Coding young minds in Idaho Falls

EITC's Mel Stone is retiring after decades spent watching his industry evolve and helping students understand computers.

POST REGISTERMay 12, 2014 

Mel Stone

Mel Stone plans on helping with his wife’s sign company and staying involved with the family farm in Teton County in his retirement. He says his years teaching at Eastern Idaho Technical College have been “quite fulfilling.”

MONTE LAORANGE — Post Register

Computers have come a long way from the bulky machines of yesteryear to today's small, high-powered desktop and mobile devices.

Programmer Mel Stone had a ringside seat as the changes unfolded. He began programming computers in 1973 - a time when computers still were regarded as industry-only devices. Those 2-foot-wide "mini-computers" received information from single-use paper tape, specially punched into single-line patterns that were interpreted by the computer.

Each line of eight punches (or bits) represented a byte, nearly the smallest measurement of computer data storage. Back then, one section of tape held programs of about 4,500 bytes. To put that into perspective, those early programs today could fit onto a 15-gigabyte cellphone hard drive about 3.5 million times.

Next week, the 66-year-old Stone will retire as lead computer network technologies instructor at Eastern Idaho Technical College. He spent his career working in and teaching about an industry that continually reinvented itself and shows no signs of stopping.

"When I started in this industry, computers were thought to be tools of business. Well today, we all carry them in our shirt pockets, even our 10- and 12-year-old kids," Stone said. "They've become a very pervasive part of our lives, maybe too much so. I don't know if that's good or bad, but it is going to continue."

The greatest advance he's seen is the miniaturization of the microprocessor, taking it from a relatively large and low-power device to today's small but powerful chips.

Stone has shared his wealth of computer knowledge with hundreds of students.

"Mel is an impressive teacher," graduating senior Brett Davis said. "He doesn't sugarcoat anything and lets you know you'll have to work to get the jobs that are out there. He also makes sure you leave with a lot of really good knowledge."

Stone never planned on becoming a computer teacher. In fact, when he was a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, working with computers was the last thing on his mind.

"In school, I had taken one programming course and I had decided I didn't want anything to do with computers," Stone said. "But Hughes Aircraft decided otherwise … and as it turned out, I didn't mind it and, after doing it for a short period, I actually began to find it enjoyable."

At the time, Stone was doing government contract work with Hughes Aircraft Co. in Los Angeles. He was working on the weapons control systems of the F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft.

After Hughes, Stone helped develop the online banking system for Citibank in the 1970s and 1980s. The jobs included the development and debugging of the first ATM machines. He also worked for CADO Systems, building early desktop computers, and with Quotron, a financial data technology company.

Stone joked that some of his work played a role in the Y2K scare of the late 1990s.

"At Citibank, we created programs to keep track of bank accounts that used two-digit year indicators. We told management these programs won't work at the year 2000," Stone said. "They told us they didn't care because the programs would be long gone by then."

But in 1996, shortly after Stone began working at EITC, he was contacted by Citigroup to fix the programs. The nearly two-decade-old software still was running on all of its systems. He didn't take the job.

The Driggs native returned to Idaho in the mid-1990s to deal with family issues. When EITC created its first computer networking program, Stone was hired to teach.

"I came here and started teaching the things that I'd been doing," he said. "I found it quite satisfying because I still had the opportunity to do hands-on work, but it also gave me the opportunity to see a light come on for students as they started to get this."

Stone's immediate supervisor, Christian Godfrey, said that for most first-time students, Stone appears to have "a crusty outer shell."

"But inside he's all marshmallow and he gets a lot of job satisfaction from seeing students succeed," Godfrey said. "And although some students complain about Mel being hard when they are here … once they get out into the real world they realize what a great job he did in preparing them for it."

The biggest challenge of Stone's academic career has been motivating the few students who didn't really want to learn or be in school.

But on those occasions when he did succeed in motivating those students, Stone said it was very rewarding. He's especially proud of the many students who returned to school to invest in a second career.

"There is a lot of satisfaction that comes from seeing someone that yesterday was pouring concrete and today can set up, manage and control a computer system," he said.

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