Friday, February 11, 2011

Cathedrals, Chapels, and Programming

I was reading some classic essays from The Cathedral and The Bazar by Eric S. Raymond tonight, and for one reason or another got reminiscing a bit about the environment and time associated with some of my first introductions to programming.

During the summer of 1982 I was heading into my senior year of high school and I took an introduction to computing fundamentals course at RPI.  I wanted to be an electrical engineer at the time and badly wanted in at RPI, and figured a summer course would help my chances. I can't remember if that summer course was actually part of the Computer Fundamentals for Engineers FORTRAN program that I later took over the next few years, or if it was just a precursor introductory type of thing. But, my 'welcome to programming days' were all based on IBM Mathematical Formula Translating System language while preparing to become an electrical engineer. 

At the time, I thought of programming as just glorified calculator/slide rule usage. A way to store your mathematical algorithms (punch cards, magnetic tape, etc.) for load and replay so you could later feed some input to it. I didn't look at the kids that intended on studying just the programming stuff as real engineers or science. I couldn't understand why anybody would choose a curriculum based on learning about different ways of typing in algorithms. Us real engineers were going to build these machines!

But, a funny thing happened. The seeds planted during those Computer Fundamentals for Engineering days took root. I never did become an electrical engineer, and I had to course correct a few times before realizing in the early 90's the passion I actually had for software development. 

Back at the beginning of this post I mentioned that I started this reminiscing while reading some essays. The essays are a combination of programing history, culture, and the author's experiences used to describe different development methodologies. The Cathedral and Bazar references are like a parable that helped convince most open software projects to adopt Bazar like (open, transparent, bottom up, lots of people contributing and testing) methodologies.

So, why did an essay about a cathedral reference, as well as a religious like parable remind me of my early introductory days to programming. I mean despite my passion, I'm no real hacker like the folks mentioned in these essays. The answer however is quite simple. The Chapel.

Back when I took those Computer Fundamentals for Engineering courses at RPI, the campus Computer Center, was also known as the Chapel. Well, actually it really was a chapel. The Vorhees Computing Center was actually a chapel built for the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1933, and converted to the campus computer center in 1979. Not only was it a chapel, but it had a friendly spirit known as Myron at the time. Myron was an IBM 3033.