A little devil!
First grade. Before they knew I needed glasses...
...And after. Oy vey.
Horned rims. Thanks, Mom and Dad. Thanks a lot.
Next year, they dressed me up like an extra in Star Trek. You know. The guy who dies in every episode.
Next year the shirt was better. Glasses, not so much.
Ah, the awkwardness of fifth grade. I remember it well.
Wow, who designed shirts in the 70's? They have much to answer for.
But the better question might be, what parents actually thought those shirts were cool? Answer: mine.
Oh, man. Eighth grade was the worst. The worst.
In ninth grade I was in Civil Air Patrol. I really enjoyed it.
Q: Shirt, or omelette?
I remember liking that shirt. The first one I really liked!
Senior nerd with side burns. An awesome look that ought to be popular today.
Graduatin'! Woo hoo! I'm outta here! Summer school, here I come! Yee haaaa!
And then it was much, much later. I lost the thick glasses but the side burns eventually met under my chin, and there they stayed.
I was born in Farmington, New Mexico, to Lloyd Quincy and Doris Eugenia Baker Johnson, both schoolteachers. I have two elder sisters, Kim and Kathy. My mother passed away in August of 1996, another in an endless series of victims of the bloodthirsty tobacco industry. My father died on February 3, 2003. He and I were estranged; I hadn't spoken with him in twelve or thirteen years. In April of 2000, I legally changed my name to Jeffrey Kirk, since I didn't want to carry my abusive father's last name any longer.
I grew up in Farmington, which was a reasonable place to live, although I was bookish and isolated from other children my age. I lived on a farm a few miles east of town. (It doesn't look much like a farm anymore.) There were no other kids my age around, except at school, and I didn't get along with many of them. Not enough socialization at an early age resulted in a nerdy, isolated kid who didn't really know how to deal with other people very well. I retreated into my own head, and had few close friends. It was a hard childhood, and I don't miss it.
Sorry if that's a little too much unrelieved grimness to start with, but most of the crappy stuff is now behind you. Read on.
Without dwelling on the details, home life was not happy. I managed to escape a mere six weeks after I graduated from high school, and started college at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology during the summer session. I was so happy to be out away from Farmington that I signed up for ten credit hours: intro chemistry, biology, and computer science--not exactly a light course load for a twelve week semester. Got straight A's. Yep, I sure loved not being around my dad.
At New Mexico Tech I met Frank Etscorn, a psychologist at New Mexico Tech, who invented and patented the nicotine patch to help wean smokers off of cigarettes. I took Frank's psychopharmacology class, which is still one of my favorite school experiences, and through him, discovered the Mac. More on that later.
I also took a physics class from C.B. Moore, or "Charlie" as his friends called him. What a guy. He told us the real story behind the Roswell UFOs. The mysterious silvery plastic material discovered by the joker who went on to claim it was not of this Earth was almost certainly aluminized mylar from a weather balloon launched from Langmuir Atmospheric Research Lab, where C.B. Moore worked during the summers.
The second summer session I attended at Tech, I worked for a chemist named Carl Popp, and I got a chance to do some work up at Langmuir Lab on nearby South Baldy Peak. Middle of the summer in New Mexico, with the '86 Olympic Games on TV in the lab, and we were walking around in parkas in freezing drizzle, driving an old Korean War vintage jeep to move acid rain detectors into an underground equipment room beneath the top of the wire-mesh-enshrouded peak, just below a towering electrical conductor. Langmuir Lab was also called the "lightning lab." During thunderstorms, researchers launch small rockets into the clouds. The rockets trail a wire back tied to the giant conductor, triggering a lightning strike that blows the wire and the rocket into tiny flinders. Pretty amazing. One of those researchers was Bernie Vonnegut, Kurt's older brother. I met him once. He seemed nice. I was tempted to ask him how he enjoyed having a much more famous brother, but I wisely restrained myself.
Two years after starting at Tech, I had finally discovered that I didn't want to be a physicist. My math chops just weren't up to it. I should've switched to computer science, but I didn't. I transferred to the University of New Mexico, where in 1987 I received my BS in biology, with a minor in chemistry, magna cum laude in General Honors.
I spent many many hours in the computer lab in Johnson Gym, learning how to use the Macintosh. Maybe I sneered at Apple II computers back in high school, but the Mac was a different beast altogether. My near-obsession with it, and the arty things I could do with it, set the stage for my career in information technology. If I'd been thinking more clearly, I would've changed my focus to computer science, but I still thought I wanted to be a biologist. More on that later.
In college I finally managed to come out of my shell and began to enjoy life. It helped that the people I got to know were smart and amusingly bitter. What with Facebook and all, I'm back in touch with quite a few people from those days, which makes me happy.
After I graduated, I spent nearly a year as a technician in the Physiology Department of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. That was a fun experience, but I knew I wouldn't be turning it into a lifelong career. I'd applied to a bunch of graduate schools, and was accepted by UC Berkeley with an eye towards a Ph.D. in molecular biology. I moved to Berkeley, California in August of 1988.
My God, what a culture shock.
Berkeley was a real eye-opener. I was more than a little intimidated by this crowded, dirty city. I grew up in rural New Mexico, and I used to think Albuquerque was a big city. Now I was in Berkeley, south of the University, with its mixed-up seasons (cold and foggy in the summer, hot and humid in the fall, damp and mildewy in the winter, and hot and humid in the spring), perpetual street noise, squalor, riots, poverty, burnt-out wannabe hippies redolent of patchouli oil, and outrageously expensive, low-quality housing.
I lived in a single room in a little Victorian house six blocks from school. I got to walk down Telegraph Avenue every day, and was usually asked for spare change at least three times in each direction. It's quite a thing to move from a single room in an adobe house near the Rio Grande to a squalid little hovel in a run-down Victorian with a magnificent view of an anonymous-looking high-rise apartment building, with the Shrieking Next-Door Banshee Kids From Hell playing Screaming Stickball in their slovenly back yard, all day long, every single day of the year, come rain or shine, those little bastards! Oops, sorry about that.
I always felt out of place in Berkeley. It was an interesting school, but it was undergoing a serious upheaval which I wasn't fully aware of when I moved out. For one thing, the Zoology department was being split up into Molecular Cell Biology, Genetics, and Plant Sciences departments, and moving into a new building. The old Life Sciences Building, a planet-sized behemoth of a structure built during the Great Depression of the 30's, was going to be gutted and rebuilt from the ground up. I had a hard time selecting an advisor whose interests matched my own.
Unfortunately, I chose the wrong lab. I had a lousy experience. It wasn't my professor's fault. He was a good guy. But he was very busy, and so were all the grad students in his lab, and I wasn't really sure I wanted to do what I was doing. But it was too late, I was there. And I sure as hell wasn't ready for the grinding boredom of lab work. I thought it would be really fun, but it turned out to be... boring. If you're really interested in solving a particular problem, you can drive through the boredom and maybe even contribute something significant to science. But if you're more interested in reading about science than doing it, boy, you are in the wrong racket. (Get out while you can.)
About the middle of my second year, I developed a nasty case of mononucleosis. I was stuck in bed for about six months. My professor was kind enough to keep paying me while I was sick, but I had to drop all of my classes. I got better slowly, but even when I felt halfway human again, I still couldn't bring myself to go back to the lab. It was a fascinating experiment in graduate school self-destruction. (As John Irving wrote in The World According to Garp: "What's gradual school, Daddy?" "It's where you go and gradually discover you don't want to go to school anymore.") But I did enjoy playing with computers. I poked around on my Mac Plus, spent endless hours playing computer games, creating Hypercard stacks, making artwork, and chatting with people on local BBSes.
Finally my graduate advisor ran out of time, money, patience, or all three, and decided to stop paying me while I was out malingering. I got a letter saying that I needed to find another sponsor. I decided that I'd drop out instead. I didn't enjoy grad school, and it was clear that I'd make a pretty uncommitted scientist.
I turned to computers for employment, and within a week of quitting grad school, I was working for a small Macintosh software company, RagTime USA, which sold a neat integrated word processor / spreadsheet / graphics program (and it's still sold today, by the original German company that produced it). Thank God for BMUG (the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group). I picked up and moved to Fremont, a pretty large bedroom community in the East Bay. I drove across the Dumbarton Bridge every day to Redwood City. It was kind of a lousy commute, but I was working, doing something I enjoyed for a change, and it felt rather good. Certainly it was a far cry from Berzerkeley.
I spent two years working at RagTime. I started as its sole technical support specialist, but eventually wound up being the tech support manager, with two other employees working with me. RagTime was a nifty product, still popular in Europe but poorly marketed in the US. Eventually the US distributorship closed and I had to find other work. It was a good ride, though. I got to take my first trip to Europe while working for RagTime. You can still get RagTime, by the way. It's a cool program. You can even use it for free, for non-commercial purposes, but I think its day has passed, what with Google Docs and Office 365.
After the US RagTime office closed, I finagled a job at HELIOS USA, which met a similar fate a few years later, though not because of the product. Instead, idiotic management decisions were the downfall of the US distributorship. The German HELIOS organization is still doing fine. In spite of the crazy management, it was a lot of fun. That's where I learned UNIX, and spent a little time with PCs, although at the time I would rather have gnawed off my right foot without the help of Tabasco sauce than use a PC. When HELIOS USA closed its doors and paid off its employees with computer equipment and office furniture, it was time to find a new job.
I spent several months working as a Mac sys admin contractor for Syntex (now part of Roche Pharmaceuticals), where they invented The Pill and Aleve, and for Silicon Graphics, Inc. Eventually I got a permanent job offer from Synopsys. Turns out a recruiter who worked for a head-hunter I once tried to use remembered me from a foiled attempt to get me into Pacific Data Images as a UNIX guy, and recommended me to the management at Synopsys. I worked in the Core Services group of the Network and Computing Systems department. It was a terrific job, and I worked with wonderful people. Unfortunately, during the Spindler Years at Apple, when the product quality was declining and red ink started pouring from the ledgers, Synopsys' higher management concluded that the Mac was a platform without a future, and began to convert to PCs. Auuuugggghhh! PCs again! And after my mother died in 1996, I thought it was time for a change of scenery.
WEBTV & MICROSOFT
In December of 1996 I went to WebTV Networks, Inc., in Palo Alto. A bunch of my friends from Synopsys had already made the leap to that startup, which was known at the time under the code-name Artemis Research (whose putative research subject was the effects of sleep deprivation--truer words were never spoken). I followed my buddies a few months later. WebTV was an exciting, dynamic, and incredibly interesting place to work. I was there for three and a half years. I was there when we got the word that Microsoft was going to buy us. I can't claim to have been there for the IPO, because there was no IPO, but I was there when they bought out our stock options and converted them to Microsoft stock.
I also had LASIK eye surgery in 1996, which was life-changing. You might have noticed that in almost all of the pictures from my childhood, I have glasses. I didn't just have glasses: I had Optical Time Bending Devices, thick enough to shield me from bullets, powerful enough that I could see the past, the present, and the future, all at the same time. Before the surgery, my focal distance was about half an inch in front of my nose. (For the optometrists out there, my right eye was -10.5 diopters with 2 cylinders of astigmatism, and my left eye was a magnificent -14 diopters with 1.25 cylinders of astigmatism.) Now I can actually read the clock when I wake up. Although the LASIK and ALK surgery didn't correct my eyes completely, I can get away with contact lenses to correct what little nearsightedness and astigmatism remains. With that degree of nearsightedness, I am happy to have gotten such a good result.
A brief digression here. I read a lot of science fiction when I was growing up. I mean, a lot. By the time I graduated from high school I'd amassed a pretty serious library of nearly 2000 science fiction and fantasy books. One of the most influential was Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It's about a comet that strikes the earth with devastating results. Humanity survives, but not easily. Ever since reading that book, I've wanted to cultivate skills that would make me "marketable" to the leaders of the surviving groups, should there be a cometary apocalypse. Not being able to see is a definite handicap if you're trying to fight your way across a desolate landscape following a horrible disaster. So in a way, my getting LASIK so early in its development was because of Lucifer's Hammer. Thanks, Larry and Jerry!
Unfortunately, and predictably, not long after I got there, the Mac platform at WebTV started to go the way of the dodo. Not because of its inviability, but because Microsoft was a PC shop, so everyone got PCs and turned in their Macs. Almost everyone, that is. A hardy cadre of die-hard Mac maniacs kept their trusty machines and continued to do useful work on them. Microsoft as an employer isn't really Mac-hostile, by the way. In those days it was the largest Mac software developer outside of Apple. But the corporate IT support guys just didn't care about it.
When I saw the writing on the wall, I moved from doing Mac support to doing Engineering, where I did Linux work for the development team. That may seem a big leap, but I'd already had quite a bit of UNIX experience at HELIOS and even at Synopsys, so it wasn't that bad. I helped define a standard development machine for the service team, which was still UNIX-based at the time, and spent many hours figuring out how to build kernels and install weirdo drivers for cards that were never intended to be used on Compaq Pro Workstation 6000s. Eventually I transferred into Network Operations and took over the day-to-day management of the WebTV test services, used to perform large-scale testing on the service software itself. I worked in that department for about two years. It was a really enjoyable experience.
Unfortunately, Microsoft decided to build this big old campus near Highways 101 and 85 in Mountain View. That wasn't unfortunate in and of itself. It was always a good idea to consolidate all the working groups into a single location. But the architect they hired built these giant anonymous slabs of buildings with anonymous-looking offices in an anonymous and undistinguished place. And I'd pretty much mastered the tasks I had been assigned, and was starting to get bored.
And after we moved our department down to Mountain View, it was no longer possible to pretend that I worked for a startup. The Palo Alto building was a cheerful mess, which I've come to associate with people working hard enough that they don't really give a flying fig about their surroundings. The Mountain View Microsoft campus was attractive but sterile. The offices were well-equipped but anonymous. I never got the feeling that the department was going to regain its sense of esprit-de-corps, especially after many of my closest friends, whom I'd worked with since the Synopsys days, began to leave for new startups.
MOXI & DIGEO
So, in spite of the good pay and reasonable benefits and nice working conditions, I began to grow restless. I started making inquiries about new positions, and lo and behold, I managed to get one at one of those startups I was talking about! I got a job at Moxi Digital, Inc., formerly known as Rearden Steel Technologies, working with a bunch of buddies from several of my old employers.
We took TechTV's Best in Show award (celebration photo below) at the January 2002 Consumer Electronics Show.
In May of 2002 Moxi merged with Digeo, Inc. of Kirkland, Washington. The less said about the circumstances of that merger, the better. All I will say is that what happened to Onlive, Inc. at the hands of the same expletive-deleted CEO a few years later was pretty goddamn unsurprising. At least I came out of it with a job. A lot of my friends weren't quite so lucky.
I worked in the Engineering department, and was a kind of a jack-of-all-trades. I maintained the build servers used for compiling our software, as well as the Linux developer systems and software; performed demos and did demo support and a whole host of other things. Since we were building a home entertainment media center, my background in video and computers and home theater enthusiasm was very useful.
Eventually the Digeo gig began to pall. Most of the good developers left, seeing the writing on the wall long before we lazy sys admins decided to throw in the towel. The IT cretins in Kirkland kept us amused with their inability to perform basic functions correctly. The worst of them insisted that a line drawn halfway up the network utilization graph meant that the network was only running at 50%, in spite of the 0% at the bottom and the 200% at the top of the Y axis. You'd have thought the fact that it was always, always pegged at what he considered "50%" would have been a clue, but nooooooo. (Insert dramatic sigh here.) What a clown.
The NTACs in Kirkland's nepotistic management family eventually decided to throw away the only functional part of the company and closed the Palo Alto office. They slapped golden handcuffs on a lot of us to keep the service running while they considered how to move all the machinery up to Kirkland. Then they spent six months debating the procedure for moving the equipment while we played World of Warcraft at the office and waited for them to make up their minds. Nice work, if you can get it.
Next up: Zvents! A great place. I started in January of 2007. I was there for six years. I was discovered via my LinkedIn profile, back in the days when LinkedIn was still a pretty small outfit. Zvents was a local events search site. I moved it from its initial location in a tiny cabinet at an oversubscribed colo in San Francisco to a top-flight data center in Sunnyvale. The site ran almost without pause for more than seven years. Loved working there. Loved the people. Most of them. Had a great time. Until the breakup.
BREAKUP AND RECOVERY
In 2008 my former long-term girlfriend and I split up. We'd been together, on and off, for about seventeen years. I won't go into any details about the relationship for the sake of her privacy and mine, but we were both pretty destroyed. After I moved out, I managed to get through the working days by focusing hard on delivering what was expected of me, and the nights by watching movie after movie and TV series after TV series and trying hard not to think about anything. I went to bed when I was too exhausted to keep my eyes open any longer, and got up the next day and did the same thing all over again.
About three months after the breakup, I told myself to do something different. I'd watched all of Stargate and most of House and a good chunk of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by then (don't sneer if you haven't seen it—it's hella good), and my butt was getting sore. So I started working on a book. About a year and a half later, I finished it.
It's called The Storm Winds Rise. It's an overly wordy fantasy novel. Too many adverbs. I am kinda-sorta satisfied with it, but it's definitely a first book. It wasn't really saleable. First book of a trilogy by an untried writer? Who'd want to buy that? To be frank I enjoyed coming up with the world's history and back story a bit more than I enjoyed the story itself. The Storm Winds Rise will remain in the drawer, but its backstory will serve as the basis for a standalone fantasy novel with series potential. I'll get to that one after I finish the book I'm working on now. But I digress. If you want to read more about the book, I kept a blog for a while. I don't know if anyone ever read it, but there it is.
Zvents was a nice six year run. Then they were bought by StubHub. I had a new girlfriend then (now my fiancée) who lived on the southern end of the Bay, and I decided I really didn't want to work in San Francisco, so I looked around for something a little closer to home. I got a short-lived gig at Cisco, about which the less said, the better. I bailed out of there almost as soon as I arrived. I was solicited out of the blue for a Director of Operations role at AdBrite, Inc. I was there for about seven months. I had to work in San Francisco two days a week, but by then I'd moved back to San Jose and the commute from Fremont/Newark wasn't so bad.
AdBrite was on its last legs. I was hired as part of an effort to groom the company for an acquisition. Sadly the timing didn't work quite right, and the effort failed when the potential buyer backed out at the very last minute. I got to login to 1700 servers and shut 'em all down. I was unemployed for less than a month. I got a new gig at Rocket Fuel, and we moved out of San Jose to San Carlos, which we both like. A lot. The mid-Peninsula location is convenient, the town is nice, and we're in walking distance of the delightful downtown, which is replete with great little restaurants.
Sigh. Rocket Fuel. I still have some good friends there, so I won't go into any details. At least I was able to sell my stock before it plummeted below my option price.
I am now employed at Google, and I hope I'm there for a long time. It's a great company to work for. I suffer from bouts of Imposter Syndrome, as does everyone there, but I'm finally getting the hang of things.
THE PROMETHEUS OPTION
Once I got settled in the new job and new home, I decided it was time to restart work on a book idea I had about ten years ago. It was more than an idea, actually—I wrote most of it back then, and had a complete outline from start to finish. I'm still working on it now, and you can read sixteen chapters of it on this very web site. This one is going to completion. I'm having a great time with it.
I've also picked up my interest in music. I noodled around on the piano quite a bit as a kid, and I played the trumpet and later the baritone in elementary through junior high. I was always First Chair. I was good. For whatever reason, I didn't maintain the interest through high school (another mistake, I think). I put down the trumpet and never picked it up again.
I started playing with electronic music instruments back at New Mexico Tech. I took a class on electronic music with my friend Randy Nethers. We recorded a free-form electronic composition on four-track tape. Pretty primitive, but most of our classmates seemed to enjoy it.
When I became interested in the Mac, I started playing with an early sequencer program called Super Studio Session. It was one of the first "sampler" programs widely available for home computers. The music I wrote for it was pretty ridiculous.
I picked up a bunch of rack mount instruments around 2000 and recorded a few more pieces. The state of the art of music composition software was better, but it was still damned hard to be really creative. I was dissatisfied with the quality of the equipment, the software, and my own inability to master it. I recorded three pieces and then stopped.
Now, fifteen years later, I begin again. Now I have Logic Pro X, a simple little M-Audio Axiom Air 25 keyboard, and a truckload of serious, quality sampled instrument sounds. I just finished my first symphonic work, a jokey little thing called Little Bunny Foo Foo, On the Way to Mordor. I think I finally have the hang of it. The software has finally gotten good enough that it's no longer in my way. I'm not letting it drop again. I think I have it in my to be a very good composer, and that's just what I'm going to be. Someday. I'm fifty years old now, so there's no time to waste.