Rockford Lhotka

VP, Open Source Creator, Author, Speaker

How I Got Into Computers University Internship Edition

27 Dec 2020

This is the third post in a series about how I got into computers and how my career has unfolded.

Between my junior and senior year in university I had an internship during the summer. Not really a computer internship, at least officially, it was with the MSP airport.

I did actually finish in four years, which is way harder today than it was back then, and it wasn’t so common in the 1980’s either.

The airport internship had a bunch of students from aviation schools of course, and a couple of us from other backgrounds. Mostly, the internship wasn’t a “real” internship, in that we were cheap labor (fortunately it was a paid internship) for doing busy-work needed by the airport.

At that time, aircraft noise over neighborhoods near the airport was a big deal politically. Some very major suburban developments had been built under flight paths, which was pretty dumb on the part of developers and the people who bought the new homes. I had a lot more sympathy for the old neighborhoods that had been there for a very long time, long before the airport grew so rapidly into an international hub.

So we collected noise data, which largely meant sitting all day in a van in one of these neighborhoods while devices captured noise profiles.

Another big thing we worked on that summer, was a study on traffic and transport between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. The only real way to get between them at that time was via a shuttle bus, and so we spent many hours riding that bus and counting how many people rode between the terminals.

Today there’s a short section of the Blue Line commuter rail that fills the role of that bus, and life is much nicer!

The final big project was to use a big VCR recorder to record a now-defunct airline’s aircraft as they left their gate. They were accused of violating their contract by using power backing instead of a tug to push the plane back. Power backing is noisy and basically would sandblast the airport structure. So we’d make a number of runs out into the observation deck above that gate, video record the pushback, and then return to what we were doing before.

As you can tell, none of this had much (if anything) to do with aviation or computing or anything any of us were studying in university.

Fortunately, there was a PC sitting idle in the office! It had Turbo Pascal for some reason, and I knew Pascal very well, because it was the primary language used in the university’s computer science program.

As a result, I spent whatever down time I had between recording noise or bus travel, and I wrote software for us to record the data, and then spit out reports of the data.

At some point word of my part-time endeavor got back to the folks in the actual airport IT department, and the CIO stopped by to visit with me and see what I was doing. I don’t remember the conversation fondly, though she was very nice.

She spent a good amount of time trying to convince me that the thing I loved most in the world (programming computers) was a waste of time because of this new-fangled thing called C.A.S.E (computer aided software engineering). She was convinced that CASE was going to entirely obsolete software developers, and she was trying to warn me off a dead-end career.

Keep in mind that I was a naive country boy, with no real clue about how computer programming applied to the real world, or how the business world even worked! And here was the old lady (“old” - ha! I’m sure she was around 50, like most CIOs), with all her power and wisdom and life experience, telling me that the thing I loved doing most in the world was coming to an end before I even got to start!

Talk about depressing!

On the upside, she did give me access to a more powerful PC that had a stats package (Matlab?) and the Lotus 123 spreadsheet software. That unlocked a whole new set of things for me to learn in terms of analyzing the noise and bus data, which kept me busy until the end of the summer.

On a non-professional route, that internship was incredibly valuable to me in various other ways, including.

  1. I rented a room from my Mom’s uncle that summer, a whole side of the family I knew nothing about (family politics is never cool), and so I learned a lot about a whole bunch of family and that was incredibly valuable!
  2. I got to live in the Twin Cities, though my exposure was very limited. Mostly work, evenings with co-workers, and sleep. But still, it was a good way to dip my toe into “city life” (really suburban life) for the first time.
  3. I had a great time with my co-workers and boss. None of us had much else to do in the evenings, so we’d play sand volleyball, have dinner and some drinks, and generally enjoy ourselves.

Another thing that strikes me today, is just how different airport life was in the mid-1980s. As an airport employee I largely bypassed all security, and was able to get nearly anywhere in the airport without any hassle.

Also, consider that video recording: it was done from an observation deck above the normal terminal level. A glass-walled room that existed specifically so non-travelers could watch aircraft land and takeoff. Think about that: allowing non-travelers through security just to watch aircraft, and to greet friends and family as they traveled!

It is virtually impossible to comprehend the world of 1980’s air travel in the context of today’s world!

Back to the professional value from the internship, the meta-lesson I took away, consciously even at the time, was that I’d been able to make a generally fun summer job into a super-valuable experience by writing custom software to record and analyze data, and then to feed that data into things like dedicated stats software.

That lesson has served me well numerous times through my career: taking a sub-optimal situation and making it into something else. Something of actual value beyond just making money in the short-term.

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