Show your work

A presentation I gave last week sparked the need to reach back into personal history and ask when I first programed a computer. That would be high school. On an HP 9320 using HP Educational Basic and an optical card reader. The cards looked like this:

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What occurred to me was that in the early days – before persistent storage like cassette tapes, floppy disks, and hard drives – a software developer could actually hold their program in their hands. Much like a woodworker or a glass blower or a baker or a candlestick maker, we could actually show something to friends and family! Woe to the student who literally dropped their program in the hallway.

Then that went away. Keyboards soaked up our coding thoughts and stored them in places impossible to see. We could only tell people about what we had created, often using lots of hand waving and so much jargon that it undoubtedly must have seemed as if we were speaking a foreign language. In fact, the effort pretty much resembled the same fish-that-got-away story told by Uncle Bert every Thanksgiving. “I had to parse a data file THIIIIIIIIIS BIG using nothing but Python as an ETL tool!”

Yawn.

This is at the heart of why it is I burned out on writing code as a profession. There was no longer anything satisfying about it. At least, not in the way one gets satisfaction from working with wood or clay or fabric or cooking ingredients. The first time I created a predictive inventory control algorithm was a lot of fun and satisfying. But there were only 4-5 people on the planet who could appreciate what I’d done and since it was proprietary, I couldn’t share it. And just how many JavaScript-based menu systems can you write before the challenge becomes a task and eventually a tedious chore.

Way bigger yawn.

I’ve found my way back into coding. A little. Python, several JavaScript libraries, and SQL are where I spend most of my time. What I code is what serves me. Tools for my use only. Tools that free up my time or help me achieve greater things in other areas of my life.

I can compare this to woodworking. (Something I very much enjoy and from which I derive a great deal of satisfaction.) If I’m making something for someone else, I put in extra effort to make it beautiful and functional. To do that, I may need to make a number of tools to support the effort – saw fences, jigs, and clamps. These hand-made tools certainly don’t look very pretty. They may not even be distinguishable from scrap wood to anybody but myself. But they do a great job of helping me achieve greater things. Things I can actually show and handle. And if the power goes down in the neighborhood, they’ll still be there when the lights come back on.

Heroes

A bit of a break from what could be considered the usual theme of this blog to recognize several amazing heroes from World War II – Major General Maurice Rose and Corporal Clarence Smoyer. Both have a connection to Colorado, at least for today.

General Rose was educated in Denver and graduated from East High School in 1916. He lied about his age so that he could join the Colorado National Guard after graduating high school. Seventy four years ago today, General Rose was killed in action. He was the highest-ranking American killed by enemy fire in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. Rose Medical Center in Denver is named in his honor.

Corporal Smoyer, at age 95, is still with us. He served under General Rose and was in Denver today for a book signing – Adam Makos’ latest book, “Spearhead.” It was well worth the two hour wait to shake the man’s hand, thank him for his service, and – a distant third on the list – receive an autographed copy of the book.

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The plan was for Corporal Smoyer to ride in on a tank and stop in front of Union Station, the site of uncounted final “goodbye’s” during the war. Eighty trains a day, the Union Station historian said, arrived and departed from Denver in the early 1940’s carrying many young men on their way to war. Given it was a cold, wet, rainy-snowy day in Denver, the turnout was actually quite good.

Corporal Smoyer had ample escort!

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At long last, the Corporal arrived, mounted atop a WWII era Stewart tank. Although not the tank in which Corporal Smoyer went to war, it is the only civilian owned operable tank in Colorado.

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It took a little time to help the 95 year old soldier down from his mount. With his feet on solid ground, Corporal Smoyer stepped over to the Stewart tank and hung his handicap parking placard on the cannon barrel. Well play, sir. Well played.

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After a brief recounting of several stories and the unveiling of a commemorative painting to be hung in Union Station, he was off to begin signing copies of the book.

Today I shook the hand of a hero and am feeling profoundly grateful to Corporal Smoyer and all the men and women from his time that defeated a fearsome evil and preserved the Freedom of which I am a direct beneficiary.

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