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Susan's Turn: My First Job in IT

November 2, 2017

Jon told his first job in IT story recently, and he challenged me to do the same.

In fairness I should start out with a confession that I didn't follow my Dad's advice in college. Dad worked for IBM and was a died-in-the-wool computer geek back before most people even knew what computers were. He encouraged me to study programming in college. I didn't. I studied sociology and psychology. I did take one programming course (Basic and Fortran), which I aced and thought it was great fun. But I was convinced I wanted to go into social research.

Then came graduation and the thought of going back to school for another six years or so to get the necessary doctorate to fulfill that plan just seemed too much. So much for my plans. This time I listened to dad, who encouraged me to look for a job that was in some way tied to computers because he thought my aptitude would likely lead to a programming job eventually. He was right.

My first job in IT was as a data entry operator for a relatively small medical research project at Emory University. While entering data was pretty boring, I got to be pretty good at it. There was only one full-time computer programmer on the project and one consultant from the university who had written his own database management system and convinced the research project leader to use his DBMS. That was lucky for me because that consultant found out that I had taken a programming course and tapped me to study COBOL at a nearby university so I could help him with some programming tasks for the project.

My COBOL professor was a big proponent of structured programming, so that's what I learned and the only way I knew how to write code at that point. When the DBMS author gave me my first real programming task—producing a report which extensively used his database APIs—I wrote the code the way I'd been taught. He was so happy with it, he sent my code to other projects that were thinking of using his database as an example of using his APIs. He told me that one of them had told him: "That COBOL code is the most organized program I've ever seen." Kudos to my COBOL professor!

Not surprisingly, after that I spent a lot more time programming than entering data. When I asked my fellow programmer for help when running my COBOL programs, he sat me down at a desk with a stack of reference manuals at least 2 feet high and told me to learn JCL. In retrospect, I suspect it wasn't so much that he wanted me to write the JCL myself but that he didn't want to risk having me show him up as a programmer. He probably figured I'd be too intimidated and give up when faced with learning JCL from a 2-foot reference manual. He was wrong. With dad's help in the evenings, I learned enough JCL to get all my work done and even helped write some JCL for other tasks in the project.

After I'd been programming nearly full time for several weeks, I went home one evening feeling very sad. Dad asked me if I was having trouble with the programming or if I decided I didn't like it. I told him that I loved programming. But I was depressed because I was sure that I'd be finished within a week or so with the three or four report programs I'd been given and I'd have to go back to doing data entry because there would be no more programming for me to do. I just couldn't imagine that there would be anything else they could possibly want after I had finished all the report programs currently on my to-do list.

Dad had a good laugh over that. He assured me there would always be an endless supply of programming tasks in my future. Once again, he was right. Thanks, dad.

So that's the story of my first programming job—COBOL and JCL on a Univac mainframe. How about that? Jon and I both started work on Univac systems. So much in common from the beginning and on different continents!

How did I come to make the switch to IBM systems and RPG? That was in my second job, which is a story for another day!

Posted November 2, 2017| Permalink