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Evolution of a Dev (Part 1)

I am a career developer. That makes me extremely lucky, since I get to earn a living doing the kind of things I'd be doing anyway. Basically, I have the coolest hobby in the world, and I get paid for it.

I've changed jobs many, many times in my career, and it's hardly ever been for the same reasons. Sometimes (usually), there has been an increase in salary involved. Others, it was an opportunity to move into a different environment, be that technology used, ethos, or a new role to try out. A few times, it wasn't even a choice (early termination due to philosophical differences would be a kind way of putting it).

Tomorrow, a new challenge awaits, in a new place, with a lot of new faces. Starting a new job always triggers a bit of reflection (probably because the process involves reviewing your resume), and this time is no exception. I know I'm not unique, but that's kind of the point. I've been around a lot of devs throughout the course of my career, and (for the most part) it's fairly easy to tell where they are in their evolution.


My own journey really began back in the 80's, hacking away on the family's Commodore VIC-20. I had almost no idea what I was doing, but something about making a machine interact with you, even though it was entirely scripted, blew my mind.

10 INPUT "What is your name?", NAME$
20 PRINT "Hello, "; NAME$
30 END

I upgraded to an IBM 8088 my Dad "borrowed" from the government, and started writing things that were a bit more complicated, using dBase to build address books and accounting registers. Nothing worth sharing, but cool enough to show me, even then, that a computer guy (I didn't even know what they were called back then) was what I wanted to be when I grew up.


My first real job in computers came in 1995, when I got a job as an operator in the Data Processing Department for the local county government (as an aside, I was working as a jailor across the street when I accepted the job). The shop consisted of an IBM System/36, AS/400, and a really, really shitty PC running Novell Netware. By day, I took care of a number of fairly mundane non-programming tasks.

  • changing tapes and catalogging their use
  • making and replacing twinaxial, coaxial, and cat3 cables
  • troubleshooting issues on the few actual PC's that existed
  • babysitting the Netware server (seriously, it was shit)

By night (and during dead times during the day), I taught myself as much OCL, CL, RPGII, and DOS as I possibly could. I wrote programs to track inventory, automated the backup process as much as possible, and just generally soaked it all in. I knew absolutely nothing about best practices, memory optimization, or even computer architecture. I just wrote code.

I was beginning to start a family, so my expenses (as well as my thirst for knowledge) were beginning to outgrow the job. I moved on to a sort of super-operator position with a Fortune 100 company, where about half of my job consisted of ops work and simple automation type programming tasks. It was all still CL and RPG, but I was developing. It was this period in my career that I was introduced to 2 technologies that would shape the remainder of my career: Java and Linux.

Java: love at first sight

The guy I shared a cubical with was about 60, and loved his Range Rover. I mean really loved it. I'd say 20-30% of his day was spent relaying stories about how he tracked down parts, or what clubs he belonged to, or how everyone should own one, or how awesome it was to have sex with it. I'd like to say he made up for this by being a fountain of technical knowledge, but alas, he was a converted stock broker or something (I was young and didn't really understand...I know it had something to do with money). He hunted and pecked on his keyboard with these sausage fingers, and took forever to do anything. I didn't hate him, I just never fully understood why he was there. It wasn't his passion, obviously.

One day, however, he revealed to me that he had been trying out this new thing called Java. With it, he had created a calculator or something equally boring. He tried to explain how it worked, but

  1. He was about as captivating as an oak sapling, and
  2. I don't think he really understood wtf he was doing.

I did pick up on the important points, though. First, this was programming I could do ON MY OWN. No midrange required. Have PC, will travel. I don't want to over-dramatize the moment, but it really was life changing.

Secondly, I realized if this guy could "get it", surely I could figure it out. All I needed was a decent resource to help guide me through the learning process. I honestly don't remember where I got it, but I acquired a Core Java book, and tore through it like I was going to be tested on the entire thing. I wasn't very good, but I was writing a prolific amount of really bad code. It was awesome. For the first time, I could actually write a program and show people I know the results. I consider this the point where I really decided programming was what I wanted to do.

Linus is my hero

At the other end of the spectrum, there was David (I really, really, really wish I could remember David's last name, because he changed my life). David worked with me on the ops side of things, working to keep the mix of AS/400, AIX, and Mainframe systems running. We had a good time finding better ways to perform otherwise mundane tasks (using programming, of course), but our tinkering was limited to work hours. Then, one day, the company acquired a competitor, and we were tasked with assimilating their fleet of HP/UX machines into our datacenter. On the outside, these systems looked almost the same as the rest of the lot. But once we were at the terminal, the landscape was entirely different. Instead of the very single purpose languages of the other systems, these Unix machines felt almost limitless. The systems were malleable. This was also my first experience with both Bash and C, both of which felt amazing. But I was still only able to monkey around with things as long as I was in the office.

Then, one day, David walked up to me with a CD he had obviously burned. Written in Sharpie across the front was the label "RedHat 5.1".

    Me: "What is it?"
    David: "Linux."
    Me: "What's 'Linux'?"
    David: "It's Unix that you can install on your PC."
    Me: (I was already running for my laptop)

Overnight, I had an entire operating system I could decipher, from the bowels of the kernel all the way up to the ls command. On the one hand, this was like being reborn. On the other, I started to realize that this world of programming had been right in front of me for years while I was stuck in the Windows world. I did my best to make up for time, tinkering with the kernel (my first real foray was writing a USB camera driver), writing socket libraries, and just diving head-first into being a true developer.

This was also my first introduction to Open Source in general; millions of developers all putting their efforts into developing software solely for the joy of it (yes, I was a bit naive on that point, and blind to the politics of OSS).

Toward the end of this period, I was a horrible developer. I had no concept of the rules, or what role business played in all this. I just wanted to code. About the only thing I did have going for me was unwavering determination to solve any problem, no matter how much reading, searching (Google still hadn't supplanted DogPile as my SE of choice), and trial and error it took. That would be important, since the next phase would not be quite so happy-go-lucky.

Next up, the real world comes knocking. The second magical moment came when a co-worker handed me a homemade CD...