Careers & Education

Jamaican invents programming language

Sunday, May 27, 2012    

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MEET developer/ programmer John Henry Thompson. The 53-year-old is currently in the island hosting mobile apps development workshops under the Digital Jam 2.0 project.

He is of Jamaican parentage and up until 2001 held the highest engineering position at Macromedia (now Adobe) -- Chief Scientist. He invented the Macromedia Director Lingo Scripting Language and has developed software products such as The VideoWorks Accelerator, VideoWorks II, MediaMaker, Action, and Macromedia Director.

Lingo is a scripting language in the Macromedia Director authoring tool. The content created with Macromedia Director is delivered on the World Wide Web as shockwave movies.

Who is a Developer Programmer?

A developer or programmer is someone tasked with creating applications software. Computer programming, sometimes called programming or coding, is focused on designing instructions that computers use to perform specific operations or to exhibit desired behaviours. Programming is therefore the method of creating, writing, testing, and maintaining source codes of computer programmes.

What is the value of the work that you do?

Technology impacts every area of life. It is integrated into our lives and we all depend on it for professional and personal use. It simplifies things - systems, processes, our way of life - and increases efficiency, productivity and offers tremendous career opportunities. We can see this at work right now in Jamaica through the innovative Digital Jam 2.0 job creation project that is helping to guide and open doors for youth in technology.

The virtual economy is a tremendous global phenomenon and I am happy to be a part of this process that is not just unearthing tech talent in Jamaican youth, but also enabling them to tap into this reserve of tech jobs without having to migrate to create opportunities for themselves.

What was it that prompted your entry into the field?

I have been on a lifelong journey of learning which was stimulated by my father who, though having had to leave school at age 12, constantly reminded me and my siblings of his love for education and how he was glad we had greater access to school than he did.

With that push, my passion for drawing, math, solving puzzles and building electronic gadgets was further fuelled.

In 1974, for 10th grade I entered Bronx High School of Science. I shared by desire to learn more about computers with my geometry teacher, Ms Strauss, and she directed me to the math department's computer lab. In the computer lab I found two students who were actually already working after school in computer centres. That led me to the Youth Opportunity Programme which was run by New York State and was designed to provide low-income high school students employment in a professional environment. I got a position as computer operator in the New York State Psychiatric Institute and worked daily after school from 4:00 until 8:00, while simultaneously doing my homework and teaching myself other computer languages.

Where do you work and how long have you been there?

After years of working at top level technology firms, I now do work through my own company, JHT Consulting, which I founded in 2004.

Detail your responsibilities.

JHT Consulting offers technology support to individuals, companies and other organisations in several ways, including engineering management, web-based application development, mobile application development, product visioning, and training.

What are some of those top-level firms to which you refer?

I had the opportunity of being employed in several great jobs throughout the span of my career, beginning with the gig at the New York State Psychiatric Institute between 1976 and 1981 that really gave me a good footing in the industry. Following that came a series of other corporate appointments, which in the last 10 years has included Macromedia (now Adobe) where I played a significant role in the entire life cycle for over 18 products.

I have also held several posts as instructor, starting with my first teaching job as Technical Instructor at the MIT Visible Language Workshop from 1983 to 1984. From there I was Assistant Professor of Communications — New York University (1988 - 1989); Adjunct Assistant Professor — New York University (1989 - 1997); and part-time instructor — Drexel University (2006).

In addition to those academic appointments, I was a founding board member of Isadra Inc where I have guided the launch of products for e-commerce and collaborative commerce and also authored a best-selling book for the multimedia-internet trade market which has been published in two editions and four languages.

How long have you been in the programming field?

I have over 25 years of experience building software products and leading engineering teams for science, new media and the Web.

What are the academic requirements for getting into the field?

A computer science degree is ideal. Focusing on an area of technology such as software development can narrow your academic qualifications and make you more of a specialist. However, educational training in a related technical area or mathematics, is just as good, supported by some exposure to the technicalities of information technology. It is great also to be versed in programming knowledge.

What other skills and/or competencies are required?

Curiosity, passion, creativity, and patience are must-haves for this profession! There are so many ways to get into this field without a degree because you can do small courses with specialty areas. The process of writing source code often requires expertise in many different subjects, including knowledge of the application domain, formal logic and specialised algorithms. I also believe that the person interested in a career in programming should also pursue some art or design courses alongside the technical stuff as this helps to balance and enhance the level of work they will produce.

It is equally critical to have practical, hands-on experience in programming. You can do this by developing your own programmes and applications and by keeping up-to-date with industry trends by becoming engaged in regular specialised training opportunities.

What is your own academic background?

After leaving the New York-based Bronx High School of Science in 1977, I entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where I focused on computer languages, mainly LISP and interpretative languages. But I had another passion - visual arts -- so I was also doing a minor in visual arts and design and I had such a great interest in this that I paused my MIT programme after two years and enrolled at the Art Student League of New York where I studied drawing and painting. This solidified my desire to intertwine technology with art, and on returning to MIT about a year and a half later, I refocused on integrating those two worlds. So I gained a bachelor of science in computer science and engineering with a minor in visual arts and design.

What do you most enjoy about the work that you do?

Technology is always growing and the opportunities to positively affect lives and businesses across the world keeps my mind going. I am always thinking 'how can I improve on what I've created or an existing piece of technology to enhance life, make it better and easier for all?' There's no chance to become bored.

What's also exciting for me in multimedia is expression, and that for me is philosophically very satisfying because you are enabling people who wouldn't have touched a computer before to express themselves in ways they could never have imagined.

What challenges do you face on the job or in the wider profession?

I'd say the greatest challenge in this profession is to keep on being inventive and innovative and creating technology that's relevant to each person's life.

How much can one earn as a Developer/Programmer on an annual basis?

The compensation package for a developer can be quite lucrative based on one's academic background and level/years of experience.

What employment options are open to someone trained as Developer/Programmer?

Career options in technology are endless. I like to define work within the industry as 'work for fun' because of the many possibilities. More and more people, particularly the young, are entertaining themselves with computer games. Many are spending more hours at gaming than any other form of entertainment and career options include becoming a game artist or game designer.

Why would you advise anyone to get into this line of work?

I would and have advised aspiring programmers or developers to follow their dreams because what they will produce may greatly help lives on all levels. A career in this exciting and evolving field will give you an opportunity to make significant positive changes to lives and the world at large.

What inspires you?

When I go into the bookstores and see all the books or surf the Web and see somebody's done something in Lingo, it's inspiring. It makes me realise that there is a lot of creative potential out there that was just waiting for the right tool. It inspires me to keep pushing Director forward so that more people can express themselves and use the computer creatively.

What has been most rewarding about your career to date?

I have had a fulfilling career in computer programming with rewarding experiences along every stage. My proudest moments date back to building my very own computing machine in the 10th grade which, even though it was a simple computing device, showed me the possibilities in programming.

Since then my most significant contribution to the computer industry is the invention of the Macromedia Director Lingo Scripting Language. It was designed to be easy to learn, and it was the first programming language for many creative professionals (writers, artists, animators).

I've also helped nurture a generation of multimedia professionals and I've authored the Macromedia Director Lingo Workshop book. I have also created interactive art using 3D graphics, video disc and real-time video processing, some of which have been exhibited internationally.

What project/s related to your career are you presently involved in/working on?

One of my passions now is to help contribute to the support network for learners by sharing my stories and helping others learn programming in new and exciting ways. I remember some 12 years ago doing an interview with journalist Terry Schussler admitting that I'd love to spend time working in Jamaica where I spent part of my childhood. I've now had that wonderful opportunity by working on the Digital Jam 2.0.

What's next for you in your career?

I want to make it easy for people to use the computer as an expressive instrument and to inspire people to learn about themselves and the world. My lifelong goal is to develop my mind, body and spirit to its fullest potential and along the way share what I've learned with others. I am always excited at the infinite possibilities in technology and will continue to contribute to the industry in whatever way that I can, while also helping to hone the skills and direct the careers of future programmers.

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