The Story So Far

I’ve been enjoying responses to Crystal Beasley’s post about how she got into tech/development. It got me thinking about the diversity of backgrounds and paths people take to progamming and tech work; I know it never ceases to amaze me. Here’s my story.

I am the 2nd son of academics - my dad was in particle physics, my mother in the sociology of health. As a teenager and contrarian I built my identity around being an artist. My dad was one of the original telecommuters, dialing in from home through a maze of networks to work on projects at CERN in the 80s. In a novel-worthy foreshadowing, he was working at CERN while Tim Berners-Lee was cooking up an idea he called the World Wide Web. We had the ZX8* series sinclair computers in the house at that time to play with. I was curious but it was more my younger brothers who took to typing in arcane incantations from magazines. I mostly played the games. At high school there were apparently some computers but I don’t think I ever saw them - it was a geek-clique thing that held no interest for me at the time. I studied art at Leeds College of Art (Jacob Kramer) and got my BA in Fine Art (Sculpture) at Wimbledon School of Art. I worked various jobs, including a stint doing fabrication and installs for furniture designer Tom Dixon. It was there that I first learnt an appreciation for processes, jigs, fixtures and making tools to improve accuracy and productivity. It was working 7 hour shifts, 7 days a week (while finishing my BA) as a dishwasher in a busy restaurant in London that set my bar for the meaning of hard work.

At some point the work ran dry and I found myself unemployed and living in my studio in a railway arch in Brixton, London. I ran into an old friend who was starting an internet services company. He asked if I could draw up a history of media for their website to provide some background for his sales pitches. This was early 1996 in the UK and most people hadn’t heard of the web or the internet so it was a tough sell. I did, and became fascinated with hyperlinks and non-linear documents, learnt enough HTML to put it together (there wasn’t much to learn back then) and fell into helping out with some of their client work.

Capital “P” programming still didn’t interest me much. Shaping content and building what I later came to know as user experiences did. A few years later I moved to the US and took a job doing front-end developement with design company Frogdesign. I’d done a little perl and JavaScript but mostly I did HTML and CSS. With the browser wars in full swing, being able to crank out good-looking pages to design specs that worked in contemporary browsers was a specialty much in demand. The challenges of cross-browser development and the divisions of labour meant that’s largely what I did for the next 6 or 7 years.

When I finally moved on I took the opportunity to re-frame myself as a slightly less niche developer and embraced JavaScript and the emerging world of AJAX. I crossed the fine-line between web pages and web applications and wound up involved in the Dojo Toolkit project. Its that work which probably ultimately walked me in the door at Mozilla as a web engineer, where I now work on Firefox Touch for Windows 8. Dishwasher, morning cleaner, welder/fabricator did not appear on my résumé. If pressed, today I will call myself a sofware developer. I have other names if you are interested :)