Perhaps the worst mistake I made in my whole computer programming career

This picture has nothing to do with movable type but it does have to do with a certain type of people who move about in this world and who are able to do things. (Painting by Domenico di Pace Beccafumi, 1486 - 1551.)

This it not going to be a case of having failed to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I had one of those opportunities. Actually, all I would have needed to do is take a big step from being fascinated with the technology to seizing an opportunity to manage: My then manager, Charles Siegel, perceived I was talented. He was giving me ever more challenging projects to do, which, as I would do one after another, were win-wins: Productive for the company and career advancement for me. He was some kind of jewish mystic; in retrospect he truly was a gift form God, whom I did not appreciate enough.[1]

We had an important file conversion to do. It was more than a one person job. Mr. Siegel assigned me the task of getting it done, but with a condition: I could call in help from other programmers to do it. I did not have to do all the work myself. I just had to organize the work, and, surely, play my part, probably writing code to integrate everything but also largely supervising other people's work. But I was myopically stuck in being fascinated with assembly language programming, so I failed the test. It would have required a "mental shift" for me: to turn my value structure from algotithmic programming to social programming. I was not mature enough for the task. And that was the end of my possible career spiral "stat" into management.

But this other project did not require any such a radical mindset change. Indeed, it might have synthesized my personal interests with what I did in the office. My clueless fundamentalist Christian manager – he wasn't even a smart fundamentalist Christian, Mr. Dale Smythe; he was just a waste that went in whatever direction he was pushed[2] –, Mr. Dale Smythe, offered me to look at a primitive text formatting program. I presume the goal would have been for secretaries to move from their typewriters to the computer. I have no idea. This was no later than 1974.

When I later went to work in IBM and discovered word processing with text markup (Script VS, I think it was at the time), in 1978 or 79, I immediately became deeply interested in it because I saw its power as an applied philosophy tool to facilitate reflective thinking, by making revising text easy and appealing. So if I had taken on this project from Mr Smythe (I have no idea how he even got it), maybe I would have seen the light in 1974 and perhaps my whole computing career would have changed directions in a way that would have better fit in with my underlying humanities commitment in living? Either I would have stopped writing code, or written code only part of the time and the code I wrote would have been in the service of improving the text processing tool, not "computer stuff".

Well, it didn't work out. I passed it up because I didn't have a clue. It didn't look interesting to me. I forget the details and maybe there weren't any. I think the whole thing just went away but in any case, I did. I proceeded on along my always conflicted trajectory of being a systems programmer and later a development programmer in IBM and downhill from there.... Maybe it would have amounted to nothing? The road may have led only to a dead end around the first bend in the road, OR: an on-ramp onto a text processing superhighway, like HANDY was for Dr. Nix in the domain of programming languages for kids. Maybe I could have got paid for preaching the gospel of computeized text editing?

I blew it, and wasn't even aware anything had not happened. Back to the first opportunity I screwed up: Would I ha vebeen happy in mangement anyway? Very likely not. Would I have been happier working with computerized text markup, fairly likely.

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  1. Mr. Siegel said his God's instruction to humans was: "Be kind to one another." He was quite an unusual item in the world of business. His wife was a mathematics professor at a local college. They seemed to have a good life.
  2. This is not just a meatphor. I literally saw Mr. Smythe being pushed one day by one of his other reports: a pig of a person who had a beer belly and chewed tobacco. He wanted something and literally pushed his uncouth body in front of Mr. Smythe who gave it to him.

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