Charles G. Brannon

Charles' Picture Title Information Technology Manager
Telephone Direct: (336) 553-0383
Years of Experience 21
Responsibilities Networking/data processing, Internet applications, DTP, training and support
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Meet Charles Brannon

When I was growing up, the world filled me with wonder, and I was a natural scientist and engineer, always striving to understand how things work, always asking WHY, rigging up one experiment after another to try to get at the heart of the riddle. All children have this natural inclination if we don't discourage it by swatting away tough questions with pat answers or supernatural stories.

Having a particular affinity for life sciences yet much less so for math, it might have surprised my younger self to learn that I would end up in the computer field rather than in medicine as I had originally envisioned. After all, even up to my early days of high school, computers were still mainly found only in huge corporations or science labs, and run by white-coated experts with advanced degrees. But the late 1970s and early 1980s were the cusp of a revolution that would change all our lives, and the course of my future career: the invention of the personal computer.

Computers, even the simplest ones, are fascinating because they respond exactly as you program them to respond, every time, following absolute rules of logic. Being so literal-minded, any unexpected "behavior" on the part of the computer is the result of programming that is poorly planned or conceived. If you follow a recipe for a chocolate cake exactly and it doesn't rise, then most likely somebody failed to include baking powder in the recipe.

A good part of the enjoyment of computer programming is designing programs that work properly, sure, but also in the debugging, the troubleshooting of what went wrong.

Of course computer programs are far more complex than making cake or a soufflé, and include logic puzzles, labyrinths of subprograms, matrices of numbers, and hundreds if not thousands of other values, labels, locations, and definitions to keep track of, most of it all in your head.

I give my father, Bill Brannon, the credit for introducing me to the personal computer, because he bought one of the first retail  ones, the Commodore PET, for his insurance business (Carolina Consulting Services) back in 1980. At first he kept it at home while he learned how to program the computer in Commodore BASIC, an early form of Microsoft BASIC.

I and the other children were content to play games on the thing, until one day he brought me the Commodore PET manual and showed me the BASIC tutorials and insisted that they weren't too hard to work through, and I was hooked. Just simple statements like:

10 INPUT "WHAT IS YOUR NAME";N$
20 PRINT "HELLO ";N$;". NICE TO MEET YOU."

...would create a program that might look like:

This was the tip of the iceberg, and it promised convenient automation and even a taste of artificial intelligence. And it only got more interesting from there. Soon I was writing my own simple computer games in BASIC, and writing software to assist in the family's insurance business. I was also learning to  master machine language (assembly language) that enabled direct access to the computer at high speed.

There were a handful of hobbyist-oriented computer magazines published in those days, very few survive today, but one of my favorite resources was published locally in Greensboro, NC. COMPUTE! Magazine included a thick section every month dedicated to the Commodore PET, which put me on the fast track for programming, and soon I was coming up with my own innovative techniques, which I decided to offer up for publication.

That first submission was followed by dozens of other magazine articles, and I had become a writer/programmer. At first I continued to work at Carolina Consulting Services part time while attending high school, but I was eventually offered a part time job at COMPUTE! magazine as a staff editor, so I took them up on that offer.

I continued that role as I began college, eventually becoming Program Editor even while working part-time, see-sawing between my fascinating work at COMPUTE! and my alter-ego as regular college student at UNC-G.

The five years I spent at COMPUTE! were some of the best years of my early adulthood, and where I made lifelong friends. I established bona fide credentials in the computer industry, particularly for my award-winning word processor SpeedScript for the Commodore 64, Atari, and Apple, and dozens of other groundbreaking programs, utilities, articles, and columns.

My reputation in the field made it relatively straightforward for me to change jobs when I felt it was time to seek new ground in 1986 after I felt COMPUTE! no longer had enough to offer me for growth potential.

I was approached soon by several companies in the Bay and one in Toronto. After interviewing with Antic magazine and Epyx Inc., a top games company, I decided to give the job of Project Manager at Epyx a shot. It seemed to pay pretty well and it would be a departure from what I had been doing at COMPUTE! without straying too far from my core competence.

As Project Manager, I oversaw all aspects of game development for each game project I was assigned, working with game designers, graphic artists, programmers, and marketing, to bring a game from concept to the packing lines for shipment. I was also the first Project Manager to expand Epyx's product line from games to creativity and productivity software.

In my two years at Epyx, under my supervision, we produced many successful products including Create a Calendar, Video Workshop, Street Sports Basketball, L.A. Crackdown, PrintShop Companion, and Print Magic.

In 1989 (and even earlier), the personal computer industry began to implode due to the shift from simpler, cheaper personal computers such as the Commodore 64, Apple, and Atari 800 computers to the more expensive but far more capable IBM PC and Apple Macintosh lines.

Companies like Epyx just didn't move fast enough to keep up with the pace of change, and made poor investments, such as producing games that you play on your VCR.

Epyx (and many other software companies like it) was soon out of business, and I had gone back to Greensboro to look for work again, since the job outlook in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley had dried up at the time.

Fortunately, my father's insurance business had grown considerably since I last saw him, and needed a full-time computer specialist, and we were looking forward to working together again. I further saw this as an opportunity to get the job training to broaden my experience in areas such as networking, data processing, and office automation.

During and since the 1990s, I have helped Bill grow the business by applying technology to hone our productivity. My goal is to keep our business capabilities near the leading edge of technology, remaining competitive with the office automation, computing, software, and networking capabilities that might be deployed by an similar firm of this size, or even larger.

A bit of perspective: Our first file server was a 80286 machine with 2 MB RAM running Netware 1.1 and a 10 MB hard drive.  Now it's a 3 GHz multithreaded Pentium 4 server with 2GB RAM and hardware-mirrored 60 GB SATA drives running Windows Small Business Server 2003.

Group U.S. was ready for the Internet when the worldwide web swept onto the scene. I was on CompuServe when modems still ran at 300 baud, 200 times slower than today's 56K modems.

I made sure all Group U.S. employees had shared Internet access and email addresses long before we got our first high-speed DSL line. Now we have high speed cable modem service from Time Warner (2Gb/s).

I designed the Group U.S. web site as part of research on one of the books I've written, Web Publishing with Microsoft FrontPage 97 (Ventana Press). Our web site is a work in progress, continually updated and refined. GroupUs.com is a portal for many current and future services offered via the Internet.

I strive to keep all our software up to date, compliant with licensing, and relevant to the jobs our employees need to accomplish, but I won't jump to upgrade to latest version of some software just because it's new, unless it offers a substantial improvement in productivity, hence cost-saving.

One of the most important parts of my job is training my fellow employees to be able to take advantage of all the software features they have at their disposal, not to mention make the most of voice mail, fax, and recent innovations such as  document scanning to replace faxing.

Over the years I've seen staff members who were once technophobes become confident and canny with their machines: installing their own software updates, creating and merging Adobe Acrobat documents, sending multiple email attachments, clearing print queues. What's more, they're now passing along their computer wisdom to others, such as new hires.

I give credit to where it's due: we hire good people, but I think I see my efforts have paid off here, too.

 

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