How I got here: Chapter 1

04.09.20183 Min Read — In Career

As I've gotten older and gained perspective on my life, I've concluded that many aspects of my personality and career have been broadly shaped by the era, location, and community of my childhood. In this blog series, I'd like to retrospect on a few different periods of my life and some of their lasting influences on my professional pursuits and hobbies.

Chapter 1: A child walks into Silicon Valley

I grew up in Fairfield, California, a distant exurb of the San Francisco Bay Area directly adjacent to a major Air Force base. This exposed me to the computers and the military much more than the average person and had all sort of impacts on my worldview and interests. Many people consider the military mentality antithetical to the hacker ethos of the valley (a sentiment I largely disagree with), but if you want to see a place were aspects of these two cultures mix, checkout my hometown.

Ignoring the alternate timeline paradoxes of whether or not I would have been born, it's worth thinking about how my family even ended up in California, because for countless generations, my McBride ancestors worked on a family farm in Romulus, Michigan. Had that continued, I could imagine an alternate version of myself being more interested in tinkering with engines than in tinkering with software.

That didn't happen because when my grandfather, Harry McBride, was wrapping up his Air Force service during the Korean War, he decided not to go back to the family farm in Romulus, but to settle in California, a place that he saw enroute to the Pacific. Thanks to his GI Bill in hand, he attended the 1950s equivalent of a coding boot camp run by U.C. Berkeley, which allowed him to land a job as a mainframe operator at Ampex, a major tech company headquarters in Redwood City. While working at Ampex, my grandfather worked on migrating data processing workloads from the IBM 1401 mainframe to the IBM System/360. While my grandfather would ultimately leave the early tech scene when he got laid off when the "Go-Go Tech Boom" crashed in late 1969, his early career moves influenced my great aunt's decision to also move out to Silicon Valley. By the time that that I was a young child, my great-aunt worked at Amdahl Corporation, a company that made "plug-compatible" mainframe computers.

My great-aunt was a hard-driving woman that had foregone children to focus on her career, so when Amdahl held their first-ever co-ed "Bring your (Son or) Daughter to Work Day" in 1993, I got the invitation. The gave me the opportunity at seven to see what a major technology company looked like. I got to play around on a few computers, and an engineer in a suit gave a presentation and demo of a revolutionary new technology called the World Wide Web. To my seven year old mind, the concept of a web covering the world sounded vaguely menacing. I imagined armies of giant spiders crawling all over the place, eating all the family pets.

Having the opportunity, as a child, to hear about the world wide web when there were less than 1,000 websites is pretty fantastical. What if Harry McBride had gone back to Michigan? What if my great aunt had kids of her own? What if the family car had blown a tire on the drive from Fairfield out to Amdahl? Considering how much of an impact this event had on how I spent my childhood and my career path as an adult, it seems fantastic that this event even happened.

Stay tuned for the next post to hear about my quest to get a home PC and how that led me to build my own in 1995.