It is rather a tough thing explaining to my ninety-plus father what exactly my son, a software engineer, does for a living. The mere mention of computers leaves this generation frozen. I do not blame them how they see their grandchildren, immersed in computer games, avoiding all else even food.
Moreover, the in-between generation is seen to spend a good deal of time on social media. Such activities, connected to the computer, seem frivolous and pointless to our elders.
In this piece I try to explore career paths which have opened up over the past two decades or so in the rapidly-evolving and exciting information technology (IT) field. The proliferation of IT usage in all walks of life makes this issue topical.
A generation ago, IT used to be known as data processing (DP) with good reason. Computers evolved, in stages, from calculating machines which could carry out quite complicated calculations on their own. A quaint remnant is the cash register. Computers made voluminous calculations easier and quicker.
Just imagine the sheer volume of data and work involved in population censuses, telephone directories or banking transactions. Without the power of processing millions of data provided by computers such tasks would be impossible.
In time computer scientists began to tackle a wide menu of information- weather, pensions, health, sales, accounting, personnel; you name it. Computers being dumb had to be told how to process, analyse and present each type of data at different stages. Scientists wrote 'languages'-sometimes two or three layers of it to guide the electronic circuitry, simply a conduit carrying ones and zeros in the form of electronic pulses.
Programming (or coding) was born to write thousands of lines of instructions in different languages. A logical mind was most suited to this type of painstaking task. Graduates of mathematics and physics were co-opted as a result. While great milestones were being chalked up in software, the visible design and engineering parts of computers also made strides in tandem.
From the clunky machines of the fifties and sixties, hardware evolved which were more sleek, speedy, lightweight and user-friendly. These gadgets needed much less space. Hardware mainly consisted of miniature circuits, plastic body, keyboards, speakers, displays and other paraphernalia.
Computers began to be assembled in many locations worldwide. Knock-ons and clones were available at much reduced prices. People took to computers – variously referred to as laptops, tablets or notebooks – like fish to water. Personal computers (PCs) became an essential accessory and a fashion statement and not just for IT professionals.
In the world of computing, supply creates its own demand. A seven-year-old schoolboy, an unemployed woman, a lawyer, a housewife and a retiree are examples of people who have become hooked. Some spend as much time, or more, in front of a computer as they do for sleeping. The problem is you need the PC for work and leisure; there is no escape.
How does the PC help in everyday life? Booking a trip, checking your credit card balance, comparing the prices of second-hand cars, paying the internet bill, can all be done from home. Students routinely undertake research using their laptops.
They access encyclopaedias, listen to recorded lectures, look up statistics or gawk at priceless paintings. That is not all. They can refer to online dictionaries, get copies checked by teachers or collaborate with their mates. The sky is the limit.
But who is working behind the scenes to enable us to 'surf' the net with ease and work 'off-line' as needed? The answer: an army of web developers. Front-end developers design the websites we visit and sometimes interact with. These workers make the websites feature-rich, attractive and user-friendly.
Back-end developers set up the websites, 'host' them and make them respond to visitors' prompts. These two career tracks (sometimes rolled into one) attract thousands because of high demand and relatively fat pay cheque. IT education enables young people to become self-employed not depending on the job market.
Some other specialisms, the list not being exhaustive, are database administrators, IT Help Desk persons, network engineers and data scientists. Many other types of work are surely evolving to satisfy the demands of computer users whether articulated or not.
The Author is a retired bank officer.