My first paying job working with computers was with the Knox County, Missouri Assessor’s Office. It so happened that, in 1983 when I was starting college, my next door neighbor was the county assessor. He was someone I had always known, a local businessman before he ran for the office; his job, on the other hand, I knew nothing whatsoever about.
He called me up one night and asked me if I could “help out” with their computer. This was during the reassessment (in fact, let’s capitalize that as “The Reassessment”). I don’t really remember the whole history, but I can tell you that all the counties in Missouri were performing fresh assessments on all their real property. It was a huge job, and the State Tax Commission was providing money to assist with computerization of the data. It had never been done in most counties before that, so it was kind of a “Wild West” situation, with lots of people who knew a little about computers jumping in and trying to get something done.
I knew a little about computers. It was my freshman year in college, and I had experience with Apple II computers running DOS 3.3. That was about it, actually. But I said sure, I’ll do what I can. I spent a bunch of evenings in the office learning about their computer on my own before I ever talked about getting paid. Still, they were probably nuts to let me do it.
But it seems the salesman who sold them the computer had done all the programming. Is that alarming to you? It should be… little as I knew, I still knew more than he did.
I had barely started working for Knox County when I was called by the assessor of Shelby County, who had the same computer, bought from the same guy, with almost but not quite the same software setup. So I started working for Shelby County at almost the same time I did for Knox.
I spent 1984 just getting familiar with the programs the salesman had written (actually, the whole assessing-collecting system was put together on top of Profile 16+, the Tandy database software they had purchased with the computer) and writing or revising reports, screens, etc. It took me until the end of that year to really understand what he had done wrong, and that all came back not to technology but to understanding (or not understanding) the offices. I pitched a rewrite to both counties, and got the go-ahead to do it; it took me most of 1985 to get that done, working part-time while going to college.
I should mention that I was working for the Collector of Revenue in both counties as well as the Assessor. Part of the issues with the software system the salesman wrote was that it didn’t adequately separate the two offices (in each county) so that each office could work with the data only half a year, and the Collector couldn’t keep unpaid (delinquent) taxes on the computer from year to year. This was one of the first major changes I made.
The software remained in use in Knox County until 2012, thus getting about 27 years out of the rewritten system. Seriously. Shelby County bailed earlier, around 2008 if I recall correctly. When the old computers got too old, they switched to a network of DOS PCs running filePro+, and I transplanted all the data from old to new. When those computers got old, they got Windows XP computers and ran the program in DOS windows. It was the advent of Windows 7 that finally spelled the end for the old program… though you can make DOS programs run on Windows 7, it’s not easy, and it really sucks trying to network them. By that time the Shelby Co. Assessor had finally moved away from the old program, and the Knox Co. Assessor only used the personal property parts (having long before switched to a full appraisal system from another vendor) but the Collectors in both counties still used that old program. I’m happy to say I wrote the replacement programs for both counties (though perhaps not surprisingly they aren’t quite the same program…) It’s my hope that the new software will have the same “legs” as the old, giving decades of service before needing replacement again.
Wow, that’s a lot of writing. I had planned to “talk nerdy” here, but I think that will wait for another post, in a few days perhaps.