‘I was at the very cusp between mainframe computers and the microprocessor revolution’

Alumni profile of Steve Baker

 

Steve Baker was among the first cohorts of Computing students in the 1970s. Computers have come a long way since then, and so has his career.

 

What made you decide to study at Kent?

Back in the mid-1970’s, it wasn’t clear how important computers were going to become.  I took a single class on FORTRAN programming in school and that convinced me that some kind of a career with computers was where I should be headed.   But every career advisor said “You’d be better off doing Computers-and-something than straight computing”…which turns out to have been terrible advice!  I looked around for degree subjects with a large computing component and “Computers and Cybernetics” sounded *way* cool.  Only two universities offered it (Kent and Sussex) but I didn’t want to end up living with my parents in Brighton…so Kent was my first choice!

What are you doing now?

Well, I’m a lead developer for a mobile game company.  I run an elite team of five software engineers.  For most of my career I’ve been doing work relating to 3D computer graphics (which is my passion) – flight simulation, video games and so forth.

What was your first job?

I worked for Philips Research Labs – researching “embedded” software for small telephone exchanges.  I very soon realised that people were more interested in the graphics on the telephone exchanges’ system monitor than in the telephony part – so I switched over to the team who were developing the very first CD-ROM.  We used a pre-production version of the first ever CD audio player and modified it to add a computer interface.

How has your experience at Kent helped you since graduation?

I was in college at the very cusp between big mainframe computers with punched cards – and the microprocessor revolution.  We were taught a passion for the art of computer programming – it’s hard to convey that, but Professors Peter and Heather Brown and Professor David Turner achieved that.

The ability to have “hands on” access to the PDP 11/20 and my first taste of the joys of UNIX on the 11/40 were truly inspiring.  David Turner gave me a project to build a graphics library for an antique pen plotter and an even more ancient “storage tube” hooked up to the 11/20 – and that tweaked my interests in graphics.  I think I can still remember the sequence of pink and purple front-panel switches to boot the PDP-11’s!

So, the one single thing?  Passion!  It’s never left me.  I’m coming close to retirement now – but I refuse to become “management”.  If I can’t create beautiful graphics – I’m not interested!

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Never use a “goto” statement in an Algol-60 program!  It’s true – don’t do it!  Ever!

OK – well, perhaps “If it isn’t pretty it won’t work” – I think that was Heather Brown complaining about the poor intentation style of my Backgammon player code.  But it is a valuable insight.  Readability is paramount.

Who or what inspires you?

“Who” would be Richard Feynman – he was the ultimate in committed scientist, blended with an unending curiosity, wit, imagination and intelligence.  I strive every day to be like him.

“What” would be Wikipedia.  Yeah – I know it has it’s flaws – and that academics tend to dismiss it – but the way that the biggest corpus of human knowledge has been amassed in such a short time by the coming together (and butting of heads) of so many people is deeply inspiring.  If that’s possible – then what else might be achieved?

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Well, I’m 61 now…so a good goal for 2026 would be “still around”!  I really don’t see myself ever giving up working.  I want to create a small startup business – maybe something in the area of Augmented Reality – and have the time to tinker with things I enjoy.  I always have a couple of “side projects” on the go – and over the coming years, one of those needs to become “The Next Big Thing”.