My Journey into Tech and DevRel
A bunch of people I know have been writing their “Journey into Tech” blogs lately, and a few of them have been pestering me to write mine, so here it is. It’s non-traditional, and filled with detours and missteps, so if you’re trying to get into tech, take heart!
Oddly enough, I was actually born into ‘tech’ at some level. My mother was a highly respected computer scientist for all of my life. I never wanted to follow in her footsteps. It was not something I had the least interest in. At first I wanted to be a Doctor, but then I met all the pre-med students in my classes at UCSB and decided that there was no way I wanted to spend the rest of my life with those assholes as friends and co-workers, so I switched majors to English and transferred to Columbia University in New York City. I’ll probably never tell you the whole story of that move, but it’s a real barn-burner! It was while I was at UCSB in 1984 that I got my first computer: A Machintosh with all of 128kb of RAM! I still have it, un-upgraded and original. Someday it might be worth what I paid for it.
Once in New York I set to work to become a writer. My first job was actually ghost-writing a weekly medical column in The New York Post. Dr. Stuart Berger was, I can tell you straight up, a fraud. I know. I did the medical research and wrote the columns. Even still, as a first job in NYC, that was a pretty phenomenal gig! But they wanted me to ghost-write his next book (his first was a best seller) but wouldn’t give me any by-line credit or share of the royalties, so I walked away.
After that, a friend got me a job in the mail/stock room of a Japanese ad agency. It wasn’t glamorous, but it paid well, and let me mostly set my own hours, so I stuck with it. They seemed to like me, and began asking me to help out with more and more things. Within a year I was on the team that was producing the Newport Jazz Festival, the New York Jazz Festival, and a 9-city US Tour. I worked 80- to 120-hour weeks, made loads of money, and had a fantastic time touring with and meeting Jazz greats. Somewhere I have pictures of me and Dizzy Gillespie even. Again, that came to an end when my supervisor left, and they wouldn’t put me in charge but brought in someone new from Japan that I was supposed to train and then work for. One thing I did do in that job was write a very complicated set of Excel Spreadsheets that was more like a program than a spreadsheet. I loved the puzzle-like nature of solving problems that way, but quickly forgot all about it.
By this time, I’d graduated from Columbia. I took a job working with homeless families in the “welfare hotels” in midtown Manhattan. It was a sobering, sad, and extremely stressful job dealing with kids who stepped over dead bodies to go to school, slept in bathtubs to avoid getting killed by stray bullets, and saw their parents O.D. in front of them, among other horrendous things. One thing that job did for me was send me for a week of intensive training at a drug and alcohol rehab in Pennsylvania. After about a year in that job, I was well and truly burned out, and was offered a 1-year internship at that same rehab and I jumped at the chance! I then spent that entire year working as a therapist in that rehab. Boy do you learn a lot about people, and empathy, doing that job! When that internship was over I was hired to help found a new rehab in Florida but after a year of floundering, we closed it and I moved back to New Mexico (where I grew up) to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
One of the things I did was get hired by my mother to organize and produce a Computer Science Conference for Los Alamos National Lab. The other thing I did was open my big mouth. You see, my Aunt-in-law (at the time) owned a Clothing Manufacturing company that made sports attire. Every year she and her top people would sequester themselves at her house and, with pencils and adding machines, do all of their production forecasting for the year. Think about that for a second. If you’re off by even one number, on Monday, by Friday your entire yearly fabric purchases will be horribly wrong, leading to potentially catastrophic results. So, as I said, I opened my big mouth. I mean how hard could it be? I told her that computers could solve that problem for her. She said “I’ll buy you the computer, you write me the program, and I’ll pay you for it.” So I did.
I ended up writing an entire ERP program. In HyperCard. This was 1990, before there really were ERP programs to speak of. She could dynamically recalculate her forecasts — and get fabric yields — for anything in her entire product line in seconds. She ran that program for 10 years and it transformed her business from a relatively small, niche player in sportswear to a big player in the market. After that, I was hooked! I wanted to write code all the time!
Los Alamos National Lab then hired me as a “Graduate Research Assistant” (GRA) to organize that High Performance Computing Conference again for them. I was responsible for setting up and managing the network of Sun SPARCStations, coordinating the incoming applications, and pretty much handling everything. That was the very first Computer Science conference to ever accept electronic submissions, and the following year we went to electronic-only submissions — the first conference to ever do that as well. But I was bored, so I began to teach myself C. By the end of the second year of that conference, I managed to get moved to a new GRA position writing the Network Event Recording Device, or NERD.
After a year or that, they told me that if I wanted to keep working as a GRA, I would really have to be a Graduate Student in Computer Science, so I talked my way into the Masters program at UNM — again, there’s a whole story there for another time. I did manage to get in, and worked on that project for several years. But when I tried to convince the Lab to hire me as an actually Staff Member, they balked. But just at that time Sun Microsystems came calling. Everybody has their price, and sun seriously over-estimated mine! I couldn’t say no to a 148% raise, so I left the Lab and went to work at Sun as a Pre-Sales Field Systems Engineer. Bu now, I’m fully “in tech”, as you can see, and I loved it all!
But again, I was bored as an SE, and I started playing around with this little project that was going on in Sun Labs. It was a new web-programming language that eventually became known as Java! By the time it was released, I was already writing Applets and doing fun stuff with it, so I got promoted to be what they called a “Java Technologist.” This was, essentially, Developer Relations. That was in May of 1996. I spent the next 2 years or so flying about 300,000 miles per year promoting, talking about, and presenting Java to customers, Java Users Groups, and pretty much anyone that would listen. I was hooked on DevRel (even though we weren’t calling it that yet).
I also spent the next 15 years at Sun doing much the same thing for a host of other technologies — the JavaStation (what a disaster that was!), the SunRay, a massive storage system, and finally for Project Sun SPOT, the very first IoT Developer Kit. I was actively doing full-time engineering, and research into Wireless Sensor Networks (as we were calling them at the time), but I was simultaneously building a community of users and developers — and fans — of Sun SPOTs. I did what my boss would call “Stupid SPOT Tricks.” I’d order some sensor or part, figure out how to hook it up to a Sun SPOT, then write a blog post about how to do it, and post the code so that anyone could do it. I must have integrated hundreds of sensors and other devices with Sun SPOTs over the years, and shared all the code.
I answered thousands of questions on our forums from developers. I was doing my 2 favorite things: technical “computer stuff” and sharing about it! Over the years, this is what has become known as DevRel, or technical evangelism. Looking back over my entire career, I can see the arc of how I got here, and why it fulfills me so much. I get the write — I write dozens of blog posts on all sorts of topics throughout the year (writer!). I get to help people with their code, with their technology and with their own journeys in tech (therapist!). I get to help organize, go to, participate in, and speak at conferences all over the world (Organizer!) And I get to build things in tech. Each one of those previous jobs I wrote about has had a direct impact on who I am as a technologist and as a DevRel. All of them have helped bring me to this point in my career, and without any one of them, I would not be the DevRel that I am today.