People often express surprise when I mention that I never finished college. I like to think that I'm fairly educated both within my field and in general, so I guess the surprise is a bit flattering. Certainly, in the absence of a degree I take some pride in the things that sort of prove it would have been superfluous - patents and published articles, talks and tutorials I've given, and so on. So how did I get there? To put it bluntly, I lived all the ways that our educational system fails poorer students. I needed financial aid to attend college, even with in-state tuition being very low by today's standards. For some reason I remember that it was $909 per semester. Even accounting for inflation since 1981, that would still only be $2600 today, which says something about how college costs have skyrocketed. My total including room and board was $6400 per year, which still only comes out to $18300 today. Looking at what my daughter's college costs are likely to be, or even what her karate classes cost right now, those numbers seem absurdly low.
Nonetheless, we couldn't really afford even half that much, but the financial-aid machine thought we could and assumed such a contribution. Then, what remained of an already-thin aid package was weighted toward loans and work-study. Again thanks to that poor education, I was pretty ignorant about loans. Some NDSL loans came as part of my aid package, but I just didn't know to apply for GSL as well. Things might have turned out very differently if I had, just as they might have turned out even more differently if I'd ended up going to West Point instead of Michigan ... but that's a story outside of the current career-oriented stream.
So, here's the last part about the failures of our educational system. My high school sucked. There were zero AP classes. I remember mentions of AP in my SAT paperwork, but never in school. There were maybe three students a year (and this was a big high school - 1200 for grades 10-12) who might have been interested. So when I got to college I was quite far behind my peers, even more so because they'd put me in an honors program where I frankly didn't belong. I was struggling. It would be many years before I'd have to struggle that hard again. And on top of that, I was working 30+ hours a week to earn my work-study dollars. That's the situation our education system put me in. Not too surprisingly, after less than two years I'd dropped out.
I'm going to skip over some bits here and go to my first relevant job, which was working in the "bindery prep" department of the massive Michigan library system. It wasn't a great job, but it did have some perks. I could easily complete my work in half a day, and then I was surrounded by books. Almost heaven. Another key feature is that they literally locked us out at 4:30pm. Couldn't have gotten back in if we'd wanted to. Many times, as I've chafed at the after-hours demands of professional programming, I've remembered those days with some fondness despite the poor pay.
The last perk of that job was the most important. As a university employee, I was entitled to use the computing facilities more generally reserved for students. I and a friend of mine - sometime roommate, sometime coworker, for a while both - took massive advantage of this. We were in the relatively new Union ("UNYN" in Computing Center parlance) facility most of our spare time. At the start, we were using Ontel terminals connected to the CC mainframe ... and that's where that strict accounting system I mentioned in my last post becomes relevant.
You see, we didn't get a lot of that Computing Center funny money as employees. We wanted more, so we went looking for ways to get more. To make a long story short, we found our way into some accounts with much much higher - effectively infinite - limits. The accounts for IBM field engineers and Pascal compiler maintainers are the two I remember. We didn't particularly want to cause any mischief, and didn't. We just wanted more time. This eventually led to the scene where I - by pure good luck on my way back from getting a soda - saw a CC employee jump through the output window and go over to where my friend was sitting. We both knew what was up. My friend got taken to a back room, and a while later an Ann Arbor cop showed up. I guessed it would be a while, and I wasn't logged into any of the illicit accounts which would put me under suspicion as well, so I sat nearby to observe the other CC employees collecting evidence. Those Ontel terminals were pretty sophisticated, able to maintain quite a bit of history. I thought we knew a lot of the tricks they could do (some of those having been part of our own methodology) but I learned a few new ones. Remember, folks, don't let strangers look at your screen or keyboard.
In the end, the consequences weren't that severe. There was a $180 fine, which I paid, and 90 hours of community service, which my friend did. Amusingly, he did it working on computers which improved his future qualifications. There was also a whole multi-month series of articles in the CC newsletter about security, especially password security, but they never mentioned specific incidents. We laughed and laughed at that.
During this time I also supplemented my income with other computer-related tasks. I tutored for a couple of classes far beyond any I had actually taken, with some success. I used my on-the-job experience with Enable (a Lotus 1-2-3 equivalent) to help an EE professor make fancy charts of findings from his radar work. When I wasn't doing those things, I was teaching myself programming on the new 128KB Macintosh computers at UNYN. I first learned 68K assembly, because I couldn't afford any of the compilers then available. My first project was a disassembler, which actually taught me a lot about instruction sets and so on - learning that would serve me well later. I also created what must have been one of the first Mac virus programs, though I didn't call it that.
While I was there, I also made a habit of helping other users recover what they could of MacWrite files which got corrupted with alarming frequency. This endeared me to the CC consultants, who wanted nothing to do with Macs. That's probably why they turned a blind eye when I continued using those Macs after I had left my university job and technically shouldn't have had access any more. They'd just send people out to me with their Mac problems. It was really quite a good deal for everyone.
The other thing that happened during this time was that I encountered my first online forums. There were two on the mainframe - *FORUM and CNFR:CONFER (where * means it was a system facility and CNFR was the name of an account). Not long after that, I started getting involved with M-Net, which was one of the first public-access UNIX systems. It ran a discussion system called PicoSpan, and the people I met through that had a lot to do with the next part of my story.