How do you get started in computing?

This is a really good question because many years ago when I personally got started, the World was a different place from a computing point of view.


I mean we had no smart phones or devices and I can remember scrabbling my paper-round pocket money together to buy my first computer. However Dad was so impressed at my determination and actually volunteering to help paint the garden fences and other household tasks, he came home one day with a box, told me to keep my money and I had become the proud owner of a brand new Commodore 64!

Sure enough I bought a game or two with my hard-earned but I was too curious to be satisfied with just games, as good and as revolutionary as they were at the time, it wasn't enough - I wanted to create my own games and other useful "programs" as they were called back then.

Schools were only really just starting to recognise Computing as a thing worth teaching their pupils but were at that point in time very expensive. I think by the time I left my School around 1988, they must have had about 4 Commodore PET or BBC machines but that was it. The School had started to use them for their own purposes and there were a couple in classrooms by that time.

I taught myself through magazines and books. No Google then! I can recall reading the printed code in the magazines or books and at times the programs were a hundred or so pages long. It took hours to run through and programs were just a single file with loads of GOTO statements which nowadays would make you shake your head in horror. Once you'd finished, you would have to save the whole thing to tape, so that you could recall it again at a later time. You could use only one tape cassette per program. However there were ways you could store them sequentially, you just had to use your Rewind and Fast Forward buttons on the tape deck, listening to the fuzzy beeping sounds until you hit a quiet pause in between and quickly press the Stop button in readiness to Load the program you wanted.

In those days BASIC was quite universal across different Computers no matter whether you used a ZX Spectrum, Acorn Electron, BBC Microcomputer, Commodore (VIC20,C64 or PET) or other (there weren't many alternatives).

There was one alternative to BASIC though and since Commodore's version of it was not quite as well thought out as it's rivals, I chose to delve into Machine Code, which of course is still ever present today, we just tend to call it "Native Code" now. The C64 featured something called 6502 Assembly language and the successor to the C64, the Amiga boasted an even more powerful 68000 Assembler chipset. The beauty of learning to code in Assembler was that you could do some amazing things with your computer and get to know how a CPU works, the guts of all machines right through to the present day.

I think by the time the 90's began I had written a couple of games just for my own amusement and one of them was called "Lambda" (Amiga) and it featured a scrolling parallax background with spaceships that you could shoot - I had created a shoot-em up! I remember the hardest thing was calculating when an alien had been shot and needed to explode!

I wrote some text based adventures and at one point wrote a number of "shareware" software products that I sold via a company who distributed them. One of the products featured in Amiga Format at the time and was described as a "Godsend of an application". I made £1500 out of it which was amazing for something that sold at a tenner per copy! I think I put some of the money towards my first car, my Mini.

Sadly my games programming career never really took off and insteadI started working for businesses as a junior programmer working on database driven applications and worked my way up to becoming a freelance web/mobile developer in the current day :-)

However it does show that learning to code was one of the top 10 best things I ever did in my life and I knew I wanted to do it from the very moment I opened that box back in the mid 80's!!

Just as an aside another parallel career I've maintained since the 80s and early 90's is my article writing. The shareware app I mentioned above led onto another opportunity a few years later. I wrote an article about the experience for Amiga Format, a Future publishing magazine of the day. I wrote it as part of a job application! I was applying for the role of "Technical Editor" and would have been a strong career path to follow. I was shortlisted and went to their HQ in Bath (lovely city) where I had to write a second article on a Macintosh Classic about my experience of visiting their offices. Suffice to say I didn't get the job but I did later write for other magazines albeit mostly about photography...

Fast Forward

I am going to imagine for a moment that as I write this, I am not in my twilight forties but my early twenties! Wow what a world we have created (casting aside the negative elements, focus on computing Nick). We now have so much choice, we can learn almost anything and it is on tap. It is in your pocket, on your desk or on your lap. Just Google it. I mean that teenage version of me back in the olden days would hop on his pushbike and head for the library (5 miles away) and consume many hours flicking through the pages of umpteen books, learning stuff. Now you don't need to. It's a quick search on your smartphone.

I hope the future is just as bright for the teenagers of today. I really really do.