Programming experience pays off

Problem Solver

Article from Issue 178/2015

"maddog" celebrates 46 years of writing code and considers what it means to be a professional programmer.

By the time you read this, I will have celebrated the 65th anniversary of my birth. I started programming in 1969, so this year makes 46 years of writing code. Many people ask me if I still write code, and I do, but mostly for my own use rather than the use of others. Of course, I also administer the computers that I use in my office and home – partly to keep up to date with things happening in the FOSS world, and partly because I enjoy it.

When I started programming, many computers were still using vacuum tubes to do the calculations, and I remember both programming a "computer" using a plug board and wires as well as building a controller for a wire-making machine out of relays. Later, core memory replaced vacuum tubes and relays for memory, and still later integrated circuits replaced core memory for power, space, cost, and heat considerations.

Recently, the BBC announced their newest design for the micro:bit – a computer that is only 4cm x 5cm and runs off batteries. The computer is so inexpensive to make that the plan is simply to give one to every seventh grader. They can then program the device through a website and download the program to the micro:bit. The intent of this initiative is not to generate millions of "professional" programmers but to help students learn how to program and (perhaps) organize their thoughts and problems so that a programmer can more easily solve the problem later. Or, perhaps the students will learn enough about simple problem-solving techniques to solve problems themselves, just as they learn to use electronic calculators and spreadsheets.

One of the ironies of life is that the little micro:bit is hundreds of times more capable of solving problems than some of the first computers I programmed, and I guarantee you that no one was giving away those first systems to seventh graders. In a way, it is also coming back to the reason most people started programming in the early days of computers, which was to solve a problem that they had – not a problem that someone else had.

If you programmed in 1969, you were likely a physicist trying to solve a physics problem or an engineer trying to solve some engineering problem. You were typically NOT a programmer who was trying to solve some other person's problem; in other words, you were not programming as a profession. I had a professor who told me that I would never make a living as a professional programmer, and I am still trying to find out if he was right.

If you bought a computer in 1969, it was because you had a specific set of problems that you wanted to solve, and that was why you were spending all that money for that computer hardware and spending all that time and money to hire people to write programs. You typically did not sell the programs afterwards, because they were your programs that were going to solve your problems – not someone else's.

No one really buys a computer and software: They buy hardware and a solution. No one glues a box of software or a carton of hardware to the wall, then sits back and lovingly watches it like a shrine. People buy hardware and software to fix a problem they have, and if they could reasonably find a solution for that problem some other way, they would. Now, as computers become less and less expensive, and Free Software is, well, almost free, how can a computer person make money?

By selling the solution, not just the hardware and software.

One time early in my career, I walked into a company and saw a procedure being used in manufacturing that could easily be automated. I asked them how much that procedure cost them each year and how much they would pay me if I could basically eliminate it. They said the process cost them about two million dollars a year and that they would gladly pay me half a million dollars to eliminate the process. I wrote about 100 lines of C, handed it to them, and explained how it would fix the process. It took me about an hour. Then, I asked them for the $500,000. "What?" they exclaimed. "You were only here two hours and only wrote 100 lines of code."

"Yes," I said, "you do not pay the surgeon for the 10 minutes he spends in the operating room, you pay him for the 10 years it took him to learn where to make the cut."

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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