January 30, 2010
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One of the people I pay attention to in the tech world is John C. Dvorak. While he’s not always right, he does provoke our thought process when it comes to technology.
In a section of a recent posting (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2358568,00.asp), Dvorak mentions the notion of "checkbox computing". Dvorak theorizes that we have "dumbed down" our users’ skills, with tools such as Facebook and MySpace, to the point where we, as users and consumers of technology, no longer learn computing skills, particularly programming.
In some ways, I’m glad that I professionally came of age when I did; perhaps—to paraphrase Warren Buffett—I too won the “Ovarian Lottery”. As part of my undergraduate as well as my graduate coursework, my education covered the ins-and-outs of software and hardware, as well as other tools such as queuing theory and Monte Carlo simulation. I also had the privilege and benefit of an internship and some mentoring from true professionals who taught me some valuable lessons.
One anecdote I like to share happened during my internship in what was then called the “Data Processing” department of a local enterprise. One afternoon they were testing a new program—my first real application! They had a gigantic mainframe that looked something like this relic; on the console desk was a set of lights. The operator called me over and pointed out one in particular, which was glowing brightly. She said softly, “that’s the one you should never see—it means your program is in an infinite loop, and has brought the system to its knees”. You can imagine my embarrassment, but more importantly, that afternoon drove home the value of what we called “desk checking”, and why understanding of basic computing principles like looping is so important. Since then, I like to think I’ve learned a whole lot more.
But, on the other hand, there are some things we just can’t understand. As computers, software and related toolsets become easier and easier to use, there are some things we just have to take for granted. Despite my attempts, I confess that I still don’t understand how electricity really works—I just know that it does.