Julie Leung once suggested compiling accounts of how alpha geeks first got into computers. It sounded like a great idea to me, so I started to put together some of my own history.
Computers have been a part of my life for as long as I remember. When I was 3, I remember sitting on the living room floor with a discarded printed circuit board bashing it to see if I could get it to do anything. I would go to work with my dad (who designed recording consoles used by Universal, Paramount, etc), and sit on a tall stool at his work table and make “solder pets” with a soldering iron, melting solder into a cup of water. This was the start of my interest in hardware.
The first computer we had at home (around age 6) was a little Texas Instruments device that connected to the TV. Digging around, I’m pretty sure it was a black and silver TI-99/4A. I mainly remember playing games on it, though I vaguely remember something that might have been TI BASIC.
Around the same time, we got a Speak & Spell. Its synthesized voice filled endless hours of my first-grade life. That was the start of my love of gadgets, and of my belief that computers should be portable, easy to use, and more entertaining than humans. (And sometimes a little quirky: I still don’t know what “woovs” was supposed to be. One of the spelling problems said something like “tu, as in tu woovs”, implying that “woovs” was supposed to help you figure out if “tu” was “two”, “to”, or “too”.)
The second computer we had at home (around age 8) was an original 128k Mac. I spent several hours on it most nights, either doing homework or playing. I was addicted. I remember one night my sister wanted to type a school paper on the Mac and I was horrified to be forced to write out my homework by hand. The whole paper and pencil thing felt clumsy and primitive.
The Mac had a game, called Chipwits, that involved programming a robot so that it could survive a maze full of deadly electric bugs while living on the pie and coffee it found. That’s the earliest memory I have of hacking. About the same time, I was working on a series of projects involving light bulbs, batteries, and wires that started with a simple switch and built up to a homemade magnet. Soon after, I started working through BASIC and then Pascal. I don’t remember what I wrote, I think it was mainly text-based interactive stuff.
In 4th grade, I researched at least one of my school papers on a BBS, over our insanely slow modem (300 baud, IIRC). I remember the paper was about grapes. I don’t remember which BBS I found the information on. I found the files on a backup floppy a few years ago.
Several years follow that I can’t really remember. We always had computers around the house. I remember playing Tetris a lot, and other computer games, and I remember dabbling in various computer languages, but I don’t remember what languages. I think Forth might have been in there somewhere. In high-school (I was home schooled), my dad took me through a college textbook on computer hardware from a class he taught, as well as other undergrad and graduate level computer textbooks. Several “ah-ha” moments in there, like “Oh, so that’s how electricity works!” (Those free electrons…)
When I left home for college at 17, my parents gave me my first computer of my own. They weren’t wealthy, so instead of a brand new computer, I got the old 512k Mac. Not only that, but it wasn’t even working when I got it. My dad sent me off to our storage locker in Nairobi, Kenya with some brief instructions on where to find his Torx 15 “Mac Cracker” to take it apart, and what to tweak once I got inside the case. I remember that felt good, like he trusted my hardware skills enough to know I’d get it done and do it right. (A bit like being allowed to drive a parent’s expensive sports car.)
Oddly, I didn’t go for a degree in computer science in college, I went for a degree in linguistics. In school, and later doing field research, I developed tools to assist in linguistic analysis. I didn’t consider a career in programming until I was 23. It wasn’t that I thought about it and rejected the idea of programming for a living, it was more like considering a career in breathing: “Wait, people will pay me to do this? But I’m doing it anyway!”