A life in computers

Growing up I was always fascinated by computers. The first computer we got at home was a Tandy that Mom bought secondhand from a co-worker at Fisher Controls. I used some early Apple computers at school, but that was more for scripted play and keyboarding exercises. When I was on my own, trying to figure out how to load games from a cassette deck, it made me realize that I needed to learn more about these mysterious wonders.

Not long after little luck with the Tandy, my parents knew that my brother and I were very interested in having a PC. Christmas was coming, and they made up the lamest excuse one weekend because they planned to go to Cedar Rapids and then Des Moines on the same day. They said they were looking for a special cheese.

We still laugh about that one, because they are not fancy like that! As it turns out, they were looking for a new Compaq Prolina PC for us. All the retailers were out of the best model at the time, but they managed to get a 25 MHz SX Intel model with 4MB of RAM and a 60MB hard drive. The difference in the models was significant, but we didn’t care! We were over the moon to have a new Compaq! It was 1995, and it was $2000. That was a lot of money!

The operating system was DOS. That was more approachable for me as I knew some rudimentary commands, but I still didn’t know much. I could load and play some games and that was fun. But I always wanted to do more with it, like program something or make it talk with other computers.

This was pre-Internet, and my parents didn’t know anything about computers. Frankly, I couldn’t find any books to help me in my quest. Our family friend, Dana Bresler, knew more than me–he insists to this day that he barely knew more than me. Alas, he was my best resource and he helped me learn just enough to get a toehold to the next level.

My next best source was on the shelves at Drug Town — the PC building magazines. I spent my mowing money on those. I would read them cover-to-cover every month. These 2-inch-thick magazines spawned my first real computer passion — upgrading and building computers.

I would buy components via mail order. When all the pieces arrived for an upgrade project, it was time to assemble it all and hope they worked! Again, this is before the Internet. The motherboards, cards, processors, and RAM came with sparse or no instructions!

You were lucky to have a dip switch panel legend that was decipherable, especially by someone who knew little about electronics at the time. I would literally spend hours every day for a week trying every combination of settings and scouring my issues of magazines for the missing clues. I didn’t realize it, but I was learning how to troubleshoot and the scientific method and learning perseverance. When it all came together and the hardware worked, I’d repeat the process on the software, and when it all worked I was very proud.

I got pretty good at building computers for a reasonable price and good quality, so I developed a reputation. So family, friends, and neighbors would commission computer builds and I would support their computers and networks.

I learned a lot of lessons about money and business, but it was all fun. I was recruited to be in a new group at MHS called Computer Consultants, run by Judy Lindholm. We did computer rollouts and general support work. It was a great experience, a confidence builder, and I learned a lot of good things.

Upon graduation it was time to go to the University of Iowa. I was undecided but had chosen to pursue actuarial science. Many people I respect had encouraged me to take a route more along the lines of my passion, like computer science, but I didn’t listen.

I didn’t think I wanted to write software. Well, one semester and one week into my freshman year, I walked out of a computer science lecture (required for actuaries) knowing in my soul that I was in the wrong major. I went to my advisor, changed to computer science and never looked back.

Twenty years later, I’m very lucky that I get to exercise my passion at my job with people who share the same love for computers and software that I do.

Here are a few morals of my story.

• Don’t be afraid to invest your time and money in someone else’s passion.

• Even if you know just slightly more than someone else, teaching them what you know can make a world of difference to them.

• Persistence and learning how-to-learn pays dividends for your entire life.

• Follow your own passions, you’ll acquire all sorts of skills you wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

• Listen to good advice from people you respect.


Jeff Schneider is an at-large Marshalltown city councilor.


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