Software & Web Development

"Grassroots Programmer" Viewpoint: 50-Year Career

Dana Paxson has worked in the IT industry for half a century. This career has spanned mainframes in the 60s, reading octal numbers in the 70s and building the BT phone directory in the 80s. For the last two decades he has blended his software skills with a love of sci-fi to present a new, fully immersive story experience incorporating audio, visual and text.

At the height of your career did you always feel compelled to do IT work outside work?

I've always felt the urge, not a compulsion, to make IT 'machinery': code that does interesting and creative things. The borderline between 'work' and 'outside of work' became blurred from time to time when I experimented with code. Sometimes things I discovered on my own while using employer resources turned out to have special benefits for my employer, and I'd supply my company with those benefits.

Long ago, in the 1960s, I was a systems programmer supporting operating system software for a Univac mainframe at a large firm. I had done with this computer what I always did with every machine I've ever worked with: familiarized myself intimately with its principles of operation, right down to the way bits worked in the control registers that kept ordinary users from messing up the operating system's functioning.

One day I thought: This machine serves multiple concurrent users. Is it possible for an ordinary user to observe online what other users online are doing on this machine? I found a control register that let a user set one of its bits to read all memory, but I thought that such a user was required to have other bits in that control register set to permit such a change.

I had it wrong. Running as an ordinary user, I tried changing the bit setting, and it worked. I was able to read the information in memory for any other user on the machine, including file passwords. I'd done a ‘hack’, before that term took on its modern meaning.

But I knew what no one else knew at the company did, and I decided to explain it and document it as a security exposure in order to keep it from being used by others. I ended up reporting it to Univac, and within a few months a field engineering change eliminated the exposure.

One might say that I was doing my job, and indeed I was - but this task began with personal curiosity and no corporate directive or charter to motivate it. Was that 'outside' or 'inside'? I leave it to the reader.

What has motivated you to continue to pursue IT solutions off your own bat?

Curiosity, coupled with a kind of artistic joy in fashioning dynamic behavior through code, has driven me throughout life in almost everything I've tried to do. On that same Univac machine I created a version of John Horton Conway's game of life, right down to printing out each frame of evolution of a specific initial cell arrangement (those who have done this will recall the 'R-pentomino' series). I also put together a probabilistic program that generated an overprint of random characters using various distributions to form what looked like galaxies of clouds of gas. All for the sheer joy of seeing it work.

Since retiring from full-time professional IT work, I build software that operates dynamically in 3D virtual-world settings to present, to instruct, to illustrate, and to entertain. I build software inventions that support other creative endeavours of mine, such as electronic literature.

Would you liken an urge to pursue computing outside work to all those clichés about conventional artists?

I'm not sure what all those clichés are, although I have a good list of the ones I've heard. So many of them could be summed up in a refrain I've heard in many forms, one of which is "Why in God's name would anyone ever do THAT?"

I suppose there's no single answer except play. We all play. My mind needs certain forms of play, and one of them is writing code that generates code that does things on its own. The day I discovered biological DNA and RNA and ribosomes, I realized that nature was playing all the time with code, and I felt as if I were doing exactly what comes naturally.

In your experience of IT have you met many people who feel compelled to pursue computing as a passion? How commonplace do you think this is?

I've met some, but it's hard to tell from that how widespread it is. I think a great many people play productively and creatively with what they know in computing, but in many of the places I worked, most of them escaped to do other things. That may have been a matter of being stressed by the IT work and trying to get away from the stressful mental frame it created.

But that's not me. Computing was never a stress-generator for me because it seemed to be in my blood from the beginning. The workplaces and the people running them were the stress-generators for me. Computing for me became the stress-reliever, the playground, the uncharted continent, the mysterious underground city.

I bought my first personal computer in the 1980s: an Atari 400 game machine. I learned its Atari Basic, and I proceeded to write game-play software to support table top sessions of Dungeon and Dragons. Some my friends were doing the same thing. One of them implemented dice rolls of all types on his HP calculator. I wrote code to generate and print out weapon and armor specifications for D&D. That was pure joy and passion.

Do you think many individuals out there make a sharp divide between ‘work for love’ and ‘work for money’ and compartmentalise their own projects in this way? Have you done this?

I think there's a lot of compartmentalisation as you call it, but there is also what I'd call spill over, in both directions. An idea I develop while playing may become useful at work, and vice versa.

Now we have open source thinking and behavior, and that has changed the entire playing field of computing. The boundaries between work and play, or between ‘work for love’ and ‘work for money’, are getting a lot softer as time moves on. I've no idea how that will play out.

One of the criticisms levelled against IT is there can be a culture of compulsory workaholism because people are supposed to love what they do and work extra hours for nothing – what is your view of this?

I know that game, and it is bogus. What really happens is that the worker simply slows effort in self-defense so that the extra hours look like work, but the regular hours start getting a lot of other things besides work in them. The human body and mind really do not like 80-hour weeks. In the end, there are those who can do the long, sustained schedules of work without stopping or slowing, but their numbers are less than one might think. What is really happening in more cases isn't so much 'workaholism' as it is 'deskaholism': being there at one's workstation doing other things that look like work but aren't.

This is why teleworking - logging in from one's home office and doing work out of sight of the boss - presents challenges of all kinds to IT professionals. A lot of companies simply do not trust people to be working when they aren't being watched. Ironically, that 'deskaholism' I described circumvents such surveillance pretty well even in the workplace under the boss's eyes. One can keep a work-related task humming along in background while playing Doom with no one peering at him or her.

But the flip side of telework is that companies begin to expect more output from the at-home or out-of-office IT worker, who is now perceived as a round-the-clock resource.

None of this really deals with the 'love' side of the question, but it may explain why there isn't more love than we see. If employers understood the true value of play in IT, they might well make a much greater accommodation for it.

The British military in the Second World War did this beautifully, although they were rather manipulative about it. One munitions engineer used to receive orders to make bullets that could pierce armor of a certain thickness and strength. He'd get his team to make the bullets, testing them against sheets of armor made to specification, and then he'd get another order to make bullets to penetrate deeper and through harder metal, and the cycle would repeat.

One day he was in a pub and struck up a conversation with a bar mate. This man turned out to be an engineer also, but his job was to build armor that would stop bullets that were sent to his department. It turned out that the army was playing these two against each other to get better munitions and armor. As the story goes, they had a pint and a good laugh, and went back to trying to best each other, turning drudgery into productive play.


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