My first job after college was as a public relations program manager, so I had little contact with technology at all. After I left that business, I worked for five years as an aerial photogrammetrist working primarily for the mining industry, a job which involved operating an optical-mechanical device that traced contour maps from air photos. During that time I got a Master’s degree in Geography because it fit in with my cartographical job experience. For 7 years I had absolutely no contact with any form of DP, computers or software.
In 1978 I interviewed for a job with an oil company. They advertised for a scientific/engineering applications programmer with a hard sciences or math degree. They were very happy to hear about my mapping experience, because cartography and remote sensing were imporant techniques in oil exploration. When I explained that I had a strong IT background as a student, but that I had not touched any in 7 years, it didn’t even faze them. They wanted the science and mapping background. In their own words, “you can teach anybody to write code”. My job was to be a translator between the geologists and chemists and the computer science people, to convert their mathematical problems into programmable solutions.
They wanted a FORTRAN programmer who understood math, engineering and physical sciences. A strong background in earth sciences was a plus. There was a shortage of programmers in those days, and though many of my colleagues had drifted into the field from the sciences as I had, some had degrees in things like French, or Pharmacy or Business. Some had never finished college at all. Management was desperate for programmers, and they didn’t care how you learned it if you could do it. College really didn’t matter. It was an exciting environment because of the great diversity of backgrounds my co-workers came from. These weren’t just computer science majors, they actually had practical experience in the field, but brought insights from other disciplines. The Law of Supply and Demand was in full operation, too. As an entry-level “scientific applications programmer” with no prior job experience, I was earning twice what I made as an air photo mapper, a job that required an industrial apprenticeship lasting almost two years.
My new job not only paid well, and gave me much more in the way of respect than I had received in industry, it also took great efforts to utilize my talents and experience in a productive manner. I worked in 3D mapping of oil exploration data, and soon I was transferred to the remote sensing lab where I got to work with satellite imagery and infrared spectrometer data. With my geography and astronomy/math background in cartography, optics, the physics of light, orbital geometry, earth sciences,the nature of light, it all dovetailed. It was the perfect job for my background and interests. I did a lot, learned a lot, contributed a lot, and made great professional contacts and friendships. I was a happy man. I even decided to get married.
Very little had changed in the DP world while I was away. Minicomputers had started to become common, and interactive programming took off. I used a monitor and editor to type up my programs now. I still called each line of code a “card”, but CRTs were just for text. I studied my satellite images on a $50k video display device, and if I wanted a hard copy, I had to photograph the screen with a 35 mm camera. But most of my work was still on batch processes on the mainframe, and my maps were drawn on flatbed pen plotters driven from data tapes created by my programs.
But all good things must come to an end. In 1983 the oil company went bankrupt (Q: How the hell did an 80s oil company manage to go bankrupt? A: The executives were all Texans). I moved to Silicon Valley with my young bride, working for the company that built our image processing equipment. In those days, an” image processing system” was not a CD you plugged into yor PC. It was a VAX or HP3000 mini, a dozen auxiliary 400Mb external disk drives (the place looked looked like a laundromat), a specialized array processor that did the number crunching, and a very expensive display device so you could actually look at your pretty pictures. You also got a bunch of software with this, and some specialized peripherals, scanners, plotters, projection cameras, and a pair of 9″ tape drives . The tapes were 9″, not the drives. The price tag was a couple of million dollars. Today you could get the same processing power for a couple of grand, and it would fit on your desk..
My job was to do maintenance and development on remote sensing and image processing software. Our clients were oil companies, universities, government spooks, and earth resources research labs. It was all still FORTRAN programming, but now I was developing interactive software that ran in real time. While I was there, I witnessed the introduction of UNIX, powerful clustered Sun and HP workstations in a file server architecture. Some of the people I knew actually had computers at home, and a friend of mine was on the DARPA precursor to the internet. I learned “C”, but didn’t like it.