Your Spectrum
Issue 12, March 1985 - Circe
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J E T - S E T   J O E Y !
Getting a foothold into the 'glamorous' world of writing software can be a harrowing experience. Sue Denham calls on Joey, ex-programmer for Bug-Byte, to recall the tortuous road to success.
You don't have to keep your ear too near to the ground to hear reports of teenage software authors earning the kind of money you'd normally associate with the likes of Dallas! But that doesn't mean the rumours are entirely true. Although the incentives may seem the same as those offered to rising stars in the pop music world, in reality, success in the software world is difficult to attain.
Joey, a former student at Manchester University studying computer science in the late '70s, got his first big break writing a Spectrum program for an LP called XL1 by Pete Shelley (ex-frontman for the punk band, The Buzzcocks).
"I'd never really seen a home computer before I went round Pete's house and had a go on his Spectrum. We never did anything particularly exciting with it - just played games and so on - until one evening we hit upon the idea of writing a program that would flash the lyrics of a song up on-screen in time with a record. In a mad fit of enthusiasm I wrote a small program in Basic to prove it could be done and then, once it looked like Pete would put the program on his LP, I spent three months learning Z80 machine code."
Had you by this time decided to be a professional software writer?
"Well, yes, but it didn't quite turn out to be the way I imagined it. Around July'83, when XL1 was finally released, I was still working for Manchester Council, rearranging the software governing rates payments and various re-housing projects. I was very excited about the release of XL1 - I thought
there'd be all sorts of people after me to write programs for their albums; you know the sort of thing, long-distance 'phone calls from ABBA and so on. Of course, nothing happened at all - it was very disappointing.
"When I saw that there was absolutely no recognition coming my way as a result of XL1, I went to see Tony Wilson of Factory Records - a company that's guaranteed to experiment with new ideas. I told him about a 'sound of light' program I'd been working on and, lucky for me and my depleted wallet, he was impressed enough to buy me my own Spectrum - which at the time was a godsend!
"I also nearly got to record a program on a live album with Elvis Costello. He'd recorded a couple of gigs at 'The Hacienda' in Manchester and was very interested in including a Spectrum program as one of the tracks - hardly surprising since Elvis was a computer operator before he became a successful musician. Anyway, to cut a long story short, that project fell through as well ... although it was a good connection to make."
How did all these near misses to fame and fortune affect your work for Manchester Council?
"Well, by late '83 I realised there was no way anyone was coming searching me out - so I went after them. I answered an ad in The Guardian to join Bug-Byte as one of its programming team. The first interview comprised of a quick chat and a small machine code test - nothing too difficult, but
it certainly weeded the candidates out. The second set of interviews were a lot fiercer - four of us were competing for just two jobs! The head programmer devised an exam for us, testing a lot of the theory I had learned at college. Nerve-wracking stuff - but I managed to get myself a job!
"It may not seem much but during the year I was at Bug-Byte I was involved with the production of Twin Kingdom Valley, Star Trader and Automan. We'd also have to examine tapes sent in by outside programmers - about six a day - but it didn't take very long ... they weren't usually very good."
You seem to have been very involved with the Spectrum so far in your career - how do you view the CBM 64 as a rival micro?
"As a matter of fact, my latest project is for Island Logic, converting the Beeb's Micro Writer for the '64. At the moment, the Spectrum seems to have lost the number one position - but everything gets converted for everything else anyway!"
What advice would you give to anyone contemplating a career in software?
"Well, first off, you need a lot of ideas, backed up with a lot of confidence. But, most of all, my best advice is not to listen to anyone else's advice ... don't be afraid to experiment with your Spectrum and work out problems for yourself. And, lastly, don't believe too much of that rubbish you read about the 'glamour' of writing software. In my time, I've only nearly been interviewed by Channel 4, I've never been invited to a computer show and as for that Porsche ..."

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