Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Monday, November 05, 2007

7 significant events in my career

I've been tagged. Twice actually.

In a meme series "7 Random Things About Me", both Cheap as Chips and Wendee on her blog at The Digital Fridge Door triple dog dared me to write something. I try really hard here to stay on the topic of engineering careers, so it took me awhile to figure out how to acknowledge the kind trackbacks these sites gave me while keeping consistent to my own material.

Then, I realized I could just change the rules.

So, I altered "random things" to "significant events" and "about me" to "in my career". Is that cheating? Absolutely. Then again, it's my blog and it took me over an hour to draw the logo of the nerd stick figure guy in a meditative state with PowerPoint, so I can do what I want 8).

Here they are:
  • My interest in computers started with video games. I'm old enough to have been involved in the Pong craze (I had the Sears home version) and had Pac Man Fever too. As such, I was highly motivated to fuel this addiction, as many young boys are.

  • Like a lot of people, I was influenced by a great teacher. In 6th grade, Mr. Covington brought in his own personal Radio Shack TRS-80 computer to our classroom. To put that into perspective, ours was the only room in the entire school that had a computer and that included the office, as hard as that is to believe now. It had a black and white display and I think 16K of RAM, but it might have been 4K. More importantly, it also had a Space Invaders knock off.

    Mr. C was wise to the video game craze and set up a 7 level self-paced computer learning course you could take when you got done with your regular work. The higher you got, the more playing time you were granted. The series started with the basics. You had to identify and state the function of the monitor, CPU, and keyboard (mice were still to be invented at Xerox PARC later). You then graduated to a "Hello world" program in BASIC and other simple programs before the course culminated with the writing of a program that took user input, stored data in an array, and displayed it back. It was the first programming I ever did and I'm not sure I would have taken it up had he not used the tease of Space Invaders this way.

    It's a good thing for me he did.

  • I wanted an Atari 2600 for Christmas that year to replace Pong, but instead got a TRS-80 Color Computer, which you hooked up to your TV. It also had a ROM cartridge bay you could plug games Radio Shack published into. I also got a subscription to a TRS-80 gaming magazine, as absurd as that sounds. It was full of reviews, ads, high scores, and had listings of text mode games written in BASIC. I learned a lot typing those things in. Since I wanted to alter some of those games slightly, it gave me the chance to learn the foundations of reverse engineering code that I still use today.

    I lost interest, though, once I got an Intellivision two years later. Wouldn't you?

  • Fast forward to the end of high school and the only piece of advice I ever got from my guidance counselor was: "You're good at math, you should try electrical engineering." Having no other ideas of my own, I tried it out. I understood EE, it just seemed like a lot of work to figure out the voltage between a resistor and a capacitor. The exact moment I decided to switch majors was when the professor was doing some hairy double integral with an imaginary number in it. I couldn't see doing that for 3 more years, so I left class early and never looked back.

    As fate would have it, I was taking an assembly language class at the same time and actually enjoyed the double all-nighter I had to pull to finish my last assignment. The best advice my Dad ever gave me was, "If you're going to do something 8 hours a day, every day, for the rest of your life, you damn well better enjoy it." And with that, I started my 3rd year as a Computer Science and Engineering major.

  • My first computer job, while I was still in school, lasted exactly 12 hours. It was to write a Dbase program for a guy sending out brochures to all registered voters in San Diego County and it was supposed to extract the right fields from a database before printing off labels. I knew no Dbase and have no idea why the guy hired me except that I was cheap labor. He fired me after I skipped work to go to my paternal grandmother's funeral.

    Really, he did. I wish that were made up.

  • Then I worked as a database administrator at a chipfab plant in Rancho Bernardo. Ironically, I had to pass the HP site there every day to get to work. My biggest accomplishment there was rewriting the program that printed out the labels that got attached to the chips at various assembly points. Why printing labels played such a strong role in my early career, I have no idea. When I got yelled at for going into a clean area without taking proper precautions to fix a broken label printer despite being instructed to do so, I knew it was time to look elsewhere.

  • I spent my last 9 months in school working part time for a startup that was building business planning software on Macs. It was my first exposure to event-based programming and it was pretty energizing to imagine changing how the world planned projects from our little office. Staying on was the only other offer I received upon graduation besides HP and I still have the offer letter because it was written with so much emotion by the owner, who was very nice to me. In the end, though, I decided to go with the more established company.

My friend Tac likes to point out that I'm a freak, because I'm a Gen Xer who has worked for a single company my entire career. I like to point out to him that, yeah it's been one company but I've had 7 different jobs in those 14 years. There's been lots of variety in those opportunities and I don't see that ending any time soon.

So there you have it. And, it all started with Pong.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 11:06 AM   3 comments


At 2:07 PM, Anonymous tehnyit said...

It's amazing that in the early 80s how many thousand of kids were typing in those BASIC source code in computer magazines and how this practice got the kids started in the world of computers.

This was one of the contributing factors that convinced me to enter into the world of engineering.

At 8:28 PM, Blogger Wendee said...

Thanks for playing. Tag and Pong. I didn't realize the nerd stick figure guy was done in PowerPoint. Whew! What scores higher in nerdiness: Your doing that, or my being impressed by it?Nice way to work it all into your blog. Thanks!

At 8:49 PM, Blogger Pete Johnson said...

@tehnyit - Agreed. I learned a ton with those things and think about them any time I inherit a piece of code with no documentation that I then have to change. Typing those things in taught me about structure that is useful for the reverse engineering process.

@wendee - Thanks for the kind words. Would you be more impressed if I drew it using ASCII characters 8)?


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