I get upset sometimes with the hypocrisy of our Silicon Valley overlords. While priding themselves as defenders of diversity, they also clearly demonstrate themselves as champions of age discrimination. Hollywood is equally guilty in this regard with movies like “The Internship” that make comedy out of a serious issue in today’s society. That’s why I was almost overjoyed to find one colleague in the IT profession who is still coding and programming at the spry age of 73. Dennis DeMattia has had a long and successful career in both IT and business, and I asked if I could interview him so he could share his story with us. Those of us who are younger might find his story an eye-opener, while the older crowd among us are likely to respond with “Aha, aha!” Let’s tune in now and find out what Dennis is up to and what he has done over the years.
MITCH: Dennis, I understand you’ve done a lot of programming over the years. Did you study computer science in college?
DENNIS: My degrees (BS and MS) are actually in chemistry. In the 1960s, there were few if any BS degree programs in computer science. They were generally part of an EE department. Our university [University of San Francisco] did not have a computer anywhere when its first course in programming was offered in Fall 1966. We had to truck over to San Francisco State to use their IBM 1620. USF only had the one course then, but Cal Berkeley’s night school did have a bunch of courses that anybody could register for and take. By the time USF did get a computer [IBM 1130], they needed a grad student to TA the computer lab, and I was one of only two grad students that knew how to spell computer, let alone use one. So I got that job for my last year there.
I have never worked a day in my life, though, as a professional chemist. I applied to 50 large chemical companies when I was done with my MS, and 48 of them essentially said, “Are you nuts? We don’t hire chemists to do programming.” (I still have those rejection letters!) Two of them offered me an interview. Dow Chemical said I just did not have enough computer experience for them, but suggested I go get a job not combining chemistry with computers as I wanted but just as a computer guy. They said they would probably hire me after two years of doing that. So I took their advice, managed to get a job with Kaiser Aluminum, a [former] Fortune 500 company based in Oakland, Calif., with the intention of staying the two years and then going to work with Dow. Then 31 years later I retired from Kaiser.
MITCH: What kind of computer work did you do at Kaiser?
DENNIS: Programming! I programmed many years in Fortran, several assembly languages, Cobol (some), Algol (briefly), and then C for the last 12 years. My work there was real-time process control, mostly, where I worked on mini- and microcomputers to control our company’s large pieces of equipment.
MITCH: Sounds interesting! I got my start programming in Fortran too during my university days studying physics. What have you done with your programming skills since you retired in 1999?
DENNIS: My daughter was doing bookkeeping for used car dealers at that time and persuaded me to “spend a few months” writing a program for her dealers to do inventory control, print all the sales forms, and particularly, do the math right, which existing programs seemed not to do. I knew it would not be “a few months,” but I had nothing else to do, so we started a company, Carousel Software, here in Spokane, Wash., to do this project. This was in 2001. Our goal was 20 clients, and we now have 70-ish in two states. And I am still coding.
MITCH: Which programming languages have you used for doing this?
DENNIS: I decided that since this project was not rocket science, to use VB6. I had already learned that language when doing some work for a friend. That has worked out very well, but of course, Microsoft pretty much abandoned that for . Net over the next several years. I did not want to be on the bleeding edge of that, but by the time I believed it had stabilized, I already had thousands of lines of code written, and needed to continue to maintain this code, since laws change, clients have new requests, and so on. I took two .Net courses at our local community college a couple of years ago (I was 20 years older than the teacher), one of them with my daughter, since I believe that one of these days, MS will really put a hammer into 32-bit projects. So my plan was to turn the day-to-day maintenance over to my daughter, and I would rewrite everything in C#. Sadly, she flunked the course. So, I am still stuck with the maintenance of the existing code.
MITCH: I guess if you’re 73 then you may not want or be able to maintain the code much longer. Got any plans going forward for this?
DENNIS: This year I hired a part-time person to do the C# conversion over the next year or so. I am also looking at him as Life After Dennis since my daughter can’t do it. I have been concerned about a replacement for me from almost the start of this project, and had a couple of people lined up, but that all fell through for one reason or another. I have hopes for this guy who is doing the conversion, because who would know the system better than him? And he is young and hungry.
MITCH: Have you found it more difficult to code now than before you retired?
DENNIS: It takes me far longer to complete a task than it did 10 years ago, and I will admit, learning .Net was harder than any of the other languages that I have used. I can no longer multitask, and my typing has slowed down. To do this conversion, I need to concentrate on just it, and not be pulled away by client calls, new forms, enhancement requests, etc. And I can’t seem to find that time, mostly because our company is built on customer service. There are a number of other nationwide or region-wide companies doing what we do, but they ain’t here. Our clients are not computer geeks, they are auto nuts, and computers are just a distraction for them. Most of my clients are above 40 years old because, in order to find $100K to start even a small used car lot, you need a lot of experience in the business and some way to save up that kind of bucks. So they are even less computer literate than your typical millennial. And they need more hands-on help. Which is me. Just today, I will travel to three client sites.
MITCH: Well, you certainly keep busy! I know from my own experience that being an owner of a small business means you basically have to do everything, or at least know how to do everything.
DENNIS: I may have slowed down my typing, but I have always had the problem of diarrhea of the typewriter. This probably told you far more than you wanted to know, but there you are. One of the fun parts of my job has always been writing the documentation. For a couple of years, I had a monthly column in a local computer magazine (now defunct). And I have done newsletters for two organizations.
MITCH: Hah, that’s a good point about the importance of typing skills for computer programming. Back in the 70s when I was in high school my dad suggested I take a typing course, but since I wanted to pursue a physics degree I only wanted to take 100-level courses in school. Typing was a 104-level course and I was a snob and didn’t want to associate with that crowd.
DENNIS: In 1962, when I graduated from high school, it was common for ladies to take typing classes so they could get office jobs. However, the classes were open to the boys also, and I took that class (final exam minus 5 wpm). During college, I typed up all my handwritten notes that I took in my classes during the day. On a manual typewriter. Then I got into the computer gig , and rather than send unreadable coding forms out to [Hollerith card] keypunchers, I preferred to keypunch my own programs. My secretary at work could not read my handwriting, so I scrounged a Selectric typewriter and typed up all my memos and reports (and then she retyped them into the proper formats).
My then-boss made a big deal that they did not pay programmers to be keypunchers (even though program turnaround was many times faster than letting somebody else do it). We had a secretary to answer the phones, and type up memos and letters. So, here we are, 50 years of progress later, and all the secretaries (and keypunchers) are gone, and expensive white-collar professionals are expected to answer their own phones, type their own correspondence, and enter and edit their own programs.
Now that I am on the wrong side of 70, I am finding that my typing, once about 60 wpm, is seriously degrading. I am mistyping simple words very commonly, generally either leaving out letters or transposing letters, something I never did 10 years ago. But I am still happy to be an active programmer and expect to keep on being one until when I don’t wake up because there is a toe tag on my right foot.
MITCH: OK, keep active and stay happy, fellow coder!
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