First part in a series detailing my journey line as a programmer
I encountered my first computer when I was in the 8th grade. I was living in Reno, Nevada, and had a friend who’s dad ran a couple of 7/11 stores with the help of a TRS-80 and some software he’d written. The program’s listing was printed out on tractor feed paper and was completely incomprehensible to me. I also saw the “Dancing Demon” application. The listing for it was even more crazy since it made extensive use of string packing, where machine language was encoded into BASIC string statements.
I was hooked and had to know more about this “personal computer” thing where you could write your own games and such.
Enter my summer job washing dishes at Dodson’s Cafeteria, circa 1979. I worked full time and saved my money. At the end of the summer, my step-dad took me to Radio Shack and kicked in the last hundred dollars or so for my very own TRS-80 Model I Level II, a 16K black and white computer with a cassette tape drive for storage. I also got a subscription to SoftSide magazine, a monthly publication with program listings n BASIC for the TRS-80. I typed in the listings and, with the help of the computer’s reference manual, debugged the programs and got them running. Thus I began to learn how to program.
In 1980, at the age of 14, I was hunched over a keyboard in the attic office space of our home in Dallas, writing a silly Enterprise vs. Klingons game, with a big blocky Enterprise on the left and a Klingon warbird on the right. Each player used a pair of keys to move their ship up and down the screen, and another key to fire upon their opponent. I knew little about realtime action programming at the time, so all movement ceased during a firing. It wasn’t the funnest of games to play, but it was my first real program, created entirely from scratch.
I was off and running!
December 2008. The snow turned to rain, falling steadily throughout the night, coating the forest surrounding my house with tons of ice. A layer of warm air, high above the surface, melted the falling snow. The air at the surface was still below freezing, causing the ice storm. I live down a one lane gravel road, tall trees guarding the road and the power lines that snake up the hill. Both mighty oak and tall pine trees were broken by the onslaught of ice, yanking the phone line from our home with a loud tearing noise, snapping heavy power lines in two. The grid went down at around 2am.
I ventured out every time a falling branch or tree shook the house, just wanting to check the integrity of our shelter. I didn’t venture far, and I wore a protective… well… a bike helmet… just in case. The crash of falling branches sent me scurrying back under the roof. Trees continued falling all through the night and even into the next afternoon. I wasn’t too worried – I was reasonably prepared for an extended power outage lasting, oh, three or four days.
I had a stockpile of good wood, enough to last maybe a week of solid burning. It was dry and underneath a tarp.
Our water comes from a well, but I had enough – we began conserving as soon as the power went out – even filling containers before going to bed.
The house is reasonably well insulated – it would keep warm enough without even a fire for several days, especially after I got out the duct tape and made sure the recessed can lights weren’t leaking warmth into the attic.
But this was no ordinary outage, and it showed me how little I was prepared to be off the grid for an extended period.
There were about 6 very large trees blocking the driveway, and about 30 smaller ones. My neighbor and I went through two chain saws clearing them. We just picked up the power lines and moved them out of the way as best we could – no way there was any juice running through them!
The family moved into our warm room, closing the door and putting a towel under it. We had a light from the small generator, plenty of heat from the air-blown fireplace, board games and plenty to eat. We put a table on the deck and emptied the fridge onto it, covering it with a tarp. We didn’t need no stinkin’ fridge! Not with the outside temperature peeking at 45 or so during the day.
The true extent of the disaster unfolded during the next few days. Power wasn’t just “out”, the entire grid infrastructure was broken. Hundreds of miles of power lines had to be rebuilt all over the Northern counties of Mass and some Southern New Hampshire areas.
Not only were we dead center in the disaster zone, but our house is one of the last ones on the grid. We were hosed. And we couldn’t even drive out of the disaster area – there was a huge tree hanging off a powerline in the middle of the road.
After six days, I began running out of wood. Water wasn’t too big a deal, and the food supply was still okay. But the nights were going to get really cold without a fire. The generator ran out of gas, too, so no fireplace blower. My wife had already left for a hotel in Burlington, Ma, with the kids, where her car window was shattered by a GPS thief. I stuck it out for a while longer and prepared the house to be on its own for a while. I left after, I think, day 9 without power.
It takes a lot of work to become prepared for an extended period off the grid. The best book I know of is Cody Lundin’s “When All Hell Breaks Loose”. It’s practical, not fanatical, and Cody lives what he teaches, having been off the grid for (correct me if I’m wrong) decades. I had some big basic things I wanted to do to be prepared for the next time it happens, and Cody’s book has done a great deal to fill in the blanks and give me confidence that I’ve taken the right steps.
Cody teaches the rule of 3′s – you can live 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water, but only 3 hours without warmth.
- Core body temperature.
This means a simple fireplace isn’t good enough, nor is a six day supply of fuel. So, wood stove and lots and lots of wood. Better overall insulation in the house – plug the gaps. Quality sleeping bags – for everyone. No more SpongeBob overnight bags, might as well buy the good stuff.
Stored potable water – enough immediately on hand for a month for 3 people, plus enough in a backup source, plus the means to make it potable, for as long as 100 days for 4 people. In addition to the 50 gallons in our regular water tank. And then there’s the lake down the road, and several year’s worth of disinfectant for water. Yeah, we got that covered now.
Okay, so this one seems to be the hardest for some reason. Looking at all the food options, things that seem to make it easy……. Cody makes it pretty clear – just buy more of what you eat right now, and rotate it. That’s a little harder when you eat a lot of fresh stuff. But, some things are easy – more rice, more spaghetti, more spaghetti sauce, lots of Pop Tarts and cereal. Okay, maybe not as hard as I thought! Plenty of bullion cubes and hot chocolate mix and some instant coffee. And, well, go ahead and get that 10 pound box of powdered milk, but put it in a food safe plastic container!
It’s not too hard, and it’s mostly cheap – even an installed wood stove is less than $2,000. You don’t need to go crazy, or be crazy, to prepare for a disaster, or at least prepare for an extended time of living off the grid. It’s happened to me, and tens of thousands of others around me.
Spill is almost 16 years old, but it’s time for him to go. He’s been suffering for a week now, despite repeated visits to the vet. We’re paying extra attention to him today, and he seems to be liking it, although he doesn’t wag his tail.
He was our first dog, a miniature poodle with “phantom” markings – similar to a “party” poodle, but with symmetrical markings. His chest had a “bow tie” and he had white “eyebrows”.
Like most poodles, he was intelligent and had a unique personality. As a puppy, and our first, he wasn’t crated and it took a long time to housebreak him. He tore up carpets and scratched up doors. We finally crated him and he quickly learned to go outside, but he did have one last trick: he ate my daughter’s homework once when she left it on top of his crate!
He managed to get out of our yard a few times, always into our neighbor’s back yard, attached to ours just like the duplex we shared. Once during a birthday party, he burst out the door and took off down the street. Even in his old age, he was the fastest dog we had. The kid’s grandmother led a flock of screaming girls and boys after him.
My most vivid memory involves another attempt at escape. I was picking up some Outback to go food, and I noticed a problem with the order. As I opened the door of the car to get it corrected, Spill shot out and ran toward the restaurant. I was wearing some “I’m not going into the restaurant” clothes: a holey shirt, shorts, and sandals. I ran after him as he made his way to the sidewalk surrounding the restaurant.
Did I mention he’s fast? He rounded a corner and headed for the front door. If someone had opened it, no doubt he would have run inside. Instead, he continued left around to the side. We were near a major road, and quickly running out of sidewalk. I knew I had to end this pursuit fast, so I literally dove onto him, banging and bloodying my knee and hands and arms. Once home, I instructed everyone to not be nice to him!
But then a curious thing happened – we noticed that he would play with Haunter outside, but only if no one was looking. If Spill saw anyone observing his play, he would immediately go back to ignoring Haunter. Funny little guy.
He was always kind of a nervous dog, furiously moving his legs on wooden floors like Fred Flintstone trying to run, slowly gaining momentum. When we moved into our current home, Spill was stuck running around on wooden floors and wooden stairs. He would have to nerve himself to charge up the stairs, sometimes tripping and falling backward as he clawed his way to the top. Often there would be a terrible racket as he scrambled up, missing steps and pumping his legs. He didn’t seem to realize it was okay to take it slow and sure-footed. We put carpet stair thingies down just for him.
When we got our daughter’s puppy, poor Mr. Spill had yet another hurdle to get up the stairs: the puppy would wait at the top and ambush Spill as he came up, barking and playing and blocking his way. This was a nightly headache for Spill, as the puppy harassed him for almost two years as he clawed his way to the top. He seemed to learn to ignore it, or at least nerve himself for it before he began his mad scramble.
Spill could roll over, play dead, speak, give you a high five, and catch popcorn… at least he would catch it until one day when he missed a Frisbee that hit him in the nose. After that, he wouldn’t try to catch anything.
For the last few years of his life, he would get up and go outside, get his canned food, lay around on the couch or easy chair, go upstairs, then go to bed in my son’s room. Sometime during the night, he’d come into our room and sleep on his own little bed.
We buried him on a hill, lying in his bed.
Goodnight Mr. Spill, wherever you are.
I’m working on a couple of things, including a way to make some of our internal conferences interactive and engaging. We have some big touchscreens we can use as kiosks to deliver schedule information, pictures and videos. They have the ability to read an RFID badge or otherwise allow a person to log in to the kiosk. We wanted a way to get people to login and find the additional things available when they do, so we’re creating a few games for people to play, with competitive leaderboards.
Will people log in to play a game? Will other people watch, and thus learn more about the kiosks? Will a game environment around the kiosks lead to interactions among people at the conference, especially interactions away from the kiosk?
I was recently asked a question that was, essentially, “What is your perfect job?” What is my passion? After a few moments of thought, I knew exactly what to say.
I’m passionate, work-wise, about three things: two of them I’ve always loved, the third has come about only in the past few years (see Transformation). They are related to each other, but separable in terms of job responsibilities and opportunities.
When I was in eighth grade, living in Reno, I had a friend at school – I don’t even remember his name. But his dad owned some 7/11 stores, and he used a Radio Shack TRS-80 to help him manage them. It was my first glimpse of a “personal computer”. I asked how it worked, and he showed me a “code listing” – lines and lines of BASIC. I could even recognize some of the words! I played Dancing Demon on it and started trying to figure out how to get one of those things.
After working a while as a dishwasher, I managed to save enough to buy a Model I Level II 16K TRS-80 for about $700. I was about to turn 15. I spent many nights and weekends in a scary attic space workroom typing in lines of code from SoftSide magazine and learning how to debug my typing errors using just a language reference manual. Fun stuff!
My first passion reared its head when I was 17, working at a skating rink. I became an assistant manager and started calculating payroll for the employees. I used a rate chart and a calculator, and it took me about 4 hours to do the twenty or so employee time cards every week. With a couple of years programming under my belt, I just knew I could create something on the computer to do this payroll thing for me! It took me a couple of weeks, but I wrote my first computer program that solved a customer’s pain. Including unpacking the computer, running the program with its nice summary printouts, and packing the computer back up, my payroll time was cut in half to just two hours. My first passion is simply:
Solving Customer Pains
I like to visit customers, talk to them, discover ways in which I can help them work better, faster, easier, whatever-er. This is why I created QuickBooks Keyword Search. It’s why I took on consulting jobs like my first paying gig for Plaza Diagnostics. That one took a 2+ week billing cycle for a medical diagnostics firm down to 1 night. From a “hand the papers off to a data processing company running a PDP-11″ to “enter the night’s stuff into a T1000″ and bill the next day! I interviewed that customer, understood his process, turned it into a program that saved him thousands of dollars. And learned to value my time more – I only charged $90 for that program.(!!!!!)
Today, this translates into visiting customers, talking to them, seeing their work, seeing them work, discovering new ways to help. You know I’m visiting customers if I’m applying for patents! There are always new ideas out there.
My second passion is all about playing around. I like to play with new languages, new platforms, new types of customers, new technologies. When I was coding in BASIC and Z-80 Assembly, I was part of Fidonet, answering questions and creating samples for people. When Windows came around, I wrote VB samples (see BlackBeltVB.com) and helped folks.
When I was stuck on version 12 or so of the accounting system our team created, I thought I’d go bonkers. I asked my boss if I could write articles for magazines, create some shareware, have some fun!! He told me, “Sure, as long as it is non-competitive with our software.” So I wrote maybe 20 or so articles, several shareware applications – one of them highly successful, and dozens and dozens of sample applications… just fiddling around with functionality and learning new things. I created a 3D rotation and transform wireframe app (it’s on the bbvb site). I tried my hand at games, at network communications tools. I even wrote my own HTML web browser!
Nowadays I still experiment with every language and new technology that comes down the pike. In one week last year, I remember that I coded in: 1) Groovy, 2) VB6, 3) Java, 4) PHP, and 5) Objective C. Groovy was for an app at work, VB6 was a quick and dirty card printer, Java and Objective C were for a Droid phone and iPad respectively, and PHP was the app that worked somewhat with the VB6 thing. I latched onto Smartphones when they first appeared, creating Palm apps and even a floating point emulator in C (of sorts – really it was just a very large integer math library) for the early Blackberries. I can’t help myself… I see an RFID reader for $39.95… wow!! Gotta have it and play with it. Cameras and GPS and motion sensors, big touchscreens… I even bypassed a UPS power switch and wired it to a phone-controlled radio transmitter relay system for remote power cycling of a computer and network switch. All that to state my second passion:
I’m usually pretty good at making connections between a need and a solution. The more I learn about new capabilities in the world of computing, about new technologies and devices, the more connections I can make and the more potential solutions. But mostly, it’s fun! It’s fun because I’m curious, I’m a programmer, so I love to find a real challenge and then figure it out. I’m like a little kid with a cube full of odd-shaped holes and a bunch of plastic shapes. I pick up each one and try to hammer it in a hole, crying out with joy when one fits!
Two down, one more passion left: acting as a catalyst. This one is really my least defined, as I haven’t really been “passionate” about it, or recognized it as something I love, until far more recently that the other two. Oh sure, I enjoyed teaching the occasional class on creativity or visiting customers, and I enjoyed participating in or facilitating brainstorming sessions. But it turned out that what I really like is to just be part of a team that wants to be more creative, wants to try more solutions and possibilities. I want to be a catalyst on that team, spurring people to greater creativity of their own. I want them to empathize with the customer the way I do. I hope that my curiosity will rub off on them. I want to instill the ability and desire to be innovative to others. I have tools that I’ve both learned and created for framing problem spaces, conducting customer visits, taking and understanding notes, using qualitative data to determine which direction a project should take.
I remember standing at the podium in a standing-room only gallery and holding up a bottle of conditioner I’d grabbed from my hotel room. My first words in that session on Walking in your customer’s shoes were, “How many of you tried to use the conditioner from the hotel?” The room erupted in laughter and people calling out – immediate customer empathy! Those little conditioner bottles were diamond shaped, stiff, filled with thick creamy conditioner. It was almost impossible to squeeze out the stuff. Observation! Empathy! Success! I took a whole room full of people and made them customers on a visit to their own hotel.
That’s something I want to do more of, and I’ve found the best way, so far, is to join with teams on their journey toward solving customer problems – be it with new offerings or old.
Be an innovation catalyst
I steal that term unashamedly from my current company, and although I mean the same thing… I think… I want more than short spurts of innovation engagement, rather I want to be part of the entire journey of investigation, learning and development: to be a real part of lots of teams.
So there’s my perfect job: visiting customers, creating offerings that solve their pains, using a variety of solutions and technologies, and as part of a team of innovators.
One of the innovation challenges in a big company is trying to work within the gravity well of the major revenue generating offerings while needing to obtain hardware, software and services that probably shouldn’t co-exist with those important offerings. You can’t spin up a Facebook app server in the same network topology as TurboTax! You probably can’t order RFID hardware from the same vendors you use for your blade servers and laptop computers.
But you can’t just step outside of the gravity well – there are good reasons for the existence of procurement and hardware exception approval processes.
There are times you can bypass it for small or temporary things, and just act like a startup and put it on your corporate credit card. But then the money might not show up in the proper place on various reports, giving the accounting department a real headache, or you clicked “Agree to terms” when you checked out, but those terms are actually not acceptable to your company.
So you have to work with them and initiate your purchase and exception requests through the system. If it’s a great system, then everything flows smoothly, suppliers are found for your stuff, the prices are the best available, and there’s no email back and forth to resolve problems.
You probably haven’t encountered that nirvana yet. Instead, your odd hardware request can’t be fulfilled, so you start on a journey of discovering the people involved in A) getting a proper request created and B) getting the money to the supplier. There is a huge amount of institutional knowledge inside the heads of people who have been around for a while, and especially in functional groups in a big company. You want to spin up a data center server? Talk to this guy. You need to install non-standard hardware? You’ll need her to grant an exception. Want to order from a new vendor? Talk to these people, oh, and maybe that guy has a locally-stored Word document you’ll need to send to the new vendor.
If you have been in the innovative space for as long as I have, you’ve definitely encountered these scenarios! And I hope that, like me, you’ve documented them for future pioneers. I’ve owned several new, unexplored “routes”, including Intuit Labs, Intuit Experimental Hosting, internal wikis and blogs. Those routes are filled with people who need to know, need to approve, or otherwise have some sort of gating role. Using Intuit QuickBase, I created processes that delight the developers and other folks who are using them.
Bottom line: it’s okay to have knowledge tied up with a PERSON, but you need to create a PROCESS that will get to that person and let them document the knowledge that they provide.
More fun with Google’s Android App Inventor. This one is a Star Trek Communicator. Use the “open communicator” move to “flip” open the cover, then speak your command. The lights do things, too, so press them to find out.
If you haven’t already done so, you’ll need to install the free Google Text to Speech service. Click here to install it.
If you haven’t already done so, you’ll need to install the free Google Text to Speech service. Click here to install it.
It’s inevitable. You’re driving down the road, and you get a text message. What to do, what to do. You can read it – that takes your eyes off the road briefly. But… what if you need to respond? Can you pick up groceries? Make a quick call? Stop and pick up the kids from the mall?
You can text back a response. Dangerous. Trying to type while driving is a pain. Maybe your text message app accepts voice and transcribes it? That’s a little better, but you still have to click on the text field, then find the tiny microphone icon, speak your message, then read it to see if it was correctly transcribed, then press the send button.
Of course, you’re about out of luck if there was a transcription error. You have to try and delete the message and start over.
You could call. But that means more button pressing, locating the contact, getting to the right phone number, pressing the call button.
Enter Texty Driver. Massachusetts, like many states, has outlawed texting while driving – and for good reason! As I wrote above, it’s distracting. So the Texty Driver app is voice command driven. You can setup 3 frequent texters and with one button press, activate the texting sequence.
First, it states the name of the contact you are about to text and tells you to speak your message. When you are finished, just stop talking. The Android operating system on equipped phones, such as my Motorola Droid, will connect to servers and transcribe the message. It’s very accurate and works well even in road-noise environments.
Second, your transcribed message is read back to you. That lets you confirm the accuracy of transcription without looking away from the road. You can respond with “Yes”, “No” or “Cancel”. Yes sends the message, with a voice confirmation. No starts the transcription over, letting you speak your message again. Cancel stops the process.
If the app is kept running, there is an option that lets it speak received messages back to you. If one of the selected contacts responds, the app will convert the message to voice and speak it. However, App Inventor doesn’t currently allow applications to run as background processes, so it won’t speak if something else is running, or if the phone is locked.
A co-worker of mine told me of an ongoing contest at my office: a contest centered on me. The winner would be the person who could get me to say “Hello” to one of them. Someone would see me go for some coffee or popcorn, and they’d queue up to go into the break room and try to talk to me.
It wasn’t that I was intentionally unfriendly… I was just… focused. This was back when I was coding every minute of every day, cranking out applications at a rapid rate. My fellow programmers joked that I must type with my feet, too, since I was so fast. That speed was, in part, enabled by my ability to focus. Even necessary activities like restroom breaks or a snack were unwanted intrusions, an opportunity for my attention to drift away from the next line of code, the next bug to resolve.
My concentration was such that I would acknowledge other people, but often only in my mind. I said “Hello”, it was just so low-pitched, and sometimes no-pitched, that it was simply not there. So the only winners in that contest were the ones who happened to catch me at a transition, like finishing a bug sheet or a major part of code.
When I joined the Intuit Innovation Lab in 2002, some of that… lack of social grace… was necessarily overridden by the nature of my new work: I had to visit customers and talk to them. Or at least listen closely and ask the right follow up questions. I talked more to my co-workers, with my co-workers, and I learned how to connect with customers.
But all that change was just an unthoughtful response, not a deliberate difference compared to my “contest” days. It certainly wasn’t enough. I still had a lot of friction with my co-workers, viewed as “smart, fast, creative, and hard to work with”. It came to head when I locked horns with a co-worker, pushing things “my way” and not allowing a different opinion into the room. I didn’t like working that way, and neither did people like working with me when I was that way.
Fortunately, my boss at the time, Tara, suggested and supported me with a plan to change. She hired an executive coach for me. With his insights and help, I transformed how I interact with people – everyone, from my family, to my co-workers, to customers and just to everyone I meet.
I first took a personality test called an Enneagram. There are many such tests out there, and the Enneagram is probably one of the best. It has 3 person types, and 3 sub-types. The three types are Body, Mind and Feeling. I’m a Body type, with a sub-type of 1 – the Reformer. I want to solve problems, to make everything better. At my worst, I’m a perfectionist, plowing ahead with my own solution and pushing everyone else to the side.
The key to my transformation was to take the worst stereotype of a Reformer and apply that to myself. In every situation, I would laugh at that stereotype picture and refuse to fit into it, even as I knew that my normal mode would fit into it! I became a listener, a peacemaker, able to get things done as a team, as part of a team. I could let other ideas join my own without feeling like the solution would be “worse off”.
I can feel the difference, and it usually astonishes me. I’m happier, friendlier. I can connect with almost anyone. I get onto a plane where a flight attendant is greeting people. She didn’t look particularly happy, saying “Hi, welcome aboard.” I said, “Hi, thanks! How are you?” It was amazing – her face brightened, she talked some more, told me thanks for asking. I could hear her behind me greeting others with a smile! That’s why I’m astonished – I really had no idea before that I could personally, individually, brighten someone’s day just by, well, caring about them, to be honest. It’s more than just a “friendly” hello, rather I actually mean it when I ask, “How are you?” I talk to people about their day, their work, their feelings.
Those of you who know how I was “before” will, I believe, be pleasantly surprised at how I interact with you and those people around you. It’s a world full of people out there, and they’ve had all kinds of days: good and bad and indifferent. Open up ye engineers and explore the people around you. We’ll all be happier for it!
Software is… hard. There are so many things to think about, even when creating an offering as simple as an automated email message. Click on the image on the left and you’ll see what I mean. Notice the link in the bottom status bar and the highlighted link in the text. It’s for Hertz.com, but the actual link reference is for Hertz.com. – an added “.” period. Note that it is also an SSL secure website, which means that the security certificate needs to exactly match the URL if you don’t want the browser to pop up a scary “security exception” notice. Someone at Hertz.com didn’t get it right. More likely several someones.
Creating good software takes an attention to detail that the “engineering” discipline attempts to enforce. But unlike many traditional engineering tasks, there are many different ways of accomplishing the same task, and they can all be valid at one point or another. The number of systems, concepts, languages, end customer environments… it’s staggering how much a programming “maven” needs to keep in his or her head.
Processes and project roles are a big help. A project manager to plan and maintain the big picture, designers who sweat the details, developers who are experienced and focused, quality assurance folks who nitpick every little comma and period. Every one of those roles has a responsibility to catch that “Hertz.com.” error.
- Did the project manager ensure that the wording in the email is correct?
- Did the designer check the text, the fonts, the highlighting colors?
- Did the developer know how to construct a link in both HTML and Text formats?
- Did the QA folks actually click the link – and clicked it using a “clean” environment?
I remember a tester who worked on my EasyACCT stuff back at Tax and Accounting Software Corporation (TAASC) in Tulsa – Brian Anderson. He was a superb tester, and later became a developer as well. He owns Hostek.com, where this website (and my others) are hosted.
He would sometimes come up with the craziest sequences to duplicate an error – press Ctrl-Shift and then down arrow five times, type “Q-2″ and press Enter, and you see this error message. Maddening. But if Brian tested it, then I was confident that my application was thoroughly tested and working as good as mortal man could make it.
A great tester is worth his or her weight in gold, as is a nit-picky designer, a thorough and knowledgeable project manager, and a careful and experienced developer. Don’t skimp on your people, and always have at least one truly experienced person in your project team. Programming is an art, not a science. You put chlorine onto gold, you’ll get dissolved gold and a very unhappy investor. There aren’t variations when those two elements are mixed. You design an application, and there are dozens if not hundreds of ways that things could be mixed to create the working application. Experience is absolutely necessary if you want Quality.