sheppy

Writer. Programmer. Geek. Dad. Keeper of strong opinions about grammar. All hail the Oxford Comma! All hail the Oxford Comma!

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
Aug 252020
 

With my final day at Mozilla looming, I’m having to come to terms with the fact that there will be a vast amount of documentation work on MDN that I will not get to finish.

Dammit, really wanted to finish the WebRTC and WebXR documentation. There was stuff left I wanted to get done in WebSockets. There are connections to be made among topic areas that will have to be done by others.

Certainly, I can continue to contribute to MDN, and I’m sure I will from time to time, but I will be far more time-limited, so any additions I make will be task-directed; that is, if I’m doing something on the web and run into an issue with MDN content, I might fix it if time allows.

I’m very proud of the work I did on MDN’s content over the years. There are many things I’d do differently given a time machine… or even just more time.

Alas, it is not to be.

 Posted by at 2:40 PM
Aug 182020
 

By now, most folks have heard about Mozilla’s recent layoff of about 250 of its employees. It’s also fairly well known that the entire MDN Web Docs content team was let go, aside from our direct manager, the eminently-qualified and truly excellent Chris Mills. That, sadly, includes myself.

Yes, after nearly 14½ years writing web developer documentation for MDN, I am moving on to new things. I don’t know yet what those new things are, but the options are plentiful and I’m certain I’ll land somewhere great soon.

Winding down

But it’s weird. I’ve spent over half my career as a technical writer at Mozilla. When I started, we were near the end of documenting Firefox 1.5, whose feature features (sorry) were the exciting new <canvas> element and CSS improvements including CSS columns. A couple of weeks ago, I finished writing my portions of the documentation for Firefox 80, for which I wrote about changes to WebRTC and Web Audio, as well as the Media Source API.

Indeed, in my winding-down days, when I’m no longer assigned specific work to do, I find myself furiously writing as much new material as I can for the WebRTC documentation, because I think it’s important, and there are just enough holes in the docs as it stands to make life frustrating for newcomers to the technology. I won’t be able to fix them all before I’m gone, but I’ll do what I can.

Because that’s how I roll. I love writing developer documentation, especially for technologies for which no documentation yet exists. It’s what I do. Digging into a technology and coding and debugging and re-coding (and cursing and swearing a bit, perhaps) until I have working code that ensures that I understand what I’m going to write about is a blast! Using that code, and what I learned while creating it, to create documentation to help developers avoid at least some of the debugging (and cursing and swearing a bit, perhaps) that I had to go through.

The thrill of creation is only outweighed by the deep-down satisfaction that comes from knowing that what you’ve produced will help others do what they need to do faster, more efficiently, and—possibly most importantly—better.

That’s the dream.

Wrapping up

Anyway, I will miss Mozilla terribly; it was a truly wonderful place to work. I’ll miss working on MDN content every day; it was my life from the day I joined as the sole full-time writer, through the hiring and departure of several other writers, until the end.

First, let me thank the volunteer community of writers, editors, and translators who’ve worked on MDN in the past—and who I hope will continue to do so going forward. We need you more than ever now!

Jean-Luc Picard demonstrates the facepalm

Me, if I’ve forgotten to mention anyone.

Then there are our staff writers, both past and present. Jean-Yves Perrier left the team a long while ago, but he was a fantastic colleague and a great guy. Jérémie Pattonier was a blast to work with and a great asset to our team. Paul Rouget, too, was a great contributor and a great person to work with (until he moved on to engineering roles; then he became a great person to get key information from, because he was so easy to engage with).

Chris Mills, our amazing documentation team manager and fabulous writer in his own right, will be remaining at Mozilla, and hopefully will find ways to make MDN stay on top of the heap. I’m rooting for you, Chris!

Florian Scholz, our content lead and the youngest member of our team (a combination that tells you how amazing he is) was a fantastic contributor from his school days onward, and I was thrilled to have him join our staff. I’m exceptionally proud of his success at MDN.

Janet Swisher, who managed our community as well as writing documentation, may have been the rock of our team. She’s been a steadfast and reliable colleague and a fantastic source of advice and ideas. She kept us on track a lot of times when we could have veered sharply off the rails and over a cliff.

Will Bamberg has never been afraid to take on a big project. From developer tools to browser extensions to designing our new documentation platform, I’ve always been amazed by his focus and his ability to do big things well.

Thank you all for the hard work, the brilliant ideas, and the devotion to making the web better by teaching developers to create better sites. We made the world a little better for everyone in it, and I’m very, very proud of all of us.

Farewell, my friends.

 Posted by at 1:10 PM
Apr 142020
 

First, let’s get the most important part out of the way: I hope you and yours are faring as well as possible during these difficult times. Though much of what’s happening was inescapable, enough mistakes were made that we find ourselves in an essentially generation-defining crisis. This is the time my daughter will point at and tell her kids, “You think you have it rough? Back in my day…”

Please do everything you can to contain the spread of COVID-19. Stay home to the greatest possible extent.Don’t have visitors, or go out visiting others, and if you must interact with other people, stay as far apart as can be managed—at least six feet—and don’t allow your hands or face to come into contact with anything that others have touched. And, of course, wash those hands. A lot.

Surprisingly okay

Generally speaking, I’ve been getting along surprisingly well during all this. I’ve been working primarily from home for over 20 years, and due to my previously-mentioned medical issues, I’ve not been driving for a couple of years now, so I’m mostly at home now, too. So the direct changes to my personal existence are pretty minimal. It mostly comes down to increasing challenges in getting things I want or need, with the much more complicated shopping for my wife (who has always been a total rock star when it comes to compensating for the drop in my contributions to keeping our family running) and the difficulties in getting deliveries of even basic grocery items.

But generally, I keep on keeping on.

My wife is obviously stressed a bit, between having my daughter home all the time and the much-increased demand on her for errands and so forth. She took a couple days to go chill out at a home my in-laws have up in the mountains, because she needed a well-deserved break, but she’s back at it now.

Sophie, my daughter, is stir crazy as all get out. Given that her favorite pastime is lying flopped across her bed texting with her friends, you’d think that she’d be happy as can be, but apparently it’s different when you have basically no choice. She’s got remote learning to do through the school, which is great, but she’s not keeping on top of it well, and her grades are not as good as they should be. She’s at an age where it’s difficult for us to manage her schoolwork, especially since we don’t always know what she needs to be doing.

On top of all that, she misses her friends. Yeah, mostly they interact virtually these days, but the times when they do get together in real life apparently were still key to her well-being.

Life these days would be a fascinating social experiment if not for the horrible human toll it takes…

We’re all fine down here. How are you?

So, my family is okay, for the most part. And my work is going along largely the same as always, other than the understandable slowdown due to just… processing what’s going on in the wider world around me. You can’t go along unaffected by the dreadfulness of it all.

If, like me, you’re soldiering on at home… but, unlike me, doing it for the first time or for the first extended stretch of time, welcome to the family of home working! I hope you’ve adapted well to it. It does take getting used to, especially if you’re someone who either enjoys lots of direct human interaction or finds it necessary for business reasons. There’s not much I can do about the “direct” part there.

But working at home isn’t so bad. Ideally, you already have a home office or den you can work in. If not, do what you can to find a good spot away from the main flow of your household action in which you can sequester yourself to work. Working while family things go on around you is not easy to do, even when you have years of home working experience. Fortunately, it shouldn’t be too hard to adjust to with a little effort.

I could sit here and type out a long post with all the suggestions in the world for how to properly work from home, but here’s the thing: I can’t tell you that. Everyone has their own needs and preferences. Some people need to feel like they’re in the middle of some action to slip into the zone. Other people need silence, with no distractions. Do you need music? Office noises? Standing or sitting? Desk or sofa?

These are decisions that, really, only you can make. I guess I’m left with only three pieces of advice I’m comfortable offering.

First, find what works for you. Experiment. Don’t let anyone dictate how you should work at home, when they aren’t you. If setting up your work space at home to be as close as possible to your desk at work makes you the most comfortable and productive you can be, then that’s your answer. On the other hand, if you find that enveloping yourself in whatever chaos might be going on around you at home is somehow comforting and helps you get things done, then by all means, go with it.

Second, if you feel like the way your household operates conflicts with your typical daily work hours, try talking to your manager or supervisor about amending your work schedule. If you need to take shifts supervising your kids’ remote learning each day, try to work with your employer to arrange to swap out those hours for some other hours during the week. Start work early or work late in order to have that time in the afternoon or morning for your kids. Or put in a few hours on Saturday. Find ways to alter your work schedule to fit in better with working at home.

Third, set up a back channel for chatting with your coworkers. This can be a chat room on your service of choice, or a video channel people can just drop into and out of to chitchat in the kind of way people in an office do over the cubicle walls or when bumping into each other at the coffee machine. This is especially useful if your company already has remote workers you can talk to and get insights and support from. Indeed, odds are good they already have a place for talking about the remote experience at your company.

Flexibility is key when working from home. Ideally, both your home and your work are willing to make adjustments to let you do your best possible work while keeping your home life intact.

Stay home and stay safe

These days, the best thing you can do to slow the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine can be found is to stay at home. Hopefully with a little effort, patience, and flexibility, you’ll find a comfortable way to do so.

Take care, and stay away from me. I don’t know where you’ve been. ?

 Posted by at 12:19 PM