A Bit of Personal History
I did pretty well in high school, but my first couple of years in college were a disaster. I was a shy kid from a small town who didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, and got bad advice from guidance councilors. I did okay in high school, but then went to Northeastern University to be an electrical engineer like my father. Nobody told me how much math you were expected to know, and I couldn't understand the Indian grad students who ran the extra help sessions. Hell, I couldn't understand my calculus teacher, and I know she was really trying. The only person who could make math understandable to me was my father, who was a genius at taking complex subjects and making them simple. Northeastern put me in a dorm full of Phys Ed majors, and my existence there was pretty miserable.
I dropped out, and enrolled in Rhode Island School of Design the next year, wanting to be an architect. The other students were great people, but RISD wasn't the place for me. I wanted to be an architect, not an artist, and RISD immersed me in graphic arts programs that my own style of drawing (which was mostly born out of drafting classes) wasn't suited for. I dropped out again after one year, and got a job in a steel fabricating shop as a trainee structural steel draftsman. At last - something I could do well! I'd taken a lot of drafting classes in high school, and had excelled at it. I'd never thought about it as a long-term profession; but now that college hadn't worked out for me, drafting was a way to earn a living that was enjoyable and gratifying.
My career as a structural draftsman was actually pretty good. I learned about structures and architecture rapidly - the company I worked for bid on large steel buildings, and my job was to dissect architectural blueprints and create shop drawings showing exactly how to make each piece, and how to assemble them once they got to the job site. I learned to do site surveys, and was soon going to job sites to sketch up existing structures, and devise solutions to structural problems back at the office. My boss was a master structural engineer, who encouraged me to try my hand at designing small buildings and structures, and would correct my plans if I had overlooked something. During a slow period, I went to work for an industrial engineering firm, and soon became a respected member of the design team.
I had learned to program computers when I was 12 - my father was a scientist with General Electric, and frequently worked on weekends in an experimental high-voltage facility. Across the hall from his office was a teletype which connected to a time-sharing computer somewhere in New Jersey. He created an account for me, and gave me a manual on programming in BASIC. I amused myself by playing games like Tic-Tac-Toe and Hangman, and my first computer program was a game of Battleship. It was fun while it lasted, but a year later I had forgotten about it... until the personal computer revolution happened in the late '70s, and I bought my first computer from Radio Shack. I got "bitten by the bug" pretty badly, and while I was working as an industrial designer, I started writing computer programs to solve basic problems in structures and mechanical engineering. soon it became clear that I had to go back to college to study computers, and I enrolled at the University of Massachusetts, majoring in Computer Science.
I earned my bachelor's degree at UMass in 1984, through the University Without Walls program, 12 years after my first attempt at college. The UWW program allows students to create hybrid degrees of their own design. Since Computer Science in 1980 focused heavily on esoteric mathematics, I opted to skip that, substituting courses in Human Communication for the math that I found painful and tedious. I was strongly attracted to Human Factors - the human side of systems design - but UMass didn't offer any courses in that, and Communication was every bit as fascinating to me as computer technology. i was fortunate to have some great teachers, and Communication was a sort of social psychology that offered the best context for understanding how the emerging technology of computers allowed people new avenues of self-expression and self-invention.
In my second semester at UMass, I went to work part time for the University Computing Center in the database support group. I was already a good programmer, and I was assigned to write utility programs for their clients on the university's CYBER mainframe computer. My programs provided various data management services such as loading and unloading data from tapes, and massaging data for graphic displays. The database group was just starting to work with the campus office that provided support for people working with census data. I wrote programs that culled data from census databases, and printed it graphically on maps of the state. My first major application was a geographic information system that integrated a database query language with a map creation facility, which was adopted by the Geography and Regional Planning department as a teaching tool. My career as a software designer had begun.
The computing center got into vector digitizing in the early '80s, and I was selected to write software for creating maps and other vector graphics applications. I graduated in 1984, and kept working for the university, moving into my own office, and getting a grad student as an assistant. In those days, GIS software was pretty expensive, and I designed and developed my own systems, interfacing with the graphics tablet hardware on one end, and the CYBER statistical analysis software on the other. When I wasn't writing code (C on my office microcomputer, Pascal on the CYBER), I was managing student workers who were creating maps.
In 1986, a friend who worked an a local electronics firm convinced me to leave the university and join a start-up television products company. Their product was a specialized network for controlling television equipment, and they needed a videotape editor. Working in C, I crafted a respectable editing application, wrote their documentation and training materials, and got introduced to the arcane art of device drivers for their specialized networking equipment. I was also introduced to the peculiar world of start-up high-tech companies, the endless search for venture capital, and the fear of losing my job at any moment if the investors got cold feet.
Eventually the company was purchased by a larger television products company, and I went to work for Microtime Inc. Microtime was an electronics company with a well-respected reputation in television gear. But the industry was changing, and Microtime wanted to expand their line of special effects products.In particular, they had a concept for a special effects system that would make the world of television sit up and take notice, and I was to become a serious software engineer. Being an electronics company, they had only one other in-house programmer - a software wizard whose last job was developing aircraft guidance systems. Under his tutelage, I learned how to develop embedded real-time multi-CPU systems - no operating system other than my code, and an oscilloscope was a central part of my debugging arsenal. He respected my software sensibilities, and left me to my own devices for much of the work. I cannibalized some code from previous Microtime products, but by the end of my first year, I had written some 80,000 lines of code that was mostly my own.
The Impact digital effects system was a big hit in the television world. I was particularly proud of the user interface - a poor man's version of Windows, running on a tiny custom computer with 64K of memory. It had a joystick instead of a mouse, and a floppy disk. One reviewer called the Impact "the most user-friendly system of its kind on the market." Before long, Microtime gave me an assistant to write some of the software - someone with electronic skills to keep me out of trouble on the hardware end. Microtime sold some 300 Impacts, which was a respectable run, considering that these were specialized systems that sold for $50,000 and up to television production houses. In 1989, when I started working there, Microtime was the only company in the world who could manipulate live television in real-time like the Impact could. But in 1996, when I left, you could do this sort of thing on a well-equipped desktop computer.
A friend talked me into starting our own software business, aimed at developing an innovative multimedia product. We called ourselves Interactive Computer Television Inc., or InterACT. My partner was a former Microsoft engineer who was one of the developers of DirectShow - the movie player software underneath Microsoft's Media Player. Our idea was simple - numerous other companies had movie editors, but nobody made one that would create nonlinear video, where there could be multiple paths through a movie. For example, movies that came out with an R rating usually also had a PG-rated version, with portions beeped out or completely reedited. Our system could put multiple versions of a movie into one digital media file. We also had all the usual multimedia elements - menus, buttons, overlaid text, embedded scripting, all the elements needed to make home-shopping shows and training videos. Network television was poised to enter the interactive computer age, and we had the editor and the server software to make it happen. We had one version of our media player that would run on set-top boxes, and another that would run on PCs. I had been teaching myself to program under Windows, and when I wasn't tending to the business, I was developing ActiveX interface components for our editor.
To help pay the bills, I landed a contract to develop a lightning simulator for the Electric Power Research Institute. My father maintains a consulting engineering practice, and EPRI was employing him to research how lightning strikes affect power lines. With my father supplying the lightning simulation algorithms, I would design and develop the simulator application, with one of the other software engineers from InterACT. The project was quite successful, and we delivered a full-featured simulator after about a year's work. It was a complex application, which could model not only the power line equipment over many miles, but could make use of historical weather data and estimate the location and severity of lightning strikes over a period of years.
I was a good software engineer, but a lousy businessman. InterACT never found the venture capital we needed, and we closed after some two years of trying. In hindsight, the late '90s wasn't a good time to be in the software business. There were many software people who didn't know much about business, and many business people who didn't know much about software, and their awkward collaborations were often misguided. Amazon.com had yet to make a profit. Industry gurus were forecasting a "grand convergence" of computers, television, telephone and the Internet - but it was slow in arriving, and there were some infrastructure turf wars looming on the horizon, which made investors nervous.
After InterACT folded, I worked as a software contractor for a few years. I had too many "interesting" things on my resume by this time, and getting hired became problematic. Software companies were reluctant to hire me as just a software engineer, since I had owned my own company. The embedded systems experience I had didn't jibe well with many desktop applications companies, and most embedded systems companies produce products that are considerably less complex than what I had done at Microtime. I was hired by a company called Creative Motion Concepts that was designing a system for amusement parks, based on a hydraulic "motion base" that could simulate all sorts of adventure rides, with flat-panel displays for windows that would give the passengers the experience of flying though space, or diving underwater. This was going to be my dream job! Alas, Creative Motion Concepts never found venture capital. I was treading water for a year doing odd contract jobs before they finally threw in the towel and closed up shop.
Another company in Seattle hired me to develop MPEG device drivers for television set-top boxes - another dream job! But between the time I was hired and the time I was supposed to start work, the company was purchased by Thomson Electronics, who harvested the intellectual property such as patents and algorithms, and closed the company. Another job that evaporated before I started.
One of InterACT's neighbors was another start-up software company called EnrichNet, which was developing a quality-of-service system for intranets. This would deliver media such as motion picture movies over a network, even when the network was quite congested with traffic. After InterACT folded, I joined their efforts, and was soon developing and debugging networking device drivers on Windows. It was a good learning experience for me - I hadn't written networking device drivers before, and it's another arcane art. But there were problems with EnrichNet's system, and it never performed as planned. I left after about nine months, and the company closed not long after.
In between contract jobs, a friend at Holyoke Community College told me that they needed someone to teach video. This sounded interesting - after all, I had experience in writing editors and special effects graphics, so it seemed like it would be right up my alley. It took me a year or so to get my "sea legs" as a teacher, but for the most part, it was very enjoyable. Being a teacher got me back to my love of psychology and communication. I decided I wanted to stick with it, and I went back to school to get more education myself. I figured that, if I'm going to teach, I should learn how to do it right.
While I was teaching part-time as an adjunct, I earned an M.A. degree in Education and Human Development from Vermont College in Montpelier Vermont (now a part of Union Institute). There was no academic research on the process people go through in learning to use a camera, and this was fertile ground for exploration. I developed a plausible theory as to how young adults grew in their ability to use a camera, and made that the focus of my thesis. This drew me into current research on cognitive science and perception, as well as the literature on teaching and learning. Vermont College was a progressive college along the lines of Hampshire College, which had an unusual approach to the degree process. They didn't offer classes themselves, but rather, paired each student with two PhDs in the subject area. The student creates his or her own curriculum, consisting mostly of researching available literature, writing lengthy papers, and working on projects with their PhD partners. My work with motion picture photography students at Holyoke Community College served as the basis for my thesis. It was a great experience, one which I can wholeheartedly endorse for self-motivated students.
That brings us up to current time. I've been quite satisfied with my move into teaching, but being an adjunct doesn't bring in much income. I'm now looking for ways to expand my work, either into a full-time teaching position, or to supplement teaching with other work, such as writing or training.