Today’s Tech Landscape and Things I Learned from My Dad

June 17, 2016 Harry West

Things I Learned from My Dad

When we were growing up, my dad spent a lot of time in his home office with a variety of computers and noisy modems that he used for managing systems at work. He always seemed to be putting some kind of fire out, a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. If you can recall Samuel Jackson as the IT guy in that computer room in Jurassic Park, you have a pretty good idea of what my dad was like in his natural work environment.

Not my dad, but very much like my dad.

Our personal computer (or “home computer”) at this time was a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A. It didn’t have a ton of software on it, but we subscribed to a magazine called 99’er that contained reprinted code you could use for games… if you typed it in line by line yourself. During my grade school years, I spent many hours on that computer, entering line after line of BASIC, chasing down syntax errors and getting everything just right so I could type “Run” at the end, and enjoy this kind of thrilling fun.

My dad was a baby boomer and grew up in a time where working with computers was definitely not the norm. He didn’t have a degree in computer science. He didn’t have a bachelor’s degree at all, in fact. He started working in “data processing” in the 1960s because it interested him, they needed people, and he was able to pick things up based solely on curiosity and initiative. He learned Fortran, Assembler, COBOL, and understood both hardware and operating systems at the most fundamental level. Throughout his life he learned new programming languages, database technologies, and enterprise software applications easily, no matter how rapidly the technology changed. And as a technology enthusiast, my dad always wanted to share what he learned. Here are a few things I learned from him…

Things he got mostly right:

  • Skepticism of industry hype. “Windows 95 looks interesting, but it still sucks compared to OS/2.”
  • Mobile is good. “Wait ‘till you see my new portable computer. It’s amazing”; lugging a gigantic heavy plastic box that turned out to be a Compaq Portable. It was, indeed, amazing.
  • The importance of killer apps. “You have to have Lotus 1-2-3 on your machine. I use that for everything. That and Norton Utilities.” He was an unreasonably big and early fan of Norton Utilities.
  • Pick a platform and get the most out of it. “You pretty much can’t beat an Oracle database on HP Unix.” This was pretty accurate in 1996! My dad loved his HP Unix servers so much that when he retired, his IT colleagues delivered a depreciated server to our house as a going-away present – on the back of a truck. (It was not small.)
  • Having a candid opinion. If my dad found a new technology to be better than what preceded it, he’d switch as soon as he could and tell you why. If he saw a new technology that wasn’t better than what preceded it, he’d tell you exactly why the new technology sucked. And if he hadn’t had a chance to form an opinion, he’d tell you he hadn’t checked it out yet.
  • Sharing peer-to-peer (or just among peers). Even pre-internet, my dad loved to copy his more useful programs onto disks and share them with people pretty freely. I once heard from a friend that my dad’s name came up on a title screen when they did journal entries in her company’s accounting department. One of the people there had worked with him before, and still used one of his programs. Dad thought that was pretty cool.
  • Don’t waste time on pointless activities. Dad consistently mocked my passion for the    Philadelphia Eagles. “They should call them the Turkeys. Why get so worked up about a team every year if they never win anything?” That was 30 years ago.

A couple of things I think he got wrong:

  • “This IBM PCjr is going to be amazing; can’t wait to try that chiclet keyboard!”
  • “Apple makes pretty neat computers, but they’re basically toys. I’d never use one for work. Imagine trying to use a spreadsheet on a Mac!”

Probably the most consequential thing he ever said to me:

  • “What the hell is a ‘Hinweis’? We’re using a new system and all the error messages in it are garbage. Hey — you speak German; you should look into this company SAP up in Philadelphia. They seem to be doing well.” That was approximately 1994. SAP hired me less than a year later, and I met my future wife while working there.

It’s our youngest son’s 10th birthday this month and we just bought him a computer. It’s a Mac Mini, and I think it’s a great machine. He’ll play Minecraft on it, do his schoolwork in Google Apps, and keep the keyboard from an older PC, which he prefers typing on. I often think about what my dad would make of today’s tech environment — especially the mobile app economy, which he would have enormously enjoyed participating in but didn’t live to see. Mostly, I hope my boy enjoys his new computer and keeps learning useful things from it… and from me too!

Happy Father’s Day!

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