Why going to Strange Loop was important to me

Before I can explain why this conference was important, I should give some background about me.

I’m a thirty six year old self-taught programmer born and raised in Central California, but now living in Seattle.

I was born with a few medical conditions, mostly all affecting my eyesight and my hearing. The vision problems were apparent immediately after my birth. It’s hard to miss a baby with his eyes crossed, both pointing directly at his nose. My hearing problems weren’t discovered until several years later, when I started speaking, and I sounded like I was under water. It took nearly 10 years of speech therapy before I had gotten past many of the speech problems. It took me nearly that entire period of therapy before I could say my own first name clearly, and it still sounds wrong to me every time I had to say it. My ADHD manifests in my ability to focus among distractions, a stutter when I struggle to verbalize my thoughts, and trouble with my short-term memory. I’m very obsessive-compulsive.

Within a year or two of my younger brother’s birth, my parents noticed that his behavior was drastically different than my own. His attention span, his sleep habits, everything. My parents weren’t sure what was wrong, and took him to a pediatrician. He thought it would be best to bring me in instead, given the discussions my parents had with him. I was diagnosed with severe ADHD, and placed on the Aspergers scale. I believe I was around three or four years old. It’s hampered nearly every endeavor in my life, especially my education.

When I was four or five years old, my family got a Sinclar ZX81. My parents attached it to our 19″ Sony Trinitron TV, and, as I’ve been told, I sat down in front of the computer and didn’t get up for several hours. Finally, something I could accomplish “hyper-focus” on. This was a revelation for my parents.

I was originally placed in special education, due to my speech impediment and my behavioral problems related to my ADHD. I was frustrated, angry. I didn’t do well in school. I didn’t know how to make the teachers understand me. I physically could not speak to them. My parents had mostly learned to understand me, and insisted that the school place me into regular classes. My attitude shifted. At the advice of my pediatrician, I was prescribed Ritalin for several years, but I asked to stop taking it when I was in the third grade. They made me feel terrible. I felt stupid and slow. I felt like even more of an outsider and I just wanted to be normal like the other kids. It made me the outcast that had to go to the office daily to take his pills. Children are cruel, they don’t need additional ammunition to use against their peers. I was always an outcast. I had a very small contingent of friends, mostly the other outcasts. I learned to try and control my condition. It hasn’t been easy. I get headaches from the level of effort it takes, for example. I have to recognize when it’s time to isolate myself from others and just let it take over.

I feel very lucky in other respects, however. Throughout my childhood, my parents made sure I had some sort of computer around, which was no small feat. We were an average middle class family. Neither of my parents had college degrees. They worked very hard. They weathered the shifts within the oil industry. They never let me believe I had any sort of disability, with respect to either my eyesight, or my ADHD, or anything. I was raised to believe I really could accomplish anything I worked at. I learned my drive and ambition from them, and I still thank them for that.

One of the computers that will always remain in my memory is my Atari 800XL. My parents saved for years to buy it for me. They bought all the best components they could at the time. I had several programming books, and I remember struggling to get the programs in the books to work. Back in those days, the books of computer programs and games were all in BASIC, all the major manufacturers had slightly different dialects of BASIC. I wrote a letter to Atari of America, using Atari Writer, asking for help. I was eight years old at the time, and, they replied! Imagine that, as an eight year old, to have an adult take the time to create a personal response, answering what was wrong. They sent me other books to help me out, and a subscription to Antic magazine, and told me about shareware. I remember getting catalogs from a shareware vendor on a floppy disk, and saving up my allowance so I could get the shareware I wanted. What I couldn’t get, I would try and write myself. This will always be one of my fondest memories. I can’t imagine the computer manufacturers today doing what Atari had done. I look back and I’m still sad that the Atari of the 1980s is gone.

I was good at the computer. It was the one thing that I felt like I had any sort of control over. This had consequences for my education, as I let this focus interfere with my schoolwork.

When I was a child, I remember having this toy Knight Rider car that you could open the hood and program movement into it. I remember spending endless hours programming this car. I perfected having it make loops around the house. I played with it until it broke and was no longer repairable.

Several years after that, I worked on making a MOD file player for the PC. Many of my friends had Commodore Amiga computers, but I had a 286 PC. They could play these wonderful sound files, full of music they had composed, or found throughout the BBS community, etc. I sat down in Turbo Pascal and make one myself. I think my parents finally got tired of listening to me playing the same music repeatedly, and finally let me move the computer into my bedroom.

By that time, I had gotten a 1,200 baud modem. I discovered BBSes. I discovered more people like me, with this same fascination with computers and programming. All of them were several years older than I was, but I made some great friends. I experimented with writing my own BBS systems, a FidoNet mailer, many tools for analyzing BBS log files for user activity, and nearly everything I could think of.

At sixteen, in 1994, I came out of the closet as gay man, just a few weeks after my uncle died of AIDS. I had no gay friends. I didn’t know what any of this meant. I knew I had attractions to men, and I could trace it back for several years and decided to acknowledge it to myself. A “friend” that I had confided in shared this with other kids at school. It made its way to my brother, who told my parents. This was a massive strain on my family, and further degraded my performance in school. I was working as an operator / programmer at the local newspaper, and that gave me an outlet outside of school and my family life, but even that wasn’t without its challenges.

With my challenges in my family and falling grade average, I wasn’t qualified for university. I could have attended community college in my hometown, had I continued living with my parents. With the family problems, this wasn’t an option for me. This would have also left me around the classmates that spent my high school years tormenting me, for being different, both in my interests, and the fact that I was gay. I couldn’t see a way to be able to financially afford to live on my own, and pay for school.

In the Boy Scouts, I remember visiting Edwards Air Force Base in California, getting to see the planes, the service members, and the air traffic control station. I was hooked. I had to be involved. I remember discussing this with my ophthalmologist, knowing that my eyesight wasn’t perfect. He calmly let me know that I would never be able to fly a plane.

Given my interest in aeronautics, and my wonderment at visiting Edwards Air Force Base when I was younger, I decided on a path through the military. I thought this would give me the best option of not only getting out of my hometown, but also afford me an opportunity to get my education. I attempted to join the United States Air Force in 1996. Even knowing that I would not be able to fly, I was still determined to be a part of the Air Force. My attempt to join was only a few years after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had been passed, but I was willing to try and keep that part of my life quiet. I went through MEPS, and was ultimately disqualified from military service because of my eyesight. I was devastated. I had to go back home and rethink what I would do.

A few months later, A dear friend gave me an opportunity to take a job in Los Angeles, with only about 12 hours notice before I would start. I took that opportunity and never looked back.

Over the years, I learned from experience, a few amazing mentors, and recommendations on various textbooks and papers I would need to read. I worked very hard, often neglecting my relationships and personal well-being to advance my career. It many ways I can say it paid off, but it came at a cost.

I’ve primarily built tooling around marketing. This wasn’t intentional, it just worked out that way. Mostly database-centric applications, both desktop and for the web.

A few years ago, I incidentally got involved with an open source project to implement a Smalltalk on the Java Virtual Machine. I started to learn about parsing, compilation, etc. It helped me really sharpen my knowledge of algorithms, and piqued my curiosity about programming language theory. I started to attempt to absorb every programming language I could find, differing paradigms, etc.

Jumping forward to today, I am the architect at a social media analytics firm. I’ve been working in this field for twenty years. I’ve seen all of the terrible people you can imagine, the sexism, the homophobia, etc. I’ve been questioning my career choice for quite a while. I can navigate the technology. I cannot navigate the people. That’s been a challenge my entire life, and will continue to be something I will struggle with.

Coming into Strange Loop, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Here was a conference full of the people I had come to respect and admire in the industry, ones working on the obscure programming languages I had found, the hard problems related to concurrency, or advancing even the mainstream languages that I made my living off of. The impostor syndrome I felt was very real. I wasn’t sure I was worthy of being around such talented (and educated) people. I’m still not sure I was.

I went to talks given by speakers full of excitement about what they were doing. People that didn’t care if what they were working on ever saw mainstream approval or acceptance. They were doing this because, damn it, they love it, and they wanted to share it with others. People that wanted to change the world.

I’ve been to several other conferences throughout my career. I’ve spoken at one conference, and one MeetUp. The resounding themes at most conferences and MeetUps have been one of marketing a product, or trying to recruit employees. It’s never felt like it was about the technology, or the passion. Strange Loop stood in stark contrast to those conferences. I think only one speaker even mentioned that their employer was hiring. Most didn’t even mention where they worked. It didn’t matter. This conference wasn’t about that. I’m more likely to want to work with the people I’ve met and listened to as a result of this. For me, the company you work for isn’t the interesting part. It’s the people, and the problem solving.

The closing keynote, given by Carin Meyer, Sam Aaron and Jonathan Graham really resonated with me. Here were three people on stage, making music with their computers, and robots, and making them all interact with together. The memories of that Knight Rider car, and the MOD player, came rushing back to me. It actually brought tears to my eyes. It helped me rediscover why I do this. It’s fun. It’s challenging. The opportunity to continually learn new things, and to interact with others that have the same passion as I used to have is the kick I need to keep my head and my heart in this.

So, to those responsible for organizing, those who spoke, and those who attended Strange Loop, those who interacted with me, I say thank you. I needed this. I can only hope to be one of the people standing in front of you all and sharing my passion for this industry with you in the future.

And now, as I’ve seen repeated on Twitter by several people, it’s back to reality. It’s time to to figure out where to start with the things I learned this past week. Maybe Haskell. Maybe Clojure. I have no idea yet. And, it’s time to make plans to return next year!


14 thoughts on “Why going to Strange Loop was important to me

  1. Robert– as a fellow Seattlite, and a former speaker at StrangeLoop (and other conferences), please feel free to reach out (Twitter @tedneward, or email ted at tedneward dot com), I will be happy to help you along in this journey. Come to our SeaLang meetings every first Wednesday on the Eastside–we talk Clojure, Haskell, Scala, and other languages, many of which you’d see at SL. (Find us on Meetup.com.) And there’s Seattle CodeCamp, which just ran last weekend, which is always looking for local speakers. And there’s Seattle GiveCamp, which can always use more developers to work on charity projects as a way of giving back. C’mon in, man–the water’s fine. 🙂

  2. I read this with a mother’s eyes, one who celebrates children with unique gifts and , sometimes, cumbersome challenges. I hope your words will find an audience with children in need of reassurance that with resilience and determination perceived inequalities become extraordinary opportunities.

  3. Robert – congratulations on being articulate, passionate, brave and open. I hope your words and actions will inspire the next generation to do what is right for them. I’ve got a 10 yr old daughter who will be reading these words soon.

    Mark Levison

  4. I surround my life with people and things that inspire me and support causes very close to my heart and one of that would be disability. You did not just own it you celebrated your abilities in spite of the challenges you experienced. I hope there are more people like you and parents like yours that are very determined to rise above all of it and give you the best.
    I am very hopeful that one day you will achieve your dreams to speak in front of an audience.
    You’re an inspiration. God bless.

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