I owe EVERYTHING to some funny symbols.


The only thing I’ve ever been expert at is programming in a language called APL that requires a special keyboard just to type the weird symbols that it uses. This is how it  happened…

In the Fall of 1972 I took a class that introduced me to APL two weeks before the semester ended at which time the computing center took the language off the mainframe rather than pay $5,000/month to IBM in licensing fees. But I’d fallen in love with the language and I really wanted to continue learning so I wrote to Ken Iverson who invented APL and who had just published a high school algebra text using the language. I asked if I were to round up 10 students for a free summer course using his book would he give me 10 copies. He sent 11 and a note saying I’d forgotten to ask for one for myself.

It only took a day to find 10 students to give me their summers so next I asked IBM if they would waive the license fee. They did and then I told the computing center they were the only missing piece and so they let me use their computers for free. That is how I began learning APL one chapter ahead of a bunch of high school students.

That landed me a student work-study job at the computing center in the spring and later when my boss left I got her full-time job in the fall of my senior year. I worked for a pittance at the university for nearly four years after graduating and it was by maintaining code and teaching classes that I became good enough to land a job in operations research at American Airlines. When they moved headquarters from New York City to Dallas I took a job with a small systems house where I got to see the inner workings of a few businesses. When I completed an MBA at NYU I was a middling student but an awesome programmer.

When Merrill offered a full-time job at Merrill Lynch in 1986 it was to write programs, not to build a career in trading or management. Everything I’ve done since has involved APL including all the software I wrote to support the trading desk I built and ran for the last 18 years. APL has made me rich.

So, if you want to become expert in the only thing I learned really well then do what I did and – lucky for you – today it will take half the time and cost virtually nothing. Simply download the APL Manual for free and get yourself a cheap copy of the language interpreter. Get to work using it for 7-10 hours a day for the next four or five years and see where that takes you.

Before you whine that you will only do all that work if you know where it is going then you must know that the only way I got to where I am today is because I wasn’t afraid and I didn’t care where I was going. I learned APL because I could not help myself – it was that cool.


Author: Brooke Allen

A retired Wall Street executive with a whimsical side.