The one person who can’t be replaced by a computer …

… is the person who runs one.

I came across this advertisement for the Electronic Computer Programming Institute (ECPI) in the September 16, 1966 issue of Life Magazine.   It is particularly notable for the way in which it plays on fears of technologically-driven unemployment:   “For all the people the computer puts out of a job, it can put more people into new ones.”

 

 

During the mid-to-late 1960s, vocational schools offering training in computing sprung up all over the country, appealing to the massive growth of the computer industry and the desperate need for programmers to develop software for them.  Some of these schools were legitimate attempts to provide much needed training in computing; others were fly-by-night operations that played on vulnerable populations (the un- or under-employed, women seeking to reenter the labor market after taking time off to have children).  All promised a high-paying job after graduation.  Most relied on some form of aptitude testing as an admissions criteria (although many admitted students regardless of their scores, with the sole condition that they were able to pay).  Many did not even provide hands-on time with an actual computer, or at best provided an hour or two of time on a leased machine.1

 

 By the late 1960s, the flood of vocational schools had become something of a scandal.  Numerous exposes of their less admirable practices were published in the industry literature, and many companies adopted “no vocational school graduates” policies.  The result was frustrating to both aspiring programmers and their potential employers, and highlighted the problematic nature of programmer education and training.  The need for quality programmers was apparent to everyone. But what exactly made for a quality programmer?


  1.   Edward Markham, “EDP Schools: An Inside View”, Datamation 14:4 (1968)

New dissertation on the history of programming

A young scholar whose work I have been keeping an eye on for many years has just finished her dissertation on the history of programming.  The scholar in question is named  Joline Zepcevski, and the dissertation is entitled “Complexity & Verification: The History of Programming as Problem Solving.”  For those of you with access to the Proquest Dissertation database, do check it out. Joline did her PhD at the University of Minnesota, and her advisor was the renowned historian of computing Arthur Norberg.

Programmers on Screen

There are a number of decent documentaries on various aspects of the history of the computer, but not many on computer programmers.   Among other things, programming as an activity is difficult to represent in ways that are visually interesting.

Nevertheless, I came across a work in progress on the origins of APL that looks intriguing.  The producer/director Catherine Lathwell is the daughter of Richard Lathwell, one of the original APL developers.  There is also Top Secret Rosies, which I was involved with, as well as To Dream Tomorrow, an excellent film about Ada Lovelace.  There are also a host of related films that are not histories of programming per se, but which are nevertheless relevant.

The world still awaits its great film about the programmer heroes of the computer revolution, however!

Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise