Why I am interested in Operating Systems.

© Amit Singh. All Rights Reserved. Written in Mid 2003

I joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi in the summer of 1994. I had gotten a "high rank" in the IIT entrance examination, thereby gaining the "privilege" of "choosing" Computer Science.

I have no qualms in admitting that the only reason I went ahead with Computer Science was because of convention - if you took the IIT entrance test, and got a high enough rank, you opted for CS as a rule of thumb! Sure, there were and are people who break this rule, but I had no motivation to be an exception in this regard.

Now, even though I chose CS as my area, I had no interest in Computer Science or computers at that point. The reason was simple enough: I was a little over 18 years old, and I had never, ever used a computer in my life. I had no idea what to look forward to, or what to be interested in. The concept of "programming" was alien to me. What really interested me were Physics, Mathematics, and Fine Arts.

During my first week at IIT, in one of the "Introduction to UNIX" kind of lab sessions, I was trying to ward off sleep, when I noticed something totally amazing: one guy had caused a "large sized funny message" to appear on somebody else's screen (he had piped the output of banner to write, etc.). I was so fascinated that I asked him how he did it. He told me something of the effect that he had spent a lot of effort in learning these cool tricks and if I could, I should figure it out myself. It made me fume, but I could do little because I had more fundamental things to figure out (what the hell is an "operating system", why it is called "EUNUCHS", what this "editor" thing is, and how it is related to "vi" ...) Stressful times, indeed.

Nonetheless, I wanted to "show the guy" ... etc.

I spent the next day reading some kind of UNIX book, and it gave me a headache I did not know the human head is capable of withstanding. I am not sure if it is appropriate to have System V be your introduction to Computing, vi be your first editor, etc., but in retrospect, I think it's not any worse than a "simpler" system to be introduced to. If you don't realize it's abuse, you can take a lot of it! The book helped me successfully log in to the system after a few days of trying, but vi drove me nuts.

The book also mentioned man pages. I tried to solve the "what to learn" by making the solution a derivative of "how to learn" - I decided that I would read every single man page on the system, no matter how long it takes. I intended to create a model of how the whole thing worked by ingesting more and more information.

I think the approach turned out to be reasonable. By next summer, I had a job as a software porter and maintainer for the Institute's mainframe. This gave me happiness beyond description (consider this: student disk quotas on the mainframe were 4 MB each, while I had 2 GB of disk space to play with!)

Shortly afterwards, I was involved in many related scenarios at IIT Delhi, such as the establishment of the Intel Technology Lab, and so on.

Thus, my interest in operating systems and computers was essentially born out of spite.