The Start of My Computer Career

When I was about 11 years old I decided that I wanted a career related to computers. My first computer was the TEC-1 single-board Z80 based kit computer from Talking Electronics magazine (see the photo below). I think that I built this when I was 10.

picture of tec-1 single board z80 computer

The computer is 16cm high and 25cm wide. The six seven segment displays are the only built-in output device (there were optional kits for other output devices). The keypad has the hexadecimal number keys, an “ad” button for entering addresses, a “go” button for executing programs, and “+” and “” keys for incrementing and decrementing the address. Below the reset button (labelled “R“) you will see the optional function key (of which I can’t remember the purpose). Programming this computer required entering the hexadecimal code on the keypad with the “+” and “” keys being the main method of editing (the “ad” key was used to jump to a different section of RAM). In editing mode the first four seven-segment displays showed the address (the Z80 could only address 64K of RAM) and the other two showed the memory contents (the word size was one byte). In terms of user-friendlyness it was probably about equal to punched cards – apart from the lack of non-volatile storage (unless you built the optional NVRAM kit).

My TEC-1 has 2K of RAM (the 83251R chip is equivalent to an Intel 16kilo-bit 6116 static RAM chip) and 2K of ROM (the chip with the orange sticker labeled Mon1 is a 2716 EPROM – 16kilo-bit).

Not long after that my parents bought the first serious computer for the family, a Microbee Z80 based system with a tape drive that used a monochrome monitor of resolution approximately equal to CGA and which had either 16K or 32K of RAM (I can’t recall). The next family computer was a Microbee Premium series 128K which is probably the same model as the one depicted on the Microbee Wikipedia page (a serious omission of the Wikipedia page is that it has no picture of the box containing the PSU and the floppy drives for the Premium Series). My first published article in a computer magazine was when I was about 15 years old and I wrote a long email on a Fidonet echo (mailing list) reviewing a 3rd party update to the CP/M system for the Premium Series Microbee and was surprised by having it published in the Microbee club magazine (in those days we didn’t bother much about copyright so no-one asked for my permission before publishing).

I wonder if starting with computers at such an age is typical for people who now contribute to free software development. I think it would be interesting to see some blog posts from other people in the community about how old they were when they started with computers and what type of computer they started with.

I also wonder about the correlation between the age of starting with computers and career success in the computer industry. One significant benefit of starting early was that I could learn things that would be useful for my career in later decades while other children were wasting time studying what teachers told them to study. It also meant that in later years of high-school I could relax knowing that I could get straight B’s without effort which was more than was required to enter a CS degree program at that time. Until half-way through year 12 I tried to avoid ever doing home-work at home – home-time was computer time! Do you think that the age at which you chose your career significantly affected your success? If so in what way?

If you were asked for advice by parents as to when their child should be given it’s first computer what age would you suggest? Unfortunately I usually get asked for advice about such things by people who have children aged 16+ (which is way too late IMHO).

Update: Dbenn recently gave a talk to his son’s primary school about computers and he used the TEC-1 as an example. They are still in use!

10 comments to The Start of My Computer Career

  • I think the world is a little different now. My first was a Commodore 128, and back then there was this parenting decision of “should I buy my kid a computer” which happily my father answered himself “yes” to.

    Today, the place of computers in society and education is far more ingrained. I don’t really think you can pose questions like that anyore. Kids require computer exposure from the get-go. The questions today are different.

    About ten years ago, the question might have been “how much screen time or computer time do I allow my kids”. Today, I think it’s more like “how do I manage my kids’ online experience? If even I manage it at all?” It’s a completely different class of questions today.

  • Hummm, my boy is becoming 11 and he does computer only to play those dinosaurous-games.
    He likes math and science stuff, but not computer itself.
    His birthday is coming, so I’m planning to buy his own note-pc.
    I think it’s ok as long as he is interested in those things like exploring something. He may find computer interesting and go on those field. But right now he prefers drawing manga. So,maybe an artist?
    He is now trying hard for preparation on entrance exam for private Junior-High 2 years later. And that is his choice. He will find good teachers or friends there if he could pass…

  • Back in the days of my childhood like yours, computers were not connected to the internet and they didn’t have super-realistic 32bit graphics with 3d rendering. They were these geeky things with processors less than 20mhz that took a lot of effort and patience to use. Most of them came with a few games and a programming language to try your hand at programming and the available list of programs was tiny(less than 20). My first exposure to computers was to a DECWRITER on a school time sharing system, an APPLE 2 and then my friend got a ‘pineapple’ apple clone where we made a 1-bit graphics golf game. A few years later I bought my first computer with my holiday money: a TS(timex-sinclair) TS1000 (100 USD) (similar to the ZX81, iirc) with an 8mhz z80 and, with the add-on, 16kb. I went ‘basic’ programming wild! I then got the 9600kbs modem add-on that I used in College and for some BBS action ;-) These machines filled the niche that ‘chess club kids’ had: lots of time, lot of curiosity & little social life. And I think created many of the early FLOSS people, like Linus. Like most kids then and most kids now, they seek to maximize their social life to the exclusion of all else and have no curiosity of the kind that ‘geeks’ typically have. I would say that if you want a child to be exposed to programming, it should be early, say ages 8-12? But only a small percentage will stick with it, the geeks. I love to see a survey of early FLOSS folks and what computers they have used as kids like: Commadore,TI,Sinclair,Arcorn, etc.

  • Ted

    I think my first computer was around the age of 7-9. It was a 486 DX2 66 MHz with some kind of DOS and Windows 3.11. My first programming experience was some dialect of BASIC at about age 12, although I have the feeling I was getting my hands dirty in HTML before that. Soon after that I got into PHP (1999). After leaving school in early 2003 (grade 12) I decided to learn C and at the same time made “the switch” to being a free software geek. In 2005 I attended my first and was inspired to make some code contribution to a free software project before the next year’s conference. (I reached that goal.)

    I bemoan the concept of “success”, instead I prefer to measure happiness or enjoyment, but in reference to career success I found a full time software engineering job about two years after learning C.

    I suppose by the point of leaving school it was quite clear to me what my interest was and I was prepared to pursue it outside the expected route of university (I enrolled in TAFE instead) and ultimately never finished the Diploma course I enrolled in — because I found free software work both more interesting and far more worthwhile than the set assignments.

    I would be interested to find out how others got involved in free software and what, if they can identify it, drives them to continue at it.

  • faye

    My first computer was a Commodore 64, when I was 11. My primary school had one and I was allowed to use it at lunchtime (I was told not to tell the other students ;) ) I knew then that I wanted to do “something with computers”.

    Computers for primary aged children are a must, however my personal belief is that a child should view, and therefore use, the computer as a tool for learning and getting a job done, and not just for playing games.

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  • Joel

    My father bought our first “PC” when I was about 6 years old, an Amiga – since the Commodore machines were quite popular in Australia at the time. I was quickly the envy of all my friends who had owned Atari, C64 or IBM AT. The Amiga was definately ahead of its time.

    Although I spent most of those early years playing games – it wasn’t long before I wanted to know how they all worked, and I distinctly remember writing my first “program” using Microsoft Basic (don’t laugh) on the Amiga in the late 80s.

    Fast forward 10 years – and a few Amigas later – I was finally forced to migrate to x86. Not entirely impressed with anything Microsoft had to offer, and being accoustomed to BBS/Fido/Internet – I quickly discovered an alternative, LINUX – and the rest they say, is history.

    I’m currently employed as a UNIX/Linux Systems Administrator, and wanna-be kernel hacker.

  • Stewart

    I started using computers when I was about a 24 YO. My father and brother were into Big board and super nova computers at the time but I was not at all interested. A friend of mine gave me a Microbee kit computer that he had assembled. After using this for a while and typing in some basic programs out of magazines I became interested in programming. I started to write my own programs in BASIC then later in assembly language. I moved on to a disk based premium model where I also learned to program in Turbo Pascal. Over the years I wrote a lot of software for my own interests. Eventually I became an in-house embedded systems engineer for a company and now I am self employed doing the same type of work.

    I have contributed recently to “Free software” by releasing a Microbee emulator as a source forge project (ubee512) forked from another emulator project.

    Getting involved in computers was the best decision I have made career wise even though I was 24 when I made it.

  • steve

    Hey I started my electrical engineering career by building the same TEC-1 Kit! when i was still in school about yr9/10 – this is an ok age to start the complexities of machine code – before that though you do need to have some appreciation of programming principles

  • I worked at TE designing several add-ons and software for the TEC-1. Jim Robertson and myself developed a number of enhancements for the the TEC-1, resulting in the TEC-1B design and TEC2 monitor program (BIOS). Jim came up with a 16×2 LCD display to replace the original 7-segment LED displays, for example, whilst I cooked up the speech synthesiser module and much of the LCD software.

    The whole lot was then stolen by Peter Crowcroft of DIY Electronics and (A consultant hired by TE to assist with outsorcing to China) and sold as the “Southern Cross 1”, which he falsely marketed his own product for many years.