20 Years Ago

Exactly twenty years ago today, at the end of a teacher’s strike that delayed the beginning of the first semester from Autumn until January 15th, my course (the first batch of young hopefuls trying to major in Information Technology and Computer Science at the IST) started the morning at 8:00 by filling up the then brand new post-grad amphitheater, where we were told in no uncertain terms we would change the world (since IT wasn’t yet a commodity back then).

Due to the delay in kicking off the year, we packed two semesters into one during 1990, with two sets of classes and finals before Autumn. And then we went right back in for another one – the first proper semester of the second year.

Some of those we took alongside post-grad students, as our curricula was mixed and matched from existing MSc courses – things like programming, data structures and a good portion of digital electronics were considered post-grad topics back then, and they were taught to us with the same degree of detachment and demand of personal initiative that was applied to post-grads.

Out of slightly over 200 students, roughly half flunked old chestnuts like Mathematical Analysis – plain old calculus was, traditionally, seen as “too easy”, so the IST Maths department happily chewed on the student corpus where it regarded theorem proving and n-dimensional math and lowered their grade point averages in a sort of penance that lasted at least two years into the course for most folk.

Over the years, erosion and burnout took its toll – only about 80 managed to graduate from what should theoretically be a 5-year course on 1994. When I decided to major in what was then called Computational Systems (i.e., systems engineering, with a bigger emphasis on hardware, telecommunications and networking), our major group were less than 20 – and I was fortunate enough to be part of a trio that lasted long into the course, since we worked well together in both labs and semester projects.

Even back then, we learned that hand-picking your team was key, probably since the days when we started spending nights in basements blinking at ancient VT-220 VAX terminals (mostly amber by then, with a few dodgy ones in green phosphor) and, quite literally, learning to hack the mainframe.

Come 1994 and a few more years of being the misfits on campus (not only did we share some classes with grad students, there was also the usual sense of being, quite literally, the new kids in the block, with some new facilities, completely new classes that were often made up as we went along during the semester, etc.), we finally got our diplomas handed over by the then Minister of Industry, for the faculty wanted to make a big deal out of it at the time – we were the first batch of LEIC students ever, and after jumping through the kind of hoops that we had, there were high hopes for us.

To say that the survivors became a close knit group would be an understatement.

We spread out over the world (some are still out there somewhere, from Zurich to Tokyo, with at least one lone nut in Australia and a few in the US), we built businesses of our own (most survived to this day, some were sold and became part of larger groups), dragged the classes of ’95 and ’96 along with us into the market (after lobbying for recognition by the Order of Engineers, which is a tale by itself), became both peers and good friends with some of our teachers (adding them to our little extended family) and mostly kept in touch, although I’ve drifted apart somewhat thanks to my industry’s propensity for closing in upon itself.

Like any other college class, we got older, married, had kids, drifted apart and back together over the years. Some got divorced. Some died. Some found themselves one day across the negotiation table from old mates, some ran across each other in airports, most have kept in touch somewhat through an ancient mailing-list I helped set up ages ago, when Yahoo Groups didn’t suck.

I was many things during that time in college: Enfant terrible (I actually wore a Mickey Mouse hat on campus a few times), dabbler in AI (nearly majored in that), graphics designer, hacker, packet sniffer, research assistant, editor of the course newspaper (and what a hotbed of insurrection and criticism that was…), integrated circuit designer, whiz coder, friend, lover, dreamer, crusader, MSc candidate, you name it – even teacher for a semester.

I worked part-time through most of it, joined INESC research, hopped over to the consulting side when I realized I really didn’t want to do a post-grad but would rather have a go at the telco world and the (then nascent) ISP trend, and the rest is mostly history by now.

But the common theme you’d get from talking to any one of the final 80 regarding those years would be “I survived”. It was all bleeding-edge stuff at the time, and we were quite literally left to fend for ourselves – a bit more so than your average college student given the “let’s make it up as we go along” theme that underlay some of the coursework.

Kind of set the overall tone (and pacing) for the rest of my life, really.

This weekend, a few of the bunch are celebrating our 20th anniversary in a hotel someplace – I’m not there for a bunch of reasons (mostly good ones), but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss them.

Here’s to us, folks. I’m still not sure if we changed the world like we were intended to, but we sure broke some ground.

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