About the Author (Part 4)


Part 3 concluded with my father upgrading to an 80486 system. This was a big deal, because it meant my TRS-80 CoCo2 days were officially done and I inherited the Tandy 1000SX system full time. But before getting more into that, I want to share one unfortunate incident I had with my father.

In those days, you had to format disk before you could use them. Manufacturers (like 3M) would sell disk in boxes, but to keep their prices down, they didn’t pre-format the disk (and besides, they didn’t want to assume a particular format — which was dictated by what operating system and other certain configurations you were using). To help handle his “Tandy 1000SX to 486” transition, he wanted to backup all his files.

So all he asked of me was to help format a bunch of disk, so he could backup all his content from the hard drive to transfer to the new system. Formatting a disk would take a couple minutes, and we needed dozens of disks (several boxes). I think around this time was also a new version of MS-DOS had been released, and a sort of Rule #1 he always had: backup original media first and only install from the backup media, never the actual original disk. This was an honest concern over not having wear and tear on those originals, he would set the “read only” tab on the original disks to ensure they were never corrupted with any new content.

He worked hard for all of us, and just wanted a set of formatted disks so he could start the backup by the end of the week. But all I wanted to do was play Sierra games. So I kept putting it off. Finally he said I wasn’t allowed to use the computer. On the Tandy 1000SX, it had a “hard cover” that enclosed the entire keyboard (meant as a dust cover). One day he came home early, the chain was on the door, but he could hear me frankly trying to shut the machine down and loudly putting that hard cover back over the keyboard. He busted through the door, I was caught red handed. And this, after neglecting the request to format disks. I felt bad.

And so, that day (and the rest of the week), he just took the entire keyboard away. A punishment he did several times over a few years afterwards (as I snuck to the computer in late evenings after being told to go to bed). He eventually gave up on this when I was in high school. As a child, you don’t really consider “this is not my machine” or “even running this machine is costing money” (electricity), we take those aspects for granted. Plus the general principle of disobeying your parents, it’s disrespectful (which means hurtful).

So, not formatting those disks as a helpful favor was always something I regretted. Saving your parents time is a good thing, since in turn they have more time to work or do things for the family. I just offer this as a perspective to those in the future who may come across this story, which may be pertinent depending on your age and context of your relationship with your parents.

As mentioned in the previous PART 3, I had met an older online friend who went by Marimaxx. He became my first Programming Mentor, of sorts, guiding me more about Pascal programming and helping get my BBS up and going. In addition, my father observed my interest, and afforded me my own dedicated phone line.

During all this, I met another local contact named Sam. And Sam had three daughters. Sam was quite a character. I thought we were dirt poor, but Sam lived in a bus (with his wife and three daughters). Sam’s extended family, I later learned, was mostly from the Jacksonville area. Anyhow, Sam’s dream was to open a computer repair store, which he did do. He contacted me through my BBS, where I was discussing about some of the software utilities I had been developing (the main ones being ColorDIR and DOS Boss, a file manager). Now, Sam did figure I was going to be a millionaire any day soon, and was not at all ashamed about hooking me up with any of his daughters.

While I can’t blame his logic, his assessment of me wasn’t quite accurate. My skills were still a few years behind premium talent, so no imminent prospects were in sight. Also, I was already in-between other girlfriends at the time: Sarah, Alex, Melissa, Kate, Alejandra, Han, Kim. It’s a long story about all that, across several years, which I’ll cover later. But point is, I had to give Sam’s daughters a bit of a cold shoulder (they did try though, every few weeks they would visit and it seemed they took turns trying to gain my interest).

For continuity sake, I’ll continue with my interactions with Sam. Which was, primarily, Sam did commission me to build him an inventory management system. It took a few months, and was the first official piece of software I had sold. And I had just turned 12. One unique feature I had in my inventory system was the ability to associate TIFF images with product entries. So he could inventory things he wanted to sell, search for them, and recall images – or show those images to customers without having to go get the item.

Somehow, the school library got wind of this project, and the librarian (whose name I can’t recall, very sweet and soft spoken lady, she had taught me years before how to use the library “dumb terminals” to search for books) asked for a demo. While it didn’t lead to a financial transaction (likely since I was underaged), the library did grant me more access to their computers. I dabbled in using the terminals to connect to mainframes, and also with the new 12″ laser disc system. Overall, this gave me a wider perspective on existing database-type software and better understanding of the idea of networked computers.

After this, it was mostly running my BBS, going to school, and being self-taught Turbo Pascal. In 1990, I recall stopping in Atlanta at a book store, and using the cash my grandmother had given me to buy a Turbo Pascal 6.0 book by Tom Swan. That was instrumental in teaching me Object Oriented Programming concepts, years before Java was released. I had written more sophisticated menu-driven file management utilities, had a completely custom BBS source code (that I called Xiphod, related to being “shaped like a sword”), and had started my first attempt at writing a couple games.

By 1992, my father had yet again upgraded to a Gateway P90 desktop system. I inherited the 486DX system, which was a huge upgrade from the Tandy since it meant I could now use DesqVIEW to do multi-tasking under DOS (to run my BBS while doing other things like programming or managing FidoNET connections). But I did borrow that P90 system, to play things like Wing Commander.

Then an interesting twist of events happened in 1994, which was the first year I was able to drive. Instead of going to high school the last two years, I instead took a new-at-the-time option to do full time dual enrollment. But to afford a car to do this, I had to work. It so happened my old friend Marimaxx hooked me up with a local programming job. He had to move out of town for unrelated reasons, so I effectively I took his old job. But I had a classmate, Daniel, who was very good with computers – he chose to drop out of high school. I asked my boss, Lew, to give Daniel a chance. So he hired us both, which was effectively my “big break” into the industry.

NOTE: Daniel’s father owned a vitamin and organic foods store and owned a bunch of CP/M computers. They weren’t rich either — I remember his dad once trying to make their own swimming pool by digging it out himself, and that rather failed and caved it on itself. His “store” was basically a rented shed. Not a GNC like store, but like something called “Mother Earth.” And I’m pretty sure Daniel was a tester of some of the more exotic uh, weeds. Anyway, my point is, they were “CP/M folks” whereas I was raised on MS-DOS.

SIDE STORY: A couple years later, Lew came across an article in the local newspaper about another (younger) kid at our school who had been expelled for hacking into the university computer system. Lew came running over to us, “Do you know this kid? How do I hire him?” He was not at all ashamed about hiring child labor! Well, a couple weeks later, we managed to that kid to have an interview with Lew. I remember his mother was there also – I think they were Spanish and she didn’t know too much English, but she was still smiling and at least gave the impression she was very proud of now-expelled-from-school son. I don’t know what happened after that, since it was around the time I was moving on from Jenmar to focus more on classes (and Pell Grants were sufficient that I didn’t have to work as much).

Daniel was really smart, I recall him once making his own joystick. I’m not sure I would have made it without him. I did do my fair share of programming, completely writing and documenting (manual) a FormEditor (and coming up with a printer driver strategy) to allow them to do invoices and statements, then a few custom specialized reports. But Daniel was keen on the hardware aspects, and did things like integrating barcode support to help monitor inventory. One day, our boss Lew asked me to put together a new computer from scratch. I had never actually done that before and I was too embarrassed too tell Lew that (and apparently Lew assumed I knew everything Daniel knew). Before I got the courage to tell him, Lew had already left for the day.

I had installed peripherals (expansion cards) plenty, but never mounted a motherboard to a chassis and wired up floppy drives. I sat there for a few hours, studying a few computers that had already been built, trying to reverse engineer how to put this new one together. Luckily Daniel saw my car still there, and stopped by. Seeing my situation, he gave me some On The Job training (explaining why things like spacers and their rubber washers are important, which direction to apply CPU cooling paste, why the twist in floppy cables is important, etc.). And that’s how I learned to put together PC systems, I never bought a pre-packaged desktop PC since.

The last part of 1994 was a difficult lesson: the hard drive of my 486DX system thoroughly crashed. Nothing could be recovered. I lost all my BBS files, and all source code to various projects I had started (utilities, file managers, some animations, a couple games). Recall earlier I mentioned years before that my father had requested to prepare many formatted disks for him. Perhaps this was a payback for my lack of help then, and not being diligent about making my own backups. Years of effort had essentially “burned down” that day. Men don’t cry often, but that day I did.

But as they say, when a disaster strikes, it is how we pick ourselves up and persevere that matters. During my relationship with Kate, I attended church fairly regularly for several years. I even spent a whole paycheck to attend a 1-week Bible Study Camp, which did end up being a lot of fun. I had viewed my hard-drive crash and loss of data as a monumental setback. But as events subsequently unfolded, I tend to think it was a blessing – perhaps there was some divine influence in that.

There are a few more highlights that could be covered (such as how I almost became involved with being an Internet Service Provider for all of North Florida), but the overall end result is that I did become a B.S. Computer Science / M.S. Computer Engineer, which led to me working at a large aerospace contractor working on several large contracts. Hopefully someday I can write about some of that work.

For now, this concludes the story of how I literally “grew up” with the computer industry, with some insight into that initial transition of a world “Before (Personal Home/Office) Computers.” My intent is that these collection of notes give accurate insight into how the computer industry unfolded.

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