Note: I started writing this a long time ago as part of #mynerdstory but never got around to finishing it until recently. So I changed it a bit when I noticed it had been over 20 years since I first used the internet.
I found this picture the other day. It’s me on graduation day at Acadia, twenty years ago this month. A lot has changed since then.
In the picture, I’m in Carnegie Hall, where the Computer Science department had their labs, classrooms and offices. I’m sitting in front of a Sun workstation, which ran a early version of Mosaic. I recall the first time I saw a web browser display a web page, I was awestruck. I think it was NASA’s web page. My immediate reaction was that I wanted to work on that, to be on the web.
As a I’ve mentioned before, my Dad was a manager at a software and services firm in Halifax. He brought home our first computer when I was 9. Dad was always upgrading the computers or fixing them and I’d watch him and asked lots of questions about how the components connected together. In junior high, I taught myself BASIC from the manual, wrote a bunch of simple programs, and played so many computer games that my dreams at night became pixelated. When I was 16, I started working at my Dad’s office doing clerical work during the school break. One of my tasks was to run a series of commands to connect to BITNET via an accoustic coupler using Kermit and download support questions from their university customers. I thought it was so magical that these computers that were so physically distant could connect and communicate.
In high school, I took computer science in grade 12 and we wrote programs in Pascal on Apple IIs. My computer science teacher was very enthusiastic and welcoming. He taught us sorting algorithms, and binary trees, and other advanced topics that weren’t on the curriculum. Since he had such an interest he taught a lot of extra material. Thanks Mr. B.
When it was time to apply to university, I didn’t apply to computer science. I don’t know why, my grades were fine and I certainly had the background. I really lacked self confidence that I could do it. In retrospect, I would have been fine. I enrolled at Acadia in their Bachelor of Business Administration program, probably because I liked reading the Globe and Mail.
I arrived on campus with a PC to write papers and do my accounting assignments. The reason I had access to a computer was that the company my Dad worked for allowed their employees borrow a computer for home use for a year at a time, then return it. Otherwise, they were prohibitively expensive at the time. My third year of university I decided that I was better suited to computer science than business so started taking all my elective courses from the computer science faculty. I still wanted to graduate on in four years so I didn’t switch majors. It was such a struggle to scrape together the money from part-time jobs and student loans to pay for four years of university, let alone six.
One of my part-time jobs was helping people in the university computer labs with questions and fixing problems. Everything was very text based back then. We used Archie to search for files, read books transcribed by the Gutenberg project and use uudecode to assemble pictures posted to Usenet groups. I applied for a Unix account on the Sun system that only the Computer Science students had access to. It was called dragon and the head sysadmin had a sig that said “don’t flame me, I’m on dragon”. I loved learning all the obscure yet useful Unix commands.
My third year I had a 386 portable running Windows 3.1. I carried this computer all over campus, plugging it in at the the student union centre and working on finance projects with my business school colleagues. By my fourth year, they had installed Sun workstations in the Computer Science labs with Mosaic installed. This was my first view of the world wide web. It was beautiful. The web held such promise.
I applied for 40 different jobs before I graduated from Acadia and was offered a job in Ottawa working for the IT department of Revenue Canada. A ticket out of rural Nova Scotia! I didn’t like my first job there that much but they paid for networking and operating system courses that I took at night. I was able to move to a new job in a year and started being a sysadmin for their email servers that served 30,000 users. It was a lot of fun and I learned a tremendous amount about networking, mail related protocols and operating systems. I also spent a lot of time in various server rooms across Canada installing servers. Always bring a sweater.
I left after a few years to work at Nortel as technical support for a telephony switch that offloaded internet traffic from voice switches to a dedicated switch. Most internet traffic back then was via modem which were longer duration calls than most voice calls and caused traffic issues. I took a lot of courses on telephony protocols, various Unix variants and networking. I traveled to several telco customers to help configure systems and demonstrate product features. More time in cold server rooms.
Shortly after Mr. Releng and I got married we moved to Athens, Georgia where he was completing his postdoc. I found a great job as a sysadmin for the UGA’s computer systems division. The group provided FTP, electronic courseware and email services to the campus. We also secured a lot of hacked Linux servers set up by unknowing graduate students in various departments. When I started, I didn’t know Linux very well so my manager just advised me to install Red Hat about 30 times and change the options every time, learn how to compile custom kernels and so on. So that’s what I did. At that time you also had to compile Apache from source to include any modules such as ssl support, or different databases so I also had fun doing that.
We used to do maintenance on the computer systems between 5 and 7am once a week. Apparently not many students are awake at that hour. I’d get up at 4am and drive in to the university in the early morning, the air heavy with the scent of Georgia pine and the ubiquitous humidity. My manager M, always made a list the night before of what we had to do, how long it would take, and how long it would take to back the changes out. His attention to detail and reluctance to ever go over the maintenance window has stayed with me over time. In fact, I’m still kind of a maintenance nerd, always figuring out how to conduct system maintenance in the least disruptive way to users. The server room at UGA was huge and had been in operation since the 1960s. The layers of cable under the tiles were an archeological record of the progress of cabling within the past forty years. M typed on a DVORAK keyboard, and was one of the most knowledgeable people about all the Unix variants, and how they differed. If he found a bug in Emacs or any other open source software, he would just write a patch and submit it to their mailing list. I thought that was very cool.
After Mr. Releng finished his postdoc, we moved back to Ottawa. I got a job at a company called OTI as a sysadmin. Shortly after joining, my colleague J said “We are going to release an open source project called Eclipse, are you interested in installing some servers for it?” So I set up Bugzilla, CVS, mailman, nntp servers etc. It was a lot of fun and the project became very popular and generated a lot of traffic. A couple years later the Eclipse consortium became the Eclipse Foundation and all the infrastructure management moved there.
I moved to the release engineering team at IBM and started working with S who taught me the fundamentals of release engineering. We would spent many hours testing and implementing new features in the build, and test environment, and working with the development team to implement new functionality, since we used Eclipse bundles to build Eclipse. I have written a lot about that before on my blog so I won’t reiterate. Needless to say, being paid to work full time in an open source community was a dream come true.
A couple of years ago, I moved to work at Mozilla. And the 20 year old who looked Mosaic for the first time and saw the beauty and promise of the web, couldn’t believe where she ended up almost 20 years later.
Many people didn’t grow up with the privilege that I have, with access to computers at such a young age, and encouragement to pursue it as a career. I thank all of you who I have worked with and learned so much from. Lots still to learn and do!