Nov 092020
 

Following my departure from the MDN documentation team at Mozilla, I’ve joined the team at Amazon Web Services, documenting the AWS SDKs. Which specific SDKs I’ll be covering are still being finalized; we have some in mind but are determining who will prioritize which still, so I’ll hold off on being more specific.

Instead of going into details on my role on the AWS docs team, I thought I’d write a new post that provides a more in-depth introduction to myself than the little mini-bios strewn throughout my onboarding forms. Not that I know if anyone is interested, but just in case they are…

Personal

Now a bit about me. I was born in the Los Angeles area, but my family moved around a lot when I was a kid due to my dad’s work. By the time I left home for college at age 18, we had lived in California twice (where I began high school), Texas twice, Colorado twice, and Louisiana once (where I graduated high school). We also lived overseas once, near Pekanbaru, Riau Province on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. It was a fun and wonderful place to live. Even though we lived in a company town called Rumbai, and were thus partially isolated from the local community, we still lived in a truly different place from the United States, and it was a great experience I cherish.

My wife, Sarah, and I have a teenage daughter, Sophie, who’s smarter than both of us combined. When she was in preschool and kindergarten, we started talking about science in pretty detailed ways. I would give her information and she would draw conclusions that were often right, thinking up things that essentially were black holes, the big bang, and so forth. It was fun and exciting to watch her little brain work. She’s in her “nothing is interesting but my 8-bit chiptunes, my game music, the games I like to play, and that’s about it” phase, and I can’t wait until she’s through that and becomes the person she will be in the long run. Nothing can bring you so much joy, pride, love, and total frustration as a teenage daughter.

Education

I got my first taste of programming on a TI-99/4 computer bought by the Caltex American School there. We all were given a little bit of programming lesson just to get a taste of it, and I was captivated from the first day, when I got it to print a poem based on “Roses are red, violets are blue” to the screen. We were allowed to book time during recesses and before and after school to use the computer, and I took every opportunity I could to do so, learning more and more and writing tons of BASIC programs on it.

This included my masterpiece: a game called “Alligator!” in which you drove an alligator sprite around with the joystick, eating frogs that bounced around the screen while trying to avoid the dangerous bug that was chasing you. When I discovered that other kids were using their computer time to play it, I was permanently hooked.

I continued to learn and expand my skills over the years, moving on to various Apple II (and clone) computers, eventually learning 6502 and 65816 assembly, Pascal, C, dBase IV, and other languages.

During my last couple years of high school, I got a job at a computer and software store (which was creatively named “Computer and Software Store”) in Mandeville, Louisiana. In addition to doing grunt work and front-of-store sales, I also spent time doing programming for contract projects the store took on. My first was a simple customer contact management program for a real estate office. My most complex completed project was a three-store cash register system for a local chain of taverns and bars in the New Orleans area. I also built most of a custom inventory, quotation, and invoicing system for the store, though this was never finished due to my departure to start college.

The project about which I was most proud: a program for tracking information and progress of special education students and students with special needs for the St. Tammany Parish School District. This was built to run on an Apple IIe computer, and I was delighted to have the chance to build a real workplace application for my favorite platform.

I attended the University of California—Santa Barbara with a major in computer science. I went through the program and reached the point where I only needed 12 more units (three classes): one general education class under the subject area “literature originating in a foreign language” and two computer science electives. When I went to register for my final quarter, I discovered that none of the computer science classes offered that quarter were ones I could take to fulfill my requirements (I’d either already taken them or they were outside my focus area, and thus wouldn’t apply).

Thus I withdrew from school for a quarter with the plan that I would try again for the following quarter. During the interim, I became engaged to my wife and took my first gaming industry job (where they promised to allow me leave, with benefits, for the duration of my winter quarter back at school). As the winter approached, I drove up to UCSB to get a catalog and register in person. Upon arrival, I discovered that, once again, there were no computer science offerings that would fulfill my requirements.

At that point, I was due to marry in a few months (during the spring quarter), my job was getting more complicated due to the size and scope of the projects I was being assigned, and the meaningfulness of the degree was decreasing as I gained real work experience.

Thus, to this day, I remain just shy of my computer science degree. I have regrets at times, but never so much so that it makes sense to go back. Especially given the changed requirements and the amount of extra stuff I’d probably have to take. My experience at work now well outweighs the benefits of the degree.

The other shoe…

Time to drop that other shoe. I have at least one, and possibly two, chronic medical conditions that complicate everything I do. If there are two such conditions, they’re similar enough that I generally treat them as one when communicating with non-doctors, so that’s what I’ll do here.

I was born with tibiae (lower leg bones) that were twisted outward abnormally. This led to me walking with feet that were pointed outward at about a 45° angle from normal. This, along with other less substantial issues with the structure of my legs, was always somewhat painful, especially when doing things which really required my feet to point forward, such as walking on a narrow beam, skating, or trying to water ski.

Over time, this pain became more constant, and began to change. I noticed numbness and tingling in my feet and ankles, along with sometimes mind-crippling levels of pain. In addition, I developed severe pain in my neck, shoulders, and both arms. Over time, I began to have spasms, in which it felt like I was being blasted by an electric shock, causing my arms or legs to jerk wildly. At times, I would find myself uncontrollably lifting my mouse off the desk and slamming it down, or even throwing it to the floor, due to these spasms.

Basically, my nervous system has run amok. Due, we think, to a lifetime of strain and pressure caused by my skeletal structure issues, the nerves have been worn and become permanently damaged in various places. This can’t be reversed, and the pain I feel every moment of every day will never go away.

I engage in various kinds of therapy, both physical and medicinal, and the pain is kept within the range of “ignorable” much of the time. But sometimes it spikes out of that range and becomes impossible to ignore, leading to me not being able to focus clearly on what I’m doing. Plus there are times when it becomes so intense, all I can do is curl up and ride it out. This can’t be changed, and I’ve accepted that. We do our best to manage it and I’m grateful to have access to the medical care I have.

This means, of course, that I have times during which I am less attentive than I would like to be, or have to take breaks to ride out pain spikes. On less frequent occasions, I have to write a day off entirely when I simply can’t shake the pain at all. I have to keep warm, too, since cold (even a mild chill or a slight cooling breeze) can trigger the pain to spike abruptly.

But I’ve worked out systems and skills that let me continue to do my work despite all this. The schedule can be odd, and I have to pause my work for a while a few times a week, but I get the job done.

I wrote a longer and more in-depth post about my condition and how it feels a few years ago, if you want to know more.

Hobbies and free time

My very favorite thing to do in my free time is to write code for my good old Apple II computers. Or, barring that, to work on the Apple IIgs emulator for the Mac that I’m the current developer for. I dabble in Mac and iOS code and have done a few small projects for my own use. However, due to my medical condition, I don’t get to spend as much time doing that as I can.

With the rest of my free time, I love to watch movies and read books. So very, very many books. My favorite genres are science fiction and certain types of mysteries and crime thrillers, though I dabble in other areas as well. I probably read, on average, four to six novels per week.

I also love to play various types of video games. I have an Xbox One, but I don’t play on it much (I got it mostly to watch 4K Blu-Ray discs on it), though I do have a few titles for it. I’ve played and enjoyed the Diablo games as well as StarCraft, and have been captivated by many of the versions of Civilization over the years (especially the original and Civ II). I also, of course, play several mobile games.

My primary gaming focus has been World of Warcraft for years. I was a member of a fairly large guild for a few years, then joined a guild that split off from it, but that guild basically fell apart. Only a scant handful of us are left, and none of us really feel like hunting for another guild, and since we enjoy chatting while we play, we do fine. It’d be interesting, though, to find coworkers that play and spend some time with them.

Career

I began my career as a software engineer for a small game development shop in Southern California. My work primarily revolved around porting games from other platforms to the Mac, though I did also do small amounts of Windows development at times. I ported a fair number of titles to Mac, most of which most people probably don’t remember—if they ever heard of them at all—but some of them were actually pretty good games. I led development of a Mac/Windows game for kids which only barely shipped due to changing business conditions with the publisher, and by then I was pretty much fed up with the stress of working in the games industry.

Over the years, I’ve picked or at least used up a number of languages, including C++ (though I’ve not written any in years now), JavaScript, Python, Perl, and others. I love trying out new languages, and have left out a lot of the ones I experimented with and abandoned over the years.

Be

By that point, I was really intrigued by the Be Operating System, and started trying to get a job there. The only opening I wasn’t painfully under-qualified for was a technical writing position. It occurred to me that I’ve always written well (according to teachers and professors, at least), so I applied and eventually secured a junior writer job on the BeOS documentation team.

Within seven months, I was a senior technical writer and was deeply involved in writing the Be Developers Guide (more commonly known as the Be Book) and Be Advanced Topics (which are still the only two published books which contain anything I’ve written). Due to the timing of my arrival, very little for my work is in the Be Book, but broad sections of Be Advanced Topics were written by me.

Palm

Unfortunately, for various reasons, BeOS wasn’t able to secure a large enough chunk of the market to succeed, and our decline led to our acquisition by Palm, the manufacturers of the Palm series of handhelds. We were merged into the various teams there, with myself joining the writing team for Palm OS documentation.

Within just a handful of weeks, the software team, including those of us documenting the operating system, was spun off into a new company, PalmSource. There, I worked on documentation updates for Palm OS 5, as well as updated and brand-new documentation for Palm OS 6 and 6.1.

My most memorable work was done on the rewrites and updates of the Low-Level Communications Guide and the High-Level Communications Guide, as well as on various documents for licensees’ use only. I also wrote the Binder Guide for Palm OS 6, and various other things. It was fascinating work, though ultimately and tragically doomed due to the missteps with the Palm OS 6 launch and the arrival of the iPhone three years after my departure from PalmSource.

Unfortunately, neither the Palm OS 6 update and its follow up, version 6.1, saw significant use during my tenure due to the vast changes in the platform that were made in order to modernize the operating system for future devices. The OS was also sluggish in Palm OS 6, though 6.1 was quite peppy and really very nice. But the writing was on the wall there and, though I survived three or four rounds of layoffs, eventually I was cut loose.

After PalmSource let me go, I returned briefly to the games industry, finalizing the ports of a couple of games to the Mac for Reflexive Entertainment (now part of Amazon): Ricochet Lost Worlds and Big Kahuna Reef. I departed Reflexive shortly after completing those projects, deciding I wanted to return to technical writing, or at least something not in the game industry.

Mozilla

That’s why my friend Dave Miller, who was at the time on the Bugzilla team as well as working in IT for Mozilla, recommended me for a Mac programming job at Mozilla. When I arrived for my in-person interviews, I discovered that they had noticed my experience as a writer and had shunted me over to interview for a writing job instead. After a very long day of interviews and a great deal of phone and email tag, I was offered a job as a writer on the Mozilla Developer Center team.

And there I stayed for 14 years, through the changes in documentation platform (from MediaWiki to DekiWiki to our home-built Kuma platform), the rebrandings (to Mozilla Developer Network, then to simply MDN, then MDN Web Docs), and the growth of our team over time. I began as the sole full-time writer, and by our peak as a team we had five or six writers. The MDN team was fantastic to work with, and the work had enormous meaning. We became over time the de-facto official documentation site for web developers.

My work spanned a broad range of topics from basics of HTML and CSS to the depths of WebRTC, WebSockets, and other, more arcane topics. I loved doing the work, with the deep dives into the source code of the major browsers to ensure I understood how things work and why and reading the specifications for new APIs.

Knowing that my work was not only used by millions of developers around the world, but was being used by teachers, professors, and students, as well as others who just wanted to learn, was incredibly satisfying. I loved doing it and I’m sure I’ll always miss it.

But between the usual business pressures and the great pandemic of 2020, I found myself laid off by Mozilla in mid-2020. That leads me to my arrival at Amazon a few weeks later, where I started on October 26.

Amazon!

So here we are! I’m still onboarding, but soon enough, I’ll be getting down to work, making sure my parts of the AWS documentation are as good as they can possibly be. Looking forward to it!

 Posted by at 1:21 PM

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