After some basic research, I identified the two pillars of computing: “hardware” and “software.” I learned that hardware was primarily about electrical engineering. Having witnessed two people, one a dear friend and the other my brother-in-law, grapple with the study of “double-e,” and having an interest in electricity only insofar as it powered my refrigerator and stereo and was responsible for spectacular lightning shows over the Rockies, I knew that electrical engineering wasn’t for me. Which left that mysterious, apparel-sounding phenomenon known as software. (What, I wondered in my abject ignorance, was “soft” about a metal computer?)
I read that software was essentially electrified instructions that could read electrified numbers and letters and electrically command simple or complex electrified arithmetic operations. (All of which was a considerable part of the soul of that little Texas Instrument calculator I used for my year at the instrument repair company, although I was unaware of this at the time.) I read that writing software was known as “programming,” and that programming was extremely detailed, precise and orderly, and commonly used in accounting and bookkeeping applications―in other words, I concluded, tailored for me.
From a programmer acquaintance, I borrowed a book on “flowcharting”: the routing of those electrified numbers―“data”―toward a desired goal. As I read the book, the detailed-oriented part of me became increasingly optimistic, and the English-major part of me imaginative. I imagined that each individual “datum” was a sleek automobile, its headlights aglow as it coursed over the perfectly gridded streets of, say, Manhattan at night, bound for its proper destination; turning north, south, east or west; stopping and starting at perfectly calibrated traffic lights; respecting my junctions, intersections and dead ends; experiencing no unnecessary pauses, no time wasted, no flat tires―all under my flawless command, the traffic engineer at his desk upon which sat a coffee cup in its proper place. Billions of cars, billions of lights, constant movement, not a single accident. Oh, such an awesome and beautiful rationality to all of it! Yes, I could see myself as a successful programmer.
So I decided to return to college, this one in downtown Denver, to pursue a major formally called by the college Computer Science and Accounting. Meanwhile, I hired on as a driver at a Denver cab company, a job that, I was certain, would allow me to support myself while I pursued my studies. Excited by my new career goal and satisfied with my new job now in its third week, I phoned my father and mother with the news. My father applauded my latest academic pursuit, although not the new job. “Only idiots drive cabs!” he spat, while no doubt recalling the thousands of dollars he spent toward my bachelor’s degree. Swallowing, I tried to reassure him, albeit with scant evidence, that demand for data processing professionals in Denver’s exploding economy was so great that I would have a job in the field long before I was awarded my second college diploma, and this seemed to placate him. Meanwhile, lacking a car, I took a bus, or bicycled, or walked, or even ran―in running shoes and sweats―to the cab company in northwest Denver. (I could have taken a cab, but I considered it too costly given my meager living as a cab driver.)
Beyond my academic studies of FIFO, LIFO, central processing units, stocks, bonds, and “machine language,” I tried to engage with anything and everything in the day-to-day world that dealt with computers, meanwhile occasionally wondering if I was doing all this in order to maintain an interest in something I feared was losing its original luster. I read Megatrends. I read Time magazine’s 1982 cover story on the computer, the magazine’s unprecedented “Machine of the Year.” One afternoon I sat with rapt attention through a speech by a guest of the college, the distinguished Grace Hopper, a United States Navy Rear Admiral, computer programmer since the 1940s, and pioneer in the development of COBOL, the first common programming language for business that I was at that very moment studying. I slogged through Tracy Kidder’s Soul of the New Machine, a National Book Award winner about computer engineering. At the same time, I sought work, any kind of work, in the data processing field.