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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