Why I decided to learn how to program – a recollection from my mother

My mother, Louisa Frank, taught herself how to program in the early ‘80s and has been an inspiration for me also learning how to code. I constantly remind myself that if she could do it, so can I. She’s been a fantastic example of a successful woman in our industry — in both programming AND leadership. I’ve asked her to share some of her experiences throughout her career in technology.

I stumbled onto computers quite by accident. I needed a job to help pay for college, and the campus newspaper advertised an opening for a typist. This was in the early ‘80s, when typewriters were still common. I had no idea what the job entailed, but I knew how to type, rather slowly.

I took one typing course, a filler course, in high school. Telling me that typing was a skill that any girl needed to learn, my parents encouraged me to take the course. While it was mostly girls, there were a handful of boys in my class. They signed up for the class so that they could watch the teacher for a whole period. She was young, fresh out of school, and pretty, and she flirted with all the boys in the class and they lapped up her attention.

“A,S,D,F,L,K,J,H,” she would shout as all the students dutifully pressed the appropriate key, clacking away in unison.

Later, I used my typing skill to complete my writing assignments for high school and then for college. My electronic typewriter that I’d received for Christmas went with me when I moved into my first dorm, much as a laptop or tablet computer goes with most students today.

School was expensive, and to help pay the bills, I searched for a part-time job, preferably on campus, so that I could juggle my class time and work time. This was how I spotted the advertisement. My room mate encourage me to go see about it. I fretted that I couldn’t type that quickly and made frequent use of correction tape to fix my mistakes.

“So what?” she said. “Go and find out about it. Maybe they won’t make you take a typing test. Maybe they don’t care how fast you can type or how accurately. You never know until you ask. That’s how I got my job.”

She worked in the library, filing returned books. She knew nothing about library science, but had applied, anyway.

The department advertising the job was located in a little brick house with a wide front porch that I later found out was used as an extra conference room. When I walked in the door, I was surprised to see large, upright boxes on long tables lining the former living room and dining room of the converted residence. In front of each box was a chair, and people sat in those chairs looking intently onto the front of the boxes, or typing on the keyboards resting on the tables. Those “boxes” turned out to be computer terminals, and the people were actually looking at graphical displays on their screens.

“When can you start? Today?” the man named Keith asked me when I told him I was inquiring about the job. He didn’t ask me how many words a minute I could type, or even want to know if I was any good. He was so desperate for someone to fill the position, anyone willing to do the work was fine with him.

Keith sat me down at one of the terminals and explained my new position. I would be entering questions into a database. When students wanted to practice taking the C.P.A. exam, they could run a program which would randomly pull these questions from storage and display them on the screen. The student could then input the answer and find out their score when they finished.

I must have typed thousands of questions into the computer, but the more I typed, the more I became fascinated about the computer, the program the students used to take the practice exam, and the database that held the questions. I asked question after question of Keith.

“How does the computer know which question to get from the database?”

“How does the program work?”

“How does it the computer know to light up one little spot here and not over there?”

And on and on. I knew almost nothing about computers. I had a calculator that could do math, but that was about it. I didn’t have any courses that required computers and computer science was a brand new major at the university, exclusive and difficult to get into. Those that majored in computer science used the very large Burroughs computer that required punched cards. Or, computer science students sat down at a terminal, a large device that had a keyboard in front and a ream of paper fed into the back, somewhat like an overlarge typewriter on a stand. Commands were entered by the user, onto the keyboard just like a typewriter, and printed on the paper in the back. When a program was compiled, the computer took over and printed the result onto the paper. (I’d used this type of terminal in high school when my physics teacher let me and a few other students play games on it in the lab during our free period.)

Keith showed me the program behind the practice C.P.A. exam and I was surprised how easy it was to read. I started learning all I could about the programming language and the other applications that ran on this computer. This was not the powerful Burroughs computer that the computer science majors used. This was totally different. It was a CDC computer running what was called PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations). Housing several thousand instructional programs and displaying them on graphics terminals worldwide, it used a language called TUTOR, with commands written in English, programs compiled, and displayed on the screen, not punched on a card and fed into the machine.

I thought it looked easy to write a program, and I was very interested in the how behind the ones I saw running on the screens, so I decided I was going to write my own. I thought up the subject, Architectural Drawing. I was very much into drafting because I was an engineering major. I would try to write an instructional programming that taught simple concepts of drafting. I borrowed a book on TUTOR and I got started all on my own.

A graphical program, my Architectural Drawing application drew drafting plans on the screen via my programming commands, provided instructions to the user, then displayed a question/answer quiz at the end. It took the student step-by-step through the process of making an accurate draft of a simple building.

When I was done with my program, and very proud of it, I showed it to by boss, Keith.

He took one look at it and exclaimed,“You, my dear, are no longer a typist. You are a computer programmer!”

From that day forward, I stopped typing C.P.A. questions into the computer. I was assigned to create instructional applications, instead. I learned how to use a database to hold my graphics and display them quickly, drawing cartoon characters, accounting graphs, and guidance principles on the screen, in addition to instructions for the user. I loved it! I was hooked.

I was also very lucky to have Keith for a boss and to have started my programming career on the CDC computer. Keith very much fostered learning and encouraged me. He guided me by making suggestions on what to research and how to fix bugs, for instance. He gave me one-on-one instruction, something I never would have received had I been a student in the Computer Science department. Keith taught me that I could do almost anything I wanted, including computer programming.

I knew, after that first program, what I wanted to do for a career. I wanted to be a programmer. There was a satisfaction, after a long day sitting in front of a terminal, programming, compiling, and debugging, to see the results of my labor up on the screen. I’m artistic by nature, and programming let my creative side go wild. Writing a program was not only figuring out the commands needed and putting them in the right sequence, it was giving me creative license to develop my application, from start to finish, begin to end (the first and last commands of the program), in the way I saw fit to achieve the desired result on the screen. It was like putting together a puzzle, figuring out which pieces connected to which, finding all the corners and edge pieces and filling in the middle, tossing out one piece in favor of another, until, at the end, the whole puzzle came together to form a perfectly running, bug-free application.

I’ve seen code that looks like a work of art, in itself, with all the commands lined up just so, and indented likewise. I’ve seen code that looks like a hurricane passed through. Each person has their own signature they depart upon their own code, their own artistic signature, good or bad. Good companies allow their software developers to use their own style, to a point. It helps keep the developer happy, and often gets results much quicker than if they must conform to rigid standards. It also keeps the developer thinking creatively about how to complete that assignment, how to get what the client wants up on the screen in the most efficient, most economical, but most beneficial way, and how to fix production problems quickly and creatively when each minute that ticks by means thousands of dollars lost to the company.

I went on to write many more programs in my first position at the university, then was hired full time. Once I graduated, I continued to work for this department at the university for a few more years before moving on and up in my career working with software.

Louisa Frank is a retired Senior Vice President of Technology at Bank of America. After starting her career at the University of Delaware Plato Project, she went on to work in several major companies, progressing from software developer to software team leader, software manager, and finally technology executive. A few years ago, she retired early and revisited her programming roots, amongst other things, learning HTML and CSS, programming and maintaining a website for a non-profit firm, Water Is Life Kenya, and maintaining her own website, thisislafrank.com. You can contact her at her website or at thisislafrank@gmail.com.