A BASIC Birthday Bash

Curtis Franklin Jr., Executive Editor | 4/30/2014 | 36 comments

Curtis Franklin Jr.
BASIC turns 50 this year. Many IT pros wrote their first line of code in the venerable language, but is the ability to write code even important at the top of the IT ladder?

Once upon a time, of course, a degree in engineering or data processing (or even computer science) was an assumed prerequisite for an executive position in enterprise IT. People tended to start near the bottom and work their way up the data processing ladder to greater executive authority. Now, though, we're told IT executives should be far more versed in business strategy than technology, so it's fair to ask whether the old rules still have a role to play.

I'm going to go out on a creaky old limb and say that they do. To lead an organization effectively, you need to understand what it does -- and having the respect of those in the organization doesn't hurt one bit. So, in the spirit of our colleagues over at InformationWeek who are writing about their memories of BASIC, let me tell you a bit about my memories of early programming.

My very first programming happened in logic gates. A buddy and I built a simple four-function, four-bit processor out of logic gates a few months before the ad for the first personal computer graced the pages of an electronics magazine. After that, I had to wait for a Sinclair ZX81 to indulge in my first real programming in BASIC. It was simple stuff, really -- add things and get the results, make simple shapes move across the screen -- but it let me know that I could make a machine do stuff at my bidding.

When I got to graduate school and computer science, I dove into all the languages that the faculty felt we needed to learn for our lessons. BASIC was assumed -- the real work happened in FORTRAN, Pascal, PL/1, and IBM BAL. Oh, there were the forays into LISP and COBOL, but FORTRAN and BAL were where we lived unless we had to move stuff on and off of DASD, when we used direct ISAM and VSAM calls. (A note: If all this makes sense to you, congratulations. You've done time in an IBM mainframe shop. If not, then feel free to ask questions in the comments -- one of the old timers will be happy to translate for you.)

A moment of great professional joy occurred when I realized that dBase-II was VSAM for PCs. With that knowledge, a Columbia luggable PC, and a Samsonite briefcase full of 5.25" disks, I was able to write database applications for my employer and some consulting clients. Figuring out how to jam all the code for a huge project on to a single floppy disk gave me a skill that came in handy when people started paying me more to write than they did to program.

The thing is, I haven't made my living writing code for a long, long time, but the experience of having done it made me a better technology manager (and gives me a leg up when I talk to developers and engineers now). Could I have done the management and journalism without putting in time writing code? Of course -- many fine managers and journalists have done so. But the course of my career would have been much different had I not put in that early time.

So, happy birthday, BASIC. Thanks for the memories (full of peeks and pokes) and the leg up on a career. I'm curious, though: Did BASIC play a role in your career? If it did -- or if some other language was critical -- I'd like to know. Give me a shout in the comment section, and let the birthday celebration begin.

Curtis Franklin, Jr.
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Executive Editor, Enterprise Efficiency

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Broadway   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/29/2014 10:00:13 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !
@fowler, it's an interesting point you make. Although today's technology sells itself as empowering people's creativity --- just watch an iPad commercial --- yet it is far more a consumption device than PCs perhaps were back in the ol' days.
singlemud   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/29/2014 5:45:34 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !
BASIC is a pretty good programming language back to that time.
Technocrat   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/14/2014 8:46:18 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !

@fowler    Thank you for your insight.  I have the pi and have only begun to play with it.  I think it is pushing me towards finally learning C.  It is fun - looking forward to spend some more time with it.

fowler   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/14/2014 4:53:09 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !
As someone who started with BASIC programming on an 8-bit minicomputer, I love working with the raspberry pi. It is probably the best advertisement for programming I have seen in years. 

Looking at those 8-bits and the pi, they share a few things in common:

* use display and periperals that are easily found around the house

* simple, yet powerful programing syntax

* immediate response (image on the screen or sound through the speaker)

We forget that a child's first exposure to technology often shapes the adults conception of what they can do with it. There has been an entire generation raised to see computers as a passive means for the consumption of media. BASIC really was a great equalizer in that it enabled people to change their immediate world. I think that is probably it's greatest gift.
Broadway   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/14/2014 2:23:01 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !
I got into BASIC in elementary school on my brother's old IBM PC. I was in to Dungeons & Dragons, and used to try to program "role-playing" games. I once worked on a football game where there were good monsters on one team, bad monsters on the other. Wish I had stuck with it!
Technocrat   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/14/2014 1:07:35 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !

@naimson   Agreed.  I think programming will come back as well - just too much on the horizon that needs to be programmed.  Exciting times for those who have an affinity towards these types of challenges.

Technocrat   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/14/2014 1:04:15 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !

Certainly happy about a birthday for BASIC  I learned some,  but I really didn't gravitate to it.  Didn't really get into programming mode until much later in my career, and still trying to develop the patience needed to become successful at it.

tinym   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/13/2014 11:18:27 AM
Re: Happy Birthday !
@Curt My little programmer has program design plans that will take more time than is available while school is still in. Looking forward to the summer! I have thought of Arduino. I'll pitch it again and maybe I'll get some interest. Lego Mindstorms are pricy compared to Arduino boards and kits.
CurtisFranklin   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/13/2014 10:03:36 AM
Re: Happy Birthday !
Ooooh, @tinym, it sounds like you have a budding developer on your hands! My son's first programming was TurboPascal when he was in 6th grade (he analyzed sort algorithms for efficiency as his science fair project). Now, he's in a game design program in college and we end up talking about programming in several different languages for his projects.

Have you thought about an Arduino for your kid? It's a simple programming language, there are tons of project books out there, and there's something magic about making real lights go blinky-blinky at your comman!
tinym   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/9/2014 3:04:03 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !
@Curt you're so right about BASIC being good for learning programming. One of my children picked up a flavor of it call Smile BASIC. They make custom games and programs for Nintendo DS with a program called Petit Computer. I was worried at first this might be a bad move for my geeky kid saying BASIC isn't used in production in its old form. That helped and now I have a curious 8th grader interested in the many uses of C++. This child was born in the wrong era and really enjoys playing old video games (8bit especially). 

I got my start in programming with BASIC (1st grade!). I did terrible and decided it wasn't for me until long after high school. I wish I had grasped the concept of syntax back then or had a little more encouragement.
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