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Blast from the Past

Many people think Facebook is a waste of time but sometimes, just sometimes, it produces something really very good.
Computer studies comp winners 1988

Just last week that image over there popped on to my timeline.  After the initial shock (“The jumpers! The jumpers!”), the memories started flooding back.

The caption records that this is an image of a team of computing undergraduates who won the northern heat of the British Computer Society Programming Competition.  This is an event that I remember. The date in 1988.

So, I am in this picture (the others are Chris, Andy and Martin).  The computer is a Sun 2/50, and let us be absolutely clear that undergraduates in those days were not usually allowed to touch this machine. A lab full of VT100 terminals connected to a VAX 11/750 was our usual lair.

After the initial wave of nostalgia, I fell to thinking. This was a Programming Competition, and such things do not seem to exist any more. I distinctly remember the student handbook of the time telling me that programming was fundamental to everything that we did, and that getting good at it was essential.

My suspicion is that this is no longer the case. For a start, I suspect that students no longer learn programming, they learn development, which is a clean different thing.

When we won this competition (and when we learned programming) we used very simple tools. We had a command line, a text editor, and a compiler. We had access to a line printer if we felt the need to scribble over a listing. That was it. We did not have IDEs, or even WIMP environments (these were strictly for professors and researchers). So maybe we focused on the task, rather than on what we could do with the IDE? (I confess I still work this way. I’ve never got on with IDEs, and I don’t go much further than one window for editing the code and another for running and observing results).

Another point, of course, is that there is so much more computing now. There is so much more for today’s students to learn. We didn’t have the web, much less the cloud. We didn’t even have USB! And, believe it or not, we didn’t have PCs. So students today get a very broad introduction to very many topics, and then tend to specialise. A few specialise in programming (or do we mean development?), but many put it aside after an introduction.

Let’s get to the point. There is now a shortage of people who can program. This is why Elder Studios, and many similar companies, have apprentices. One of the reasons for this is the breadth of what  is now called “Computing”. And we seem to have moved away from the absolute fundamental – the most basic thing we can do is make the blooming computer do what we want it to do by programming it!

(I still have that jumper, by the way.)

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