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

View Comments: Oldest First | Newest First | Threaded View
Page 1 / 4   >   >>
Nicky48   A BASIC Birthday Bash   4/30/2014 8:36:50 PM
Happy Birthday !
Happy Birthday Basic !

I had a brief affair with you but then I turned to COBOL. Sorry :-)
Ariella   A BASIC Birthday Bash   4/30/2014 8:41:10 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !
I had a very short-term relationship with BASIC back in high school. That was it. 
Qasim Bajwa   A BASIC Birthday Bash   4/30/2014 11:48:45 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !
@Curtis. Thank you for the article. I think people who started their career in IT, one way or the other did some programming work in BAIC. I know I did, but at my time, C/C++ was far more popular, my school still wanted us to start with BASIC. 
Qasim Bajwa   A BASIC Birthday Bash   4/30/2014 11:49:17 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !
I think with BASIC 50 years, we can all take out a moment to appreciate the role of programming languages in our lives, everything device we use is programmed. And for me, it's hard to imagine my life without a Smartphone or a laptop. 
jastro   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/1/2014 9:49:29 AM
Re: Happy Birthday !
I took a course in Basic in graduate school. I wrote the Cash Register program, then dropped the course. Why would anyone want to do this, I wondered...enough said
Pedro Gonzales   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/1/2014 10:49:56 AM
Re: Happy Birthday !
@ qasim. I completelly agree. today's computer languages have evolved making it easy to learn than before and there are many resources out there to learn on your one which were not available before. Also, pretty much all industries run on programs in one form or another. My first experience with programming was with COBOL.
nasimson   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/2/2014 8:42:55 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !
I started my programming in GW Basic. It was some twenty years back. My elder cousin helped me in his after office hours. I was in grade ten then. Programming helped me in reasoning, logic, argumentative thinking, empathy, spreadsheet modeling, critical and analytical thinking. Now I don't even remember what GW stood for.
Hospice_Houngbo   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/2/2014 9:41:26 PM
Re: Happy Birthday !
The early BASIC was an easy-to-learn language because its creators wanted to enable students in fields other than science and mathematics to develop custom software on early personal computers.
nasimson   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/5/2014 10:38:53 AM
Re: Happy Birthday !
@Qasim: When I was in high school, in 96-98, I remember our Computer teacher saying something like: in future there will be less need of programmers, as machines will be doing more and more programming. I still don't see this future in short term.
zerox203   A BASIC Birthday Bash   5/5/2014 4:04:01 PM
Re: A BASIC Birthday Bash
50 Years of BASIC; Hard to imagine. To clarify, I've never written a line of BASIC, I don't know a thing about it, and everything Curt mentioned is most certainly before my time. That being said, that makes it all the more amazing to me that 1) technology has come so far in 50 years, but also that 2) technologies that are still in use and being developed today have their roots in something 50 years old and therefore that 3) something 50 years old is still relevant enough to be mentioned day in and day out in the IT world (uhhh... no offense to those 50 or older in the E2 community intended). If you sat me down and asked me to guess how old BASIC was based on how often people still mention it to this day, I certainly would have guessed much lower than 50. That says quite a lot.

It's quite a lot to wax nostalgic about, but at the same time, it reminds us how the way we do things today is not always so different. Programming languages have become more robust, easier to use, and infinitely more flexible, but they still have roots in the same math and functionality as BASIC and everything that came before it. Curt's stories of calling low-level system functions to piece together something that ought to have been easier doesn't sound so different from my struggling with OpenGL calls on Android when somebody swore I would 'pick it up overnight'. And as someone else mentioned, computers still aren't writing the code for us. Here's to 50 more years of us doing the heavy lifting.
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