The year I started college was an interesting time. I had largely abandoned my computing hobby because what was now important was school and work and time with the girlfriend. Of course, I used the computer to write reports and create materials for projects in school but not for much else. It had lost its fascination somewhat, besides, what can compete with money, cars and girls at 18 years old!
My girlfriend had a family member that I really enjoyed talking with. He was an electrical engineer by trade but at the time, not by degree. He had learned his skills in the military. When we would go over to his house we would always spend time on the computer, talking about the computer, talking about books and what not. Needless to say, we were fully geeked out when we got around each other to the chagrin of the girlfriend at times.
During this time he was working on his degree as was I, albeit at different schools. During a conversation one evening he asked me if I had ever heard of the “internet”. At the time I had not. I was curious as to what he was talking about. He told me that the “internet” was an even bigger resource than Compuserve, Prodigy, AOL and the other services I had been using. He said that some colleges had access but not all and that I should find out. I didn’t know whether my school was offering the “internet” or not but by now I was very intrigued. I decided that during my next time on campus I would ask around.
The next time I was at school, I went looking around at the computer labs to find some information about this “internet”. In one of the labs I found what I was looking for. On the wall was a sign “To register for internet access complete this form”. There was a stack of paper forms under the sign. I went over, grabbed a form, filled it out and turned it in to the lab assistant. He said to return to that same lab in a few days and I would get my account and password.
I returned some days later to receive my credentials for this “internet”. I asked the lab assistant to check if it was ready and it indeed was. I received a piece of paper with an ID, an email address with a funny ‘@’ symbol in it and a password. He said I could go over to one of the lab computers and get started.
I picked out a lab computer and sat down. On the screen was an icon for a terminal emulation program (I forget the name). I launched the program and on the screen was a somewhat familiar scene that I was accustomed to from using Procomm Plus. Instead of having to dial up to anything there was just a blank screen with one word at the top “login: “.
I figured this was where I needed to enter my new user id, so I did. Next I get ‘password: ‘, I enter my password. Then I get a welcome message from the DEC ULTRIX system with a host name I do not recall and a prompt ‘$’.
Ok, what do I do now? Where is my C:\> prompt? Are there programs here? Is this “the internet”? Clearly, I’m lost. So, my next step was to get some help. Similar to when I was young and encountered the TRS-80 for the first time I went to the best source I could find – a book.
My very first internet book was ‘Navigating the Internet’ by Richard J. Smith, ISBN: 0672303620. I still have my first copy believe it or not. You can still find this book on eBay and other used book stores. This book was a necessary and excellent beginning.
Great thing about ‘Navigating the Internet’ is that it assumed you knew absolutely nothing about the internet. Since I was in such a position, it was fitting for me. Luckily, much, if not all, internet programs were based on something called UNIX at the time. It was then I learned that the ULTRIX system was a UNIX based system.
So what did I learn? The best way to get information was to use something called Gopher. Gopher was a hierarchical menu driven system that could be used to store documents. Gopher had a search engine called ‘Veronica’ which was quite simple to use and made finding information much easier.
Gopher was not the only way to find information. There was another service called WAIS. WAIS was full of information but for me seemed less useful than Gopher.
Some other tools I learned to use: usenet which is like what we call ‘discussion boards’ today, FTP was a way to upload and download files to internet computers, telnet was a way to ‘remote control’ computers on the internet, irc which was a delightful way to chat online in real time and lastly there was something called lynx that was used to connect to something called the ‘world wide web’.
Of all the tools I discovered, I think my favorite was Gopher and my least favorite was lynx. Gopher had an easy menu system and a reasonably good search engine. Of course at the time, it was the only search engine I had experience with so there was not much of a basis for evaluation. Lynx was largely useless to me. There was no way I could find to search, the information was terribly formatted and once you tabbed your way to a link and pressed enter, it loaded a new page and you couldn’t figure out how to go back. To me lynx sucked and therefore the world wide web sucked with it.
So, after going through much of the new book, I felt like I had now ‘discovered’ the internet. I was happy to report back to my girlfriend’s family member that I now not only had access but had command of this “internet” to put to my use.
I couldn’t help but feel like this “internet” was lacking something. By this time, Prodigy, Compuserve and AOL all had graphical interfaces. They felt like the Windows programs I was familiar with and I liked that. Not that I was afraid of the terminal, I had grown up at the command line but, the command line now felt a bit antiquated. I still used the internet from time to time nonetheless. I was especially enthralled with IRC.
Let us leave the internet for a few moments and explore the career horizon. I had declared my major in school to be physics. My reason for this was that I wanted to be a high school physics teacher. Almost two years in and I was still on this track. I had no reason to change it.
Also during this time, I was a bonafide burger flipper. That’s right, fast food worker esquire I was. This was my high school job and my college job up until this point. I didn’t love the job. Who could? It was a job and they paid me to do it. Then, I got a wonderful call.
Someone I worked with frequently, and had gotten to know well enough to know his parents, had a message for me. He wanted me to talk to his mother about a job. This was odd I thought. What am I qualified for besides fast food I wondered? I got in touch with her to find out more.
At the time she worked at a wholesale residential mortgage lender. She had a business relationship with a broker that was complaining about his computer systems. He was constantly grumbling and blaming his systems for all kinds of headaches in his business. I listened closely to this story and was wondering what this had to do with me and a job.
Come to find out, she had some information that I was good with computers. I’m not sure how she knew this but for whatever reason she did. She said that her troubled mortgage broker mentioned if he could just find one of those “geeky computer nerds” for the summer to come work for him that maybe he could get some relief from his badly behaving systems.
Well, apparently I fit her mental model of “geeky computer nerd”. She was connecting me with her broker to see if I could fill the summer position. I talked with this broker over the phone and went out to meet with him. Lo and behold, I got the job! This friends was my first big, big break.