As the nature of pushing the envelope changes, so do we.
By Roy D. Follendore III
Copyright (c) 2001 by RDFollendoreIII
September 10, 2001
I suppose I started out as a hacker. Somewhere around the late 1970's I was "borrowing" passwords from friends to get onto the University mainframe to play Star Trek. This was not an unknown or unacceptable thing for students to do back then. Passwords were there to keep people who did not belong out. The computer was there to entice students to go after a degree. OK, maybe I did not belong but that did not stop me. I was playing that simple game called Star Trek not just because it was way cool, but because it was way more interesting than some of the other engineering stuff I had previously studied. Back then I knew far more about hardware than software. I could tell you all about gate transistor theory but had no idea about programming. This is what stimulated me to want to learn software programming. The fact is that I wanted to learn meant that a few college policies were not going to stop me. By the time that I got bored with Star Trek, it had dawned on me that a revolution was taking place.
About two years later I would finally get my first personal computer. I had wanted to build an Ohio Scientific computer but did not have the money. We used our tax check to purchase the Apple II. I spent the first day just trying to figure out how to turn it on. (The button was on the back.) I think it came with 8K of memory and that was up from the Apple I model. I hooked it up to my television set. It had no floppy or hard disk drives because they were not out yet. Everything I wanted my Apple to do had to be reprogrammed every time. It was a big deal when I was able to purchase and setup a cassette tape player that would load and save my programs. Eventually I would build CPM and memory cards for my Apple from plans that I would order out of books.
There were not many readable computer books back then, just as there was no world wide web. Computer geeks were all like minded friends, like ants floating in a giant lake called the unknown. As programs came out we all wanted to figure out the logic. We took the software apart to understand it, just like we did the hardware that we purchased. Games back then were (and still are) far superior to business programs as far as high quality programming is concerned. Someone somewhere back then said we were hackers because we hacked at computers the way that novice weekend golfers do. This was actually a putdown by the "professional" mainframe folks but we knew that we were not professional so we took on the term 'hacker' as a badge of intellectual honor. Somewhere in our minds we understood that we were the generation that were going to bring the PC to the world. Once or twice a wee we met together for coffee and we constantly communicated through bulletin board systems (BBS). People today forget that was the beginning of today's websites and blogs but we were doing all of that kind of communication early on.
I finally got around to cutting my long hair and beard, and went back into the Army as the oldest newly commissioned Officer in the United States Army. At the time, I loaded my Apple II system into my jeep with me and drove to Signal Officer's Basic School. I had everything I needed neatly stuffed with rubber foam in a black footlocker which I had purchased for the task. It was the first time that someone had ever done that sort of thing. I set up my system in my officers quarters. After each day of classes I would then proceed to provide a unique service by picking up notes and typing and compiling them. By the next day I would print out the material and someone would Xerox and distribute them to everyone. Eventually late one afternoon I got a knock on my door and I discovered that it was several senior training officers. They had discovered copies of the printouts, which they tracked down to me thinking that I had somehow been stealing the school lesson plans. When they found out what we were actually doing as a teem they were impressed and they encouraged us to continue, asking to be put on the distribution list. It turns out that our group product became a superior to their lesson plan. In fact the Army used the results of our class initiative as the basis for their training for a decade thereafter.
A few months later I used this same Apple II in the field at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Our mission was to train for a violent war in Europe. Our Battalion would have supported Division Headquarters to connect up with a likely devastated forward line battle, otherwise known as the front. If we were to be put into such a battle we were to be the plumb of communications targets for the enemy. This meant if we were to survive we would not only have to rapidly jump around with new communication strategies and battle tactics, we also would need to move to unlikely but effective spots so that we would not become sitting ducks. That was where the Apple II came in.
To make 50ft high microwave antennas communicate many miles apart via line of sight, and then to take them down and set them back up as the network conditions changed became a complex engineering problem involving interpreting maps and repeating mathematical calculations. By using my computer our Battalion was able to make many decisive technical choices, rather than going by the typical rule of thumb engineering decisions about where and how to best deploy our nodes. It soon became known that the use of a personal computer in the field created a formidable communications weapon. In a battlefield training area that had so much communications planning done on it as Fort Bragg, we were able to consistently lay in communication "shots" that we were warned were not considered doable. As I recall, that year our teachers the 82 Airborne Division gave our 230th Tennessee National Guard Signal Battalion higher readiness grades than they had received!
Not every organization in which I put computers into action were as forgiving. Some folks just got plain upset that I was rocking the boat. People like work to be competitive and there are certain rule to competition. Managers like to feel like they are always in control, even though with respect to the advancement of new technology they never really are. I knew what the power of computers would be and I often relied on that knowledge.
A year or so later, I was working for General Dynamics corporation at their F16 plant in Fort Worth, Texas. As an Engineer, my job was to generate and help put together the Calibration Training material related to the international venture of F16 fighter aircraft production. The way that we were told to do it we were supposed to write out or type our material, and submit it to our secretary who would then type the information into the computer for printing. Since I had taken the job in advance of moving my family, of course I brought my Apple trunk with me. None of this information that we were working on was secret or confidential, it was just complex and technical. By working in the evenings and weekends, in just a few weeks I had completed my training material covering the F16 physical calibration program. Everyone else was still working on chapter two. But the problem I had was that my boss was pretty upset because I had not turned anything in on schedule. I had the work completed but no way to get it into the system.
I made a few discrete inquiries and across the building found a network engineer that often had to do maintenance involving inputs and outputs. The boss of the system was sitting at his desk drinking coffee when I introduced myself and told him what I needed. As I recall he was a big guy both in size and technical importance. He was the mainframe systems administrator. No problem he said as he stood on his desk. He then pushed his hand under the ceiling tile and pulled out a long cable with an RS232 plug on the end. That afternoon we used it to get my data, completely spell checked and formatted to exactly where it needed to be. I went back to my office content with the knowledge that my job was complete. The other engineers in the office were smirking when I asked if I could assist them with their work. They had been completing to monopolize the services of the secretary and I knew that they were carefully observing how much work was being completed. Even after I told them that I had finished my assignment, it took a day or so to convince everyone that the data was all there. I don't think that my manager or my coworkers ever quite forgave me for thinking out of the box on that one. That was OK since I really had no intention of dragging my family to factories to Turkey to build the factory. I had already accepted a job that I could not talk about. It was not long before I had moved my whole family to Northern Virginia to work for the Federal Government.
You can bet that when I got to Washington in the middle 80's I continued to use everything that I knew though I shall not go into that. What I can and will say is that in many ways, the things that I came to understand changed me. I soon was no longer the kind of free wheeling hacker that I had been before. For me it was a time of technical transition and even I could see the necessary reasons for my change. Of course the rules prohibited me from bringing in my trusty personal computer helped. To get the tools I needed to perform at my job I actually had to justify why a PC was different from a dumb green document terminal. For months I had to march into managers offices to lobby for what could be with personal computers instead of what had been with mainframes. I suppose they finally got tired of listening to me. It was through that crude process that I ordered some of the first PC's for my organization.
I remember that when that first PC XT arrived, they put it smack in the middle of a senior manager's desk to show it off. The second one they put in the hall to show off. They didn't do anything with them. To my amazement they became monuments to the ignorance of organizational management rather than tools for productivity. On top of this, the management refused to consider investing in software. About all these computers would do is beep when you turned them on. It took months before I finally got an XT to use at my desk. But I by this time I had learned about rules and regulations and had in fact become one of the very people who made up rules and regulations. I used a little of my former initiative and knowledge to solve some immediate and serious problems within the bounds of secrecy regulations. Little did I know that I had challenged that system with completely new issues in doing so.
I found that managers don't like new problems very much, though at the end of the day when the work is done they certainly like to absorb the credit. So it really didn't take long before a management bureaucracy was formed that did just that. They took the credit. It was an old trick with a new twist. They began to assign a technical task, have some creative and innovative guy like me solve the problem and then replace me with one of their good old boys who frankly did not know his ass from a keyboard. He would then stand up and take the full credit and get promoted. I learned that the managers would go hand over hand promoting each others beloved ones in that way. From what I could see, everyone who happened to be gifted in creativity was being treated this way. I know for a fact senior managers made tens of thousands of dollars of bonus awards from this convenient process. I would eventually leave Government because the budgets were being cut but also because the management had become pretty rank and disgusting. I had decided that the only way to be promoted was to be like them and I frankly didn't want to grow in that way. In retrospect I do have to admit though that it takes a lot of guts to be a senior manger and stay in Federal service knowing what is in store for you if you do get promoted.
I am sure that there are many who were there who can honestly say that they communicated and contributed more than me. I know that I can say that I generated completely new ideas that fundamentally changed the way things were to be done. I often see my work in the public domain but can't talk about it. When the history of this era is finally written it should be said that there were many many thousands of us who were individually pushing the computer envelope. In fact, many of us are out there still doing so. One thing is for certain though and I can tell you this from first hand experience, that the computer and internet industry we enjoy today was founded by the "hackers" back then. I was one of them.
Copyright (c) 2001-2007 RDFollendoreIII All Rights Reserved