My Programming Journey

It started with a letter in 1996.

My grandmother was at the time asking me about career ideas. I told her Computer Science. I didn’t really know what it was. It just seemed to put together two of my likes at the time, Computers and Science.

My family has generally been encouraging about my ideas in terms of career and pursuits, or at least, not overtly discouraging.

The seed of the idea for CS started much earlier, when on a visit to my uncle in the country, I saw he had a PC on his desk. Asked what he did, I think he said he was an analyst, then fired up a game of Ms. Pac Man.

That was it.

From there, I did IT in Secondary School. But it was a time of prioritizing finishing the syllabus over pursing dreams, so my entire class had to do the level at Technical Proficiency. This level essential prepares you to be a really good secretary.  We did the Office Suite, and little else. I wonder if they still have that around?

Anyway, this was back in the 90s, so the only real exposure I had beyond that was setting up my first email address (@Yahoo) in a time when passwords could be 4 characters.

I wouldn’t get back into anything IT related until starting University in 2001.  I applied to the University of the West Indies, for Civil Engineering. When I got there, I opted instead for Computer Science and Management. My uncle funded my first year’s tuition. Without him, I do not know when I would have gotten in.

The early courses were introductory, Java-based and fairly bland. Except for MicroEcon, where I earned the nickname for a day: Syllogism. Generally though, we had come from Secondary School where the goal in life was passing your exam. We weren’t disabused of that notion.

But needing to earn my keep to be able to stay in full time CS programme made me have to look around for opportunities to apply the growing skills.

First, it was joining the nascent team in the Student Activity Center (SAC), who were building and managing the computer facilities there.  Mr. Mike, the General Manager, essentially gave us a lot of room to spec out the rooms, the machines that would go there, the networking that was needed and the rosters for work. Looking back, that sort of freedom provided the first feeling of what University was about - responsibility to learn on your own, and stand behind the choices you made.

The labs at the SAC were the grounds for a kind of development that was very groovy. We worked late into the night, strangely, when I was there there wasn’t that much gaming. That mostly happened in other computer labs on campus or downstairs. Instead, there was a sort of civicness of the people who passed through there.

From the lab, a team, the Campus Pipeline (CP) team, was assembled. Another bunch of students, this time rolling out or helping to roll out the online portal for students to use in a Facebook-like way.  One nifty project required us to create import files in XML, via looking through a database of student records, which would then be loaded into CP.

My only tools were the javadocs, two courses on intro to Java, google and what was like a blackbox of magic at the time, a jar file made by one of our lecturers, I think Mr. Sheik, cs11.jar.

We were so new to programming, it took a long time for the incantation, “public static void main(String[] args)” to even make sense. It was just what you put to get JCreator to do the thing.

As it turns out the xml problem was just string operations (in my mind at the time). We had no end of assignments that was open a file, do a thing, then make another file.

After the CP gig, one of my most formative activities came from a course I wasn’t even supposed to be doing - MIS.

Management Information Systems was a course offered in the Social Sciences faculty for Management students to get a sense of IT in a non-combative way, I guess. I’m not even sure why I did the course. Maybe I was caught by the course outline. Maybe it was the lure of an easy A.

In that course, you had to come up with a project of your own choosing, and describe its benefits. Our project, e-commode, was poorly named. We were looking to provide an online version of the Student Advisory Services register of places for rent for off-campus students. It wasn’t bad. We probably got an A, and we changed the name, to e-commodators.

Another facilitator, Mr. Victor Cowan gave me an opportunity to do something real with what I had learnt. He ran the Student Advisory Services office and listened to my proposal after the course was completed to build out the e-commodator system for the University.

Since pricing for solutions wasn’t a course, and I was a second year student after all, the fee I charged Mr. Cowan worked out to be what an intern might have made for the summer. He was willing to make the leap with me and let me build out what became the Online Accommodation Student Information System, OASIS.

It was written in Classic ASP, with VBScript. I used a MySQL database, because I was fancier than MS Access (remember IT in form 5?) and it was free. I had never done a web project before. I hadn’t done the courses for it yet, but googling felt like the answer to every problem. Books, too. Finding those long-form VB tutorials and w3Schools (I know, I know) articles were enough to convince me it could be done.

In the end, it took the full two months, but we got OASIS up and running. In those days, there weren’t (any?) online mapping providers - this was 2003 - and so, I went down to WASA and paid the horrendous TT$700.00 per map, for digitized versions of maps of St. Augustine, Tunapuna, Macoya, Arima, Champs Fleur and a few other towns. Writing about it now, I feel like it was a big deal, but back then, it was just what was needed for the solution to make more sense.

I think they still use OASIS to this day, perhaps with some modification.

That work on OASIS was pivotal to how I took the next year. I literally blew through a course called Application something or other. Because the language was VBA and I had just spent all July-August writing VBScript for this site. I then took Internet I and II because the Internet.  Dr. Gardler remains one of my favorite lecturers.

My final project involved mysql, php and more upgrading.  Another site, the Main Library’s past paper website used plain html to keep track of past paper files that were sent from across campus. I converted it to what was essentially a CMS for past papers.  It was another project where I got to just figure out how things worked by searching online and understanding the technology and implementing it. This was with Ahmed and Frank, more people who were willing to provide the space for a student to explore and make something meaningful.

I spent my last year, realizing that as good as it felt to write those kind of solutions, the Design and Analysis of Algorithms required time, reading and deep thought.

I graduated in 2005 and started working at Teleios Systems that year.