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First computers that led to a career in IT

The UK’s GCSE results show a strong pass rate in STEM subjects, which is good news for the IT industry. We find out how Computer Weekly readers got into IT

The computer industry is forever looking for highly skilled individuals who can work in maths and data and have a grounding in computing. The latest GCSE results show that 33.6% of this year’s candidates achieved GCSE grade 7 and above at maths, while 61.9% achieved grade 7 or above in computer science.

Children and young people fall into programming for all manner of reasons, but having access to a computer is essential for anyone wishing to take up a career in IT. Computer Weekly has been finding out how people began their journey towards a career in IT.

Brian Runciman, head of content and insight at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, said: “I played with a ZX80, like most people my age, and have happy memories of loading programs via a tape player in a mere 20 minutes, or typing them in, all the while learning the importance of accurate key strikes.

“But my first ‘proper’ computing experience was on a Research Machines 380z. I got to learn Basic by trying to animate a Starship Enterprise in blocky black and white – not terribly successfully. In the end, for my computer studies GSE coursework, I simply programmed an electronic dice.”

Computer Weekly reader Gordon Jackson said: “I was working for ICL (International Computers Ltd) on their 2900 range of mainframes when the first Sinclair ZX80 came out, closely followed by the ZX81, but my first home computer was a Dragon 32 (copy of the Tandy TRS-80).

“I used this to learn Basic and then went on to design an electronic interface to test circuit boards from petrol pumps. I used that money to buy a second-hand BBC micro and built interfaces for that to drive electronic displays. By this time, ICL had been bought out by Fujitsu and the IBM PC began to dominate.”

Another Computer Weekly reader, Paul Bird, said: “When I was 12, personal computers did not exist, so I used to make kit radios. My first computer was an Atari 800XL and I used it to send Morse code from ships in 1986.”

Programming a Lego car

During the 1970s and 1980s, home computers became increasingly affordable. Often, parents would buy one not knowing what to do with it, and their children would figure out how to program it.

Wael Elrifai, vice-president for solution engineering at Hitachi Vantara, said: “My father was born in 1948 and was programming on punch cards in the late 60s and 70s. I grew up in the early part of the PC generation, the early 80s when a basic setup might cost today’s equivalent of $4,000.

“The real fun started when we got an Apple II combined with the Lego Technic Control in the late 1980s – this was the awesome predecessor of Lego Mindstorms. It was possible to build “self-driving cars” – almost.

“Specifically, you’d build a Lego car, complete with an electric motor driving the wheels, another on the steering column, and dark/light sensors on the left and right side of the car. If the left-side sensor indicated that you were leaving the ‘road’, then you programmed it to turn right, and vice-versa – robust self-driving this was not.”

Although the people who got in touch with Computer Weekly had fond memories of their first computing device, it was not the device itself that was significant, but what it then led to.

Virtual exhibition showcases computing history

The National Museum of Computing has launched a virtual exhibition and guided tour, which shows visitors some of the significant computers of the 20th century and the industry pioneers. Among the exhibits is a gallery of home computers, hand-held devices and business PCs from the late 1970s.

Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, said: “For me, having my own computer was like owning my own personal universe, where I controlled the laws of creation. What I actually did was write a really simple drawing program with a joystick user interface.

“Fast-forward 15 years and I was using temporal logic and process algebras to automate test case generation from telecoms protocols to detect race conditions, written in a functional programming language.”

Now, a device such as a £30 Raspberry Pi may seem like a toy, but it is a fully functional computer running the Raspbian Linux operating system. Perhaps in years to come, a generation of IT professionals will say their first real computer was a Pi.

Computer Weekly is keen to hear about readers’ first experiences of computing. Was it a Tandy TRS-80, a BBC Model B, a Commodore Pet, a  PDP-11, a System/390, or something else? Please email [email protected] with the subject line “My first computer” and tell us a bit about what it was and what you used it for.

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