I wouldn’t be where I am today… How encouraging kids in computing is important

I’ve been mulling this blog post for a while. Those of you who know Black Marble will have seen that we all believe very strongly in encouraging young people to take up computing and put time into sharing our knowledge and expertise. I thought it was worth sharing how I got to where I am today, which would not have been possible without the help and encouragement of three key people who worked with technology. There’s a message in the story though, about how we need to help the next generation of computing professionals in the same way.

To an extent this post is as a result of an event that Steve, Richard and I took part in shortly after I returned from the Build conference. One of our local schools ran a STEM event and invited Black Marble to join in. If, like me, STEM means nothing to you, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths and you can find more at the National STEM Centre website. At that event, Steve took our Gadgeteer kits and led a series of hands-on sessions that combined hardware and software to build quick but cool projects. Richard and I decided to run the Agile Hour activity with a number of groups of children across a range of ages. The end result, hopefully, was that those kids went away with a mixture of enthusiasm for the craft courtesy of Steve, and an understanding that it isn’t all sitting in front of a keyboard all day – teamwork and communication are key skills – thanks to Richard and myself and an exercise about mining cheese on the moon…

Anyway, I’ll come back to encouraging others in a little while. Back to how I got started…

Key influence one: My upper school form tutor

I am of that age where computing grew around me. When Sinclair launched the ZX81 I was nine. A friend of mine had one and I remember writing programs with him. As I got older I was lucky enough that my middle school had a BBC model B that I could use, and I got an Amstrad CPC 6128 which I loved and tinkered with. None of those, however, bore much resemblance to the modern PC.

When I started at upper school, my form tutor was a maths teacher. He was also the computer studies teacher, and the one who rand all the school’s computer systems – staff (what there was of it) and student. In our classroom, down one side, was a line of Commodore PETs which we used in our classes. They didn’t last long though, because soon after I arrived they PETs were replaced by Research Machines Nimbus RM186s, running a hacked-around version of Windows (the 80186 CPU wasn’t fully compatible with the 8086).

My tutor knew how enthusiastic I was and encouraged me. Myself and Andrew started to help him with those computers. He allowed us to install software with him and explained how they worked. As those RM186 PCs were replaced with 286 and 386 and then (wow!) 486 machines he let us configure them, rebuild them and learn how they worked. We weren’t allowed to touch the Netware server that appeared in the corner, but we were allowed to store our file son it. We were even allowed, on occasion, to use the modem and connect to some of the dial-up bulletin boards that were around at the time.

All of this meant that by the time I left school to go to University I could build a PC from scratch, install DOS and Windows (I go all the way back to Windows 1!) and other apps and configure the system to get the most RAM and install and configure the drivers needed for networking. I could program in BASIC and write DOS batch files and I had a healthy respect both for the technology and the people that ran it. PCs weren’t things you played games on, they were tools that I used to word process, publish school magazines, draw artwork and crunch numbers.

The important point here is that most of my computing experience was gained outside of lessons – before school started, during breaks and lunchtimes and after school. All of that was because my form tutor was prepared to encourage me in what was effectively his own time and I am grateful for that.

He also had a fantastic stereo system in our classroom and got me into prog rock played loud, but that’s another story.

Key influence number two: The University server guy

In truth, the number of people in the Computer Centre at the University of Bradford who I owe much to is too long to list – from the coms guy that introduced me to everyone, to the Director that gave me first a summer job and then my first full time job on graduation. However, the one that deserves the medal was the chap who was responsible for the Netware servers and student computer clusters.

It was an opportunity that would be hard to give anyone now, as networks store more sensitive information and the risk of abuse is so high that it’s hard to gain trust. In my first few weeks of University, however, there were very few desktop PCs in service and staff computing was in its infancy.

I was incredibly fortunate that my enthusiasm allowed me to drop into the offices of the staff and talk to them about computers. We talked about what they were doing, and what I was doing. I listened to their problems and would try to solve them – on my equipment and in my time. I was invited to accompany the network guys as they strung Thin Ethernet cables and learned how all that worked, with T-pieces and terminators, network segments and bridges. I learned about the new twisted pair cables and data sockets and hubs and routers. I even learned how to install servers – Netware 3.11 at the time – and got involved in building the new infrastructure.

My mentor was a patient man who had little time to experiment. He would get into work early to avoid traffic and hoped to use the quiet time to catch up on work and plan and prepare. He was certainly not prepared for the enthusiastic young man who would bound into his office at 8 in the morning jabbering about how he’d managed to get Microsoft NetBeui drivers installed over the top of Novell’s driver stack and get Windows 3.11 talking both workgroup protocols and server protocols and wasn’t it just so fantastic and could show him if he could just move this kit over here and rewire this bit of the office over here…

But again, I was encouraged. I was most certainly tolerated and over time my enthusiasm was channelled into creating and managing services. I worked in the Computer Centre during my holidays – sometimes paid; sometimes not. It gave me incredible opportunities to learn and experience desktop computing on a large scale. It gave me an understanding of what providing a service meant, and how systems had to be resilient and supportable and documented. It also gave me a huge amount of incredibly valuable experience for when I would finally hit the job market.

It was such a wonderful place to be that, on graduation, I managed to get a job at the University. I left to Join Black Marble, where the experience I had learned running services of hundreds of desktop PCs and dozens of servers of varying flavours (Netware, Solaris, Linux, Windows desktop and server) has been invaluable.

Key influence number three: Robert

Which brings me to the third big player in getting me where I am today: Robert Hogg. I’ve not named my other two mentors simply because I can’t ask their permission and I respect them too much too simply throw their names around. As MD of Black Marble, Robert’s my manager. It’s hard not to name him, and I’m sure he won’t mind.

Most people who know Robert, and certainly those who have know him a long time, know him as Boss. I first met him when I was a student. Boss had built the first few Netware servers at the uni, and had then moved into management of the new Sun Solaris servers and workstations when they were installed, during the summer of the year I joined the university as an undergrad. The poor man I tormented every morning took over the role Boss had previously occupied, so in a way it’s all his fault.

It was Boss, along with the server guy, who persuaded me not to ditch my management degree at the end of the first year and switch to computing. They could teach me the computing bit, they said, but the management stuff would be really useful to my career.

Boss is like me – he likes to play and experiment with computers. Unlike me, he’s a developer. I’d argue that he’s probably the reason I don’t try to code. He patiently explained stacks and pointers to me many years ago, and through him I learned that whilst I’m a solid infrastructure guy, and I understand development, I am not a ninja coder and will never be. Boss has always encouraged my experimentation with technology and it’s that which brings the variety that keeps me so engaged with what I do.

You have much to learn, grasshopper

I believe that it’s important to stress the differences in my three mentors as much as their similarities. I think that each of their qualities is important in how I was encouraged and how we now need to encourage others:

  • My maths teacher was supportive of my interest in something new. He allowed me to play, but set boundaries that gave me respect for what might happen if I broke stuff. He showed me computers as wonderful tools, not playthings and inspired me to discover what they could do.
  • My university mentor gave me focus. He forced me to understand the implications and repercussions of my actions. He praised my innovations that helped and stopped those that would cause problems before they moved near to production systems. He taught me how different systems could and should be integrated to deliver IT as a supporting service to others.
  • Boss constantly reminds me how computing should be fun. That we should always be experimenting and learning because that’s what makes life interesting and because that’s how we continue to develop computing for other people.

Sadly, it’s hard to offer today’s young people the same kind of opportunity that I had. IT systems are now all-pervasive and store sensitive data and are critical for the functioning of our schools, universities and companies. Whilst you can still buy components and build your own computer, it’s not like the old days where we fiddled with switches and jumpers and needed to know about interrupts and memory address ranges when plugging things together.

I think that has taken some of the magic away, and that makes it more difficult to show how interesting computing can be. That said, wonderful new technology like gesture-based computing shows how things are still cool; it’s just that things are less accessible than they used to be.

Sensei <your name here>

That’s where we come in. As IT professionals and developers it is our responsibility to help those interested in our field. By taking part in STEM events at schools, attending and speaking at user groups, getting involved with the Imagine Cup or just helping our own children, nieces, nephews and friends children we can give the next generation the same encouragement that we got.

Hopefully reading about how much I was helped by my mentors will inspire you to help someone else. Go on – you know you want to!

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