In the comments to a previous post it was suggested that I blog about how I became a programmer. I’m not sure I can make that an interesting story, but if nothing else it might be a fun nostalgic trip.
My introduction to computers came when I was a 15-year-old extreme underachiever. I absolutely hated school, which I’m sure frustrated my parents to no end. One day, completely unannounced, my dad came home with a brand new TRS-80 Color Computer, hoping to spark some interest from his brainy-but-disenfranchised son.
And it worked – I was transformed, an insta-geek. I spent hours learning how to write silly little programs in BASIC, and within a year I had graduated to creating full-fledged games.
The first game I remember writing was called “Possum Run,” a bloody takeoff on Frogger which was inspired by the squished opossums that decorated the roads near my Tennessee home. My friends thought it was a fun game, so I toned down the gore a bit and submitted the source code along with a short article to a magazine called Hot CoCo – and much to my surprise, they accepted it. I was 16 at the time, and I remember being thrilled at seeing my work published.
Of course, being a teenager, I also used my programming skills to play pranks. I had a lot of nerdy fun writing a fake “personality test” which I asked people to try. At first the program would compliment the user, telling them that they had desirable personality traits. But before long the program would start questioning their integrity, eventually degrading into hurling crude insults their way. I also wrote a war simulation which I used to trick a friend into believing that I’d hacked into a military computer and had accidentally launched a few missiles (let’s just say that he wasn’t the brightest of my friends).
I was published a few more times before graduating high school, but I had bigger plans. I decided I wanted to write games for a living, so I spent some time learning assembly language in order to make my games run as fast as the ones in the arcade. Assembler is an ugly and cryptic language, but I loved writing it – it felt like second nature to me. Although I no longer program in assembler, learning it way back then has proven enormously helpful throughout my programming career because it forced me to deal with how computers really think.
Anyway, at 18 I formed my first company, “D & N Software” (I was the N, my dad was the D). D & N Software sold two “professional” games of mine: a Moon Patrol clone called “Moon Runner,” and an original action/adventure game called “Legend Quest.” Despite receiving very nice reviews, they earned just a few hundred dollars – not enough to warrant the months of effort involved in their creation, and also not enough to enable dumping my aging TRS-80 and upgrading to the new world of PCs.
While all this was going on, I had also entered the University of Missouri-Rolla, hoping to receive a degree in computer science. Let’s just say that I didn’t do so well – I was more inspired by the parties than I was by the classes and assignments. Embarrassing as it is to admit, the university “asked me to consider another career” (that’s right, I flunked out of computer school).
Truth is, I was losing interest in computers anyway, and strange as it may sound, my real love was cartooning. To make a long story short, I switched schools, changed my major to journalism, and became a cartoonist for the student newspaper. My last game – a platformer called “Penguin Icarus” – was published in 1990 by Rainbow Magazine (a popular Color Computer magazine at the time), and it was several years before I returned to programming.
And that seems like a good cutoff point for this post. I’m guessing some long-time readers already know how I got back into programming after an attempt at cartooning, but for those who are interested, I’ll supply the rest of the story in part II.