Thijs Cobben - Data Alchemist

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How it started

When I was 11 years old, in 1982, I got a book on Basic from my mother. I didn’t own a computer then, but I was a member of the “Eindhoven Computer Association” and took a course there: once a week, I went to the club and played with a Commodore PET-20, Tandy TRS-III or a whopping Apple IIe computer.

Partially financed from saved birthday and pocket money, we bought a ZX Spectrum computer, and I spent hours and hours typing listings from book, adapting them, and learning how to do some decent BASIC programming (sorry, Mr. Dijkstra! )

My father was enthousiastic. As a radiologist, he did a lot of research on the efficiency of radiology departments, and did so on a type writer with tabular stops for data tables, and on millimeter paper with a rotring pen for graphs. He bought the first Apple Macintosh out there, on my advice, and I learned Overvue, one of the first “spreadsheet” programs out there. A world opened itself to me. The world of functional matrix programming, that we are now all so competent in, called spreadsheet.

Then, in 1986 aged 15, I got my first job, cash desk employee at a Video rental shop (how eighties). My “basic computer skills”, now enriched with a Scheidegger typing diploma, were the main requirement I got the job. It included data entry in dBaseIII for new members, rentals with a barcode scanner and then you had to press some F-key: easy for me. After a few weeks, I programmed a “query” by which to retrieve the members that had their birthday this week for a promotion mailing, and I never sat behind the cash desk again, but had my first data engineering/programming job, completing the home made (unbelievable we did that) ERP video rental system the guy was single handed programming.

My mother, also a doctor, officially hired me for a few hundred guilders and I spent quite some hours programming a “multiple screen data entry wizard” in a VBA (1992 or so) precursor and actually entered hundreds of her research records (immunity versus respirotary diseases in child care vs home care situations) in Microsoft Excel. And here I learned event based programming, object orientation and the use of an IDE (well… a predecessor) in modern application development.

And so it all started, and this path ended up in me studying Cognitive Artifical Intelligence, also ahead of my time, followed by a first job as PhD student and scientific programmer at a computer science department, but here it all started, my 35 year career in data engineering, and that story will be the content of the next blog post.

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