Today I wanted to take a break from the usual technical posts and give a shout out to two people who took the time to help me out years ago – I am sure embarrassing them mightily in the process! These two guys had a real influence over the arc of my life and my work, and in different ways prepared me for the happy career I would eventually land in. I absolutely had great parents, good professors and teachers, and later managers, but I don’t think I had any inkling at the time of how important a few conversations and projects with these particular two generous people would be. The first is one of my uncles, through marriage. I’ll just call him Ron M., and I’ll date myself, and him, I’m afraid, with this story.
When I was but a Wee Lad, personal computers were young and expensive. If you were a hobbyist, and anyone with a computer really had to be, the big choice of the era was probably between the Atari 800, the newer Commodore 64 or maybe an Apple ][. I think the main question in most people’s minds at the time was why anyone would need such an outrageous thing. It seemed like an extravagance, and to be honest, the little programs you could run were useful more in theory than in reality. You could, with great effort, maybe write a document and then print it with a daisy wheel or dot-matrix printer. And the printing bit required both prayer and luck. But I also think those who spent the money and time to fool with these machines perhaps suspected what the future was going to look like.
Ron had an Atari 800, with a cassette drive, if I remember correctly. It seems like it must have been about 1980. He somehow noticed that a computer was something I might be interested in, and he actually had me over for “lessons” on the thing, sort of like learning to play the piano. I learned how to program a little in Basic, and how to use the old white-text-on-blue word processors of the time, and, of course, how to load games like Defender from tape. He also took me to see his work at the regional power company, where I can still vividly remember seeing such beasts as a five-foot-tall chain printer and a system control computer that used a light pen interface and a color graphic(!) display.
Ultimately I got an Atari XL series machine of my own, with a disk drive (gasp!):
>10 PRINT “MERRILL IS AWESOME”
>20 GOTO 10
Whether because I was thick-sculled, or suffering the unseen influence of some New England Protestant Ethic, or who knows what, I didn’t realize until much later that a computer career would probably make sense for me. Instead I forgot about all this, went to architecture school, which, if you know an architect you may know is designed to be an all-consuming, life-altering, intense experience. It was great. But technology kept calling me back, when it helped and even when it interfered with my education and career as an architect.
I got out of school right in the worst of the 1994 recession. Work was scarce if you designed buildings, but somehow I landed a job with a small firm in Houston, near the university, and then a part time teaching position in the architecture school. This is the time when the second character arrived on the scene. His name was Richard W. I was an arrogant, headstrong young guy who, fresh out of school, clearly knew everything :-). Richard was new to the firm, as I was, and had the responsibility of making all the computer systems work (while designing buildings – this was a very small outfit). I’d brought a preference for Macs from the school – at the time, Macs were about “it” if you needed to do real graphics work – and Richard was also an Apple fan. Luckily for me, he was willing to put me to work and listen, with genuine interest, to all my ideas. And I had a lot of them. In retrospect, I wonder how he could stand it! I helped him build the firm’s first network, server, install all new Mac workstations, and move them into to some pretty advanced design technology for the time, including some VR and a lot of 3D modeling. They were later featured by Apple as a case study for Macs in small business. It was a unique opportunity for a young guy just starting in the work world.
So, I want to reach out across a few thousand miles and high-five these two guys for helping me out. I am not in Architecture any longer, except as a hobby, and I’m frankly much happier doing what I do now, but I use skills both of them taught me every day.
And if either or both of you two, my readers, have a chance to make a difference like this for a young person - it’s as easy as careful listening, giving that person a voice, maybe a small project – please do! You never know where it’ll lead.