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A personal history of computers and the internet

November 23, 2009

I’m pretty sure this is not very interesting to anyone at all, but I wanted to write it down so I can look back at it some years from now and remember.

Early years

In ’88 or ’89, when I was about 5 or 6, my dad bought an Amiga 500. I remember that he taught me how to draw mandelbrot fractals with it. We would sometimes leave it running for two days slowly drawing the picture. We had the extra floppy drive which meant that we could play games that were on two floppy disks. At first me and my brother mostly played a demo version of Pang that had come with a magazine, and then we got Rainbow Islands which we played for ages and ages. I think we got it for Sinterklaas. We also got Batman eventually.

Then, much later (the nextdoor neighbours had an IBM PC by then, though we weren’t allowed to play with it), with another magazine we got some kind of a programming environment; I can’t remember which one. I figured out how to make it display something like “your computer has been infected with a virus”, and I also figured out how to change the high scores on some of our games. We had that amiga for a long time.

The next computer to enter the house was an old IBM PC that had been obsoleted at my dad’s work. It had a 80×24 screen with green text on it, it ran MS-DOS and had a hard drive. We broke it the same day! With the amiga I had learned that if things went wrong you could just turn off the power and turn it on again. With this computer, that was enough to crash the hard drive.

When the pentium processor came out in ’93 my dad bought us a new computer. It came with DOS and Windows 3.1. I read the entire manual cover to cover and figured out how to do simple things with Basic in DOS, including messing with a version of snake that I typed in from a magazine.

When we got Compuserve with WinCIM and a 14k4 modem my 10-year-old self got properly addicted to the computer. Online time was expensive so I was allowed only 30 minutes a week at first. When my dad learned of the internet (I think after a business trip to the US) we spent ages together trying to get Winsock and WinCIM to work together. After calling compuserve support they sent us a new version of WinCIM with Mosaic and we got on the world wide web. I’m not sure when exactly this was, but the WWW was grey with blue and black, and we used WebCrawler to find stuff, which was really hard.

I remember I didn’t like the world wide web very much, because it wasn’t as easy to use as the compuserve forums. It all changed when I read about Yahoo! in a magazine; that was probably some time in 1995. I was then active on the compuserve AD&D forum, and as hobbyists set up AD&D websites, the web became very interesting.

Teenage years

I learned some HTML and made my own website on Geocities, I think in 1996 or 1997. When we switched ISP to Demon my website moved there, which the wayback machine keeps some copies of. I became an amazon associate and made commission on AD&D and other roleplaying books. I used the credit earned to buy roleplaying books and then a javascript book. I was learning javascript and eventually some PHP mostly to manage the book catalog.

According to my amazon history I got my first book credit in May 1998, when I was 15. That’s also roughly the time when I started making my first “company presence” websites for money. I started my first company just before I turned 16 and invested my first earnings in a copy of Flash 4 which I used to build lots of stuff with. I never made much money, but it was a bit more than I made from being a paperboy.

In 1999 or 2000 or so I had learned enough PHP and MySQL and Corel PhotoPaint 4 to help out on a major rework of another roleplaying site, AtFantasy, which stayed pretty popular for several years; I think the guy that started that eventually made a living out of running the site.

I started lurking on the PHP-Dev mailing list at some point, where there was this Sam Ruby person talking about server-side java all the time. It was intriguing, so I read a book or two about java, started programming in it, got interested in servers, and one thing led to another. I was voted in as a committer on Apache Avalon in March of 2001 (aged 17, my mum had to sign the CLA).

I switched my desktop to (red hat) linux around this time.

Going professional

In June 2001, just after finishing high school, I got a job as a web programmer for Planet Internet, which I quit after 3 months to go backpacking in Australia. It was my first real job, and I learned a lot in those 3 months (how to take down an oracle cluster, how to royally piss off the sysadmins by asserting they misconfigured the reverse proxy, how to write Tcl, how to do cross-browser HTML and javascript, how to do flasm, just how many support calls you cause if you accidentally publish the wrong version of the help pages).

After returning from Australia I got a job at Multi-M/IA, where I was hired to do some PHP CMS work. I then worked on an e-mail based CMS in java, which was for UNAIDS field doctors who had about 20 minutes of GPRS connectivity per day, a bulk mail tool using JavaMail, and several filesharing/intranet projects. This is where I first learned about server administration (we had managed hosting with Rackspace), which probably also triggered my interest in build engineering. As I started studying physics I eventually quit that job.

I partially switched to Mac when I bought an iBook G4, though I kept using (ubuntu) linux on my desktop for a long time.

The next key turning point was when I got a phone call from Dirk-Willem, who needed someone to help out on some project infrastructure and a build system for a major web service project for the Dutch government. I found I enjoyed that way more than studying, so I quit uni.

I got a beefy PowerMac and a 30″ Cinema Display and have been mac-only ever since.

I worked as a freelancer for 2 years, most of which was with asemantics, where I learned about low-level engineering and business and large-scale commercial software projects.

Asemantics was a subcontractor for Joost, whom I joined in October 2006 and then left in May this year. Like everyone else there I worked long hours and my open source contributions dwindled, but working with many very smarty and talented people meant I continued to learn quite a lot. In particular I ended up learning a lot more about data modeling and databases, eventually leading a migration effort away from an RDF database to a relational model.

At the moment I’m back to contracting, working at the BBC, where I’m part of a platform engineering team responsible for the BBC’s shiny new web platform. This is the first time I’ve been fully embedded in a really big (and old) organization. That means learning about policies and processes and organization structures, and then sometimes trying to change them. When a lot of engineering choices are dictated by non-technical constraints (“we must be able to hire people 10 years from now that can maintain our software”), your perspective does change. I think.

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5 Comments
  1. November 23, 2009 2:38

    fascinating. had no idea you were that young in the avalon years!

  2. November 25, 2009 16:52

    I remember that I still own the T-Shirt for setting up the firewall on that Rackspace hosted server you are talking about. Maybe it is covered in paint and falling apart at the seams, but I am not fashion conscious enough to throw it out just yet.

    Fun to read this story, I remember most of it. Also being on that servicedesk when you were causing us work!

  3. Gerda permalink
    November 26, 2009 15:25

    Bekend verhaal.Het was een avontuur dit avontuur mee te beleven vanaf de zijlijn!

  4. December 20, 2009 10:50

    Bijzonder om te lezen dat Joost RDF achter zich gelaten heeft (of begrijp ik dat verkeerd?), ze waren toentertijd nogal open en enthousiast over het gebruik ervan. Is er iets publiekelijk bekend over de redenen ervan?

  5. Leo Simons permalink*
    December 20, 2009 10:54

    Hoi Chris…that’s right, Joost eventually quit using RDF all but completely (except for some (M)RSS). We didn’t talk about that much because, well, it wasn’t news anyone was really looking to hear. I have an old draft blog post somewhere that explains it, I’ll see about cleaning that up and publishing it 🙂

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