In Part I of this series, I did not mention some of the things that I did prior to going to technical school, which absolutely helped me learn more about computers. When I was a kid back in the 80’s – I got a Commodore 64 for Christmas one year. There were two main things that I loved to do on it. Most of the time, it was used to play games. When I wasn’t playing paperboy or baseball on the Commodore, I enjoyed typing in programs (mostly simple games) and running them. Back then, Byte magazine was on the shelves at the bookstore and was full of programs written in Basic. Most of the programs were 100% complete and all you had to do is type them in and run it. However, there was always an opportunity to improve or extend the game after completing what was included in the articles. I enjoyed that so much, even though I didn’t write the code from scratch, it gave me a sense of accomplishment and the opportunity to pick up on things so that I could one day write my own simple programs.
Years later when we got our first ‘real’ computer, which was a Gateway 2000 with a DX2-50 processor — the first thing I did was take the cover off of it to look inside. I wanted to know all about each component that came with the computer. I also enjoyed another magazine during that time, called Computer Shopper. Before the internet, that was the most popular way to buy computer parts, you would browse through the shopper, finding suppliers with the parts you needed at a price you were willing to pay, and then pick up the phone and order.
The Gateway 2000 computer came with Microsoft DOS 6 and Windows 3.1. Since I had enjoyed using Basic in the past. I would load up QBasic and create simple programs to run under DOS and other times I would explore Windows, trying to figure out how to make it do different things and ultimately breaking it at times. It wasn’t until the first time something happened to where Windows wouldn’t start that I really got to stretch my wings. The computer came with diskettes to re-install both DOS and Windows, which I used to format the hard drive and reload everything from scratch. I learned more during that process than anything else I had done up to that point. By formatting the hard drive and starting over, I was able to see everything that went into getting the operating system onto the computer and then successfully starting up.
Not long after we got the computer, I was exposed to BBS – which stands for Bulletin Board System. In order to connect to a BBS, you had to have a modem and a terminal program. The computer came with a 14.4k baud modem and so all I needed was a terminal emulator — which a friend gave me, called QModem. There were two main reasons why you would want to connect to a BBS. One would be to share programs and/or pictures and the other would be to chat with other people. A BBS operator would have a dedicated computer that ran the BBS software and it would have multiple modems hooked to the computer. Each modem would then have a phone line connected; so that people could call into the system. If a user called and got a busy signal, they would have to wait and keep trying until someone disconnected from the service.
I enjoyed downloading different programs (called ShareWare) and running them on our computer. There were so many things available, it could easily get overwhelming with all the choices. Usually, the programs would have limited functionality initially and give you the option to purchase a software key to unlock additional features of the software.
It wasn’t long after downloading many of these programs that I wanted to upgrade the computer, which the first thing I did was sit down and order additional memory. Installing the memory was a very good beginner’s task. Of course, prior to ordering the memory, I had to learn about why more RAM was needed and how it would help the programs run faster. To ensure the right RAM was ordered for our Gateway2000 computer, I had to learn about the different types of RAM and then figure out which one our computer accepted.
When Windows 95 came out, that changed everything. Win95 was so drastically different from having a computer that first booted to DOS followed by typing ‘win’ at the command prompt to start Windows 3.1. Windows 95 stood on its own and did not require the DOS operating system to be loaded as a prerequisite. This upgrade opportunity was like a second helping to all the fun had when I previously formatted the hard drive and reloaded DOS/Windows. Although Win95 allowed you to upgrade from Windows 3.1, the clean path was to start fresh, by formatting that hard drive yet again. By using the format approach, it allowed a cleanup opportunity, to rid all the left-behind parts of programs that were previously installed and then later uninstalled. Formatting the computer and learning about how to install a new operating system from scratch was an awesome learning opportunity. I actually found myself doing it multiple times, to get it set up just right. Getting comfortable by doing things like this over and over is the key to learning, each time improving on the last, by doing things a little differently, based on what you have learned and experienced.