My background: a deeper dive

By Featured, News

In every introduction to a potential client, partner, or other associate, the first thing I do is give a brief overview of my history. I know this is common in just about any business or social interaction, but its especially important in my line of work, since communicating my curriculum vitae is so critical to demonstrating my technical competence. And in truth, a technical lead can be as charming as you’d like but unless they are extremely technically competent, nothing else matters. But its hard to compress a lot of data into a short introduction!

I’ve worked on projects for some of the biggest companies in the world — not just Fortune 500 companies, but Fortune 50 companies! — as well as launched dozens of startups, some that didn’t work, some that did, and some that were extremely successful. Those larger companies include industry giants like Disney (three divisions — Disney Parks, Disney Channel, and Disney film!), Dreamworks, Warner Bros., Accenture, CBC, Sega, Sonos, and many more, as well as successful, venture backed startups like Graphite Comics, for which I currently serve as CTO.

I’ve also been written about, and my projects (both professional and personal) have been written about, by publications like the New York Times (which covered the launch of Graphite Comics, and the AI recommendation system I built for it, on the front page of the Business section), The Guardian (twice!), Fortune, TechCrunch, USA Today, AdWeek and many other internationally known outlets, in addition to multiple smaller but no less influential blogs and online journals like PocketGamer, TouchArcade, VentureBeat, and many, many more.

Just typing up that last paragraph and linking to all of that old press was a proud moment. In addition to mainstream press, I’ve also published papers on game related AI, including writeup of my graduate thesis on Hebbian learning in artificial neural networks — a topic I want to get into in more depth later.

That being said, I get asked a lot to dive deeper into my background — not only what I’ve worked on in the past, but why and how, which, to me, are much more interesting questions!

(Note: I will be adding to this as time permits until I’m finished!)

When I first became interested in computer science and programming specifically, there really wasn’t much of an industry per se — at least not anything that looks anything like the industry today. What did exist then was a collection of business-centric hardware and software providers for the most part, building tools to help businesses do the kinds of things businesses did in the 80s — spreadsheets, simple printing software, things like that.

If I try to remember exactly why I became fascinated with computers back then, I genuinely couldn’t tell you! There was very little for me to sink my teeth into — and keep in mind I was a very young kid at this time — certainly not interested in spreadsheets and early databases!

I guess I can liken it to those early video game experiences. Why was it fun to make the white dot chase the grey dot? Why were any of those Atari 2600 games I played as a kid fun in the least? I also can’t answer this question, except to say that in both cases, I think I, and all the other kids intrigued by tech back then, just sensed that something cool was in there. We knew that someday the ultra simple games we played like Pong and Pac Man would mature into nearly photo-realistic, open world masterpieces like GTA V. Maybe we sensed those big, boxy, monochrome machines that just displayed green text would someday fit in our hand, and allow us to do amazing things like fly a drone, video chat with someone around the world, or find our way home.

Whatever the case may be, I found myself drawn to technology in a major way around the age of 10. My neighbor friend’s dad worked for IBM, and he had an early IBM PC that didn’t do much, and I had a few friends from early on who had early Apple computers. But my very first computer was a Commodore 128.

The Commodore 128 was an upgrade from the immensely popular Commodore 64. I believe the Commodore 64 is still the biggest selling single computer of all time. At any rate it was a very popular machine, primarily because you could run games on it — and the games it ran were pretty amazing, especially for the time. Even better, you could plug an Atari 2600 controller right into it.

The C128 came with BASIC, which was my first programming language. I’m actually surprised BASIC, or something like it, isn’t more prevalent these days. BASIC is, after all, extremely basic, and it was a great way for 10 year old me to start learning the essentials of programming. The C128 came with a few big thick manuals, and one of them was a complete guide to programming the machine in BASIC.

This is one of the most interesting and stark differences between the early days of PC use and today. Computers shipped with compilers and manuals explaining how to use them. Imagine if every iMac you bought came with a big book on how to code in Swift and XCode not only preinstalled, but tightly integrated into the operating system! That’s what things were like then — if you shelled out the money for one of these things, it was more likely than not that you planned to build software for it.

But while BASIC was fun, it didn’t take me very far. You really couldn’t do much with BASIC, so I found myself focusing on generating sounds with it. One of the demo programs in the manual (printed out, so you had to copy it line by line off of paper to get it into your computer!) was a program to play a piece of music by generating tones with the C128s pretty amazing audio chip. But other than that — well, without a lot more skill than I had, there wasn’t much farther for me to go.

So I switched my focus to networking. That little C128 had a slot you could plug a modem into, and you could use it to dial into a few online services. Some of these were early Internet-like things that let you play games or talk with people, and as I reflect back on them, they were really pretty amazing pieces of software for the time.

So when I finally upgraded to an IBM compatible PC, the first thing I did is install a modem, and then start to tinker around with Wildcat BBS. I quickly met up with a group of local (Orange County, California) tinkerers who were using Wildcat to connect with other enthusiasts, and eventually became one of the first members of my school’s computer club — where we mostly just messed around with Wildcat. There still wasn’t much out there that was fascinating on the consumer level, at least not, to me, moreso than BBS software. The idea that I could link up with other people through my computer was amazing.

But my time with Wildcat didn’t involve any coding, and programming was what I really wanted to learn.

Eventually, I went to high school, just in time for the school to offer an AP Computer Science course, which I took my junior year. At that time, the course was taught in Pascal, which was a much more complex language than BASIC and I quickly started to imagine the possibilities with this new language. Pascal lead me to C, which led me to C++, and then to Java in its early days. Since my high school only offered the one CS class, I took some college level classes in high school at Fullerton College and California State University, Fullerton in Unix, C, C++ and a data structures course taught in Pascal. I was actually starting to become a polyglot at an early age, which I’m very grateful for, as I know a few very talented developers who struggle learning new languages and platforms. Being thrown into so many so young (mostly because the industry was all over the place back then!) really helped me later on, I think.

I started school at the University of California, Santa Barbara as a double major — Mathematics and Computer Science. This was so early on that very few students even had an email account, as everything was done through dial up into a Unix system using text-based Unix utilities like mail, finger, talk… You could look things up in a really ridiculous way using gopher, archie and eventually on the web using lynx. But then, I was lucky to get one of a very few SLIP accounts, and eventually a PPP account. Don’t even bother looking those up, it was a short lived thing but it was how you could jump on the graphical internet over dialup. Using those technologies, I was the first person I knew in the entire world who could look things up on the web, in an actual browser, with images and everything. And imagine how life changing that was.

I feel like people in their 20s just really can’t imagine how Earth shattering this all was back then.

Anyway, I ended up only taking the Mathematics degree, as I planned on graduate studies in Computer Science and wanted to get to that as soon as possible rather than to an extra year as an undergrad. Specifically, I had planned to chase a PhD in Computer Science and then figure out where to go from there. But then something strange happened…

I went to film school.

I’m not sure when it happened, but it occurred to me that one of the things I loved the most about technology was the creative side of it. I loved games, and music, and film, and all of these wonderful things that you could do with computers suddenly in addition to writing interesting software on them. And I wanted to hone my creative skills. So I started an MFA program in film production at Chapman University.

After school I moved to Los Angeles and ventured briefly into the creative arts — first as a struggling filmmaker, then as a punch up writer (I would be hired to take scripts that didn’t quite work and add jokes or interesting scenes to them). Eventually I got into some support work with a few local film festivals. But I really didn’t enjoy the film industry at all so I started dabbling in something I did enjoy: music.

Now this is going to sound like I was all over the place, and I was. But I started writing and producing electronic music, and pretty quickly started getting hired to mix and produce CDs, remix songs for some well known artists, and eventually even landed a record deal. But the whole time I was more interested in the idea of pushing creative boundaries than anything, and since I was working in the electronic music arena, the way you did that was with software.

So suddenly I found myself back in the software world — this time writing music software. Specifically, I was building virtual effects and instruments using a technology called VST and VSTi. This technology allowed you (and still does to this day) to build instruments and audio processing plugins for any DAW that supports the VST format.

I quickly found myself spending more time writing software than music, and thus I was thrust back into the world of technology.

Around this time I took a job as a network engineer at a company in Orange County, and later in downtown Los Angeles. The life of a network tech is dull, but I did it because it gave me access to two things: tons of computer hardware, and immensely huge Internet bandwidth — the latter of which was tremendously expensive and tremendously hard to get back then.

I used those resources to do two things: first, to run a series of Internet radio stations (yes, “Radio on Internet”) called the Glowdot network, and to build a photo sharing site called Glowfoto.

Glowfoto eventually took over my life, and I developed it into a full-scale social network. I was lucky to ride the MySpace wave early on, and Glowfoto became an early companion site to MySpace. Glowfoto allowed MySpace users to upload more than 10 photos to their profile, back when MySpace had a 10 photo limit (if you can believe that).

Eventually MySpace went away, and about 5 years later I finally retired Glowfoto as well. But during that time I started getting many, many requests for me to build similar services for other companies. And thus my career as a contract software developer began.

(more coming soon!)

Last modified: May 22, 2020

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *