad wasn’t bugging me to get off so that he could watch baseball. Because inputting the code felt like it took forever.
The first program was for creating a figure repeatedly running across the screen. Through the lens of my memory, I can see myself coding and running this program after correcting several typos (it would throw up an error if something was wrong. A 6-year-old debugging code? Nope. But thankfully it would jump right to the problem line and I would just compare the book with the screen, often numerous times. Also: imagine this scene with a sepia Instagram filter), and subsequently I succeeded.
There it was: this yellow-white sprite in the shape of a person running endlessly from one side of the screen to the other. It was amazing to watch. For the first 25 times, at least.
(There was variant of the program included where you could randomize the starting location of the running figure along the Y axis, but I could never get it to work. Because, you know, being 6-years old and no Computer Science degree).
I later mustered the courage to try the longest program in the book, a checkbook application. But why I attempted it, I don’t know, since I was a kid with no personal income. It also never worked; no matter how many times it barked at me and told me a specific line of code was wrong, and how many times I looked at the book and code and could have sworn they were the same, I just couldn’t get past it. In frustration I powered off the Aquarius and never coded again on that computer.
The intervening years were not particularly filled with technology. Video game systems, for sure, but not a PC. The “real” PCs were incredibly expensive, and my interest in them (and coding) was severely hampered by a disastrous 9th grade class where we were supposed to create an animated program in DOS (hello, BASIC, my old friend…) and I knew exactly what I wanted to animate.
You know that saying about “ambition exceeding your grasp”? Neither do I, as I may have just made that up or misremembered. Regardless, I wanted to animate a scene from my then-favorite comic book, Cerebus.
If you don’t know anything about Cerebus (and I wouldn’t blame you) then I’ll just say it was a series that started out as a Conan the Barbarian parody with the titular Aardvark main character, and soon grew into a complex series on socio-political commentary, religion, and gender issues (just for starters). In a key scene in the first half of the series (it ran for 300 issues), Cerebus needs to hitch a ride on a large cylindrical piece of a mountain of demon-head skulls (don’t ask) rapidly launching towards the moon so that he can meet God and become the Messiah (again, don’t ask). The “Ascension”, with the mountain rising into the sky and heading towards the moon, was the moment I wanted to animate.
Yeah. Not very likely on a PC that was already old in 1992.
The project was a disaster, and my young teenaged insecure self didn’t suffer the experience too gladly. I came away with a disdain for computers. They became indecipherable beasts, mystery boxes of archaic code and monochrome frustration. I swore never to take another computer class and would rather focus my energies on other interests, such as writing.
Although I would wind up taking another computer class in my 11th grade year, it was Word Processing (no coding half-assed programs here, just documents… in WordPerfect for DOS…), and I deftly dodged any other computer classes before graduation, two months before Windows 95 was unleashed onto the world and the computer revolution really took off.
Problem was, I had no direction.
Ever since I was 10-years old, I had only one thought in my head with regards to post-high school life: I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write comic books, short stories, and novels. It seemed like a solid plan, despite my dad’s admonition of having a “backup plan” and “career” in order to support myself while I worked, in his words, on my “hobby”. I half-paid him any mind as I got older, writing stories and comic book scripts longhand in numerous notebooks during my youth. But sometime around 11th grade, it began to dawn on me that my dad might be right, and I should have something to fall back on. Except I had no idea what that should be.
In this way I was very much fashioned from the typical Generation X mold. I wanted to pass and get by in school but made no significant effort to do great. The Honor Roll student of my middle school years gave way to the defeatist slacker of high school. I had friends and hung out, I worked part-time in the kitchen of a nursing home, and I made sure my grades were not D’s and F’s. My ambition had not so much collapsed as became comatose, and though my parents told me to go to college, I had no sense of how to make that happen.
Enter my high school guidance counselor. I recently looked up the definition of what one was, and was amazing that it read:
The role of a school guidance counselor is to work with students and parents to help guide students’ academic, behavioral and social growth. Individuals in this field work in elementary, middle and high schools
Except I got saddled with a late middle-aged white male who, as I realized in later years, probably really didn’t have any vested interest in my development. To be clear, he was never rude to me, or blew me off (I think). But in retrospect, he really didn’t give a shit about my prospects for the future. When I heard about experiences from others in my grade and how their guidance counselor helped guide them to a better, more productive future, I realized: I got hosed.
I went to a mostly white suburban high school out in a largely Mennonite area (the nursing home I worked at through most of high school was in fact Mennonite). There were some minorities, but in terms of Hispanics a number unfortunately had dropped out. Coupled with the time (those heady 90’s), my lack of ambition (“Like, I just want to write, man”) and cultural preconceptions, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to ever learn my Guidance Counselor phoned in his time with me.
Our first meeting basically went like this:
GC: What do you want to do for a living?
ME: Become a writer.
GC: Yeah, but you need something to fall back on.
ME: I have no idea.
GC: Nothing at all?
ME: My mom says nurses make good money.
GC: Okay, good. We’ll look at nursing schools in the area.
And that became the lens through which he dealt with me afterward. He looked at some nursing schools, gave me some documentation, and that was about it. Maybe that’s the norm? Hell if I know. I saw him very little after that. I stopped bothering to make appointments with him and I’m certain I vanished from his periphery.
Then I graduated and I was out of the system.
My first summer after graduation revolved around a failed transition to becoming a cook at my nursing home job (the next thing after “nurse” that I thought I might be able to do to support myself while I tried to write). My inexperience and some conspiratorial co-workers (more interesting in hazing and sabotaging than teaching and helping) ended that opportunity for me, and while I went back to being a dietary aide by day and hanging with friends into all hours of the night, there was still the question of just what the hell I was going to do with my life.
It really hit home in late August, when most of my friends went off to college. A few stayed to attend community college, but my closest ones went to Penn State main campus, hours away. And my other set of friends were a year or two younger, and would be back in high school on the same hamster wheel I had just extricated myself from. With an utter lack of focus and my plans for post-high school life having fallen through (which in part distracted me from enrolling in community college), I entered a listless phase of my life.
My first “real” computer was as uninspired as my post-high school haze.
Eventually, I stopped writing fiction and turned my creative energies entirely towards poetry (because that was clearly going to be a bigger money-maker). I got wrapped up in the typical ennui of mid-90’s youth (okay, most youth). Hanging out with friends until all hours, moderate partying and working an almost-full time job. But one of my co-workers, Matt, a cook and buddy whom I occasionally hung out with, had a hidden life as a tech geek. He spoke to me about computers and offered to sell me his old one, a (wait for it) 486DX2/66 (“66” being for megahertz… yes, mega, before gigahertz were all the craze) with 4MB of RAM. Clearly, a powerhouse computer by mid-90’s standards. But it had a modem and ran Windows 95, and I was intrigued by the idea of joining the world in the cyber revolution.
At the time, computers were a well-known thing. But the idea of the Internet (then referred to via the buzz term “Information Superhighway”) allowing us to connect to other people – and do so in a near instantaneous way – was unheard of. It was something that the public in general hadn’t really considered, and so as the hype machine went into overdrive (despite us folks not really comprehending what it truly meant). All I knew, perhaps with some level of intuition, was that I wanted in on this exciting new thing. The future was about to arrive and I sure as hell wasn’t going to be caught unawares, 9th grade computer class be damned.
So, I worked out an arrangement with Matt and purchased his computer. I took it home and hooked it up with a makeshift desk. I powered it on and watched this strange Windows 95 logo and heard the startup sounds unfurl like an ancient digital mariner. After booting, I began diving into the workings of Windows 95’s UI, trying to make sense of it. I clicked and dragged and created files in Writepad and had no clue how to organize anything. I won’t even call it a brave new world; I was nervous to work with most of it since I had no idea how any of it worked.
I nearly had a heart attack the first time I decided to figure out what the cryptically titled “Restart in MS-DOS mode” option did, only to be dumped into the abyssal sandbox of a command prompt. It took a few minutes to realize the “Exit” command would reboot my system back into Windows 95, but they were a harrowing few minutes as a wondered if I had irreparably broken my system.
But as my familiarity with the system grew, I found myself drawn to a particular subsection of the computer: namely, programming in QBasic.
The exact spark for my desire to program has been lost to the hazy vestiges of my memory, but I do know that the more I did it, the more I desired to apply those burgeoning programming skills to creating video games. I started by creating a poorly-constructed text adventure called Avalon, which in retrospect was as embarrassing as one can imagine in terms of design. Imagine Zork with one corridor, overlong descriptions and puzzles with code that contained no error checking… Yeah. Awful.
But in working on this text adventure (which one of my best friends claims to still have a copy of… God bless him. I’ll have to either bribe him or burn his house down) I came to have a desire that was alien and frightening and exciting.
I realized that this is what I wanted to do for a career. The long-vaunted stable job my parents had advised while I pursued writing was beginning to materialize in my mind. And once fully formed, given the breath of life in the catacombs of my consciousness, the very concept was one that could never part with me.
I wanted to work on computers. I would be a video game programmer.
And like most good intentions, its ultimate fruition would bare little resemblance to the dream that birthed it…