My First Computer: The Texas Instruments TI-99/4A
BASIC programming

As a young boy, I delivered newspapers for The Grand Rapids Press. In 1982, a paperboy was responsible for collecting money from customers to pay for their newspaper delivery service and for paying the Press for his newspapers. What was left over was profit. Besides being a life lesson in the basics of business, it financed my very first computer.

Texas Instruments, the electronics giant we're all familiar with, quit producing the home computer and liquidated their surviving inventories by progressively reducing the prices for their computers. The prices at Witmark and other retailers declined gradually from $500, and when they reached $100, I bought one. Initially, my intention was to play games on it, but it came with a book: "TI BASIC." Out of curiousity, I began to leaf through this book and to read it contents, plugging in the "Hello, World!" sample program. I was amazed to learn that I could make the computer do what I wanted it to do and was hooked for life. I wrote about a half dozen video games on the TI.


My Second Computer: The Apple //c
Computers and technology, BASIC programming, flat-file database development

Through the 1980's, technically inclined schoolboys like me were in the midst of an "arm's race" over who could have the best computer. Apple and Commodore lead the race in popularity, with machines like the Apple ][e (very popular in schools) and the Commodore 64. Later, Apple came out with the Apple //c and then the Apple //gs (arguably the predecessor to the Apple Mac), while Commodore countered with the Commodore 128 and the very excellent Commodore Amiga.

Meanwhile, the Apple //c followed a similar pattern as with the TI-99/4A, and when they got down to about $1,000, dad bought me one. Later that year, for my birthday, my sister Kimmy bought me a programming book that taught me how to write flat-file database applications, using an "address book" program as its example. By now, my young mind was shaping up to "think" like a programmer; a way of thinking that would serve me well.


300 baud and the BBS Scene

Telecommunications was in its infancy in the mid-1980's. Personal computers were becoming popular, and a means of communicating over-the-wire were beginning to form. Using a "modem," one could use the plain old telephone service to connect two computers together. In 1986, I got a 300 baud modem (a Hayes SmartModem 300, which cost $399) and began to discover this intriguing new world. The BBS's were the predecessors to the modern Internet.


London Blitz BBS
System administration and customer service; BASIC, 65C02 machine language programming

If you had a modem, you could use your computer to dial the phone number of a BBS (which means, "Bulletin Board System") and access very simple information found there. After logging in with a user name and a password, you could leave public messages in the discussion boards and private messages to other users as email. There was no mouse; you had to type commands with the keyboard to interact. BBS's were cool. I had to have one, but I couldn't find any software for my Apple //c to do it. So I made my own software, using a combination of "Applesoft BASIC" and "65C02 Machine Language." This software took 2 years to develop and I called it, "A2C-BBS."

By now, I'm firmly entrenched in the culture and community of BBS users and had some renown because I was a "SysOp" (jargon of the day for a "system operator," or the owner of a BBS). The name of my BBS was "The London Blitz" and it ran for 9 years with great support from the community. The advent of the Internet would wipe out the world of the BBS, but not before I gained valuable personal customer service experience serving my users and valuable IT experience managing a BBS.


Technical writing and the world of the PC
Typing and writing skills, desktop publishing and the C programming language

In the world of the BBS's, everything was text. You read text, you wrote text. You interacted every day with people sharing stories, experiences, knowledge. The depth of my involvement with this culture meant two things: First, I became a very, very fast typist and second, I developed strong writing skills - especially when it comes to debate. In time, my skills as a writer were recognized by a fellow BBS user and graphic artist named Chris, and she put those skills to use in a new business she formed to create user manuals. Before I knew it, I was off on my own, technical writing and creating manuals. They called it "Desktop Publishing" back then, but I don't hear that term very much any more.

Somewhat related was my initiation into the world of the IBM PC. A technical writing customer provided me with an 8-megahertz 286 computer for a writing project. This computer was my learner for all things PC. I learned how to take a computer apart, change things, add parts, fix failed components, install operating systems and any number of desktop computer IT skills.

This same year, I took a college course in the C programming language. Even before Chris put me to work writing technical manuals (and before I got a 286 computer of my own), she availed her home computer for my use as a lab computer for study. I promptly installed Borland Turbo-C 2.0 on her family’s computer and went to work learning a very powerful software development tool that would set the stage for better things to come.


Explosive Growth on the Internet
Winsock and TCP/IP networking, print-to-electronic document distribution

By the 1990's, I had a firm footing in the world of computer technology and the table was set to learn more about business computing. I had skills as a writer, programmer, document publisher and customer service provider. Through the 1990's, the advent of the Internet emerged to compete with the BBS hobbyists and more commercialized BBS-like content providers, such as AOL and Comp-U-Serve. Dial-up modems began to share duties between accessing legacy BBS's and the new Internet.

Internet services for the average consumer meant accessing web pages and exchanging email. Gradually, the world of print media (thinking back to my manual-writing days) would be largely replaced by online consumption of content, and even my previous employer, The Grand Rapids Press, has stopped delivering newspapers every day. Using cool new Internet technology and protocols, I learned how to create web pages to deliver content instead of desktop publishing software.


My Very First Website
HTML, cgi-bin and PERL

In the year 2000, I finally learned to make a real web page by buying my own domain name and building a website there. My real motivation was to have an email address I could keep for life – which is something you usually can’t do when you rely on an ISP (Internet service provider) to provide you with email. I discovered that once you own a domain name, and once you get it hosted somewhere, you can have a website and all the email addresses you want. Of course, the thing to do these days is to get a free gmail or hotmail account (because it's free, and one can reasonably expect to keep it for life). But I digress. Back to my website.

It didn't take long for friends to start spamming my "guest book" on the website, which back in those days, were programmed in PERL as a cgi script. I promptly learned PERL, rewrote the script to make guest book entries visible only to its poster (until approved). I thought that was pretty cool! It hearkened back to the days of writing A2C-BBS (telecommunications software; see "1987," above), when "anonymous" users would discover ways to crash or break the program and I would counter their efforts by correcting code errors. Just like that, I was in love with programming all over again and my journey into web development began.


Web and Email Hosting
Linux system administration, web and email hosting

In 2005, I experimented with a business model that tied IT support services with web and email hosting. I leased a server in a data center, compiled and configured the necessary software (Apache, MySQL, PHP, Sendmail, etc.) and began hosting websites and email for customers. Highly successful from a technical standpoint (my customers were very happy!), I realized that I was largely competing with the commercialized hosting services and their resellers, investing an absurd number of hours per month into system administration, patch maintenance and so forth; but for very little profit. A valuable experience indeed, it just wasn't profitable.


Building New Skills for the Future
IT support services and web design & development

At present, I continue to furnish numerous business and residential customers with IT services while continuing to reach out to prospects for web design and development projects. IT skills are always a moving target, with new technology and certifications emerging every day. My love for learning new technology as this growth continues makes me happy with my work in this field. My love for support services means I will always be there for my customers. The present leads to the future, and the future is bright!