The Relational Revolution

Or how I became a high tech cowboy

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All things great and small

The pendulum swings between individual choice and centralized control.

"All you need are flat files..."

said an old-time programmer friend.

I might have believed him a few years earlier, when I was creating simple flat file databases in Lotus 1-2-3 and SuperCalc. But once you've experienced a pardigm shift, there's no turning back.

Most people understand how to make a list. List makers used spreadsheets, in the personal computer world, as the earliest and simplest databases. And in the mainframe world VSAM files were powerful tools for manipulating large amounts of information. But flat files require a lot of wasted disk space for redundant data. To maintain different groups of data accurately for the same bunch of people took careful programming and data entry. And back in those days, disk space was very expensive. A terrabyte of data was science fiction and the really clever programmers could write fully functional applications with 128 bytes of memory.

Enter Edgar Codd, who wrote "A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks." This paper began a movement that allowed Larry Ellison to become one of the richest men in America.

There's an old saying, "A prophet has no honor in his homeland" and that certainly seemed true of IBM. Many wondered why IBM did not adopt the new relational database model immediately. But the relational model, while saving disk space, was very expensive in terms of memory. It wasn't until mainframe and personal computers become more powerful that a relational database became practical.

And this is where my personal story begins.

I started life as a psychology major in college. But my part time job was as a research assistant for one of my professors. When he asked me to do statistical analyses of his research work, Professor Johnson gave me a stack of surveys, a manual on SPSS, a mainframe statistical software package, and access to the computer lab. I got to learn how to use a keypunch (no, I'm not really that old, but the computer lab was!!!) and figure out how to write ANOVA equations using punch cards. I went from a sense of wonder (key punch machines are really pretty cool) to an overwhelming fog of confusion when no matter what I tried, the printout (yes, green bar paper - there were no terminals at UC Davis!) kept coming back with errors. This was my first experience with software versioning and syntax errors. It seems my kindly professor had given me the OLD SPSS manual and instead of a semi-colon, I was supposed to type a period.

But never mind the challenges, I was in love!

Saving the world by making money

Like many young people, I chose psychology because I was idealistic and wanted to save the world. And I LOVED studying psychology. It was a ton of fun. But the only career options I saw in my field required a Masters, Doctorate or medical degree. And to be a practicing psychologist meant that I would be working day in and day out with disturbed people, which did NOT seem like much fun to me.

Computers, on the other hand, fascinated me. And more importantly, they helped people become better at what they needed to do to make money. It seemed like a win-win scenario to me.

So as the personal computer revolution was unrolling, I found myself moving away from developing mainframe applications in Fortran and moving firmly to the PC world. I helped bring the personal computer revolution to McClellan Air Force Base and small businesses around Sacramento. And as the relational database model hit the personal computer platform, I moved to applications like D:BASE 2, D:BASE 3, Clipper and R:BASE. I had more computing power at my fingertips than the Apollo program!

It was an exciting time to be alive!


To see one of my original works, download this R:BASE manual. I'll warn you, I wrote this before the days of WYSIWYG, so its not pretty. But what a difference it made to our branch offices and their ability to serve their customers!