It all started with the Heathkit.
When my father and I moved to the states in late 1979, he didn't know what kind of career lay ahead of him. He found a job with a company called Mosstype Corporation, a small company that made high-speed rollers and printing presses to churn out products like Dixie cups. The president of the company saw in my father a drive and eagerness to learn and gave him a job: if you learn to program our mainframe and machines, you can work here. So, he did. Since his education is in Chemical Engineering and Chemistry and not in the Computer Sciences, my father would spend most of his free time studying the components of his newfound career. That's where the Heathkit came in.
He put together our first computer, a Heathkit, and encouraged me to study along with him. He bought me several BASIC programming books geared towards children and would help me write simple programs. The ones that would write my name a million times on the screen or accept two numbers and add them together. My father was the spark. I was always "daddy's girl", interested in the tools and toys my father used. My mother would make faces at us as we ignored her requests to come to the dinner table, our faces peering at the screen or into the guts of a machine.
I was the only first grader in my school that knew how to work a computer more sophisticated than the "push the cartridge in" Atari machines. Miss T and Mrs. H took me to the next level. I was bored in my first grade class, already a proficient and prolific reader for my age while my schoolmates were still learning to put together complete sentences. So, Miss T allowed me to visit the fifth grade teacher and current "head" of the computing in the school district, Mrs. H, who allowed me to use the newly purchased Apple computer that she kept in her classroom.
Because of my experience working with machines, I became an assistant to Mrs. H. I would demonstrate to other students, the fifth graders in her class room, the proper care and use of a computer: to always put the disk into the disk drive, close it securely and then turn the machine on; to run programs; to write basic programs; and the proper method of shutting the machine off. When not demonstrating to the class, I would do mathematic drills on the machine or write a few more paragraphs in a book I was writing: a children's guidebook to the body.
In the summer before my fourth grade year, my father gave me my first modem. It was a turning point in my young life when I started learning about BBSs and meeting people online. It was exciting and strange and thrilling. Being a very socially inept child and being quite shy outside my social circle, it was hard to make friends. Now, a world opened up to me where I can make friends with others. They would judge me by the presentation I gave through my words and not see a scrawny, small-for-her-age 9 year old with her nose constantly in a book. By that time, I had become an avid reader of Stephen King, Douglas Adams, and J.R.R. Tolkien and to find people who have read the same books and were willing to talk to me about it was a utopia. I made friends, mostly people in their late teens and early twenties, and started my journey to become one of the most active young BBSers in Northern Jersey.
By seventh grade, I was well-entrenched in the modem world. I was cosysop on three systems and spent a great deal of my time afterschool and on weekends talking to my friends on Ddial. I met my first "online boyfriend" during this time. The first of many, actually. Less than a handful of the guys I've been interested in were off the computer. I quickly learned that I really needed to be with someone who was into computers, otherwise they wouldn't understand my obsesson with it and we would be incompatible.
By the time I graduated from high school, I realized that sometimes online relationships aren't better. Being involved in an online relationship gets problematic if you're not comfortable talking to each other face to face. Mono y mono. I love the idea of meeting people without that prejudice and preconceptions you get from direct interaction, but then the relationship is riddled with the inability to communicate well in person, especially when you're young and socially inept.
It was only a semester into college when I was already considered an officer of the campus Japanese Animation Club. I would spend my entire Saturdays with the officers: arriving early to make sure the room is ready and chatting about our latest finds for our anime collections, doing the showing for our members, spending many hours after the meeting eating and watching even more videos, most of them unsubtitled fresh off the boat from Japan. One day, we were showing episodes that I've already seen and the officers were hanging out in one of the computer labs in the same building as the lecture hall where we had our showings.
"Hey Eileene, check this out." They showed me a page of anime information complete with pictures and other detailed information that only a fan could drool after. I was mesmerised.
"What is this?" I looked at the program and, for the first time, noticed the distinctive MOSAIC logo.
"It's a web page. For the Internet. Want us to show you how to build one?"
My eyes widened and I perked up. "Yeah!"
I spent the afternoon plugging away at my first lines of HTML that fateful fall of 93. I was lucky: I started learning and playing with the Web very close to the very beginning of it's growth and boom. I learned HTML on MOSAIC so that by the time Netscape came around, it was familiar to me. As each browser version came out and it got more graphical, my passion for it grew and playing with HTML and the web became my most time-consuming hobby.
In late 1995, I had left the Japanese Animation Club for my a cappella group and surfing the web as my primary hobbies. It was then that I met Dr. Crang, the single-most influential person for my Web interests. He hired me to develop a site for the International Society of Environmental Botanists. It was the first time that anyone gave me the impression that I could be paid for my hobby. I was thrilled to do the site and he was thrilled with the results of my work. In Summer of 1996, I stayed at school and worked full time for him, developing his course material for the web and the digital medium. I took it upon myself to learn HTML properly for the first time and I slowly scraped off my bad coding habits.
I graduated in December of 1996 with my degree in Plant Biology. After much convincing from my mother, I decided to spend one year trying my hand at being a web developer. A career in computing. Dr. Crang hired me full time as a computer specialist for his course (Plant Biology 102). He took me with him to meet other people in the University and at University of Illinois at Chicago, where I did my first freelance work for any considerable amount of money. I was living off about $800 a month and loving it. I was still a college student and doing a hobby and getting paid for it.
I got a second job in the spring of '97 to pad my paycheck (to just under $1000 per month) at NCSA, the home of MOSAIC. There I learned how to develop and maintain a site with thirty other people containing thousands of pages, all handwritten. I learned good team development practices that I'm using today. It was an exciting environment and my "University of Illinois Staff" year molded me into the passionate developer I am today.
The funding money ran out in late 97. Starting in January 98, I would need a new job. This time, I was looking for a real working salary, something greater than 12k a year. Mid twenties would be nice for Urbana-Champaign. I might be tempted into the Chicago area for mid 30k. I really didn't want to leave the college town, however. Then I landed a dream job, early 30k for a web design company in town. I couldn't believe it. I took the job immediately, especially since they matched an earlier offer of Web specialist up at University of Illinois at Chicago.
I was flying high for three days into my job. I was working hard and loving it, being the "HTML expert" at my new company. Then it all seemed like a dream because on the fourth day (oh so biblical), the company went bankrupt and I was out of a job. I already declined the offer in Chicago and they had offered the position to another candidate. I decided to "go back east, young woman!" and look for job opportunities in New York City and Northern Jersey as well as Chicago.
In about two weeks, I landed a new job in Manhattan, starting at 40k. That was more money that I ever dreamed of making so soon after I graduated from college (most Plant Biology majors earn early to mid 30s the first few years out of college with only a Bachelors degree). I took it enthusiastically. I'm with that company today, making a comfortable salary, working in a great environment with great people.
Computers have influenced every facet of my existance. From my education to my social life to my love to my passion to my career. They have driven many of my life learning experiences. Without the influence of the machines, my life would be very different today.
And to think, it all started with that Heathkit.
For a bit more, see my Digital Diva page.