Some time in 1993, I decided to start taking this “work” and “career” thing a little bit more seriously than I had been doing. I’d basically been trying for a few years to become a games programmer on the Commodore 64, and when that didn’t pan out – mainly due to interest in the platform drying up – I was left with a set of obsolete skills and no real CV to speak of.
Enter “temping”. Basic data entry, more money than I’d earned so far (although it’s not as much as I earn these days, thanks to inflation it still felt like a serious chunk of dough back then). I worked through an agency, basically doing a day here and there as I could, generally working with a lot of students who could type and needed the money. I’d been given an old CP/M computer by my uncle so I was fairly familiar with office programs, even if they were slightly out of date.
They were all right. There was the rock-solid WordStar word processor (I can still remember some of its epic keystroke combinations – CTRL-Q CTRL-Q CTRL-B to reformat a document for example… actually, maybe I can make a settings file for Visual Studio with those exact same keystrokes).
Then there was CalcStar – a clone of VisiCalc from the people who wrote WordStar. Less complicated that WordStar, it was still a pretty powerful spreadsheet – especially when you considered it was running on a Z80 in 64K of RAM. OK, it crashed once in a while (and even then, the programmer in me recognised the Pascal-based nature of the error messages that it printed when that happened), but that was OK. I’d been an assembler programmer before, on the Commodore 64. And if there’s one thing programming in assembly on an 80s micro taught you, it’s to save often. It’s annoying enough when someone else’s programs go wrong, but in those days, if yours went wrong, the quickest way to starting again was to switch off and on again – thus losing the hour or two you’d spent getting the thing to assemble in the first place.
(Aside, confessional: I used to go into computer shops, go up to a C64 running for a demo, press CTRL-6 and type POKE2,2:SYS2, followed by RETURN. This had the effect of hiding what you were doing, colour 6 being the default background colour (dark blue), and CTRL-7 putting the cursor into dark blue. 2 is the 6510 processor code for “HALT”. Well, it probably isn’t, but it has that effect. Result: switch it off and on again if you want to actually start using the computer again. Result: bemused shop assistant and secret hilarity. A kind of DIY “Trigger Happy TV”, if you will. But I digress…)
I was quite happy with CalcStar, using it for all manner of things, making spreadsheets to track my music collection, incomings and outgoings (a job later undertaken by the in-built spreadsheet on my Psion 3a), even the progress of the (terrible) novel I was writing… I was pretty handy with it.
Picking up Word (Word 2, on Windows 3.1, naturally – this was the early 90s after all) wasn’t too hard. I knew WordStar, and I’d used the DOS version of Word at college. Neither were the Unix data entry programs I used as a temp – press here, do this, enter that, press this, wait wait wait, note down the number it gives you in this box here, next form, do it all again… (I once scared the sys admin by teaching her Unix commands, but that’s another story – after all, what’s a University education in Unix for if not scaring people…)
But then there was that one assignment… I had to come in for “special training” on a new program called “Excel”. I asked what it was, but they said just to come in for their training anyway.
The Excel training lasted two hours. It consisted of me, on the computer, with a video player that took over the mouse. Even though I could move the mouse pointer, it insisted on running the pointer at its snails pace over the screen to the button I was desperately eager to push to get on with it.
It finished with an exam. I got 97% – the highest mark they’d ever seen. (I’d have got 100%, I’m sure, if I hadn’t got bored and decided to improve on one of the formulas they asked me to put in).
“The training must have worked, then”, the agent said.
“Not really,” I said. “All I got from that was that it’s a spreadsheet – just like CalcStar”.
She didn’t say another word, just nodded. And I got the impression she didn’t know what CalcStar was.
Nevertheless, they sent me on the assignment, which I quit three days later when I got a permanent job.
Oh, that CP/M machine? Still in my garage somewhere. I’d like to think it still works, but I doubt it. I’m not even sure where the disks are.
It would be a great shame if it didn’t – I spent many happy hours working out how to work the graphics modes on that machine, even if I did have to program it in BASIC. And I’d love to know if, somewhere deep in my brain, I can still remember how to work CalcStar.