How I got my first computer

I saw a computer for the first time in 6th grade. The year was 1996. My uncle was a lecturer at the local government polytechnic and hoped that my brother, who was in the 10th grade, would join it. So, he invited him to come to check out the computer room.” Back in the 90s in India, both air conditioning and computers were a luxury most people couldn’t afford. It was either well-funded schools or rich individuals. When they did have computers, they were kept away from dust and heat in special air-conditioned rooms, which became known as computer rooms.

As a middle-class family, we had neither. I don’t have any background knowledge of how that computer room in the local polytechnic came to be, and how long had it been there; but somehow, my brother was allowed to be there due to my uncle’s connections. And one day, my brother allowed me to come to join him.

He wrote a simple program in BASIC and showed me how it worked. The CRT monitor, the keyboard, the ability to change what the monitor showed and computed” — I was instantly snared. After a bit of hesitation, he allowed me to type on the keyboard. I doubt too much time had passed before the warden” of the computer room shouted from the back:

This is a lab for polytechnic students. Not for kids!”

And I got thrown out of the room. My uncle, behind the scenes, probably tried to convince the warden to allow me in the lab, but having already made the exception for one (my brother), he didn’t feel the need to extend it to me. It was my first and last day in the computer room. But, I was hooked.

What my uncle did do, was get me a BASIC programming book from the poly library. This was a thick, college-level book with lots of programming examples — even to build car-racing games.

So, I read the book. And started practicing writing programs via pen and paper. My parents considered putting me into a computer learning course, but its fees were even higher than my school fees (Rs. 400 /mo at the time, equivalent to ~$5 today). There’s no way they could afford it. So, pen and paper it was.

My uncle did one more thing. He got a poly student to draw the QWERTY keyboard on cardboard. Which he gave to me. And I used it as a way to learn typing.

Around the same time, I also switched schools. The new school was a much bigger school, with thousands of kids — and a computer room”. While computer education wasn’t a course, once in a couple of weeks, they’d take our class to the room. The period happened to be in the afternoon, which is when there were frequent power cuts. So, we would just sit in the room, doing nothing. While other students enjoyed the relative coolness left by the turned-off air conditioners, I’d longingly look at the computers around me, hoping that they would turn on.

And when they were indeed on (perhaps 20% of the time), 6 students would share one computer. Thankfully, most of the other students were interested only enough to want to type on it, but not run their own programs. So, I was able to collaboratively get my own hand-written program entered into the terminal.

I remember being so enamored with computers that one night I had an elaborate dream about my parents buying me one. I couldn’t believe it. So, I woke up. And they indeed had bought me a computer. I was ecstatic!

Only this time, I woke up for good (dream within a dream). And found none around me. It was so disappointing that I can still recall the dream and the feeling, decades later. Eventually, without any practical access to computers, I lost the flame.

Fast forward a few years. I got into Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. The education and the flight ticket were made possible by a very generous sponsorship by the Singapore government, given to around 50 Indian students every year (in 2003). Luckily (in hindsight), I had chosen to pursue Computer Science.

The funny thing was, I didn’t have any practical experience with computers, nor any idea about the future prospects of a job in the field. Silicon Valley or its boom/bust hadn’t touched the small town in northern India where I grew up. My brother had pursued Electronics Engineering on my uncle’s recommendation. The same recommendation was passed to me. So, for me to choose computers was nothing more than a lucky gut feel decision, supported by my mom.

In Aug 2003, I landed at NTU, Singapore. And after a couple of months, I was told that the Singapore government provides loans to students to buy a laptop. We had two choices, IBM Thinkpad and a Toschiba.

I chose the Thinkpad. Finally in 2003, 7 years after I learnt how to code on a piece of paper, I had a personal computer.

And with that, the hacking began. Pretty quickly the Windows installation that came with my laptop was replaced with Gentoo Linux. Two years later, I built Flickrfs. Three years later, I was one of the only two students selected from my university that year to join Google.

April 12, 2022