Fifty Years—A Look Back

I wrote this essay, a look back at my first fifty years, on my 50th birthday. Following this are a series of chronological essays capturing snapshots of my life.

My start was nothing special—ordinary parents in an ordinary town. We moved a lot since Dad was in the Air Force. Perhaps the constant change while growing up could predict many changes in my life and career. My interest in electronics started one summer when I was just learning to read. I was staying at my great grandfather’s farm in West Virginia. No television to watch. No friends to play with. There were many books in his library, but all the print was too small and the words too difficult for me. The only book that made sense at all had big print and lots of diagrams—not pictures exactly, but somehow they made sense. They were schematic diagrams and the books were Navy Electronics Technician training manuals. I spent countless hours that summer in Mason, West Virginia, learning electronics on my own from those thick, blue books.

My interest turned from (analog) electronics to (digital) computers abruptly when I was 14. It was that year, 1961, that I built my first computer. The logic elements were made entirely from surplus DPDT relays. I had all the elements—AND, OR, and NOT—and put together what I would learn much later to be a simple state machine. After a year of college, I enlisted in the Air Force. There I worked on the electronics subsystems of the F-106 aircraft. This was an important time for me to rethink what I wanted to do with my life. I had my own family, with three sons, and I left the service in 1970, highly motivated to go back to school and pursue a career in electronic design engineering.

After graduating, I worked for a company that was known for their test equipment. Tektronix was just starting to incorporate microprocessors in their oscilloscope plug-ins. An engineer was working with a new chip, an Intel 8008, to read switches and to control displays. I thought it could do much more. I took home a chip and a handful of TTL and wire-wrapped a single board computer. I wrote a simple operating system, added a real keyboard and eight LEDs for a display, and had great fun exploring what this tiny microprocessor could do. Then, suddenly, the engineer who had experience with the chip at the company departed and I was soon thrust into the lead role of microprocessor systems development. Microprocessor system design and development continued to be my focus at several companies. While in Denver doing medical instrumentation with the MC6800 for a “day job,” I did engineering design projects for a company in Albuquerque called MITS. They had just put together a computer kit called the Altair. Some friends and I contributed hardware designs, while two other guys, Paul Allen and Bill Gates, were starting their own company to do software.

I enjoyed designing computers, and it was a lot easier with the increasingly powerful microprocessors. But the task switched from thinking about simple logic (as in TTL) to system-level issues. The systems got more complex but the solutions were increasingly more complex and powerful. Eventually my career took me to a position as the Senior Systems Architect of the NCR Tower. From there, I took a chance in 1983 to go with a tiny startup company in California called Sun Microsystems. It was a wild ride, indeed, for nine years after that with Sun. The longer I was with Sun, the higher I rose in the organization. By the time I was a director, I realized clearly what I had liked best during my career to that point. It wasn’t the promotions, or the money, or the power. The best times were when I was working with young engineers, or engineering teams, helping them achieve what they thought perhaps couldn’t be done. At NCR, it was a team of about 15 people that did almost all the engineering development, hardware and software. At International Medical, there were fewer than 10 in engineering. Even at Sun, initially as the hardware engineering manager, I worked with only a handful of engineers. Sure I was a design engineer who had faced many of the same problems and could help with my experience, but I thought of myself more as a mentor and a motivator, almost like a teacher.

In 1992, I left my pager on my desk in my high-rise window office at Sun and walked out the door. Again I was taking a chance, as I did when I left my senior position at NCR to help start Sun. I had earned the credentials of a math teacher, but could I even find a job in the highly competitive teacher market, and if I did, would I enjoy it? I did find a job as a math and computer science teacher at Ponderosa High School in Colorado. Since making the transition, I have never regretted the decision for a moment. I work with dedicated teachers and have enjoyed the classes I’ve taught and the students who I’ve worked with. Is it more rewarding than working at Sun? Financially, of course not. But more rewarding? Yes. Working with students to help them achieve what they thought perhaps couldn’t be done, getting them to believe in themselves, helping them to “look up” so they don’t think they are at the top and to have confidence and skills to go on to become something special—these rewards far exceed those I might have found in an executive-level position in industry.

So now, just having turned 50, I am a teacher and a volleyball coach. I also enjoy living in Colorado, where teaching gives me a little extra time to spend with my wife perhaps doing something fun in the mountains or just walking along a path in our neighborhood watching a sunset or a thunderstorm in the distance. It’s a very good time, with so much yet I want to do. You aren’t old until you replace your dreams with regrets, and I still have lots of dreams…