Development of [the] White Sands Missile Range Atmospheric Density Profile

I started my career at 16 as a FORTRAN programmer at NASA GSFC in the summer of 1974.  My first technical paper called “Development of [the] White Sands Missile Range Atmospheric Density Profile”, (here) was delivered “9 August 1974” (note the “Buy US Savings Bonds” admonition on the letterhead) which turned out to be emblematic of my future work: I released code and data; I wrote up exactly how I’d interpreted the need and how I had done the job; I took a conservative (“stacking worst cases”) approach; and (already!) was somewhat pedantic if not also long-winded — and interested only in serving the need and solving my problem, and learning how I might have done it better or to help others improve it.nasa_logo_solo

I think there are several reasons that I enjoy bringing up my longevity and length of practice in an industry, and in an era for an industry, that often seems to celebrate youth and inexperience, and show bias against experience and depth.  I won’t waste any time decrying the “agism” that inflects many corners of TechLandia.  For the most part I think it is highly concentrated to a particularly venal and comic degree in a particular slice of an oddly un-common sub-class of American business (as nicely captured by TNR here).  Otherwise I think it is mostly similar to the broad reality of business culture (at least in the USA).   That is, it seems mostly to reflect attempts to attract a particular demographic (younger = cheaper) that some lame “recruiter” folks (if not an infantile CEO) thinks will be attracted to “beer bash Fridays” (groan).  But more often it’s a bit more subtle — as when “ServiceNow” so boldly put it — “We want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of them, Not Behind Them”. (Hmm. Are there really many ways to read that? Well, they took it down and their stock price is recovering nicely…) (And “move the dial” does seem an improvement, in any event.)


My reasons are mostly that, in professional settings, I am (like the software engineering community I grew up in) an unusually direct person (compared to the general public, and particularly to the “old-boy, live and let live, rank-has-its-privileges” world of many corporate empires); that it shows that, at least in my mind, this experience is to be celebrated and ads gravity to my views and judgments; and to help surface, sooner rather than later, a reaction from others that will give me a read on their own take on this issue (people that are most dismissive of actual experience are surprisingly candid in making it known).

But perhaps another reason is humor: I think “old people” have many odd and funny habits, and are often visibly connected to a world that no longer exists or at least has ceased to exist for half or more of the population.  And so by acknowledging my (near) octogenarian credentials elder status, I am then free to point these things out and laugh at them with, and not at, my less-technology-saavy colleagues of any age. (Well, I am still more than two decades away from being able to claim “octogenarian” status, but for the most part, the real divide in my experience is between people who grew up with computers, and those that did not; or those for whom computers are natural extensions of what they do and how they think — and those for whom is is an afterthought or inconvenience.  Or more simply, perhaps just between people who don’t do text messages, and everyone else.)

That said, todays column is just to celebrate forty years in the exciting world of software and of using “computers” to change how things work.   A future note will perhaps recount my favorite living-in-a-past-that-doesn’t-exist observations. Hopefully more amusing than people who say “dial” for calling a phone number, and more novel / less annoying than folks who give you an address, then try to also give you detailed, “turn by turn” directions…

Hope the next forty are as interesting!

p.s. If I had waited two more months, I could have led with “It was forty years ago today…”  but since the lyric is only “twenty”, I opted (in a rare exception) to forgo the combination bad pun / classic rock reference….

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