Monday, August 12, 2013

IT Meandering

Aside from pizza slinging, post-teen line cookery, and video production forays; I have worked in information technology most of my career.

I bought my first computer in 1983. I saved up money that I made delivering the morning and evening paper in my home town of International Falls, Minnesota.

I've seen the evolution of personal computing from no relevance outside specific industries (very few early on) to foundational for most businesses.

I'm not old enough to have used punch cards and just missed hobbyist kit computers.

I started on an Atari 800 XL, purchased from the Sears catalog.  Actually, I first had a Timex Sinclair.  Too small and weird.  I sent it back.  Then came the Coleco Adam.  Also too weird.  I sent it back.  By the time I bought the Atari, I had saved up about $1500.  I got the floppy drive, which was the Indus brand since it was faster than the Atari one (apparently I needed the speed).

In the early nineties, I first experienced the internet on a first generation Mac a friend brought to his dorm from home. He had a 2400 baud modem and dialed into the University of Minnesota's network. From there, he used the shell to get to IRC, news, and email applications. I was interested, but not enough to pull me away from the obsessions of a 17 year old set loose in a city. I recall what a big deal he thought it was, but I knew him enough already to know he was prone to exaggeration.

I also saw him interacting on a list of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). This idea wasn't new to me. International Falls, for those who are unfamiliar, is quite remote. It's something more than a small town, but not by much. It's a working class, one industry mill town. To this day, it lags in technology.  I wanted to get on to a BBS, but it was impractical. I wanted to do more with my computing hobby. I had a 1200 baud modem but not much I could do with it.

A few years after I left in 1988, the owner of the local Radio Shack started a local ISP. This was not available to me while I lived there. ISPs were available but I could not afford them since they weren't local.

Kids who could afford it would dial BBS sites in larger locales, such as Duluth or Minneapolis. Some had accounts with Prodigy, an early ISP, however the long-distance charges on top of the service fees kept most away. I knew two people who could connect their modems to anything remotely interesting. Everyone else would connect to each other, more or less creating ad-hoc, terminal-based, one-on-one chat sessions.

Some time after my early exposures to the internet, I finally bought a used computer and began to be pulled back into my old obsessions. At this point, I had spent a number of years giving myself what I still consider a proper University experience. I focused on literature, philosophy, art, history, and film. No course I ever took had anything to do with computer "science" (to paraphrase @nntaleb, if a discipline has the word science in it, as in social science, it usually means it's not a science). I had set my obsession with computers down so that I could live the life of a young man venturing far from the familiar.

Then computers came back into my life at a time when the internet was just taking off.

The computer was a Mac SE/30. I bought it off the same friend who introduced me earlier. I also bought a modem and was frequently connecting to the University's network and getting familiar with Unix shells and tools. Frequently meant every couple of weeks... if that. (I'm certainly at the other end of spectrum today, as are so many people who don't go a waking hour without being online.)

I started work in an office at the University called the American Indian Learning Resource Center (AILRC). The program's mission was to help reduce the Native American student drop-out rate, which was very bad at the time and still is. (No doubt owing to the culture shock of coming out of a reservation and into a city while surrounded by an alien middle-class culture.) I was quickly recognized for my technical aptitudes and set about solving problems from banal printer and network problems to program logistics, like contact databases and general communications.

Dabbling in Appletalk networks and then Apple's Hypercard brought me into an emerging technology called Gopher. How exciting that it was so revolutionary, but also a local phenomenon! I even beta tested the GopherVR browser, which collected online resources into 3D scenes. Boy was this going to be big!

This dabbling led me to the world wide web that was finally gaining traction. The NCSA Mosaic browser was installed and frequently run at a time when a good site meant a well organized outline with tasteful use of formatting to match what was already familiar in word processors. They really did feel like inferior word processing documents. They couldn't include pictures and the formatting was very primitive and grating to me as a liberal arts student, familiar with proper style and the power of good aesthetics. However, like Hypercards and Gopher, you could link to other documents!

The habit of browsing had a new experience, but it was mostly a yawner for me. Then came Netscape Navigator with its integrated and optimized graphics. Now I got it. I talked my manager into creating a site for the AILRC. I created custom graphics and scanned program photographs on informational pages. I had each staff person, myself included, do a bio page with photos.

I had joined the WWW and brought the program with it. I mostly failed to realize how early my dabbling was. As I said, I had friends who were into technology much more deeply than I was. They seemed ahead, and they were. However, to the general public, I was riding the bleeding edge.

To create and manage these pages, I began teaching myself HTML and other languages. Of course, the fact that you could peek at HTML source was very helpful in getting me jump started. (I recall pondering the ethics. Was I stealing?) I learned editing in Unix shells, used Usenet News to connect with people with similar interests and similar skill levels. Eventually, I was a pro helping others and getting occasional jobs to kick-start web site initiatives both inside the University and in the private sector. Looking back, this has all of the elements and even habits of what I do to this day.

In 1995 I was finished with college and drifting from job to job, interest to interest. I stumbled on a 1968 Volvo 142 in Dinkytown (R.I.P.). I bought it for $300. It was literally in tatters internally. It had served as a way for an artist to haul paintings and a big dog. The exterior, however, was perfect in my eyes. I quickly decided that it needed a new engine, so I found a second 140 with a B20 engine and swapped engines over the summer. I documented every last detail of this job and found myself online every night, interacting with folks on an email listserv who also loved old Volvos and working on them.

By the time I was finished with the job, I had become fed up with the listserv owner. I had started documenting my Volvo obsession on my personal website (hosted at a local ISP called Visi). I decided that I wanted to create my own group for Volvo enthusiasts. I was familiar with news groups. There was one or two for Volvo, but I found that news group culture wasn't for me.

News groups had become a mix of noobs, warez fiends, perverts, and grouchy old veterans longing for a day that would never return where news groups were always filled with intelligent people and content rather than the unwashed masses. In short, it felt exclusive and fragmented.

I didn't share the dream to restore newsgroups to their former glory and perhaps knew, from my obsession with HTML and what had become of the WWW, that it would forever be left in the state it was in. I needed to be in the same place where all of this new stuff was happening.

I was starting to hear people chattering about it in the general public more than ever before. About 1997, I recall being in a restaurant with my girlfriend (and future wife) and hearing older people talking about sites that they found that were useful. Up to this time, I think people were aware, but it still seemed remote and geeky to most. Now ordinary people appeared to be finding it useful and even habit forming.

Within a couple of years, my mother and future in-laws would ask me to connect their modems to an ISP. Old people were connecting! By this time, I was an early DSL adopter and tossing wires to neighbors in my apartment building. I had a home office and my interests were attached to something that was about to explode on the scene.

I decided to build a Volvo enthusiast's forum using the format of news groups but hosted as a CGI that generated HTML. I named the site,, because fans of the 140 and 240 Volvos referred to their cars as bricks due to their blocky physique and because I was geeky enough to know about bulletin boards (mostly of the past by then). I had finally achieved my dream of having a BBS... sorta.

The site grew fairly popular. I was online before Volvo Cars was. There was an audience for sure. To keep it going, I had to learn different skills, including troubleshooting and even customer support. Once the site got too busy and burdened, I would optimize as best I could, but eventually decided that I needed a dedicated server. Up until this time, I had used shared servers (like Rackspace built their company on). I built servers to host it and colocated them in the Visi Minneapolis datacenter. I was a full on geek now! I terminaled into servers, in a rack, at a datacenter.  Oh boy. Later, I hosted them out of my basement (with the advancement of DSL).

When it came time to consider another server, I decided to try Amazon EC2 in 2010 and never looked back. Essentially, this was similar to the shared server experience earlier, however I had more control and would not have to be at the mercy of the bad code from my neighbors. I actually left the shared services because of a spate of compromises and the recognition of the limits of my ability to defend my site from them. The model was clearly broken. Amazon added up nicely for me since I could get back to a model of hosting remotely while keeping a similar level of control that physical servers gave me.

What has become a career for me started out with obsessions and hobbies. I stumbled into something that was in its infancy, namely personal computing.  The wider availability of computing was available to those who would tinker and eventually to those who would benefit from utility never before imagined. I recall subscribing to Compute! magazine and other home computer rags and reading about the emerging companies, like Apple and then Microsoft.

I saw that what I was doing was considered low-brow to a whole different level of technologists. I saw the uncertainty of the market and how business adoption was virtually zero. What these kids were into was irrelevant to most.

I had an aunt who would tease me about it and rib me about using my time as a youngster better, like chasing girls. I didn't care. It was exciting and I had a sense that it was going to be a big deal. (Of course, this was preteen where everything that matters to you is a big deal.)

As I started working in offices, I found endless interest in using technology to solve problems, thankfully, from my management (I have had the good fortune to have many great bosses). I was still tinkering with technology, but I was, in hindsight, solving business problem after business problem.

I've found that my meandering path has served me well. Getting a University experience, rather than a Votec-like experience, has helped foster my inquisitive nature and built soft skills that are immeasurably valuable.

The accessibility of technology today has opened up so much more potential than has been realized and I hope that bored preteens know this. I can only imagine what I would have done had I been able to connect to the wider world the way I can now.

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