Friday, 12 August 2016

The Swedish connection

By the time I got to college and university, the Commodore line of computers was hitting its limits. A new form of computing was emerging, using something called a GUI (Graphic User Interface). For Commodore machines, it was called GEOS. It was so different from the simple text based interfaces I knew, it was slooooowwwww, and I had no clue how to program in that environment. I felt like a fish out of water.

When I got to university I discovered a brand of computer -- the Apple Macintosh SE. It had a similar sort of GUI, and was great for writing papers and doing graphic design. Programming, however, was completely out of the question...it just wasn't designed for that. My parents eventually bought a 286 PC clone, but the only programming options were GW-BASIC (yech) and MS-DOS batch files (double-yech). Compilers could be had, but for a price, and I was faced with a steep learning curve. My studies and extra-curricular activities in college and university didn't really allow for me to start all over again from scratch, so programming took a back seat for several years.

I graduated from Concordia University in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in commerce (major: international business), and got a job at a company I had never heard of: Ericsson Research Canada, a local branch of what I would learn was a huge Swedish multinational. There was an awful recession happening at that time, so I took the first job I could to pay the rent. It was a very low-paying administrative job, but it turned out to be a time of providence in my life. In all honesty, I owe Ericsson a lot for who I am today, and I'm proud to say I'm still connected with friends I made way back when.

Now as it happened, the local branch of Ericsson I was working for was developing software for help run the cellular phone networks that were just starting to be constructed. At that time they were hiring engineers hand over fist, but not business types -- despite a degree in commerce, I was just a clerk. Still, this was one sector of the economy that was actually doing well, offering some job security, and Ericsson was big into training their people, offering some opportunity. I took one computer-based training course after another in my off-hours, learning about the principles behind cellular technology. As it turned out, cell phones were just fancy radios, and all that time I had spent with my dad learning about amateur radio made the learning curve that much easier. That's how providence works sometimes: I was a programming geek with a degree in international business and a background in radio, working for a global company writing software to run cellphone networks. It was perfect.

I can't say that everyone noticed this synchronicity at first, not even me. The real breakthrough came when I discovered something new, at least for me: the UNIX operating system. We were shifting to the use of SPARC workstations, and so the company sent me on a brief training course to become familiar with Unix. I wanted to learn more, so I downloaded an early version of a Unix "clone" called Linux and installed it on a computer at home (one of the first Slackware distributions). No one could imagine at the time that Linux would change the world, including mine.

At the time our branch of the company was preparing for our first ISO 9000 certification audit. By now I was working as a technical writer in one of our departments, and I was given the task of getting all the documentation for our department ready for the audit. Document control was a big part of the ISO 9000 standard, but we didn't have any reliable way to track our documents, their revisions, and whether or not they had been approved. To solve the problem, I wrote a database program called "TROLL" (from "document conTROL tool"). It was basically just a giant shell script that could be run from the command line of a Unix workstation, but the darned thing worked and got the job done. Everyone was surprised -- no one had thought that the administrative clerk / technical writer was also secretly a programmer. The software engineers were actually quite delighted, and my "geek cred" rose.


When the certification auditors eventually came around, our department (which was *way* behind just six months before) passed with flying colours. The effect on my career was dramatic: I became the Quality Coordinator for the department, and eventually I was promoted to manager of a unit called the Global Integration and Verification Organization. Our goal was to coordinate the process of software testing between several units throughout the world. I knew about software, I knew our processes, and I had training in cross-cultural management. At 24, it was a dream opportunity.

I did not remain in that job, of course. To many people's surprise (including my own in some ways) I handed in my resignation in June 1995 in order to enter the seminary and start my studies to become a priest. Being manager of the GIVO did allow me to leave with one other technological legacy, however. The task of coordinating between the business units involved in the GIVO required me to learn about something called the "Internet" (you may have heard of it), and particularly a new technology called the "World Wide Web" (you may have heard of that, too). Our web browser was called Mosaic, and there were very few web pages out there. Still, a whole new field was emerging. I learned how to code web pages in HTML, and in the few months prior to leaving Ericsson I actually became the first webmaster for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which itself became the first episcopal conference in the world to have a presence on the web. The CCCB gave me an ongoing contract, so I was able to buy a decent computer for use during my studies -- and of course, to keep learning to program. Only now, my focus was the World Wide Web.