Software Development Meme

Jeff Blankenburg called me out with his Software Development Meme. It’s actually a funny thing that he did because I have a much different background than much of the industry. My undergrad is actually English with a minor in Drama and a minor in Communications. When others are talking about programming outside of the box, I ask the really simple question of “What box? – nobody told me about a box…”

How old were you when you started programming?

21. Yeah – you read that right – 21. Honestly, I couldn’t type until my junior year in college. Somehow I made it through high school without the “required” typing class.

How did you get started in programming?

There are two stories there. The first is my first bit of play/consulting and the second is my first job out of college.

In ’96 – when I was in my senior year of college, JavaScript was new and starting to be the hotness. Live everyone else, I got started creating a web sites. I tell you I wouldn’t have made it through without Stefan Koch. I’ve never met the guy but his Voodoo’s Introduction to JavaScript (which I can’t believe is still up), I wouldn’t have made it through. I actually did a few small consulting gigs with JavaScript including a web shopping cart. Lots of fun.

When I was approaching graduation, I was trying to figure out how I would support a family on an English degree so I got a job doing COBOL. It was while the banking industry was staring down the barrel or Y2K and they couldn’t hire enough people and non of the CS majors would dirty themselves with COBOL. They were looking for liberal arts majors that they could train in COBOL. I fit the bill and got the job. After about 6 months of that, I realized that I really enjoyed telling computers how to do what they do but I couldn’t put into words the loathing that I felt toward the main frame. When it would take me up to 6-8 hours to get an application change compiled and tested only to have to read a hexadecimal dump to debug the app – I about went nuts. It’s inhuman to subject people to that type of torture. Story continued below…

What was your first language?

As per above – HTML/JavaScript and COBOL.

What was the first real program you wrote?

As above, personal web sites, shopping carts and a checking account system.

What languages have you used since you started programming?

As above, I started with HTML/JavaScript. Then I moved to COBOL. Here’s where the story picks back up. I hated working on the main frame so I picked up a copy of Borland’s Delphi 2. I started doing little side projects and wrote a multi-player tic-tac-toe game and some other fun utilities. There wasn’t a problem that I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) throw my new hammer at.

After a year and a half in main frame hell and a year doing a Delphi on the side (Delphi 3 at this point), I heard that the Client/Server division was hiring. Not only were they hiring, they were putting the new college grads that they were hiring through a 6 month training course where they taught them VB, C++, NT, Unix, relational database design, Oracle, Tuxedo and all of the other tools/process/language/platforms that they used. The thinking behind it was that new hires direct from campus are typically 12+ months on the job before they are productive and they need to unlearn much of their CS degree anyway.

Desperately wanting out of the man frame division, I leveraged my English degree and picked up a book on C++ and read through it. I went over to my friend Tito Martinez (who I’ve since lost contact with and would really like to hear from hint hint) and he taught me what the critical things that I needed to know to get through an interview. I still wake up screaming in the middle of the night with the nightmares from that interview thanks to Denny Williford who was really tough on everyone that he interview. Somehow I made it though and got into the class.

In the CS University I learned Visual Basic 5, C++, relational database, Oracle, SQL, system design, UML, COM, UI design, NT, Unix and much more. It was a great class. It was during this class that I met Richard Hale Shaw – more on this later.

After class, I worked in the production environment building a teller system. The client was VB (VB6 by now) running on NT talking to C++/COM components talking via Tuxedo to the Unix server running C++, our own flavor of COM and Oracle as well as interfacing with the CICS regions on the main frame. Honestly, I’m terrified at how typical that was as I’ve talked to more and more companies that had almost that exact setup. During this time, we developed a VB6 based client framework that, on login, dynamically loaded up the components that this particular user in their role were allowed to load up. Later in life – CAB made complete sense as that’s basically what we had done.

While I was in the client/server division, I started speaking at conferences. At some point, I impressed someone well enough that they offered me a job doing Python dev, so I (in normal fashion for me) picked up a book and started playing around. It’s funny that I don’t remember that in normal conversations but I was playing with Python a little back in ’99/00 time frame.

At some point, they decided to train more main frame guys on the client/server technologies. And who better than a former main frame guy to do teach the class? I had 10 students for 6 months. That was intense! And it was my first shot at teaching so it was extra fun. I can tell you that I learned at least as much as the students did during that class. After the class, I joined the training department for a short time and then went independent.  

As an independent, I did a lot of training through the Richard Hale Shaw Group. I ended up writing all or part of and teaching the XML Bootcamp, C# Bootcamp (majority of this written by Richard or Martin Shoemaker), VB.NET Bootcamp, ASP.NET Bootcamp (C# most of which was written by Dominic Selly and VB.NET). I also did some side consulting. I could list XSLT, XML Schemas, VBScript and many other things that I used while teaching the classes but that’d be cheating as some people don’t consider them real languages.

I did do a little bit (and I mean a little bit) of Java. But I never really considered myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I got paid for it though so I’m counting it… 🙂

After that, I joined SRT Solutions for a year and a half or so. Then I joined Microsoft. While at Microsoft, I’ve played a little bit with Python again and fallen in love with Ruby.

What’s that make it (other than the wordiest answer to this questions you’ll find?) – HTML, JavaScript, Cobol, Delphi 2 and 3, VB5 and VB6, C++, COM, UML, SQL, XML, C#, VB.NET, Java, XML, XSLT, VBScript, Python and Ruby. That’s quite a few there on a single line but it’s nothing compared to some people like Jay Wren.

What was your first professional programming gig?

Answered above.

If you knew then what you know now, would you have started programming?

I’ll answer in true form and say that it depends. It really depends on the day sometimes. I love technology, learning new things and all the things that go along with this industry. These are the days that I look around the industry and see great companies that are literally changing the world (not going to get into which ones because that is a political rathole that I’d like to avoid in this post) through software. The fact that I’m part of that is really exciting. I can look back on my career and the companies that I’ve consulted for or taught at and see the results of my work internationally. That’s a good day and I’m proud to be in tech on those days.

However, there are the days when I get a call from some poor user/mother/company/* and hear about how technology has made their lives much more complicated and made things harder for everyone. That’s when I wish that I had started a motorcycle repair shop instead. I’m hoping that’s my retirement.

If there is one thing you learned along the way that you would tell new developers, what would it be?

It’s the non-technology skills that really separate the good from the great in this industry. I’ve known a lot of really smart programmers that could go 10x as deep as I can in a given technology. However, those skills have a half-life. The {} style languages reinvent themselves about every 10 years. The data access methodologies move at close to that speed. Networks have changed the way that we’ve thought about software and the internet stirred the pot that much more. I could go through and talk about all the ways that the industry has leapt forward in the short time that I’ve been in it but that would pale in comparison to the war stories that a Martin Fowler or Neal Ford could tell.

What’s the most fun you’ve ever had … programming?

I’ve had a lot of fun over the years but one that stands out recently is working with J Sawyer and Chris Koenig on the We Are Microsoft weekend on the St. Vincent DePaul Volunteer Portal. I heard that there via Twitter was a team that bailed and Chris was scrambling to find some help so I volunteered from Michigan. We spend the weekend working on the portal and it was a ton of fun.

Who am I Calling Out?

Jay Wren

Joe O’Brien

Dustin Campbell

Rich Weston 

Larry Clarkin

Scott Hanselman

Who’s next?