Caroline – Frostproof, Florida

6 Jun

This Chick Story is submitted by Caroline, the mother of Peggy (pursuingthemuse), who is pleased to have her mother involved in this community of Chicks.  In addition to the creative work she discusses below, Caroline has been a folk dancer for over 35 years.  She has also taught folk dancing throughout the years on a volunteer basis, and is currently enjoying her first paid teaching role.  

My story of creativity is something of a memoir.  And to the 4 Chicks and readers of their generation, it may sound like ancient history.

What words come to mind when you think of a computer programmer?  Nerd? Geek?  Ever think, “creative”?  To me, programming a computer is absolutely creative. 

Since this is to be a story, not an essay, let me start at the beginning.  In 1963, I was a junior in college and a math major.  Computer programming as a profession was in its infancy.  I’d never heard of a degree in computer science and my university didn’t offer one.  It had one lone course in computer programming and that was in the Electrical Engineering department.  Well, I took it.  The one working computer in the university computer lab was old even then.  We punched our programs into paper tape to feed them into the computer.   The computer’s memory at that time was undoubtedly smaller than my present-day cell phone’s.  It was unbelievably primitive by today’s standards.  But, by the time I completed the course, I was hooked.  I knew I wanted to program computers.

I went on to complete my college education with a Master’s degree in 1965.  At that time, the space program was in high gear and I got the opportunity to go to work as a computer programmer at the beginning of the Apollo project.  You know – the NASA project that sent men to the moon.  My job was to write programs for the computers at the NASA facility in Houston.  My department developed the programs that received data from radar sites all around the world, processed it, computed the position and velocity of the spacecraft at particular points in time, and displayed the results to all the controllers.  Some of the results were displayed in the Mission Control room that was shown on TV. 

When you think about it, it’s easy to see why computer programming is creative. Without a program, a computer can do nothing.   But with programs, the NASA computers could track the spacecraft and tell where it was and where it was going.  People create those programs.

For those who are not trained in computer programming, the creative process goes something like this.  First you need a definition of what the program is supposed to do. Then you do a rough design of how many different tasks there are to be done and how they fit together.  For example, receiving radar data, filtering the data to remove “noise”, doing some complicated mathematical calculations to compute the position and velocity of the spacecraft, and displaying the results are separate tasks that have to be done in order.  Each program developed in my mind as I developed the design in more detail and, finally, wrote the individual instructions.  At last, the program could run on a computer.   Working, as I did, on large computer systems over a long time, it felt as if my programs became extensions of my mind.  I could not have recreated every single instruction from memory, but I kept a detailed map of the program in my head. 

Later, I moved on to another project: developing a system to run large industrial plants such as oil refineries and petrochemical plants.   When I was working on the Apollo project, as exciting as it was, my programs were not really making anything happen in the real world.  They were processing data to give information to people. But the industrial system I worked on actually initiated commands to open and close valves or electrical circuits that controlled real physical processes in an oil refinery.    As the programs I wrote seemed like extensions of my mind, it was rather thrilling to feel that those extensions of me were actually controlling oil refineries.  To be clear, I wouldn’t know how to actually run an oil refinery myself.  Chemical engineers gave us the requirements and mathematical formulas for the programs and we wrote the instructions that fulfilled those requirements.  But, still, my “mind extension” was actually running on computers making oil refineries operate. 

I worked in computer software development for a total of 33 years; for about 20 years I was actually writing computer code.  Since retiring, I’ve continued to do creative things.  I drew the plans for the house my engineer husband and I designed and now live in.  I’m currently editing the newsletter for one non-profit organization and doing the layout for a second newsletter.  But my experiences writing computer programs for the space program and industry remain the most exciting creative endeavors of my life. 

To see my current creative work, go to www.folkdance.org and look for the link to “Florida FolkDancer Newsletters (and archive)” to see the newsletter of the Florida Folk Dance Council and go to www.friendspeaceteams.org and look for the link to download PeaceWays, the newsletter of Friends Peace Teams.

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3 Responses to “Caroline – Frostproof, Florida”

  1. ticklingthemuse June 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    Hi Caroline! Yes, it’s funny, I would not usually think of computer programming as creative, but you’re absolutely right! Thanks for sharing this very creative post!

  2. hostingthemuse June 6, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    I think that creativity comes in different ways. Great Post!

  3. charmingthemuse June 13, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    This is my hubby’s favorite Chick Story yet, Caroline! As a software engineer, he’s always saying the same thing–how much creativity goes into programming computers. The Muse speaks every language–human, computer or otherwise!

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