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A brief history of ‘those darn computers’

Country Roads_Arvid Huisman

One of the scarier events of the past 40 years for some of us older baby boomers was the advent of the personal computer. We saw them coming in the ’70s, and by the ’80s many of us were expected to actually learn how to operate a PC.

Four decades ago, guys my age were asking, “Have you learned to operate a computer yet?”

In the autumn of 1987 I was computer illiterate, but I was shopping for a computer for my family, thinking a new PC might be a nice family Christmas gift.

At the office my secretary had a PC on her desk, and I was happy to still be using my electric typewriter. If I needed something done on the computer, my secretary would take care of it.

Our children, ages 14 and 10 at the time, would be needing a computer for their school work, I assumed.

Then, in mid-December, a head hunter called and told me about a “career opportunity” that sounded promising. One thing led to another and by mid-January 1988 I was involved in a lengthy job interview for that career opportunity. The three men representing the prospective employer were proud of their efforts to equip their properties with the latest computerization (Apple MacIntosh) and advised that the individual they hired would be expected to be (or to become) proficient in the use of a computer.

That news was unsettling, but the situation represented a true career opportunity, so when it was offered I accepted. Besides, the company’s IT (Information Technology) guy told me that MacIntosh computers were easy to operate.

When I began my new job several weeks later, I was 40 years old and still computer illiterate. After the corporate IT guy installed a new Macintosh computer on my desk, he gave me a 15-minute tutorial and then left.

The next morning I remembered how to turn on the computer but had forgotten at least half of what the IT guy told me the day before. I finally figured out the word processor, but the design and spreadsheet programs remained out of my mental reach.

I had been advised that our annual budgeting process would begin in September and that it would be done on Excel spreadsheets. My budgeting experience heretofore was with paper spreadsheets, a calculator, a sharp No. 2 pencil and a sturdy eraser.

It was now mid-June and I was getting nervous about my failure to acquire necessary computer skills.

Meanwhile, we had hired a young woman in the production department who showed exemplary skills on Mac computers. I asked her for help.

Within an hour this young woman had shown me how to set up an Excel spreadsheet and the essentials of designing a basic advertisement.

Budget time came and went and, in spite of some challenges, I presented corporate management with a budget that needed only a few minor tweaks.

By the end of that first year of honing computer skills I was amazed at the efficiencies provided by desktop computers.

Over the decades since, I have enjoyed learning more computer skills including PowerPoint and web design.

At a professional improvement seminar about 20 years ago, the instructor told me that he had out-of-work students who had been earning well into six figures but had never learned to do things as simple as email. Now they had to learn these skills to find new employment.

Looking back, I was glad I learned these things when I was a youngster of 40.

When I see toddlers playing games on their mother’s cellphones, I remember the computer skills I had to learn as a middle-aged adult. And I marvel at changes I have seen in my lifetime.


Arvid Huisman began writing Country Roads 32 years ago, and today the column appears in several Iowa newspapers. He can be contacted at huismaniowa@gmail.com.

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