‘Back in My Day’ is an Information Age series profiling some of our older ACS members and Information Age readers speaking about their early days in IT.
This week, we speak with Andy Dent, aged 60, from Perth, Western Australia.
How did you get started in the tech sector?
I had a strange beginning. I was studying engineering at the University of Western Australia. Not uncommonly in the early 80s, I got seduced by computers. That ended up blowing up my engineering studies – I was distracted by computers when I was doing my assignments. With my introduction to languages, with BASIC, APL, Smalltalk and Forth, I had this broad exposure within that formative period. They were all radically different, and that allowed you to think about things differently.
What did you love about computers?
It was the creative thing. You would create a set of rules that something responded to. A multi-lingual friend got me a job in the second year of university with a small business. My next job was with Griffin Coal Mining. I was able to leverage my small business experience to get a job as a junior programmer. I walked in and said I could understand and maintain ugly BASIC, and that was exactly what they wanted. I was there for six-and-a-half years, and I learnt discipline and pragmatism from an ex-RAF boss.
Where did you go after that?
I woke up one day and realised I hadn’t done any real programming for well over a year. I had worked my way up to systems administrator. I was flat out doing that and supporting the word processing machines. I was on track for management there, I was 25 years old and I didn’t want to keep doing that.
I went back to the University of Western Australia, at the centre where I used to watch my APL mates do weird things. I took a massive pay cut to move sideways into more technical stuff.
What was it like going back to that more hands-on role?
It was a complete and utter culture shock for me. UWA at the time was the biggest university in WA by far. It was very hierarchical. It was interesting. It was a ridiculously demanding job.
I bailed on them after seven months. It was partly because I got into Macintoshes and I met someone who had a Macintosh consultancy.
How was the switch into consultancy?
It was really rewarding in many ways. We were using a very advanced environment called 4th Dimension. I worked with that consultancy and eventually parted ways. That led to me being well known around Perth as a consultant who could do custom software. I did some really weird jobs there. I learnt techniques I didn’t know existed. It worked perfectly. If someone had an interesting problem to solve, they came to me.
Where did you go next?
It niggled me that real programmers used languages like C++ and I didn't. Looking back on it now, I laugh at myself for being stupid enough to turn my head from a successful consulting career and turn to this, but I couldn’t spill my brain across so many environments and I wanted to focus on one language. I wanted to recreate something like 4th Dimension for C++ developers.
I was working to automate the page layout of a real estate magazine. I built a system for them that allowed them to do this layout in a largely automatic manner. That was the first time I found out that I put people out of work. They gained a day in advertising deadlines because the processes became so much faster.
I decided to build my own object-oriented toolkit for reporting, forms and databases. I got involved with an education software supplier company for schools to run a complicated means of teaching. I worked with them for about five or six years.
Apple Australia funded these people to port their software from Windows to Mac. That was something that had never happened before but this product so dominated education that it meant Apple couldn’t sell to teachers, so Apple funded the first version to be ported to Mac.
I built a compile-time mapping of the Macintosh PowerPlant framework – to a layer sitting on top of Microsoft MFC. That way you got a full native code performance but the coders wrote most logic to one set of APIs. The demo machine I used was a 286 laptop with 16MB of RAM. It was really good tech, I’m still really proud of the technology.
After we wound up that relationship, I continued retailing that worldwide. I ended up open-sourcing it.
Then I gave up on the consulting side and got a contract for what turned out to be one of my most intriguing and technically rewarding jobs which was 3D movies at Dynamic Digital Depth.
This was commercialisation of stuff from Curtin University for doing glasses-free 3D cabinets, like the games you sit in. They had eye tracking and moved the projectors – it was really good. They also had “depthifying” conversion of 2D movies to 3D. They wanted to build the technology into Apple’s QuickTime movie player, and they hired me to do this.
That was so much fun. I’m very proud of that project. It was an absolute technical success. It was demonstrated eventually at a keynote at the National Association of Broadcasters in the US. Then the first internet bubble burst – complicated 3D movies on the internet as a business model suddenly looked less appealing for people. That project was mothballed at that point and was lost to the bowels of history. But it gave me a reputation, and I picked up a consulting project over in Melbourne.
What have some of your other career highlights been?
I wrote a database book and then went over to San Francisco in 2015 and managed to get a job at Realm. At the time, that was the big name in mobile databases. That project was to take a proof of concept to a polished version 1 product. That was built in under two years of contract work, mostly working remotely from Perth and doing Danish hours, starting work at 4pm.
How’d that go after the two years?
It was a great success. It was a big thing on my resume, it was a credibility thing to have worked for a Silicon Valley company and to do this major tech project. Along the way I’d started my own startup, and in 2017 I called it quits and went to focus on the startup, Touchgram, along with doing some consulting. That’s what I’ve been doing for a lot of the last seven years.
How have you seen the tech industry and programming specifically develop across your career?
Programming languages and technology has evolved embarrassingly slowly. The way we deal with the data, the way we think about things and design systems, we just iterate around re-learning the same lessons painfully and not making vast amounts of progress, which is just strange. Graphics, of course, are much better and IDEs help with much-needed API hints.
When I was 19 years old this grizzly 40-something year old analyst programmer had the same whinge to me. He had just finished rebuilding the third generation of something he’d built and as far as he could tell, it was functionally nearly identical and the technology hadn’t moved on that much. That was 40 years ago.
What advice would you have for someone just getting started in the tech sector?
Write things down – whatever you’re doing, write it down and keep it. When you’re having moments doubting everything you’re doing, look back on this and see that you’ve gotten smarter and understand things better now. It could also become a useful product to pass on to people as well.
The other thing is to get involved with open source communities – contribute stuff, fix bugs and document fixes and tutorials. I think out loud a lot on GitHub.