Today there are numerous computer programmes and programming languages in existence. If we take a look at programmers themselves, the chances of finding someone over the age of 50 are slim to none. Zdravko Blagdan, also known as Blagi, told us how it all looked like when programming was in its beginnings.
Blagi started studying at FESB in 1971, before the age of computers started. In their first semester they had Fortran, a subject through which he had his first contact with computer programming as well as computers. They had only one course of practical exercises on an IBM 1130 computer at Lavčević. They were supposed to code a program on punched cards, and his first program had only five lines. Later, during his last years of Electronics they had courses like Small Computers and Machine Programming which required knowledge of computer structures and machine programming, something Zdravko found very interesting. This was practically his only contact with computers at that time. The next one occurred while he was in the army. He was given the chance to work with microprocessors which were just starting to get manufactured. It was a 256 byte processor with a small display and the programming was done manually in machine code. His first employment was at the Department of Informatics and Telecommunications right at the beginning of the golden age of informatics in Split.
As he was not interested in how computers function, he became a systems programmer. He knew the system parts of a computer and was a data base system administrator so he helped programmers in solving specific problems. The system was IBM and was huge. They had 8 MB of memory and the discs were the size of wardrobes. The data was stored from one magnetic tape to the other and required tuning for data processing. Due to the size of the equipment, it did not involve working on computers directly, as they were approached from a terminal.
How was it like working at the beginning and how did you learn to program?
– It was difficult. Before the golden age of informatics banks had applications for calculating salaries, financial accounting etc. which were written in languages that very little people know of today, for example RPG and COBOL. I started working when Floppy discs and punch cards were declining and screens emerged. 6 or 7 of us from Split attended courses which were organised in Ljubljana. We started from zero. There was no internet, you were confined to books, movies and manuals along with the appropriate software. There wasn’t much available, but if you were willing to learn, you could.
Is there a software project you worked on that you’ve been particularly proud of?
– We had a project with the UN. It was the Yugoslavian database JUBAS done in application software and we wanted to implement it to the whole country and even wider. There was no software, and we had to make sure that the database was remotely accessible. At that time modems were not so popular because they were slow and hard to handle. Our firm got its first PC because of the project. We made an app for JUBAS in which we would put in data. So we collected the data manually in that software. We’d tried many different ways, but the cheapest one turned out to be BBS. We’d integrated the database into the BBS and everyone could connect to it. First we programmed it ourselves and later on we took finished products. There was a lot of technology involved, we did a fair share of travelling and others would come and visit us. We weren’t a start-up, but we did set projects that had substance and volume in motion. We had grown and evolved so much during that time that we even educated 19 interns within our own firm. So they did not attend any schools, we were the ones training them.
How did software development look like at that time?
– In those days software was very different than software we know today. Today we call it waterfall. There was always an idea project first, which could last up to a year, followed by an implementation project etc. This process could last a while. That’s one of the reasons new and faster methods were developed to speed up this process. Sometimes if you worked on a project for an extended period of time and didn’t contact your client regularly, you could lose touch with reality. Then the reality changes and you don’t deliver what your client wanted.
How was the company structured and who were its first clients? What happened with DIT?
– The company had around 20 people. There were 6 or 7 programmers, head programmers, two system programmers, there were organizers and analysts, so there was a whole structure consisting of those who were client-oriented, analyzing users’ requests to people who were in charge of designing the application. We had a lot of potential, but no clients. We were a county firm. Our clients didn’t need anything from us because they did not even know about computers. Actually it was us who would come up with things they need or, in other words, we would try and recognize their needs. When they figured out how computers worked, demand started growing as well. However, during the 90′ the government didn’t think Split needed informatics, so they shut down the Department of Informatics and Telecommunications and I ventured into the private sector.
What were the prices of applications in the beginning and which technology did they use?
The prices of applications which were implemented in big systems, accounting for example, were measured in hundreds of thousands German marks. After PC’s emerged the prices became more accessible which slowly opened up the market. The applications were made in Clipper, a language very popular at the time. A lot of private companies opened up. I began developing software for pharmacies, something which I’ve worked on for the next 20 years. There were too few of us working on it, so I did everything from communicating with clients, taking in their demands, tech support and field work. But that was also the period during which I programmed the most. However, while I was busy maintaining the app I got stuck. I didn’t follow up on new technology which was emerging and when the app got lost in the market because of technical issues I was left without a job. That’s why you should always follow up on new technology and learn along the way.
What happened next?
I was unemployed for 15 months. I’ve worked where I could, you had to bring food to the table, and educated myself in the meantime. Eventually I got a job at a tourist company. By that time I thought I had lost all will to study and learn, that I wasn’t a programmer, that I couldn’t learn new things and keep up. But when I focused on my new job I started making progress. It was web development. In the meantime I switched to another firm which dealt with pornographic content. However, due to lack of developers it was relocated to Zagreb. Now I’m back at a tourist company as a PHP developer. I’ve learned a lot and made a lot of progress. I’ve surprised even myself.
How would those around you react when you would tell them you’re a programmer?
– Back in the day it was hard even describing what it is a programmer does. People’s only contact with computers was in movies, where they were shown as robots with flashing lamps, which was a bit intimidating. Because so little of us were doing it, people were often in awe of programmers. There’s still too little people in this line of work. There always has been because due to its demanding nature.
Has your age ever presented a problem in seeking employment?
– At one point I worked in three companies within a year. I thought I was finished after I turned 60; who would hire someone like me? There is a great need for professionals. I think it should be a combination of both younger and older programmers. Every age group has its advantages as well as its disadvantages. Maybe someone doesn’t feel that they’re capable. Myself, I feel the developer enthusiasm 8 hours a day, every day.
Do you plan to retire soon?
– Even when I retire, I’ll continue programming, I just won’t be under so much pressure. I’m almost 63 and if someone would want to employ me, I would still work. I feel good when I’m working.
Have you ever thought about a managing position?
– No, I just don’t have that entrepreneurial spirit. It’s not something I’m interested in and I have always left it to others. I solve problems by programming. I create things for clients and it gives me satisfaction to see those things put in use. It’s what keeps me going and makes my job interesting.
What’s your opinion on today’s education system?
– Students are educated for science and not the real world. There’s not enough place for everyone in the science department. The education system is not in tune with the economy. When students get their diplomas, they’re not programmers, they’re just beginning. There should be some form of apprenticeship and projects which would benefit the economy and would stay active throughout the year. They should generate strong computer companies which would also include students in their work.
There’s a lack of cooperation between universities and the economy which has lead to a bad situation that needs to be fixed.
Is there a difference between technology used today and technology used before?
– The first thing I learned in programming, apart from assemblers which didn’t have the basic structures of modern programming languages, was pseudocoding, in other words, programming without a programming language. All of today’s programming languages boil down to it. In a way it is enough, but in another it isn’t. I was behind as far as object-oriented programming goes so I began catching up since there are a lot of companies that deal with it. Not much has changed, some things have just become more advanced. Programming is a process where the machine helps you to speed up certain processes and make things easier, but all the thought process which enables you to plan and program something was and still is challenging and not a lot of people can do it. Nothing has changed there. It’s just become more complex, requiring more knowledge, but it is possible to create successful applications that don’t require much complex knowledge. I’ve seen some successful applications and which don’t seem to be that complicated.
What’s your opinion on your younger programmer colleagues? Were programmers better before?
– It’s hard to say. They had a better relationship to their work, but back then there were other problems that could distract you from your work. Everyone was full of enthusiasm and knowledge and was willing to do the work, but sometimes a lack of organization would leave you without a job, and finding a new one was hard because there were so few. You also had to get more involved if you wanted to learn something. I work in a completely different environment today, where the mundane tasks are the ones that get to you. It’s hard to showcase your qualities through them. It all seems more closed off nowadays. There’s not a lot of real cooperation and team work. That’s not a consequence of today’s day and age, but a consequence of different circumstances. The enthusiasm once felt is being replaced by a need for profit.
Do you own any first edition computers, keyboards etc.? Do you think they were better quality before?
– No, I don’t have anything like that. I have a few old Floppy discs. The computer we used to work on lasted for 15 years. Those first computers were long-lasting, but technologically outdated. The quality was better, but that doesn’t mean much when they’re expendable goods. I would like to have an old keyboard though. We worked on ours for 10 years and I think it still works.
People used to make higher quality products, but today there’s just no time. This especially goes for computer programmes. They’re often low quality and full of errors because they’re often made in a rush and there are not enough professionals in working in the field. It’s normal to make mistakes when you try to rush things.
Can you compare COBOL and PHP?
– I haven’t really worked in COBOL, I’ve only worked with it once or twice. COBOL is a whole other structure, with very strict formats. You can’t do much with it. I couldn’t do anything with it today. It’s still in use only because there are some old applications which run in COBOL. I have worked in other languages similar to PHP. COBOL was used for printing on paper. PHP isn’t really a language. It emerged as something which should print HTML. I started programming more intensely in PHP 5. PHP 2, 3, and 4 had giant leaps because the language progressed, but their structure was very bad. There are efforts to change that now, but not without some serious complications.
When you switched to newer technology, was there a feeling of nostalgia for the old one?
– No, not really. You just make the switch and move on. Maybe I could do something in Clipper which I’ve worked in just before I switched to PHP, but it would take me some time to remember everything. I feel nostalgia for the good old times, not the technology.
What do you think the future holds in store?
– Everything will stay the same. Certain shifts are possible in the sense of simplifying the programming process and automated tools, because documentation presents a problem to this day. People just don’t like to document things. Demand is rising, everybody wants an app for something. For Android, IOS, even watches now. Everything’s moving in direction of a universal language, but there is still a trend of making new specialized languages. Open source software is also a good thing, because you can’t make everything yourself. Even Microsoft, which used to be a very powerful company, realized that without open sourcing their technology they would soon be out of the game.
And one final question, what do you do in your free time?
I like to ride my bike every day and always carry my camera with me. I try to take pictures, but lately less and less. You have to stay active. I would recommend everyone to do some form of recreation in their free time. Sometimes you get stuck in a rut and can’t see your way out. It’s good to take a step back from time to time.