Why I Loved Going to College!

Rather than rely on my parents to pay for it, I worked my way through school, and did it my way.

After finishing my Bachelor’s of Science in Mathematics degree at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1986, I decided to get a Master’s degree.  Back then, Artificial Intelligence was a very hot topic.  The books and articles I read about it kept saying it was a very Interdisciplinary field.

Also, at the time, I was growing tired of playing music (I played bass in a bluegrass band) and took a class in Photography.  This led to a History of American Photography class, which led to other Art History classes.  Who would’ve guessed that I would love Art History?  In later years this would lead to interests in Dance and Film Noir, but I digress….

So I talked to Nicholas Sharp, who was in charge of Interdisciplinary Studies there at VCU, and to several other faculty members in both the School of the Arts and the College of Humanities and Sciences.  And I took some more undergraduate Art classes, including a Graphic Design class using those old Apple ][ E‘s.  Then I signed up for and got accepted to a graduate program in Math, and after a few semesters switched over to the School of Interdisciplinary Studies.

As an Interdisciplinary student, I took enough Computer Science classes to earn a Masters of Science in Math, and in addition took some Graduate-Level Independent Study Art classes.  These are the classes in which I wrote the first version of the Graphical Representations of Jungian Archetypes or GROJA program, using LISP on an old 8086 PC.

The Groja program uses the results of the MBTI personality test to draw an image of an individual’s personality.  Since the original version I have put three versions online, the latest of which is at .  But I digress yet again….

So, that’s why I loved going to college: I was able to pick the classes I wanted to take, and do them my way!

Refactoring and Restructuring a System, Little-by-Little

At one of the jobs I had while working my way through school, I inherited some poorly-written code.  It worked, but was unstructured and difficult to maintain.  The original author did not even indent his if statements!

Using the structured programming skills I had learned at a previous job, I refactored and restructured the system, little by little.

  • Changing a working system when no changes are required is foolhardy.
  • Leaving poorly-written code in place while trying to properly structure enhancements is just plain not going to work Get More Info.
  • Refactoring poorly-written code, little-by-little, when making necessary fixes, is a good – and ultimately unavoidable – compromise.

It took about five calendar years to complete this project.  Other side projects came and went, so this was not the only thing I was working on.  And I was the only person working on it, which helped make things a bit easier – there was no red tape, as long as the programs continued to work.

Just about the time I finished. they decided to replace the system, and I decided to go to Graduate School!

Agile in the 1980s?!?

The longest job I ever had was at a bank in the 1980s.

Rather than working with the 20 other programmers in the IT department, I worked directly with Senior Management – directly with The Customer.

Rather than getting detailed, written requirements and using those to construct a formal design, that might go through several iterations in its search for multiple levels of approval. my boss would just tell me what they wanted.  Was this putting “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools?”  I believe it was!

Rather than having a well-documented system – I am a big fan of simple ASCII text files – the emphasis was on “Working software over comprehensive documentation.”

Rather than assuming my first attempt would be what they were looking for,  after a while I realized that Senior Management usually needed to look at something – often more than once – before they would accept a new program or feature as complete.  In other words, we put “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.”

Rather than taking months or years for a request to work its way through the IT bureaucracy, we could deliver results in a matter of days or, at most, a week or two.  One might say that this is “Responding to Change over following a plan.”

Now if you look at the Agile Manifesto, you will see, that is exactly what we were doing!

“No brag, just fact!”

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My First Code Review

My second job was writing IBM Mainframe Cobol programs for the City of Richmond.

I started out making some changes to some existing programs: enhancements and bug fixes, nothing major.  We had Systems Analysts then who were familiar with how the programs worked and who would spec out the changes quite thoroughly.

Then I got to write my very first entire program.  I was so proud of it!

During this time I’d identified a couple of colleagues as being sharper than the rest (mainly because the were not part of any of the gossip gangs).  So I asked them what they thought of my program, hoping that they would like it, because I had learned at my previous job that maintainability is important.

They tore my little program to pieces.  I thought I might cry — but I didn’t.

They taught me how to use structured programming techniques to organize my code.  Many mark Edsger W. Dijkstra’s famous paper GoTo Statement Considered Harmful as being the beginning of structured programming techniques, but it is much more than using Perform statements instead of GoTos.

Because it strives to read like English, Cobol does not have the syntactical mechanisms that many other languages do, control structures that allow developers to break things down and organize code into components.  So they showed me how to precede all functions with three- or four-digit numbers, that would reflect the function’s place in the flow of logic.  Although foreign to me at first, after seeing how it worked, it made a lot of sense.

As it turns out, I learned more in that hour than I did in many of my classes at school!