A Man I Did Not Know

October 5, 2011

Tonight I find myself grieving the passing of a man I did not know. Why?

In 1980 I was an awkward fifth grader at a small elementary school in a small town in rural Iowa. We had a rudimentary talented-and-gifted program thanks to the dedication of a couple of our teachers. In an after school session one day, I couldn’t keep my mind on the subject at hand. That day our classroom happened to be hosting the school’s—perhaps the school district’s—lone computer, an Apple ][+. That wasn’t so unusual. Mrs. Lamont seemed to make sure that we had the computer more often than other classes. What was unusual was that one of the high school students was in the room programming the computer. I was stunned. Besides playing Oregon Trail and whatever math practice program, you could actually make the computer do what you wanted it to do.

Seeing my interest, by Friday of that week Mrs. Lamont put a photocopied Introduction to Applesoft BASIC book in my hands. I read the book cover to cover at home that weekend. The next week Mrs. Lamont arranged for me to use the school’s Apple ][+ after school, and somehow convinced that high schooler, Mark Holt, to mentor me. Mark and I stayed after school nearly every day writing programs and playing games. I was discovering my calling in life. Soon Mark graduated and moved on and my parents bought a ][+ for our home, then a //e. When we got a memory expansion card—16k more RAM, page-swapped with the soldered ROM—I discovered that I could copy the machine code for Applesoft BASIC onto the expansion card, overwrite the error and command strings, and swap the new version into working memory. It was just syntax, but I was starting to work on my first programming language. The hack was clever enough that Nibble magazine published it.

Mom and Dad’s //e was followed by my very own IIgs. That machine got me through college. I kept coding. I wrote a clone of Minesweeper, called Kablooie, one finals week and sold it to Resource Central. It provided a year’s worth of beer money. Another revelation: you could make money writing software. I also hacked together a shareware version of Mahjong by using a font design program to create a tile font so I could render the board by displaying single character strings.

After college, an electrical engineer’s income let me move from the Apple II series to the Mac. My first Mac was a Performa 6115CD. That was followed by a Blue and White G3, a 12” Powerbook, a Power Mac G5, a 15” Powerbook, an iPhone 3gs, an iPad, and a 15” MacBook Pro. My current arsenal includes that same MacBook Pro and (for another 9 days) iPhone 3gs, plus an iPad 2 and a Mac Pro.

I’ve been programming for 31 of my 41 years. It’s a calling the frustrates and delights me, but it still has the same magic that it had in that fifth grade classroom. Eventually the call to code pulled me back to school to earn a PhD so I could teach and share the magic with others. For the last six years it’s been my joy to do that at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. This year I’m on sabbatical from Rose, working as a software engineer for the Omni Group. Let me say that again: I’m working as a software engineer for The Omni Group. I’m still a bit stunned to be part of a team that makes some of the best software on the planet, and provides what I am certain is the best customer support.

The level of customer support that our ninjas provide is what ties my muddled thoughts together. Omni cares about its customers as people. That recognition that it’s the people that are most important, not the technology, is what I most admire about Steve Jobs. Steve molded and led a team that created some amazing technologies, but they did that by putting their users first. Not everything out of Cupertino is perfect, but nearly all of it carries pride in craftsmanship and conveys respect for the human being who will use it to entertain, explore, and create in areas that are important to them.

For three decades, my path in life has been shaped by Steve’s work. I am in his debt. I hope that my own work can reflect his dedication to excellence. I pray that his concern for the people his work touched might be visible in my work too.