I decided to go back to college after several years away from school. I had been working construction and I was now my own boss as a drywall contractor. But winter had come, and work was slow, and while I’d enjoyed working alone and singing along (badly) to my own rock music with no one to hear me, truth is, I was lonely.
I’m the type of guy who has trouble admitting that sort of thing, even now, more than 20 years later.
So I went back to school.
I didn’t know what to study, since I’d only toyed around with college before, taking classes like snowboarding and pottery, and ditching calculus and anything hard or early in the morning (calculus was both.) It took me a year of working at fast food jobs and saving up after high school to get into college, but I finally made it. And now I was sloughing off. I only stayed in calculus as long as I did because I was sitting next to a pretty girl — but I never even spoke to her.
College was fun, but I wasn’t heading anywhere. I’d randomly chosen “Nuclear Engineering” as a major, but knew that wasn’t working out. I took art and writing classes, and was trying to teach myself to play piano. I hitched rides up to the mountains to go snowboarding whenever I could and worked nights cleaning the grill, washing dishes, and waxing the floors at the college cafeteria. I was pissing off my roommates and blowing off my classes and partying, but I wasn’t really having fun. I was directionless, and I knew it.
Luckily, an old friend from high school came along. He was a year older and took me under his wing. I ended up quitting college and working drywall for him and a couple other friends that summer. We travelled all over for work. We both liked painting and music and we tried starting a band. We were going to call ourselves “Various Artists” and our first album was going to be called “Greatest Hits”. You’ve probably seen our stuff in the bargain bin at discount stores or on a rack between the beef jerky and souvenirs at a gas station truck stop.
Money was decent, and we worked hard and played hard. One time, when we’d been gone for several weeks doing several jobs out of state, and we came back to our apartment and it was a mess. The sink was overflowing with dirty dishes growing mold. Tools were strewn all over the living room with grease stains on the carpet. Our bedroom was our painting studio. We threw out all the dishes and bought new ones at the local thrift shop. I think we got evicted eventually.
When he took off, I took over doing drywall touch up jobs and thought about going back to school. But it was easy to live the college lifestyle in a college town and not go to college. I had a scam where I’d ask a girl out by offering to make her and her roommates a fancy dinner, take her to the grocery store to buy steak or salmon or whatever I wanted, and then I’d have them do all the chopping vegetables and stuff, and then I’d leave the mess for her to clean up.
I’ve often thought about opening a restaurant, but having worked in several, I had no illusions about the amount of work involved and so I never did. And when I met a girl many years later who said she loved washing dishes, I married her (but that part of the story comes much later.)
The point of the story (so far) is that I wasn’t very responsible. I had a lot of initiative, but I wasn’t good at the follow through. I could work hard — when I wanted to.
While I was away, my dad and my brother and a couple of other guys had started a small local ISP (that’s “internet service provider”) back when you dialed up on your home phone line and listened for the static and beeps of your external modem connect to another modem in a shed in some guy’s backyard and that’s how you connected to the internet.
Back then, they were in it for text based adventure games like “Legend of the Red Dragon” and bulletin board chat and message boards. That’s what the internet was. I knew nothing about it.
But my dad was an entrepreneur. He’d started his own independent logging company when he was younger, and built a lumber mill with partners. He know the forestry industry. And he taught us kids to love the mountains and wilderness.
But when the lumber mill failed, he bought a VCR and satellite TV shop before most people knew about that sort of thing. As a consequence, I was well versed in the classics like Bruce Lee and Indiana Jones. I’d seen Star Wars a hundred times before Return of the Jedi came out.
That didn’t last, and he went back to work at a lumber mill. And that meant another move.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid. When people hear that I went to eleven different schools, they often guess (correctly) that my dad was in the military. But the day I was born was his last day of service. We moved for work. And I think maybe my dad had a bit of a restless spirit. At least I like to blame him for mine.
There was a bit of a pattern to our moves. We’d move to Montana, but making a living in Montana is hard, so he’d end up taking a job somewhere else, we’d move there, and then a few years later, we’d move back to Montana. He loved the mountains and forests. After all my travels, guess where I’ve ended up?
Anyway, so I was going back to school after being away for several years. And because my dad’s latest business venture was a fledgling internet service after closing down a pizza restaurant he’s started. (I was the delivery driver for a while in high school), I’d created a few web pages and learned how to do a few technical support things like tell people to restart their computer and how to install and configure TCP/IP on old Microsoft Windows PCs.
So I enrolled as a “Computer Science” major. But I still ended up taking courses like “Figure Painting” and “Radio Production”. But I didn’t try going back into calculus. I signed up for a more basic math class. There was a pretty girl with a floppy hat and a floral print dress, who had a pretty smile and strawberry blonde hair in that class. She was also in my art class.
How we got together is a long story, and since I don’t want to make my wife jealous (spoiler alert, I married someone else), I won’t dwell on it here, I’ll skip to the relevant part.
I wasn’t doing great in computer science. It was fun, but I didn’t do the homework. But I wasn’t doing it in radio production either. Between work and play, school was suffering again. I was snowboarding again, and doing drywall again. And dating the aforementioned girl. And I’d found a writing group online and was doing my best imitation of Hemingway.
But one day, one little event changed things, as they sometimes do. Okay, lots of little events change things all the time, but this one fits into this part of the story.
I tagged along with her to her public speaking class to lend moral support. She gave a cute little speech about cold pricklies and warm fuzzies, but right after her speech was a friend from my computer science classes. We stuck around to listen to his speech too.
He was a big lumbering guy, who was way smart. The type of guy who groans when he gets asked if he was on the football team. Maybe he was, but that’s not what he was into. You know, like the tall guy who is always asked if he plays basketball because he’s tall — but he’s really a musician and nobody wants to hear about that. Anway, this guy was way into computers, and so his speech was about about computers.
He talked about Linux. Linux was this new, free operating system that was way better than Windows and was going to take over the world. You could even set it up to run “X Windows”. Everything cool had an “X” in front of it in the 1990s. And X Windows looked pretty cool. I was blown away by his talk.
I think I was the only one in the room listening. Everyone else clapped politely, but I had a ton of questions. I immediately delved into learning about Linux. I found out that the operating system that my dad’s ISP used to coordinate all the modems in the shed other people’s computers and connect them to the internet was Linux. I had an operating systems class that taught about Unix and I used the server (logged in as root) to do my homework. I started answering questions in class. I started writing shell scripts and perl CGI scripts for web pages.
I dropped out of school again after my girlfriend left to tour the country in some singing group, but I kept studying on my own. I had a stack of Linux and other technical books. I got a place with my brother and we’d fight over computer time — he wanted to play games or chat and I wanted to boot into Linux and mess around with code. I’d hang out on sites like Hacker News (not the Reddit site, but one for l33t real h4x0rs! — Cult of the Dead Cow & stuff.)
And then one day, I got a job at Microsoft. The evil empire. By then, there was a small but growing coterie of Linux fans, and I was one of them. We’d bash Bill Gates and Microsoft and Windows. And now I was joining them.
Here’s how it happened.
I bought an old run down drug house and spent months hauling out trash, gutting the place, fixing the roof and foundation, redoing the plumbing, etc. I was miserable and not making any money. I was actually running up a lot of debt.
Remember that I mentioned I’d joined a writing group online? I think I’d stopped writing much — both fiction & poetry or code. But I had a friend who was a published author and she needed some help with building her website. I didn’t do much to help her, but we became friends.
Her husband was a programmer, and he’d just gotten a job at Microsoft. He told me I should apply. I think he figured, in his modest way, that if they’d hired him, they’d hire anyone. Turns out he was right. I didn’t have a degree, I didn’t have much practical experience. But I applied. I did a phone interview and thought nothing of it.
Then one day a couple weeks later I got a call. I was in the middle of screwing sheetrock into the ceiling, so I almost missed it. But it was a recruiter at Micrsoft. She wanted to know if I could be there for an interview tomorrow. Actually, 4 interviews on 4 different teams. One of them was on my buddy’s team. Sure, I said.
Seattle Washington was an 8 hour drive away. I left immediately. I left a screw hanging halfway out of a 4′ x 8′ piece of sheetrock only halfway attached to the ceiling. I left all my tools scattered on the floor of the house that had already been burglarized (and I lost a bunch of tools) only a few months before.
I took a shower, bought a nice shirt, called up my friends and asked if I could stay at their place, and drove all the rest of that day to Seattle. Next morning, I went through 2 rounds of interviews with 2 teams and 2 more the next day. I failed with one group when I couldn’t tell what a SCSI cable was and I couldn’t play foosball. I failed with another group when I couldn’t do their whiteboarding coding exercise to their satsifaction. I got an offer from my buddy’s team (probably because of his influence) and with another team because I answered a brain teaser in a unique (and very inefficient way).
Say you have a room with 3 lights and you’re standing outside the room with 3 light switches. How can you flip only two switches before entering the room and know which switch goes to which light bulb? Or something like that.
I asked a few questions, hypothesized about using a multimeter, and then thought of this:
“How long can I take to figure it out?”
“As long as you like,” the interviewer responded.
So I said I’d flip on one switch, wait a year, and then flip on another switch and walk in. One light would be on, and one would be burned out.
“That’ll work,” he said.
Inefficiency, combined with cleverness, pays off. Or at least it did at Microsoft at the height of their business 20 years ago.
I got the job, and turned down my buddy’s team, because this sounded more interested. Was I ever wrong.
But I’ll save that story for another day. Suffice it to say, that’s how I ended up working at Microsoft, and that’s how I ended up doing test automation for a living.
And now, on a rainy Monday morning in May 20 years later, after working for lots of companies doing test automation, I live in the woods in Montana, I work in a yurt (a big round tent) with a fire burning in the wood stove, and I’m typing this on an old laptop running Linux because I don’t want to go outside and dig post holes for a fence & barn for my animals.
And I’m trying to figure out how to rebuild my business doing test automation and didn’t feel like coding yet.