The Autobiography of Emil DeVries

(By the cosmic necessity of all Autobiographies, a somewhat more colorful rendition of what really happened.)

 

I was born during the summer of love, 1969, in San Antonio, TX.  The forth and final child of two former stage actors, I benefited greatly from my parent’s experiences (and exhaustion) raising my siblings.  As such, I was given a much greater degree of latitude in my play (Yep, “I’m the baby, got to love me!”).  

My Father had landed the job of Park Superintended for San Jose mission the oldest, yet most restored, Spanish mission in San Antonio (you may be familiar with a much less significant Spanish mission near-by, Mission San Antonio de Valero, more commonly known as The Ala – something).  In any case, one of the perks that came with the job of superintendent was free housing on the mission grounds.  When the gates to San Jose were locked each night its sixteen grass covered acres became my playpen.  My parents never counted on me being able to scale the mission’s twenty-foot walls or escaping through a flood drainage pipe (but that‘s a story for another day). 

In 1978 control of the Old Spanish Missions in San Antonio was transferred to the federal park system.  My Father quit in disgust, so we had to move.  We ended up one mile away, at a tiny one and a third acre lot, on the banks of the San Antonio river.  The property was a bit secluded being surrounded by a mobile home park for retired folks and a city golf course. 

The neighborhood was completely devoid of kids my age so I spent most of my time playing with myself… err, I mean BY myself.  I enjoyed my hobby of collecting hobbies (model rockets – fun for a week, boy scouts – good for a month, model cars/planes/trains made of paper/wood/plastic – each good for a week or so) but most of my time was spent building things out of cardboard, paper and string (such as a robotic hand) while NOVA and other PBS shows spilled out of a 12 inch black and white TV that sat in one corner of my room.  I couldn’t actually watch the shows because the TV was covered by tons of notes, schematics, and blue prints for my never-ending list of construction projects.  Anyway, in the days before cable and satellite the snowy and wavy images of “Rabbit Ear” TV were not missed.

The next significant advance in my story (and I know you have been waiting for it) comes in 1982.  Luckily for me my birthday just happened to be the same day as my grandparents anniversary and so my family headed off to visit them in Houston at about the same time of year.  While I belong to the sparser branch of the family tree, my great uncles and aunts had a great deal more money, and thus more children, so when I visited on this occasion I had the great fortune to collect a large amount of birthday cash.  It was this sudden influx of greenbacks that allowed me to purchase a VIC20 computer and begin my career of self-taught computer programming at the age of 13.

By the end of High School I had written dozens of programs in both VIC Basic and Assembly language.  Owing to a sense of duty driven by the fact that both my parents and my brother had served in the U.S. military, at the end of my junior year of High School I enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard reserve.  It was at about this time that I met my first wife Sylvia.

Sylvia and I dated throughout my senior year and we were married just two weeks before graduation.  We tried our best to make it on college student grants and my reserve income but times were tight.  After attending both the University of Texas at San Antonio and San Antonio College for a semester each I decided to quit school and go active duty to support my wife and her nursing school education.

Active duty Coast Guard, or any military service for that matter, and I don’t mix well but it did give me the chance to change jobs.  After 6 months off kitchen duty onboard a ship, I went to Electronics Technician “A” school where I learned of the basic electronics and theory that worked under the worn plastic cover of my trusty old VIC20 computer.  After two months in the warm California sun at USCG Training Base Petaluma the military only thought it fair that I should be sent to baby-sit an archaic LORAN navigation transmitter in the bitter cold Finger Lakes region of New York State.

Perhaps it was the isolation of the base, which rested on a small corner of a defunct army munitions depot. Or perhaps it was the verbally and physically abusive people in my chain of command who were more concerned with where they could stash their 5th of whiskey then with running the transmitter.  In either case my military career was terminated early for medical reasons and my wife and I returned to Texas.

As is so happened I returned to San Antonio at just the right time to get a job as an electronics engineering technician at ElectroSpec Systems, Inc. (ESI) A small electronics R&D outfit that worked to prototype their customer’s sometimes innovative, sometimes crazy ideas.  Sylvia returned to the local nursing school and continued toward her degree while I began working more and more with software rather then hardware.  During my time at ESI I programmed in C, ASM, and Turbo Pascal.  I preformed hand fabrication and population of circuit boards, development of system OS, mainline code, and monitoring programs.  I interfaced with machinists, EEs, inventors, management, and representatives from UL during each stage of the projects life cycle.  My two most interesting projects were:

0.) Gil-mart-Bidet. 1990-1992

An advanced electro-mechanical bidet utilizing an IC based controller, for use by the handicapped that included control, temperature, user placement, and panic interlocks as well as system monitoring via an RS232 interface.

1.) The “Computar”. 1992-1994

A resource management and tracking system for machine shops utilizing a network of custom built, INTEL 8051 based, data entry terminals spread throughout the shop connected to a non-dedicated PC data storage and reporting terminal.  I designed the mainline code for both the data entry terminals and the monitoring PC, including the construction of a PC/DOS based GUI for charting and reporting.

As has happed to most of the technology companies in San Antonio, ESI first faltered and then folded.  After nearly three years of electronic projects my position shifted and I became a programming consultant for hire through ESI.  I very quickly noticed the large gap between the amount that ESI charged for my on-site services and the amount that I received in my paycheck.  Needless to say, when the customer (Landata Technologies, Inc.) offered me a permanent position, I jumped at it.

It was at about this same time of great stress working for a faltering company that my five-year marriage began to falter as well.  My wife had had a troubled childhood and questioned her sexuality throughout high school.  She began to see other women, as did I. So we mutually decided that it would be best if we were divorced.  She has since completed her nursing degree and has become a physician’s assistant working in an economically depressed town in Texas.

The day Sylvia brought me the final divorce papers to sign, in fact only seconds after signing them, I spun in my chair and typed my first “How ya doing?” to the woman that would become my second wife.  Yes, that’s right, we met on the Internet.  Well, actually the Internet as we know it today was still a few years away, we met via a singles bulletin board system (BBS as they were known back then).  Not long after going to work for Landata Technologies I was engaged and then soon… married… again.

While my programming skills and techniques were ever growing since my days with the VIC20, it was during my tenure at Landata that these skills were finely shaped and formalized.  Much like a hedge must be allowed to grow and expand in all directions for quite some time before it is full enough to be pruned into a shapely ornamental form.  Or like the working of pottery wherein a great mass of shapeless clay is thrown upon the wheel only to be cut, trimmed, formed and reformed until a at last a beautiful vase appears.  Or in the process of great writing wherein an initial story is written without any cares given to its length, and occasional diversions from the subject at hand, just to be brutally slashed to fit within the confines of acceptable form, requiring each paragraph to advance the story along in a logical fashion (obviously something that I have yet to do here).  It was at this time that I also attempted to complete a degree in Computer Science by returning to school part-time. 

More formally described, my position at Landata Technologies included designing, documenting and implementing a wide range of applications in Visual Basic and VC++ for inner office and end-users.  I was in charge of managing the evaluation and testing of scanners, high-resolution monitors and CD-ROM jukeboxes for implementation of high-end mass storage and document imaging systems for the real estate industry.  I was also given the task of designing and documenting Btrieve databases for real estate imaging and indexing applications supporting 2 million + records.  Near the end of my tenure at Landata I was designing and coding PC to IBM / VAX interfaces utilizing VBScript and the Reflections terminal emulator.  This system allowed the integration of legacy database applications with the advanced document imaging system.

At last we arrive at the Internet boom.  In August of 1996 a disagreement over the treatment of non-technical employees at Landata led me to investigate the job market (no, I was not fired, but that is only because I quit before they had a chance).  I got a lead on a position at StockTIPS, Inc. The company provided stock alerts to pagers before the days of email to everything and was looking for someone to help in industrializing their back-end server and messaging processes.  Additionally StockTIPS wanted to be the first stock information delivery system that could access the wireless web via a cell phone.  This became my first project.  After which, StockTIPS was ready for the Wireless WEB but the Wireless WEB was customer-less.  During my time at StockTIPS I was both a developer and a manager of a five person Visual Basic, VC++, ASP development team.  As well as the architect and developer of several front-end interfaces (World Wide Web, Web-Client, and HDML based Wireless Web systems) which allowed customers to change their stock alerting criteria. 

All of this work was done through the course of many rapidly changing company priorities.  This is known as Glossy Magazine syndrome – the suits bursting into the development offices each week declaring that the entire office system, and the toilet seats, must be changed to use XML or PHP or JAVA or WHATEVER he just happened to read about in some glossy industry rag.  The syndrome was rampant in the “dot com” days and it was a contributor to their eventual end (isn’t hind-sight beautiful?).

But the end of the “dot com” days was not yet in sight, and money for contractors flowed like water (or a somewhat lesser viscosity fluid).  So I joined my fellow Gen X programmers and struck out on my own. 

Faced with the choice between attending on-campus college courses two days a week and earning an extra $1120 a week, I opted to go for the gold.  This disturbed my very stability minded wife Cindy a great deal.  However, Cindy was working for a large company at the time, which provided health insurance.  So when she became pregnant with our son Ian we were covered and there would be nothing to worry about.  Or so we thought.

Chad McAvoy, Matt McGrew, Tim Dixon, and I (most of the programming staff of StockTIPS) formed our own company.  Double Helix Development, Inc.  The company was a consulting practice specializing in rapid application development and wireless applications utilizing Microsoft IIS, ASP, Visual Basic, Access and SQL server.  The Double Helix Development Mission was to provide customers with custom solutions to unique software development requirements by engineering robust applications and systems using leading edge, rapid application development tools and open architecture design principles.  Our customers included:

DELL – Designed and implemented additions to “Product Master”.  This web driven, extra-net application allows engineering and marketing groups to design new systems for sell to the public.  This project included extensive use of DHTML, ASP, and ActiveX controls.

USAA – Worked as a senior consultant assisting in the “Off-With-Beta” project, which culminated with the formal launch of the USAA web site.  The highly complex project involved primarily management of, and coordination with, all of USAA’s lines of business (previously working independently) into a single cohesive site.

NORTEL/BayNetworks – Created the “hardware upgrade” web application.  This database driven web application, written for MS IIS using ASP, allowed customers to look up and order hardware upgrades that were previously supported by a call center.

Various family demands on the Double Helix Development partners drew them back to their home states, Chad to Virginia, Matt to California, and Tim to Illinois.  This made it very difficult to work on projects as a team and lead to the eventual closure of the company. 

It was during this reduction in work, while Cindy was going through a difficult pregnancy that included high blood pressure and gestational diabetes, that I was diagnosed with Testicular Cancer.  From diagnoses to surgery was less then a week and within a month, on October 26, 1999, Ian was born… five weeks premature.  Ian’s first ten days were spent under careful supervision at the neo-natal ICU.  Cindy and I visited Ian every day and I left her with him while I went to radiation therapy.

By February of 2000 dot com execs and more importantly investors begin to question the value of an internet company having a large user-base over actually producing an income. At the same time I realize that no matter what the web sites is trying to do that they all consist of the same technology and thus have no real world challenges left to overcome.  In a word, programming the web is BORING! 

A web server uses some script(s) to collect some data to put in or find from a database and then it uses some other script(s) to format that data into an HTML viewable form.  Perhaps the system has some back-end process that collects or reports data to and from the database. Blah blah blah… over and over… Web server, scripts, database, and a process.  They are all doing the same thing in slightly different forms.  There is scant little technology development for the web these days and it is more about technology _use_.

I decided then to move away from the flashy web and other Internet programming.  I wanted to get back to writing software that _did_ something, which affected the outside world in more ways then just pushing bytes around.  What I wanted was embedded systems programming but the closest thing that I could find in San Antonio was IPAxess (a.k.a. DataRace).

IPAxess’ would-be product was a Voice over IP solution for medium to large companies that not only allowed remote telephone communications but also made the entire desktop PBX extension virtual.  All of the PBX functions such as conference calling, transfer of calls to other extensions, hold, speed dial, and called number monitoring and routing could be accessed from the IPAxess phone on your laptop computer.  While there I worked on developing and debugging the core functionality of the company’s enterprise scale Voice over IP (VoIP) PBX product called “VocalWare”.  I did extensive work on the VocalWare server‘s Windows NT Kernel mode driver written in VC++, Win SDK/DDK and DriverWorks.  As well as the firmware for the custom T1 interface board written in C/C++, for the OSE RTOS.  Additionally I worked on a number of UI programs for server configuration and troubleshooting written in VB/ASP and VC++.  Development was performed in a team environment utilizing PVCS for source control and NetMeeting and AIM as collaborative development tools.  During the product’s initial release, I participated in a two week, on-site beta test and performed field fixes of VocalWare at a major department of the Federal Government in Washington, D.C. (Is there such a thing as a minor department of the Federal Government?)

This was finally a job at a company that was developing new technologies and had the patents to prove it.  I was beginning to believe that I had found a stable place to work.  Things were much less stable on the home front.  The stresses of a new baby, the financial mess left over from Double Helix Development, and Cancer took their toll and by June of 2001 I was living in a hotel.

Alas, DataRace (nasdaq: race.pk) a company with over a 20-year history that changed their name to IPAxess in order to obtain a boost from the “IP” hype instead got absolutely slammed by it.  I was originally given stock options with a $4 strike price. While I was employed (but before the options vested) the stock went up to $8.  In August of 2000, after the company changed its name, the mismanagement became very obvious and I decided to look for other work.  The stock price of DataRace today is $0.015.

Just as the winter of 2000 and the spring 2001 would be a very bad time for the dot com’s it was an even worse time to be an unemployed, soon to be divorced, Gen X programmer with a child to support. 

I spent over four months looking for work all over Texas.  Knowing that San Antonio’s tech market had all be dried up and blown away, I begin looking for work in other areas of the country.  I reasoned that all of the primary dot com markets would be flooded with people looking for work so I avoided them (Austin, San Francisco, and Atlanta). 

Having an aversion to the hotter summers and colder winters then I was used to in San Antonio, and searching for an area that had a more diverse group of industries, I settled on the Los Angeles area.  An initial search of job postings on Monster.com provided ten times the number of openings for software development in the L.A. area then Austin and San Antonio combined. 

I packed my bags and flew out to meet with a number of technical recruiters.  The two week trip was followed a week later by me loading up as much of my stuff as I could fit in my car and driving from San Antonio to Los Angeles.  Living at a hotel can get expensive real fast, even if it is a Super 8 in the Little Armenian section of Hollywood.  So I managed to bum a week at a friend’s house in west L.A. before finding a man that was willing to rent me a furnished apartment, without requiring lease, for $500 a month.  The only catch was, the apartment was a boat. 

Now I know what you are thinking “Ohhhh… a boat…. Wow…” well, things aren’t always as nice as they sound – Just imagine living on the SS Minnow for three months.  That’s right, the boat didn’t run.  In fact it was missing one of its engines, so it leaned about ten degrees to the left all the time.  No phone line (I used my cell for talking and went to Kinkos for online access), no cable (no TV for that matter) my only entertainment was watching DVDs on my laptop.  Considering that the boat was older then me, I guess I was lucky that it was floating at all.

After about two months of getting nowhere with the recruiters and a frustrating lack of interviews I had all but given up.  I found out that I have a relative in “the biz”, actually she is a writer/producer for TV mostly and a member of the greener part of the family tree.  I contacted her and we had lunch.  She suggested that I write a screenplay of all things.  I didn’t know how in the world that was going to help me find work as a programmer and I doubted very seriously that I could sell my first attempt at a screenplay, but I did it anyway.

I researched the job of a screenwriter and found that it was not all that different then that of a programmer.  In programming you are telling the computer to what to show and where to show it, telling it want info to provide a user and responding to the users input by doing XYZ.  In screenwriting you are doing the same thing to actors, where they are in the scene, what to say, what the camera should see, etc.  Similarly, screenwriters are treated the same as programmers in many ways.  Most of the entertainment industry treats screenwriters as interchangeable, without regard to individual talent.  Just as most corporate suits believe that programmers are interchangeable and that two people with the same computer education can each do a given job equally well. 

I digress (I know you are thinking “Now he is worrying about digressing?”)

So, as if it were a requirement by the Employment Gods of L.A. I finally got a job in software, just mere days after typing FADE OUT on my 102-page screenplay.

I am currently working for (www.ghs.com) Green Hills Software, Inc.  A multi-million dollar a year, privately held, company that provides tools and operating systems for embedded systems.  As part of my job as a Field Applications Engineer I assist our customers with tech support issues with both our tools and general software development of their applications.  I am currently working closely with JPL on the next mars rover as well as other unmanned missions.  I support a company that is working on the next generation of bionic ears for the hearing impaired.  I also support a number of military and aerospace projects including the upcoming Joint Strike Fighter.  If you own an HP ink jet printer or a late model Ford then you are using Green Hills Software.

I have settled into an apartment in Arcadia (just east of Pasadena) and have had the pleasure of Ian (now 2-1/2) visiting me for the past month to prove that I am not as smart as I think I am.

Emil