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Adjust or Go Extinct: 50 Years of Conventional Wisdom and Eye-raising Anecdotes from Programming Veterans : Page 2

Today programming is such a vital and entrenched field that it's hard to imagine a time when companies like IBM sent its programmers packing, but it happened—and plenty more stories like it. A programming veteran takes a walk down memory lane, and DevX authors share their veteran-era anecdotes as well in this special report.

Writing Code for Money: The Rise of the Programmer
The oil company experience confirmed the value of programming to Weinberg and his colleagues, and they convinced IBM to form a service bureau corporation to offer software services, even though IBM didn't want to. "We got a group of professional programmers together in Los Angeles, and we were going to write code for money."

These were the beginnings of IBM Global Services, which today accounts for the majority of IBM's revenues and employs some 180,000 professionals (as of 2003). Back then, Weinberg was one of only 12 in the group. "We sold our first big job to Motorola. We did a little pilot for them, a prototype program, and then [they agreed to pay us] $600,000 to write this simulation program."

But once again, IBM rejected the offer. Weinberg recalled their objection: 'we don't want to be in that business. We sell business machines.' IBM broke up the group, retained only Weinberg and one other programmer, and asked the duo whether they could place the others. Weinberg's colleague asked the time, to which an IBM executive answered 11 o'clock. 'I'm not sure I can place them all before lunch,' replied the programmer. "The demand for programmers was building up, but IBM did not appreciate this," recalled Weinberg. "They just wanted to get rid of us."

By 1961 the network of IBM programmers had grown to the point where IBM hosted a conference for them in New England. The theme, according to Weinberg, was how to get programming under control. The conference drew 500 people.

"...I'm still hanging in there, trying to outlast Fortran."
Operating Systems and Fortran
IBM's facility in New York City was the hub of software development for the company because it held the (at the time) powerful IBM 704 machine. Because the facility could accommodate only one development team at a time, they were forced to share. Each team was allotted 15 minutes to load their tapes in the tape drives and get the machine started, while the next team waited their turn. As most of a team's time was spent setting up, Weinberg's West coast team was building the first operating system, which would optimize this process. At the same time, the East coast team was building Fortran.

"We would wait for the Fortran team to finish and then try to find places in their compiled code that weren't optimized," Weinberg recalled. "'This will not last,' was my prediction 50 years ago. I'm still hanging in there, trying to outlast Fortran."

If You Don't Keep Up, You're Gone
The developers who listened to Weinberg's presentation will never have to program with punch cards or send a program to a remote location via airplane, but they all will face transitions in the industry—transitions that Weinberg believes they must adjust to if they plan to survive in their field.

He has witnessed more than most in his 50 years in IT. None of the four programmers with whom he was hired in 1956 was still in the software business a decade later. They all were victims of change. "Some people dropped out when online programming came in, some dropped out when operating systems came in, when configuration management came in, when some other languages came in, when new tools came in, when we started reviewing code, when machines got so fast we didn't need to optimize every single program, and eventually what we had was me."

"I hope that you understand in your career that this is going to happen to you," he warned. "If you don't keep up, you're gone."

Author's Note: For more anecdotes from programming veterans about the early days of development, see our sidebar, "Looking Back on 'Old School' Programming."

Glen Kunene is the Managing Editor for DevX.
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