A life through computers- memories of how I became a computer engineer

The first turning point in my life was somewhere in 2001, when my father all of a sudden bought a computer. I have being trying hard to convince him to get one for over a year with various arguments, even to the extend of a claim that all but me in my class had one at their home - I just cleared my 4th standard from a public school. But he fell for it once he was attending some official meeting where they presented some content in powerpoint and it gave him an impression that computers would aid in learning better. And that very same day, he came home with a brand new desktop - a Compaq Presario Desktop, with 64 MB RAM and 32 GB hard disk - it was a big deal at that time.

[ Image (left to right): Our old Compaq Presario desktop monitor; A quote that I found interesting during Microsoft App Fest 2012 ]

As with any kids of that age, me and my brother mostly kept fighting for our slot for gaming, but apart from that I was also deeply intrigued by the working of computer. We had an on-site free repair warranty for a year with that computer, and I should say that none would have used something like that better than me. In that one year, the technician at the store became one like a family member. He had come home several times to fix some mess that I made experimenting with the MS-DOS commands that I learnt when I paid visits to my mothers school. My mother’s school had a mammoth computer with gigantic floppy disks to boot the MS DOS operating system, with which part-time instructors taught basic DOS commands.

Fast forward to 2004, when I had already changed school and was an 8th standard boy in Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya, Kottayam. I used to bunk my classes, mostly art and PT classes, and spend that time in the computer room. By then I was already an expert in operating a computer, even formatting and configuring operating systems and even removing and dusting the RAM module - all learnt out of the mess that I used to make at home. And there was this passionate computer teacher who, although was probably fed up of me messing around, kept accommodating me. And one day, when there was no one to represent our school in computer science for the cluster level science exhibition (one that involved students from the south and central Kerala cluster), he asked me to sit with a powerpoint presentation that I created on "Biological Cells" - probably because my home was very nearby to the residential school, and the event was during the holidays, and he knew that it wouldn't bother me much due to my deep passion for sitting in the lab.

It would have been just a play of fate that I was selected for the South Indian regional computer science exhibition - probably because the judge didn't understand other far better exhibits including a network administration system that I still remember. I was packing my bags to represent south and central Kerala in the regional science exhibition in Ongol, Andra Pradesh where students from all over the southern and central India competed. I was the youngest of all who had reached the fair, and it was apparent that I am not going to get through. With mostly far advanced and interesting exhibits, a power point presentation didn't stand a chance. So I came back empty handed after a week - but not really! I carried something in my heart that caught my mind - "Visual Basic", which a 11st standard guy with an awesome exhibit told me through which he created his wonderful piece of software - the one that eventually won the first prize and qualified for the nationals.

When I came back, the mid year vacation was still not over - so I went straight back home. Incidentally, I had something waiting for me at home- my mother and brother were pretty engaged with a programming language that she had to teach at school from that year (she had to teach IT from that year, although she was actually a maths teacher). She told me that the language was used to create "diagrams" and it was called BASIC. I initially mistook it for the Visual Basic and was all at once passionate. And then was the second turning point in my life with computers - I learnt the absolute basics of the BASIC programming language, mostly to draw shapes and print text on the black screen. To this time that memory inspires me - the fact that it was my mother who taught me first to code.

Back to school and the hostel when the school reopened, and I was more eager than ever to get to the computer lab. I knew from the person who told me about VB (Visual Basic) that they had it to study in their 11th class. But my request to teach me was turned down by the teacher, citing that VB is not something for an 8th standard boy. I am not sure what kept me going - but I was not ready to give up. Over the weekend I reached our academic block early and sneaked in to the 11th standard class room through a broken window. Students used to keep most of the books in the class itself - since even study time used to be in the academic block in Navodaya, and people rarely used to take books to hostel. I swiftly came out with a stolen text on Informatics Practices by Sumita Arora. I read half the book in two days, and kept it back it before the owner noticed. In my next computer lab session, I tried what I read and was able to design an application window with a button, which when clicked popped a message box that said "Hi, welcome Aswin". But I was caught red-handed by the computer teacher by the sound of the alert that popped, and to my surprise, he was impressed and promised me that he would secretly teach me to code. And sometime soon, a very passionate and inspiring librarian joined me in my adventures.

Then for 3 years, VB was my food, my games, and my art. Any moment that I could steal in the routine lifestyle at Navodaya, I would be present in the lab. And during the vacations, neither did I want to eat, nor to sleep - I was busy programming. My school was mostly all complaints on me bunking classes and letting loose on my studies. Although concerned about my life being limited to computers, my father still supported me with books and MSDN Help CDs- internet and Google was not available for everyone in India to look for code hints at those times. A book he bought for me - the Mastering Visual Basic 6.0, by Evangelos Petroutsos was my single biggest source of wisdom for a life as programmer. And in those years, I created numerous softwares- a typical personal contact management system, a journal application, and so many others. And then I thought of branding my useless softwares - I created a "virtual" brand namely "Cyberacles". And the first branded software was a file/folder hiding utility created to hide the programming stuffs that I do at my school, from some mischievous students who always used to delete my work from the shared systems, and the lab-in-charge teacher who was thoroughly opposed to anything out of "normal".

And one day, one of my classmate found me using this tool that I created, and he wanted the tool for a different purpose - to hide porn in his computer back at home. Conventional software would take too much time to encrypt and decrypt his stuff - because they were probably large files. But my tool, although not at all "secure" from a cryptographic point of view, would just rename and hide all files/folder that you select with a click and set a system attribute. The tool that I named "Expressshield" maintains a journal of all such shielded files/folders and make it available as soon as one enters their secret password. It became and instant hit, and soon started getting high demand. Then I made a license tweak and started making a profit of Rs. 50 per license. That became the first revenue for Cyberacles.

Then I "flourished my business" through various methods. Software on demand, custom designed birthday cards, computer servicing during vacations - and by the time I made it to my 11th standard, I had already made money not less than Rs.3000. It was such a huge amount for a boy who never had to use money - thanks to the Navodaya system. The main source of income were the Expressshield application and the custom birthday cards, which I made with edited photos and charged Rs.50 per card, whereas printing two cards used to cost me only Rs. 30. The main customers were budding romantic heroes who wanted to impress their counter part; and loving children/siblings who wanted to make a surprise for their family.

One of my most favourite creation till date was a Malayalam typing tool that I made for my father. Back those days my father, who was a government employee, had to create many documents in the state government official language - Malayalam. And to create such documents, one had to know the Malayalam keyboard layout which was, like the QWERTY keyboard was for English, pretty shuffled up. One morning I saw him giving up, frustrated, typing a large document, and within the next 24 hours, forfeiting my food, sleep and all other things that should matter, I could create a simple software which had a side panel that had the Malayalam alphabets alphabetically sorted and one can click the corresponding alphabet to get it on the rich text editor. The editor even supported most of the RTF styles and the tool was more than sufficient for his use, and he and many other people in his circles continued to use the software for several years. I didn't charge anyone for this tool, simply because them using it was my best reward and I considered it a tribute to Malayalam from a budding software engineer.

The Malayalam typing tool, that I named as "Easy Malayalam" and a school management system that I created for my school took me to the National Science Exhibition 2007, that I missed in 2004, and was the single most prestigious moment of my life till date. I still remember that my father gifted me a red, small, foldable 2 GB pen-drive before I left for the fair and was my constant companion for several years, including my college days when I used to use it to ship the various softwares that I created to the "clients". It was also in 2007 that I was joined with the my dearest friend and partner in digital crime at school, Vishnu, and we had big dreams to take Cyberacles to levels too high.

In 2009 my life with computers took a downward turn with me choosing Electronics and Communication Engineering as my engineering major, over Computer Science and Engineering. The decision was partly due to persistent suggestions from my teachers and relatives to stay away from computer science due to fallen jobs market following the 2008 economic recession. And partly due to the fact, both me and Vishnu considered ourselves to be already masters in software and some good knowledge in Electronics would aid us build our own computer sometime after the course. Because our ranks in the Kerala engineering entrance examinations were not sufficient to get Electronics and Communication Engineering in the institution that we dreamt of- Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology (RIT) - one of the best engineering colleges in Kerala- we had to make compromises. Vishnu stayed with the institute choosing Electrical Engineering and I chose Electronics in a lower rated, but still pretty reputed, Govt. College of Engineering, Chengannur. But with great disappointment, we later realised that very few could even build a radio on own after the laborious engineering course.

Later with various obligations, both Vishnu and me had to say good bye to our childhood dream - Cyberacles, although we, accompanied by my brother, still participated under the brand in various hackathons like the prestigious Yahoo! Open Hack and Microsoft AppFest even afterwards. I later settled with TCS and eventually got into TCS Research and Innovation, where I still am somewhat aligned to what I always enjoyed working on. I still try to develop software in my free time including the one which I used to write and post this blog post, but much less time compared to my sleepless nights. Still, my life through computers continues…

[ Image: The blogging application that I am developing with Electron. You can see the previous post in its draft form. ]

Very frequently I feel a sense of gratitude to my family, it was my mother who taught me programming first, my brother who kept me motivated- giving suggestions and appreciations on even the simplest of the creations and more importantly quietly sacrificing his turns for gaming, and my father who supported me with whatever I needed, whether it be computers, expensive books, pen-drives, software licenses, and most importantly the moral support at times when the whole world appeared against me.

Today, out of many such moments when all these played through my mind, I thought I should share this as a wonderful memory of my life. Felt much happier after writing all this down and organising it. Please do let me know your feedback as comments below and I really look forward to listen to and discuss about such cherishing moments you had.

2 comments:

  1. If you have the real passion, nothing can stop you from getting succeed, which you have already proven in your childhood. Keep hardworking. Wish you all success.
    Jins

    ReplyDelete