Happy Father's Day to my dad, the hobbyist programmer

A trip back through the years, after a chance encounter with an old review.

I found out recently that I'm not the only member of my family to appear in the illustrious pages of the IDG family of publications, of which Network World is one. In 1983, sister site InfoWorld reviewed my dad's Home Finance System – a personal accounting program that competed (albeit briefly) with Quicken – and I happened to stumble across the article via a Google Books search. (It's on page 31. Apparently, InfoWorld liked it.)

Dad, otherwise known as Jay Gold, has been an enthusiastic hobbyist programmer since well before I was born. He became interested in computers as a child, and bought his first PC – a Heathkit with an eight-inch floppy disk drive – after graduating from medical school in 1977.

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“By the time I got a real job, they had these personal computers available,” he says.

His first Heathkit required him to assemble the keyboard himself, down to placing sticky labels on each individual key. “It was tedious,” he says, perhaps understating the case.

Some of my earliest memories are of thinking that my dad lived down in the basement of our first house on 40th Street in Des Moines – in a nest of old IBMs and Tandys, clattering away on one of those old buckling-spring-type keyboards.

He says one of the most interesting changes in the tech world since the days of HFS 3 is in marketing.

“[It] was so different. InfoWorld came to me, and asked me for a copy of my program to review,” he says. “As the years went by, you never had that happen. You had to go pounding on doors to have people look at your product.”

Dad even ran advertising in InfoWorld, attempting to wrest market share away from Quicken – but thinks he may have made a crucial error in one ad.

“I had a little table that showed the features that I had and they didn't. And of course, they had teams of programmers, so within a couple of months, they had all those features,” he notes, wryly.

For a hard-working doctor to compete with a major company, programming only in his spare time, was “an impossible task,” he says.

It was nevertheless one he pursued for not-inconsiderable stretches of my childhood – though he found time to let me poke around in the fascinating thickets of circuitry and giant CRT monitors once in awhile, like the time we made two computer chess programs play each other. A program called Sargon won; the loser's name is sadly lost to history.

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These days, dad's retired – from medicine, at least. His other big project was a database and record-keeping program, which he created for a local non-profit dedicated to helping sexual assault victims. The database project, however, has met more or less the same fate as HFS – a professional development studio created something too quickly for dad to keep up.

“Again, I was outgunned,” he says.

But he's also essentially the group's go-to IT support guy, forever taking quick trips out to various offices to reboot servers and help with minor technical problems – to my mom's occasional annoyance.

Dad likes to joke about technology – he says he learned his BASIC “in the street, like everybody else,” and makes references to “just tying up a few loose ends” in his enormous projects – but his genuine fascination is readily apparent. And, given where I've ended up, seemingly infectious. Though I'll likely never develop software for fun, I surely owe what minor aptitude for computers I have to my dad.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold. Happy Father's Day, pops.

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