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May 31, 2011

My Computer Mom's New Job

I confess to whomever may read this: I am blogging not for the sake of writing, or because I am driven to express some urgent opinion or news. I started this blog so that I can experience blogging itself. I’m a technical writer working again after a four-year hiatus, for Flock, a Web 2.0 company. If I’m going to write Help information for Flock’s users, I’ve got to understand their world, which includes blogging. So here I am.

After giving it some thought I realized that the subject for my blogging would not be politics, or culture, or every day life. No, the obvious topic for me is what it’s like to re-enter the world of beta software and new tools and daily builds. Especially given that I’m rapidly approaching fogey-status, as a 51-year-old mom who first held a computer-related job over 35 years ago.

My lineage is Apple, Netscape/Mozilla, and Eazel. This represents a clear path leading to Flock. But I think choosing to work within the open source community requires something more: a come-to-Jesus moment, when one realizes that the best way for a tech writer to combat evil and support the good is to work with companies building on open source. As an ex-hippy flower child sort of person, I want any work I do in the world to support people of good will, not empire builders and greed-motivated monopolies. But enough of my politics.

My first job in computing was as a high school junior. I was given a security clearance and a stack of questionnaires containing personal data for hundreds of Coast Guard cadets. My company was trying to help the Coast Guard understand which cadets would quit after a short stint, and which ones would stay on. My job was to take data from the questionnaires and record it on giant code sheets, which would then go to keypunch operators. The resulting punched cards could be batch processed and statistically analyzed by an IBM mainframe. I don’t know if the answer was ever found. But four years ago when everyone was raving about “hanging chads,” I knew exactly what that meant.

The best part of that job was those huge code sheets, which had the words “FORmula TRANslation” printed at the top. Also, “FORTRAN Statement.” What wonderful words! Between that and the security clearance, I felt like I was involved in some sort of arcane secret society. I didn’t resemble the rest of the company, though. While everyone else came to work in white shirts and dark neckties, I wore sandals, long skirts, beads, and the standard hippy girl long straight hair.

I attended college at Wheaton College — not the evangelical school, but a small women’s school by the same name, located in in Norton Massachusetts. It was a great place for an incipient feminist to attend college. Wheaton was too small to have its own computer, but we had time-sharing with Dartmouth. Our time to use Dartmouth’s computer always seemed to be in the wee hours of the morning. I was one of students and faculty who took advantage of this resource. I don’t recall what I did — but I suspect it had less to do with work and more to do with figuring out the computer itself. Games? Poking around? I can’t remember, but I probably did both.

Graduate school at Yale, in political science, brought me back to batch processing and punched cards. Woe to she who dropped a stack of cards! My most vivid memory is of offering up my stack of cards, including data cards and instructions for the statistical analysis to be performed, to the card reader. If you received back a thick stack of printout, you won. (If the stack was thin, you lost — the error statements were short.) The computer itself lived behind closed doors, serviced by quiet, nerdish technical people. In another room, behind large glass windows, sat the select group authorized to use the interactive terminals that talked directly to the computer. Later, as acting director of a data analysis center at the University of Vermont, I found out that the interactive users were simply entering lines of code that looked just like the data on punched cards.

It was at Stanford University that I actually became hooked. As a research assistant for the Hoover Institution’s house Democrat (political scientist Heinz Eulau), I became one of the first users of the Hoover’s brand new computers. The Hoover was late in coming to computers, but someone donated two: a PDP-11 and a VAX. With my fellow research assistant and best friend Nancy, I devoted many hours to exploring these state-of-the-art machines via the text-based game “dungeon.” No graphics, no sound… just lines of text, such as “You have entered a dark cave. There is a jeweled box in the corner.” (One must type in a reply; in this example “take box” is the obvious response.)

Soon, however, I was recruited into writing small manuals for each Hoover department that wanted to use the computers. Someone pointed out that I could be paid good money for end-user technical writing. So just as I was beginning to realize that I hated political science and could study it no longer, an alternative career presented itself.

I convinced the technical writing department at Four Phase, a company later bought out and closed down by Motorola, to hire me as an entry-level writer. The publications group was large — we had a lot to write about, since the software was hard to use — and we worked in a set of astoundingly ugly pre-fab offices on the site that later became Apple’s campus. In 1985 I left Four Phase for maternity leave, never to return. Four Phase went out of business, and I was laid off while on leave.

It was around that time that Nancy and I decided, in conversation over lunch at Chef Chu’s in Mountain View, that we needed to buy personal computers. I remember we agreed that PCs had been around long enough that most of the bugs had probably been worked out. I purchased an 8088-based computer with no hard disk. A few months later I installed my first drive, and set myself up with a word processor so I could work as a consultant. Eventually I worked on a technical glossary for Apple’s corporate library, met some of the staff writers at Apple, and after a few more years of consulting, became a regular Apple employee.

Before Apple, I had worked strictly on a command line basis. I scorned menus. Why bother working one’s way through a menu hierarchy, when it was so much faster just to enter commands on one line? (I could touch type, too.) But the Apple computer I used for the library’s project had a mouse attached to it. Suddenly the point of the graphical user interface became clear. I tried an early version of Windows on my own computer (by then a 286-based one). Apple’s version was so much better — smiley icons, cute noises, etc. — that I became a faithful Apple user, as I am to this day.

At Apple I authored many Mac manuals, graduating over time to senior and principal writer. I worked on the first generation of Power Macs, and on the first implementation of Apple’s online Help system (Apple Guide). But the romance of the browser wars — or perhaps it was masochism — enticed me to move to Netscape. Sadly, at Netscape I became mired in Netscape 6. I keep my Netscape 6 tee shirt deeply buried in my dresser drawer, but I still proudly display my Mozilla memorabilia.

Mozilla taught me about the concept and mission of open source, giving me new hope that creativity would triumph over commercialism. At the end of the year 2000, I eagerly moved on to a position at Eazel, a startup company developing an easier user interface for Linux. Six weeks later, as the economy began its long slide, I was laid off.

I admit: I figured that with the economy headed down the toilet, open source would die out and Microsoft would win. September ushered in a new era of bleakness and despair. I decided to retire permanently to spend my time gardening, quilting, and being a mom. I retreated. I made a lot of quilts. My daughters became adults. My husband continued to work, much too hard. Four years passed.

Eli Goldberg, an old friend from Netscape and Eazel, finally suggested that I take a look at Flock. Bart Decrem called me, and I wandered over to Flock’s headquarters. It didn’t take long to fall for the garage filled with computers, beanbag pillows, and white boards. I discovered that the help text I’d written for Mozilla hadn’t changed much in four years. Perhaps no one’s working on it anymore. The possibility of doing a little something to help along a noble project, and lots of coffee, have drawn me out of my retirement.

So that’s how I came to Flock, to work once again on the open source browser. It all makes sense now that I read over this saga — I can’t resist a chance to work on something that challenges that looming force in Seattle. I’m pretty confident — actually, I’m VERY confident — that Microsoft can’t dominate the Web 2.0. It simply isn’t cool enough. That, and the fact that I can walk from my house over to Flock, and the presence at Flock of many great people and one very sweet dog, makes me feel ready to work one last time on the rough edge of the software industry.

But after this, I’m retiring for good.

I confess to whomever may read this: I am blogging not for the sake of writing, or because I am driven to express some urgent opinion or news. I started this blog so that I can experience blogging itself. I’m a technical writer working again after a four-year hiatus, for Flock, a Web 2.0 company. If ...»See Ya