The way it used to be

John W. Backus, who, while working for I.B.M., developed Fortran, a landmark computer programming language, died on March 17, at age 82. In the NY Times obituary, he describes how he got his job at I.B.M.

Shortly before he graduated [from Columbia University with a master’s degree in math in 1950], Mr. Backus wandered by the I.B.M. headquarters on Madison Avenue in New York, where one of its room-size electronic calculators was on display.

When a tour guide inquired, Mr. Backus mentioned that he was a graduate student in math; he was whisked upstairs and asked a series of questions Mr. Backus described as math “brain teasers.” It was an informal oral exam, with no recorded score.

He was hired on the spot. As what? “As a programmer,” Mr. Backus replied, shrugging. “That was the way it was done in those days.”

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