#005 – Programmer Nostalgia with Kevin Grossnicklaus

Kevin Grossnicklaus is an old school developer who lives in St. Louis, MO and runs a great team of 7 developers at his company ArchitectNow. At ArchitectNow, he and his team build apps targeting a variety of platforms ranging from web to desktop to mobile. When not building apps for customers, Kevin can be found traveling, chicken pickin’ on his Telecaster, or tracking his expanding amount of grey hair thanks to his three teenage daughters. He’s also still holding out for a second season of Firefly.

Kevin is also the co-author of Building Web Applications with Visual Studio 2017.


In this episode, Derek Hatchard and Ron Smith join Kevin in reminiscing about early programming experiences on personal computers from the 80s and discuss why curiosity and a desire to learn are so important for software professionals. In November 2017, Kevin wrote the blog post “A Touch of Applesoft Basic” about his early programming experiences and introducing his 80s and 90s tech to younger software developers. Check it out for photos of the things Kevin talks about in this episode of Ardent Development.

Where to find Kevin Grossnicklaus

@kvgros on Twitter

On the web at http://architectnow.net/blog/

In print at Building Web Applications with Visual Studio 2017

Enjoy the show and be sure to follow Ardent Development on Twitter.

Transcript

Derek: Welcome to the Ardent Development podcast. I’m Derek. And today Ron and I are on with Kevin Grossnicklaus. Did I say that right, Kevin?

Kevin: You did, it’s good enough.

Derek: Alright, good enough. Kevin is an old school developer who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Say it the right way. And runs a great team of seven developers at his company ArchitectNow. At ArchitectNow they build apps targeting a variety of platforms ranging from web to desktop to mobile. When not building apps, Kevin can be found traveling, chicken pickin’ on his Telecaster or tracking his expanding amount of grey hairs thanks to his three teenage daughters. And he’s still holding out for a second season of Firefly. And I’m right there with you. Right there with you. For those of us who are in Canada which is where Ron and I, you might need to explain what chicken pickin’ is.

Kevin: Oh I’m a country guitar player. So American country music old school country music. I’m a Merle Haggard / Johnny Cash type guitar player. I’ve been doing it a long time.

Derek: Alright. So, Kevin, I saw the blog post that you wrote. It really resonated with me and you were going back looking at sort of how you got into programming stuff that you used to work on.

Derek: And I think it all sprung from building a bit of a museum in your new office. You want to give us a little bit of the backstory for that blog post.

Kevin: Sure. As you said it really it was thanks to the power of eBay. I was putting some technology in a new office we had built and buying some things that I had owned a few old, my original Nintendo and an original game cube and things like that that my wife wanted me to get out of the house. So I decided these would be a clever thing to put on the shelf at the office and talk about share with some of my younger developers. You know the things that I grew up playing or enjoyed back in the day and they’ll get a little more use than they are sitting boxes in the basement. In doing that it got me thinking about you know growing up back in the mid 80s when I when I started programming I was 12 years old. My parents bought me an apple II GS and I have been a programmer ever since the day I got the computer so I went on eBay and I kind of wish I still had that computer and I found one and I ordered one and ultimately I had to order 2 and piecemeal a few together that worked and in doing so I went down to my basement and dug up a dusty old box of floppy disks – five and a quarter and three and a half inch disks. Popped them in and it worked. All my old programs that the blog post that you’re talking about is really me looking back at when I was 12 I was in the middle of Nebraska. And that’s a time and a place where not a lot of people had computers.

Kevin: There were no we were still using rotary phones and there was no internet in the sense that we have it today. And I as of this recording I’m a whopping 42 years of age. Some people consider that young some people consider that old.

Kevin: I’m kind of in that middle age but at 12 years old I’ve got a computer and that computer booted to a blinking cursor. It literally did nothing. It shocked me. I was excited. I was the proud new owner of a shiny new computer and I turned it on and up came a cursor, it did absolutely nothing I dug through the boxes of manuals I said it’s got to be more than this it’s got it. And I was expecting video games and all this fancy stuff to come out of it. Ultimately I had to learn to make it do make make that computer do something on my own. And I found a book that I still treasure very much back in my house. I have a book called Learning to Program in Applesoft Basic so in those days you know you’ve got computers that the availability of software, entertainment was limited. The number of other people that knew how to make them do something was limited. So I wrote a program within the first hour just reading this book just starting at the top and saying hey I must type line 10 print Hello World.

Kevin: I don’t think hello world had become a thing back then I can’t remember what I printed. When something came out I was I was hooked. I love that computer and fortunately got another one and oddly enough all my floppy disks, those original programs I wrote that day 30 years ago, still booted and were still there.

Kevin: All my old comments, all my old code in Basic, C, and Pascal and assembly language. So I spent the last month or so kind of reminiscing and going back and looking at what I learned and realizing that ever since that day my entire career and everything I’ve done has been based on that book and really growing from there.

Derek: It’s really cool. So you wrote comments when you were 12 years old. That’s impressive.

Kevin: I spent time trying to this was before you know Google and books and back then the overall surface area of technology was very small I had no peers or mentors to teach me to organize your code. It was just something that I as a young young guy decided it made my life a lot easier.

Kevin: So I evolved into it over the years obviously best practices arose and I read books and you know went to college for it and did other things but it was amazing to see in 88 and 89 me organizing a group of subroutines in a non object oriented language and trying to do it a little more clearly than I did before.

Ron: So Kevin you are really taking me back.

Ron: My first computer was a Commodore 64 and I can remember being down in the basement with my brother and sister and we would put in that game into the floppy disk and it would take, felt like it would take 10 minutes to load a game and we’d be off getting the old hot chocolate.

Ron: What do some of your new staff that hadn’t seen that before say when you showed them some of these devices, what were some of the reactions?

Kevin: Well their first reaction was to the sound. It was a comforting sound to me but it sounds horrendous when you stick a disk in. You know we’re talking a world of solid state drives and usb drives that old 256 gigs and all the great technology we have today on our phone and here this big computer has moving parts and it grinds and it buzzes.

Kevin: Finally it boots but then it boots boots and boots and the sounds you know instant gratification it was not, it took awhile to do about anything. The computer I had the time the apple II GS was a whopping one megahertz. You could get it up to two if you ran in certain modes. So it definitely is a different world than what we’re just used to on the phone. And the guys in my office are younger guys there. I’ve got some guys that are 23 24 25 years old so definitely they grew up in a time where the stuff was I might have been showing a punch cards and they’d been just as excited. They had no idea what a floppy disk was. Never never seen before let alone saw one popped into a computer.

Kevin: That’s hilarious.

Ron: And back then. I mean computers and you guys know this as well as I do it the people that grew up in that era and use that level of technology. If you were of the mind to program and write your own software, you were by nature a hardware guy and a software guy you had to know a little about both. You couldn’t just focus on one and today everything so specialized and every developers you know you work in this vertical or this niche and you know a lot about the front end and not the back end. People just don’t build computers today. There’s a certain subset that do and that’s very cool to see how far they pushed it. But. For the most part you know sadly a lot of our youth just get phones and play games and think that Minecraft is the greatest thing in the world but no one ever puts thought into how it was written.

Kevin: And when I grew up I wanted to know how it was written.

Ron: On your blog post you have a picture of magic quest.

Kevin: I wrote a ton of games

Ron: And these great big block letters I love it.

Kevin: Yeah, cuz the resolution, there was like 40 pixels. And then when I say pixels they were blocks it was 40 blocks by 30 blocks or something. So I learned to animate pick these big colored blocks that you could pick. I forget 32 colors or something like that and the colors had names. I studied a lot of how to animate them. About a year before I got my computer I got a Nintendo, the old original NES, and you know Mario and Zelda things of that nature so I was fascinated, I was like this is the greatest thing and I wanted to learn how to do that so when I got computer program, I thought well I think these two things must go together whoever made that game must be writing software like this and I didn’t know how they did it but I knew that if I could put it on the screen that’s you know baby step in the right direction then I could put two dots that I could put. You know I wrote dozens of games in my youth some never made it beyond the splash screen. I just wrote, me and my buddies would create these great names and ideas and designs a splash screen bragging about what we did. We never actually got too far.

Ron: Well your blog post made me remember my history a little bit because I did a little bit of that. You know we would draw on a couple of pixels on the screen of the pirate ship or whatever in basic. But my story is that really I got serious about computer science in that first year of university and in fact I took computer science as a filler course. You know I thought I was a science guy I was getting in all the sciences and then I got into this computer science as a course and I was hooked. You know the problem solving and figuring it out, but your blog post made me really wonder about you know everybody’s got a different story right. You are quite young and mesmerized by these early computers and started programming and the like. For me it was when I got serious about it when I hit university and it was almost by accident.

Kevin: One of the key thoughts I had looking back is everybody even my co-workers and my peers, I travel a lot, I speak at a lot of conferences. Fortunately with Microsoft as an MVP, I know a lot of great people through that organization. We sit around a lot and talk about hey how did you get started and everybody has very similar stories, there’s that point where you realize this is what I want to do and that’s the key thing today. I think there’s a lot of a lot of us that organically fell into it. But you know I’m a father of three daughters. When I was a young dad I was thinking my kids are just inherently going to grow up and see all the technology and see what I do and they’re going to they’re going to evolve that way and they’re going to be great coders that didn’t turn out. You know they all have their own career paths and touring college out of state now and none of them for for software development but you know as I see their friends kids I don’t see enough kids at least in my peripheral you know 17 18 year olds that come over to say hey I want to be a coder I’m going to college for computer science. There’s a there is that ecosystem but not to the extent that if I was that age today and I saw all the great technology that’s out there with virtual reality and technology is fascinating today the capabilities all the cloud and just ubiquitous processing power and what we can do in terms of software engineering you don’t see kids gravitating towards that in numbers that I kind of wish they were.

Kevin: And I look back amused, at 12 years old I was impressed by the fact that I can write a basic program and print some characters to the screen. If I’d have had an iPhone, can’t imagine where the world would’ve taken me.

Kevin: My kids are not as old as your kids, Kevin, but I’ve been surprised that you know given that they see you know the work that I’ve done over the years and maybe that’s the problem that dad’s work is just too boring from their perspective.

Derek: But I’ve taken them to learn to code events I’ve taught them little bits of python and they’ve done tons of Minecraft. My son was interested in building a Minecraft plugin, extension, I can’t remember what they call them now. He lasted maybe an hour with Java and then he said Yeah, I’m not that interested in that anymore. And off he went.

Derek: It’s an interesting almost cultural change where those of us who got into it when we are younger… So I was probably a similar age to you. My first computer was a VIC 20 and I wrote some basic on that and then when I got to high school I wrote learned some Pascal and was telling Ron earlier that I wrote a blackjack game. I’m sure they the randomizer and would not live up to anybody’s expectations today but you know our world is so technologically hinged today.

Derek: Everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket but really in many ways our culture is very consumer oriented in that we want to use what the technology gives us, we’re not necessarily very invested in trying to dig in and figure out how to really make that technology do things that it doesn’t do already which is what the games you wrote on your Apple II, you were really taking a piece of clay and shaping it into what you wanted it to be. And you know I wonder if we’re I wonder if in some way the seals on all of our devices are sort of teaching us that these are things that we don’t go and tamper with. It’s almost the maker you know it’s the maker culture and you know in 3-D printing for example where we’re seeing the people who would have been interested in programming when we were young are now gravitating to that space.

Kevin: I am fascinated by the maker culture and I think there is that subset of people that are curious and builders. I’m a huge Raspberry Pi guy, I mean, in the midst of all this great technology I do at work and we make iphones and tablets do these great things and we work for billion dollar companies and we build you know we’re in angular and react building really high end websites scale to tens of thousands of concurrent people. When I go home I’m still just as curious and passionate about it as I was when I was 12. This Sunday morning, yesterday morning, or two days ago I guess now I got up and actually had some packages from Amazon in the mail. My wife thought they were Christmas presents for somebody so she didn’t open them. Really it was just me I ordered a seven inch touchscreen for my Raspberry Pi. And I strapped the Raspberry Pi to the back of this touchscreen and it had a RetroPie SD card and I booted a complete NES simulator and I could sit at my kitchen table with a battery and play this little rig with all these wires and my daughters are home for Christmas break from college and they’re like Dad, what are you doing. I’m there with an old retro Nintendo controller on a 7 inch screen with wires sticking out everywhere.

Kevin: And I was really proud of it. I mean I assembled it, I won’t say I built it from scratch but I put it together and I got it all running in they’re like this is what you do on your day off as you sit around and this is what you ordered from Amazon. Yes I’m just as excited about doing this today. Along those lines I was at a conference a couple of months back and we were having a discussion similar to this and the one of the fellow speakers and a friend of mine he had the great quote. We were talking about what we look for in developers and it’s that passion and curiosity just for learning about anything technology related. And he told the group he said pound for pound I always try to be the most curious guy in the room. That resonated with me.

Ron: That’s a great quote.

Kevin: That’s the team that I want that’s the team that I hire. I don’t care what you can code, I can teach you to code. I want you to really love the stuff I want to look at those old things and think why did somebody make that decision. Why was it built like that. I think that is lost somewhat. We live in a culture of big bang theory and Hollywood has all these hacker movies. You know these games. I mean, the day I got my Apple II GS. The new one just off ebay, I plug it in and got those old apps running at the same time one of my daughters had just gotten battlefront 2, the new Star Wars game. So she’s playing on a big screen battlefront 2 with all the amazing graphics and I was in awe of this game I’m like wow this really looks good.

Ron: You want to say Hey kids come over here take a look like how cool is that.

Derek: I’ve got Dr. Mario over here. Dr. Mario, come on.

Kevin: No, and I showed her magic quest with you know 40 pixels by 30 pixels and they’re big and they’re like five colors that I made when I was 12 and she was less than blown away because she’s like I need to ge t back to battlefront, you know save the empire. I think you start out as the Empire in that game. I know people always say if you could go back in time what would you show people. I’d show them video games. Could you imagine what somebody 100 years ago who would think if you showed them battlefront on the big screen? We carry this stuff around on phones.

Derek: You made a comment I think on your blog about the surreal experience of using your iPhone to photograph an old Apple computer and you have the thousand times difference in processing power in that little phone compared to your old old computer and that’s you know imagine if you pulled a smartphone out of your pocket any time before the last 10 years, I mean that would just be magic a hundred years ago be. They might lock you up for your dark arts. Kevin, I wanted to get your point of view on what different types of developers, what they need to think about and what they can do to make themselves better as in regards to understanding the history. So we get very nostalgic about all of these things and we started learning to program a long time ago.

Derek: There are kids coming into the industry today. You said you’ve got people of various ages who work for you. I’m sure you work with clients of all ages and all backgrounds. Curious your point of view on the nuggets, what are the little things that hey it’s important that even if you didn’t work, you know even if you didn’t write basic on a Commodore VIC 20. It’s important that you have these pieces of connective tissue to the past because they influence the way that you do things today.

Kevin: I mean I think curiosity and passion are probably the two biggest things if you have those I can teach you anything else. When I got started like I said the surface area was much smaller that you weren’t inundated with best practices there one way to do things in the whole industry agreed on that. Today thanks to Google, stackoverflow, Perl sites of the world you can get you know a hundred thousand different opinions on what framework… There is a new javascript library. There’s been ten of them released just since we’ve been on this call. Everybody says they’re the best and you should use them and they’re the most scalable and I think a lot of software development really just comes back to common sense trying not to be too fancy and the younger guys I’ve got working for me are some of the best pure developers I’ve ever met in my life. I’m blown away by the skills that they have and they have very little detriment to anything they do except for just lack of years of experience they haven’t had the opportunity to talk to as many customers or see as many products as we have. Sometimes it is just common sense like why should this be required and why shouldn’t this. It’s not that as developers they couldn’t make it work either way. But sometimes those forks in the road come up and you’ve got to make a decision without going back to the customer for everything. But if you’re passionate you’re reading about it you’re keeping up. I’m proud of the technologies my company uses today but they’re going to change next year.

Kevin: They’re going to change in six months. We’re going to have to learn something new and that’s just the way it is. Unfortunately regardless of your age, technology, the ball is rolling downhill faster than it ever has. So you’ve got to race to keep up. It didn’t move that fast back in the day I learned basic and C and Pascal and those were top languages for decades. Now no one ever… Now they’re relegated to the annals of history and we’ve moved on and it’s all Javascript, TypeScript, C#, Java and a whole bunch of other things. And they change frequently. If you want to you want a stable career that doesn’t change much become a math teacher. They’re still teaching pretty much the same core concepts that they have for a century or two. In terms of computers it changes so just because you’re the expert C# programmer really means little in my mind.

Kevin: I want the guy’s who’s curious.

Derek: OK we had a little bit of an audio malfunction right at the end of our conversation with Kevin there so it did cut off a little bit abruptly but it was a great conversation.

Derek: Ron, are you feeling as nostalgic as I am right now?

Ron: Oh man. I’m thinking about that old Commodore 64 and the games even when he talked about you know the sounds the computer used to make and I can picture them again. You know you put the disk in and it would do that whirr whirr whir. It was just taking me back. Oh man oh man.

Derek: Did you have disks for your Commodore 64? Or did you have a tape drive or did you have both? Do you remember?

Ron: Disks, I think.

Derek: Disks, yeah? We had VIC 20 which I think you could get a tape drive for that. Thank you one more time to Kevin. You can find him on Twitter. He’s @-k-v-g-r-o-s, @-k-v-gros, I guess you’d say that, and his website is architectnow.net. If you go to architectnow.net/blog you can find the post from November 2017 where he writes about Applesoft BASIC and the little museum that he created in his office, he’s got a bunch of pictures and screen captures of all the games that he created when he was 12 years old.

Derek: It’s pretty fun to go down memory lane there so I encourage everyone to visit architectnow.net/blog. Alright, that’s it.

Ron: Thanks Kevin.

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