I've woken up in 1973. Until I can figure out how to monetize my knowledge of coming political, economic, and social trends, I need to support myself somehow.

So... I walk into one of the major computing companies (IBM, Digital Equipment, Bell Labs, Atari, Texas Instruments, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, EDS, etc.) and ask for a job. The receptionist directs me to a waiting room. "Someone will be with you shortly."(*)

Sitting among avocado-green and rust-orange chairs, ashtrays and Life magazines on the coffee table, I'm feeling a little anxious. I have no credentials to show. Well, I do have credentials, but they are in the future and the dates might raise some suspicions. I will have to impress them purely with my knowledge and skill.

I carry in my head a broad palette of contemporary computing knowledge: Python, C/C++, SQL, SQL Server, DOS commandline, a full repertoire of algorithms (searching, sorting, binary trees, image processing, geometry, numerical methods, etc.) and lots of mathematical and statistical methods.

However, most of these technologies have not been invented yet, or they are still in their infancy and are not yet widespread. And I don't know the first thing about whatever they might be using (Fortran, COBOL, IBM mainframe operating systems, punch cards).

Will I be able to impress the hiring manager? How? What should I emphasize?

(*) Aside to youngsters: There was a time when there were far fewer gatekeepers in the hiring process. If you walked into a corporate headquarters from off the street and asked for a job, you could reasonably expect to be taken seriously, or at least treated politely. Especially if you were dressed up and had a briefcase.

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    Inthe70s, everyone who didn't spell Cobol with a K was hired. No waiting time at all. One was directly pulled to the next available desk. Also, no briefcase or nice dressing needed. Not looking like a bum was all needed. I was there, I've seen them, including a reasonable number of prior shoe sellers - think Al Bundy.
    – Raffzahn
    Mar 15, 2021 at 14:41
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    You're going to be the one suffering impossible culture shock, having to draw IPO flow charts with pencil and template, and write FORTRAN and COBOL source by hand on paper, then banging it onto punch cards.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 15, 2021 at 14:48
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    Getting a job at DEC might cause the least shock. Prepare to use lots of GOTO statements!!
    – RonJohn
    Mar 15, 2021 at 14:50
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    ObAnecdote: twitter.com/sarahdal/status/1371150630350426113 Mar 15, 2021 at 15:29
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    I appreciate the prose, but on this site you are going to need to be more direct about what you are asking to not have the question deemed "opinion-based". Maybe something like "What general CS knowledge would have been considered essential in 1973 to land a technical job at IBM"?
    – Brian H
    Mar 15, 2021 at 15:53

3 Answers 3


Make your way to Palo Alto, California, and find the Xerox PARC facility. Do whatever it takes to get a conversation with Alan Kay. Admittedly, you don't know any Smalltalk, but neither does anybody else. Your ability to think in terms of a collection of software objects interacting with each other will impress the hell out of him.

He'll get you a job doing some of the most exciting work available in 1973. Prototyping the first desktop computer as an office machine. The graphical user interface and the mouse. Ethernet. Email. The print server. Object oriented programming.

You won't have to deal with COBOL or Punch cards. It's all interactive computing, although it's on timeshared systems. They will be using Tenex, on either a modified PDP-10 or a Xerox copy of a PDP-10 called MAXC. Your knowledge of C, if you can regress a little, will come in very handy.

You won't make a lot of money, but you will get by long enough to enjoy it. The bad news is you won't go down in history. Everything you do will be swept aside when Xerox senior management decides against trying to cash in on the "office of the future". Some day, after the bad news has broken, there will be a kid that visits Xerox PARC and learns what the future holds. His name is Steve Jobs. Follow him.

For the Xerox PARC timeline, start here. Also read Dealers of Lightning.

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    Modified PDP-10? They built their own!! From scratch!! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDP-10#Clones . Back in the day, you couldn't have a first-class presence on the Arpanet if you didn't have a PDP-10, but the Xerox management saw DEC as too much of a competitor, and they refused to buy one for the lab. So, the lab boys built their own, PARC-MAXC. Mar 15, 2021 at 18:15
  • I mentioned MAXC, but I'm unsure of the timeline. Some of the workers there, like Bob Metcalfe had previously worked at PDP-10 sites. I think, although I'm not sure, that they started using the services of some timesharing vendor before they built MAXC. If the timesharing vendor was offering Tenex, then it would have been running on a PDP-10 with a third party page map. Mar 15, 2021 at 18:53
  • Some of the PARC guys, including Thacker and Lampson, came from Project Genie via the Berkeley Computer Corp. Thacker and Lampson were behind the MAXC (and later the Alto).
    – dave
    Mar 16, 2021 at 1:08
  • They even built a second MAXC. See e.g. github.com/PDP-10/maxc/blob/master/pdf/the_maxc_systems.pdf Mar 16, 2021 at 7:58
  • Alan Kay knew from the start that he wanted inheritance. However, he absolutely hated classes. He hated them so much that he excluded inheritance from Smalltalk for a long time, because he couldn't figure out how to do inheritance without classes. Only when Dan Ingalls came up with the idea of classes being objects themselves and instances of meta classes (which are also objects themselves) did he grudgingly add classes to Smalltalk. Ten years later, SELF came along, and he must have beaten himself up. If you know even the tiniest bit about JavaScript, you will be the hero of PARC. Mar 20, 2021 at 16:41

Depends on the position.

Honestly, you're not really qualified for a lot of the work.

You don't know the languages, you don't know the operations, much of the work is routine processing and ETL, so it's not as if it's "exciting" work. In that sense, while you have a grasp of computers and their operations, you don't have any actual experience in the things they do. You'd have a bit of a step up at the entry level, but you might be surprised how little what you know carries back.

The real question, is whether you'd actually enjoy the work. Turn around takes a long time, you might be "coding" on paper forms to have them keyed in by someone else on a batch of cards. It may be too mechanical.

I, for example, like to iterate. Write something, try it out, test it, fix it, rinse and repeat. Let the computer do computer things (static type checking compilers for the win). Having to be stuck behind coding with a pencil and a 24 hours turn around, I'm not sure if my lizard brain would have the patience for it. It might be too methodical and detail oriented for me.

I could do the work, but the workflow I may not enjoy. I took a COBOL class that required us to use cards. It was the first level of COBOL, and many students first encounter with the computer system, or, honestly, at that time, ANY computer system. So, for them, the cards were less of an issue.

But I'd already done all that, I was used to the system we were using, this was not my first rodeo. And after using the cards for the first project, it was just way to stifling compared to a line editor and 1200 baud terminal. I didn't do any of the followup projects on cards.

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    My workflow in that decade was essentially the same as it is now - write code on terminal, iterate until done. I didn't write no flowcharts (unless as part of end-of-project documentation). The only difference was that the 11/40 (which most of the time was "my personal machine") was down the hall, so I had to walk down there if my kernel-mode code crashed the OS. Oh, and the OS listings were on (ugh) microfiche. This was at DEC UK, and I was a freshly-minted graduate.
    – dave
    Mar 15, 2021 at 16:19
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    When hired, I didn't know the hardware, I didn't know the language, I didn't know the OS, I didn't know the protocol I was implementing, I didn't have any work experience. But I could write programs and answer programming questions.
    – dave
    Mar 15, 2021 at 16:25
  • Thank you for the unvarnished reality: "You'd have a bit of a step up at the entry level, but you might be surprised how little what you know carries back." That's about what I expected. Technology changes quickly.
    – SlowMagic
    Mar 16, 2021 at 14:36
  • "Didn't know the language" is irrelevant. I started my first paid programming job in 1969. Since then I reckon I have learned a new language every two years, on average. Of course I've completely forgotten how to write the ones I don't still use regularly, but I can probable still read most of them.
    – alephzero
    Mar 16, 2021 at 16:25

Depend on the country, really. For example, in the Soviet block you would be asked for credentials, not to decide if you are suitable for the job, but because they have to know your education to calculate your salary. And you would not be able to provide any. Speaking of it, even in the liberal USA you would find it difficult to persuade anyone your shiny new driving license issued in 2015 is not an obvious fake...

The best bet, if you ignore the document issue, would be to get a FORTRAN and ALGOL manual and familiarize yourself with the languages before the interview. WIth a C background, it should not be difficult (unlike aiming for COBOL), especially the latter if you remember a bit of high school Pascal. Knowing algorithms, mathematics, you could be hired. There is however one crucial issue, you will be inevitably asked what is your experience and where you got it. Remember, there are no home computers at all. And "I've read a lot of literature" sounds weird...

  • Thank you for bringing in the perspective of other countries. With the list of American corporations, my question was implicitly very USA-centric.
    – SlowMagic
    Mar 16, 2021 at 14:36
  • Cobol would be the one that got you the highest paycheck seeing as it was the OG language that concerned itself with solving business problems (Being a business-oriented language). Enabling business as a programmer has always been the most lucrative even if it is not as sexy as whatever calculus problems the math nerds want to solve.
    – Neil Meyer
    Mar 19, 2021 at 17:01
  • COBOL knowledge might even come handy in your later years. May 4, 2021 at 13:18

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