How I got into technology
Ethan Kaplan is one non A list blogger who has over time become a favourite of mine. Other than him being 28 and getting emotional in planes, he writes with a degree of lucidity and comfort that’s all too rare find these days. Today, he has posted an entry where he’s asking us to look back at where we come from:
Lets reverse that and see what technology did to us. And how we as people are defined by the machines at our disposal.
So here goes:
How I got into technology was mostly driven by necessity. I was not one of those gifted geeks who could magically figure out the difference between a transistor and a capacitor, understand circuit diagrams and make sense of how things work out. I grew up in a country where it was a huge thing to have a television set (that too black and white!) at your home in the 80s. As a kid, the exposure to technology started with the transistor, initially the huge brown valve-based ones that was later replaced by the solid state ones. This does not mean that I had a proclivity for opening them up. I used to leave them alone because I could not make much sense of them and I was more interested in what came out of it: the yearning to listen to something more than the run-of-the-mill state-run crap. In fact, I could say my dalliance with technology has always been led by the quest to learn and know more, but that was not necessarily tied to knowing more about the technology itself.
There were short-lived flirtations later, with DIY kits, rigging up small (and illegal!) FM stations, trying to cook up fancy antennas to first tap into the first generation (which most still are, even to this day) cable networks that we were not allowed to subscribe to at home and pick up any kind of weak RF signals and bounces on the radio. My first run in with a video gaming platform was when somebody gifted me an funny version (or a copy?) of the early Nintendo Gameboy. It had the classic game where you, as an ambulance guy, had to catch people jumping off buildings on fire at either ends of the screen. After living through many three lives and considerable thumb play, it broke down somewhere along the way, but that was all I needed to get hooked.
Unlike most fellow geeks, I did not grow up with computers and I have never seen a PDP. In fact, I had minimal interaction with computers through school and a fair bit of high school. It was more the VCR and corresponding technologies that used to keep me busy and at that age and time, VCRs were used almost exclusively for one thing: to watch porn. My first home computer was a Pentium I with 16 MB of RAM and a 4 Gigabyte hard disk drive that had Windows 95 pre-installed on it (yes, I started THAT late with computers). I had no prior experience in fiddling around with one and after changing considerable file type associations and even deleting a couple of DLLs or two, I at least had an idea of what not to do with the silly white box than what I should do with it.
It was around this time that the word ‘Internet’ began to worm its way into my conscience. I was then dabbling a lot in 3D animation (on the ancient 3D Studio for DOS, since I could not draw anything in 2D) and VRML was more hyped than Kentucky Fried Chicken in the country. Since India had terrible restrictions on internet use at that time (dial up and only shell access), I had no clue about what it was, other than this idea that it was a vast amount of information that I could dip into. That, coupled with the 3D ambitions, led me to believe that one day we could virtually walk into any library anywhere on earth and read whatever I wanted to if the internet dream were to come true for me. Everything I wanted to figure out was a gateway for more knowledge. It was just a means to an end and not an end in itself.
Somewhere along the way I had finished graduating in Economics and being the clueless sort I had no ambition of my own. The 3D animator career did not go anywhere since the big boys were playing with SGI systems and Maya and I could not bring myself to wring out that kind of money out of the parents. After getting a couple of robots to kill each other in two minute movies, the fascination pretty much came to an end. Time now was spent playing RoadRash and other assorted games, the names of which I can’t remember much about and there was still no internet on the horizon.
It was around that time that a friend gave me a CD which had something weird called ‘Linux’ on it. Since it was something new that I had no clue about, I had to know about it. Being one of those who don’t ever RTFM I’d struggled through an entire night, with rawrite and lilo for company, trying to get Redhat 5 installed on the poor Pentium I. Finally, with some help, I did mange to get it running along with X windows, but it had trashed the Windows 95 install and as you could imagine, my dad, who used the system to get real work done, was not mighty impressed by that.
Since the graduation was of no great help in getting a career, I decided to become one of the hordes who got into the ‘software engineer’ line of work. In a matter of 16 months I was supposed to have become someone who knew Core Java (Corba, anyone?), Oracle (Form Designer, anyone?), UML and many other bits of technology. Lofty course targets apart, the truth was that I was struggling with basic pointer logic and arrays (screw mutli-dimensional, even simple ones ended up giving me the creeps) during the 30 days for which that I attended the course. What it do for me was to give me access on a true multi-user system (an AIX box since the facility was affiliated to IBM), where I found the magical pleasures of ‘wall’ ‘talk’ and shell scripts.
Eventually, with good help from two buddies, I managed to write a simple program in C (no frame buffer crap, Iz loved mes ASCII text ) that in theory was intended to help fishermen with their catch and scripts to track when root was logged in and the commands he/she was using. Somehow, eventually, we managed to stage a DoS attack on the poor box that brought it down eventually. But the real breakthrough was that the facility had an ISDN line that we could hook up to every now and then. That was the first time in my life I actually saw a web page from a remote server in a web browser. It was nothing like the walk through library I used to dream about, but I don’t think that was the intended purpose of www.ftv.fr at any point in its existence in any case.
As fate would have it, I had, quite by accident and by unrelated events in my personal life, ended up in Delhi doing my Post Graduate Diploma in Journalism from here. Through 9 months of the course, I had my first run in with the Mac OS and free-flowing bandwidth via a VSAT hook up, most of which was spent in trying to circumvent various access policies that were set in place by the administration. You cannot keep a man away from his ‘education’ for too long, can you? The fun and games ended when the time came to find gainful employment following the course and thankfully (considering how messed up the media industry was in India at that time), I got offers from a major print publication and a web solutions company that was also running an online magazine. And you could guess which way the ‘thirst’ took me.
The job was back breaking, but it also allowed me to trawl the internet at will and I could not really complain about that. What I did complain about was the content management system that the company used to have. It was awful to use. You could only add articles, there was just no delete or edit function. To edit an article, you had to manually delete the record from the MSSQL Enterprise Manager and enter the modified copy all over again. About the time I’d left that job, I had helped the guys design an edit form and in the meantime I also figured out the basic SQL syntax, since it was terrible to have to call one of the tech lads to just delete an article again.
The second job was with these guys who were running an even more archaic system that was based on Foxpro, FTP and untar. Right after my joining them, things happened in such a way that we had to make radical changes to the operations and figured it was not possible because nobody had the source code for the Foxpro programs. Thus started the move to a new CMS based on JSP and Oracle (the boom years, remember?) that just refused to scale up beyond 10 concurrent sessions. To show that such heavy lifting (and expensive software, since we were using JRun) was not required, I started replicating the system using PHP 3 and Apache on a Windows 98 machine with 16 MB RAM (Oh noes, not againz!). It was the first bit of code I’d written after a very long time (since the C days) and strangely, what I learnt at that time slowly started falling into place.
The next two years I picked up a fair bit of technology (the first run in with Postgresql), operations and product development. Which was followed by a stint here raging against the system, launching blogs and RSS feeds in the process after which I switched to where I am these days. I could go into finer details of what exactly do I do here, but that would quite not be about what technology did to me, so I’ll spare all of you that torture.
As I’ve repeatedly said, it has always been the urge to know more that has driven me to technology. Knowing it helps you do things better, it allows you to function more in sync with the technology team. The strange thing is that in pursuing all of this I’d started out being a journalist, moved from that into technology later and eventually ended up at the operations and business end of the deal. A major part of what I am today, I owe it to technology, without which I’d not have been able to access and amass the knowledge I have today.
Feel free to spread the meme.