Facial Hair and Funky Job Titles – A Personal History of the Internet Age

I had a rare technical issue with my blog recently. My e-mailed cry for help was answered and my problem resolved. The helpful soul at WordPress who aided me in my time of need was Jackie, who rejoices in the title of Hapiness Engineer.

I’d imagine that WordPress must have a novel and somewhat refreshing approach to Job titles.
We could apply this to Deb, for example. As a Health Professional working with the under fives, she could be a Small Human Maintenance Consultant.

There are some similarities between Deb’s job and my own. Whilst I have on occasion dealt with people whose job titles include words like ‘Chief’ and ‘Officer’, I also occasionally have to deal with the aftermath of toys being violently ejected from prams.

At the moment however, I find myself leading a team, all of whom are rather younger than me. This presents a number of challenges.

The realisation that I have children that are older than some of my colleagues is particularly acute when we discuss technological issues.
In computing terms, I grew up before the Internet was the all-pervasive presence it is now.
I learned to touch-type many years ago, in order to reduce the number of typos I made whilst writing code.
This is beginning to feel somewhat quaint with the proliferation of declarative development environments and technologies.

I suppose the point of this post is to wander back through the technologies that influenced my career as a programmer and explain why they are so important in shaping the technological landscape we now operate in.

The C Programming Language

Working at Bell Labs in the early 70s must’ve been something special. Whilst not chronologically first on my list, the C language takes it’s place in the pantheon.
40 years on, Dennis Ritchie‘s masterpiece, comprising a mere 32 keywords, has provided the basis for most of the mainstream languages that have followed ( C++, Java, C#, take your pick).
Providing a viable alternative to Assembler meant that C was portable. Provided you could write a compiler for the hardware you wanted to use, you could run C programs on it.
Not content with that, Kernaghan and Ritchie then produced the seminal C Programming Language manual.
Not only did this introduce the world to the much imitated “hello world” program, it served as a de-facto standards reference for the language into the 1990s.

C may no longer be what all the cool kids are using, but it’s influence is still all pervasive. To take a not entirely random example…


Whilst it slightly pre-dates C, Ken Thompson‘s Unix got it’s big break when re-written in the language in the early 70s.
This made it as portable as C itself, thus opening the way for a move away from mainframes and onto more affordable hardware.
Today Unix, in all it’s variations, remains the dominant operating system in the datacentre.
The multi-user, multi-tasking OS is on the back-end of a large chunk of the World Wide Web.
For me, it was the first OS that I really got to grips with. The diversity of tools and flexibility of being able to write utility scripts quickly and simply is still a joy…especially to anyone who has been subjected to DOS (and later Windows) batch scripting.

At this point it’s worth stopping for a moment and considering that Ritchie, Thompson and Kernaghan were all colleagues at Bell Labs. As Dream Team’s go, this is the programming equivalent of having Pele, Cruyff and Maradona playing up front (but with less arguing over who takes the free-kicks).

A major reason for Unix’s current ubiquity is….


Linus Torvalds had developed a version of unix that would run on standard PC hardware, but had no tools written for it.
Richard Stallman‘s GNU project had a set of tools in need of an Operating System to run on.
Put the two together and….
Linux is now the OS of choice in a sizeable percentage of the world’s Server rooms.
There’s also a better than even chance that Linux is at the heart of your smart-phone.
In the same way that Unix opened up the choice of hardware for servers, Linux paved the way for running Enterprise class servers on much cheaper kit than had hitherto been available.

The other significant contribution that Linux has made to computing history is that is has served as the platform that really kick-started and then sustained the open source movement.
The advent of the “gift economy” where code is developed and made available freely, has resulted in some of the best software available over the last 20 years.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Switzerland….


Perhaps the most profound example of building on pre-existing technology to create something truly life changing can be found in the work of Tim Berners-Lee.
Take SGML – the root of all Markup Languages and use it to create a means of linking between documents.
To serve the HTML pages, write an extension to the File Transfer Protocol (FTP).
Put them together and …. long before the Large Hadron Collider was commissioned CERN was itself the source of a Big Bang.

The Relational Database

You knew we’d get here eventually.
When Oracle version 2.0 was released onto the market in 1979, it became what is commonly credited as the first commercially available relational database.
Larry Ellison and friends were onto a winner.
Fast forward through the introduction of PL/SQL ( in Forms 3.0 in 1988) and data driven web applications (powered by a selection of RDBMS’s) and Oracle is now busy trying to take over the world.
In the meantime, it’s given me a platform on which to make a career. So, in this list at least ( i.e. my list), it certainly deserves it’s place.
You can find a timeline of the company’s history on their website.

Incidentally, whilst reading up on the history of Oracle, I came across the name of Bob Miner – Oracle’s lead engineer in it’s early days.
Obviously a brilliant software engineer (he’s credited with writing most of Oracle 3), Miner was also renound for looking after the people he managed.
In his Wikipedia entry, Larry Ellison is quoted as saying that Miner was “loyal to the people before the company”.

Wouldn’t you like to work for someone like that ?

The book case that Deb has ordered is just being delivered. Time for me to end my wander down memory lane and return to my role as Furniture Assembly Drone and Feng Shue Vision Implementer ( Deb has the vision and I just move the furniture around).


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