October 6, 2009 | SQL Server

[Tagged] : How I became a dork

Funny headline, because I'm not a dork, really.  Okay, who am I kidding?  When introduced to new people, and they ask what I do, my answer is almost unfailingly, "I'm a computer dork."  Allen White had the audacity thoughtfulness to tag me in this meme, so here goes.

The Early Days

In elementary and middle school, I was not a big fan of computers.  I had a Commodore Vic 20, but given all of the typing and the silliness and high price of those cassette tapes, I grew weary of it pretty quickly.  I preferred my game systems like Atari, Gemini, and even that annoying IntelliVision with its slide-in controller cards.  I also had some short-lived experience with a Commodore 64, but my only memories of that phase include getting very good at Moon Patrol, and my first introduction to "virtual boobies" – I think the program was called "Jiggle" and premiered to me by a friend's older (and obviously more mature) brother, who came across this weird program that animated an ASCII girl's breasts.  He carried that 5 1/4" floppy disk (with a groove cut on the other side to double the capacity!) like it was a bar of gold.

In high school, I hardly remember touching computers at all.  Between sports and chasing non-ASCII girls, I kept busy enough in all seasons that computers didn't cross my mind much at all.  Those who know me well probably find that hard to believe, but it's the truth.

The Turning Point

In college – or university, as we call it in Canada – everything changed.  My first year was much the same as high school, with very little regard for computers – I was in an economics program and had a social life.  But then I had an epiphany.  (Who needs a social life, after all?)  I got tired of submitting hand-written papers, and didn't feel like yanking an old typewriter out of the attic.  I decided it was time for a computer!  I bought a used and very overpriced 386 (DX100) from a friend.  If I remember right, it had 32 MB of RAM.  Just enough to run Windows 3.11 For Workgroups, Word 6.0 and CorelDraw 5.0.  But not all three at the same time, of course!

Once I had gotten into the habit of writing all of my papers on the computer, I taught myself how to make them look good.  "Desktop publishing" was a new phrase for me, but I took it on full boar.  I bought an InkJet printer, and started handing in colorful papers that were also typed in – gasp! – Arial instead of Times New Roman.  Shortly after that, I figured out how to print color overheads for my presentations, and this had a profound effect on my classmates: suddenly they all wanted me to make color overheads for their presentations as well (remember, this was way before PowerPoint).  Somewhere, a light bulb went from off to the "dim" setting just above off.  Naturally, I started my own home-based business making color overheads and adding flair to otherwise boring reports and term papers.

<…drum roll please…> The Internet!

In my sophomore year I was offered a job in the university's computer department.  I do not remember much about my roles and responsibilities there, except that it was where I was introduced to the Internet, and this wonderful language called HTML.  You could make a homepage on GeoCities (which is apparently closing down later this month) and, after stealing various ugly but animated GIFs from who knows where, you could proclaim your love for the Simpsons, the Maple Leafs and Star Wars.  Once I figured out how to do HTML right, I added web site design as part of my offerings (when I wasn't clocked in at the school, of course).  I took on a handful of clients, from local mom & pop shops to Harley-Davidson.  For those paying attention, yes, I did go over a bit of this history briefly in a previous post (which was also a meme).

This was around 1996 or 1997.  I had been subscribed to a mailing list called IE-HTML and started contributing heavily, helping people figure out HTML and JavaScript issues.  Then there were ASP-related mailing lists as well, and of course newsgroups.  I was a very early adopter of ASP (I still have a sealed IIS 1.0 Beta 2 CD) and would later become the founder of a web site, aspfaq.com (don't go there now), hosting a collection of frequently asked questions from the newsgroups and mailing lists.  Based on my contributions, I received my first MVP award from Microsoft.  Shortly thereafter, an employer here in Rhode Island started contracting me to do web design-related work remotely.  As a joke one day, I suggested that he would spend less money if he just moved me to the U.S.  A week later, application papers arrived for an H1-B visa.  I was set to graduate in April, and we agreed that I would come down immediately after graduation.  Can you believe that I finished at the top of my (admittedly small) class, and can only remember one or two broad concepts from the entire four-year program?  I even contributed to papers on topics such as living standards in Canada, but hardly remember doing so.  Talk about a shift in discipline…

Enter SQL Server

Once I moved to Rhode Island, one of the first projects we worked on was an e-commerce web site for a condom company.  They needed a database to store customer and order information, and had chosen Access (boo! hiss!).  I had used Access databases in a few projects before, but this was really pushing its limits, and I strived to use a more powerful database platform for all future projects.  Because our collective experience rested solely within the Microsoft realm, the only logical choice at the time was SQL Server 6.5.  Overnight I became the involuntary DBA that everyone hears about, but looking back, I'm really glad it happened.  Between the decline of ASP, the advent of ASP.NET, and how fabulously SQL Server has matured over the subsequent four versions, I couldn't picture myself concentrating on any other platform.  It wasn't long before my MVP designation was changed from ASP to SQL Server, and not long after that before I was invited by Adam and Peter to blog amongst my esteemed peers on this site.  I have tech edited and/or reviewed several SQL Server books, from the late Ken Henderson's Guru's Guide to SQL Server Architecture and Internals to Paul Nielsen's SQL Server 2008 Bible, wrote a whitepaper on the Resource Governor with Boris Baryshnikov, and wrote two chapters for the recent SQL Server MVP Deep Dives project, a collaborative effort involving 53 different MVPs, where all author proceeds go to War Child International.  I have even overcome my fear of public speaking, by giving talks at two code camps, and several user group meetings in three different states as well as online; however, I have yet to strum up the courage to speak at a big event like PASS.

Present Day

I am still a SQL Server MVP, in spite of the fact that I now use a Mac Pro at home, a MacBook Pro on the road, and touch a PC only when I have to (namely, when I am at the office).  Most everything I need to do with SQL Server I can accomplish from a remote desktop session, a virtual machine, or the few apps written for the Mac that can talk to SQL Server.  (I wrote more about my foray into the Applesphere, and how I could possibly function this way, in a recent blog post on my company's web site.)  I still work for essentially the same company as I did back in the 90's, though it has undergone name, ownership and personnel changes that would make most heads spin.  And that first employer – who is still a friend – is now doing great things at Microsoft.  I am looking forward to the coming enhancements in future versions of SQL Server, and continue to do as much as I can to learn more about existing features and to share my knowledge and experiences with the community.

Oh, who to tag?

I really don't like to put anyone out, but it is the tradition to pass along these memes to other people who probably have entertaining stories to share.  With that in mind, I'm going to tag my pals Andy Kelly and Linchi Shea.

5 comments on this post

    • Denis Gobo - October 6, 2009, 4:51 PM

      Nice post Aaron…it seems every developer born in the 70s had some commodore (vic/c64/c128  or Amiga) experience
      I started with a Commodore 128 myself and remember it took me 2 minutes the first time to find the letters R U and N on the keyboard to start that game  🙂

    • Ben Nevarez - October 6, 2009, 10:17 PM

      Interesting. I also wrote my first programs in BASIC on a Commodore 64.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_64
      Ben

    • Glenn Berry - October 7, 2009, 5:04 AM

      I too started off learning BASIC on a Commodore VIC-20,going to a Commodore 64 and an Amiga 500, before making the jump to PCs with a Zeos 486SX/25 running Windows 3.1.
      Maybe this is a good interview question for prospective DBA job candidates, especially since I think DBAs should be more hardware aware than developers.

    • Michael Kjörling - October 8, 2009, 3:00 PM

      Echo Ben's comment: interesting. Although if your first IBM-compatible had 32 MB RAM, it probably wasn't a 386. Typo?

    • Aaron Bertrand - October 8, 2009, 3:07 PM

      Yes, it might have been a 486.  Like I said, if I remember right.  That was a long time ago.

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