Qualifications of a 704 Programmer

Keith Murray

Working as a programmer in the 1950s at MIT was surprisingly much different from the programming jobs one sees today. Instead of the graduate degrees, years of experience needed, and the ability to independently work on complex projects alone, qualifications to become an IBM 704 “Electronic Data Processing Machine Programmer” included a high school education, scoring well on an aptitude test, and the ability to work well with others. While a college education, especially one in mathematics, was helpful, the field of programming was so new and unfamiliar, newly hired programmers would complete a six week intensive training course to familiarize themselves with the logic thinking behind programming and the mechanical components of the IBM 704 itself. Using an aptitude test may seem strange as a qualification for a highly technical job, but the profession of programmers was so new that no other feasible qualifications existed. The idea was that if prospective programmers had aptitudes and personalities similar to current programmers then they would be a good fit for the job.

While there is a conception today of programmers being antisocial and able to work most effectively by themselves, such a person would have been useless working on an IBM 704 computer. Running a program on this early computer required manual manipulation of card punchers, card readers, magnetic drum units, wired control panels, and many other advanced machines that would have been impossible to handle alone. A team of people, each with a specialized job, collectively ran the IBM 704 and it was imperative that the programmer worked well in group situations to effectively communicate what they needed to be computed.

There also existed multiple types of programmers each varying with experience and proficiency in programming. At the base level were “trainee programmers” or “coders” that were in the process of becoming proficient in programing and were tasked with writing machine instructions based of off ideas from more senior programmers. Above coders were regular “programmers” who wrote block diagrams and flowcharts that represented the underlying logic of a program and would be later written into code by the coders. The most senior programmers were referred to as “professional programmers” and held the same responsibilities as regular programmers but were tasked with programing the most complex problems and had the highest level of experience and competency. The ultimate goal of a programmer was to obtain a high level of accuracy. In a memo from Dr. Verzuh about the qualifications for a programmer, it was written “2 top-notch programmer recently prepared a program of 6,000 instructions in 34 hours―containing only 1 error! Accuracy is most important!”