The 1980’s were a veritable playground for anyone who could gain access to what was quickly becoming one of the most coveted inventions of all time: the personal computer. No longer the size of a refrigerator, innovations from companies like Tandy, Commodore and Apple made personal computers a reality and, like so many others, I couldn’t get enough. I spent hours pouring over the technical manuals for the two computers I had scraped together the change to purchase; the Tandy TRS-80 model 100 and the powerful Commodore 64. I even managed to cobble together my first few programs for my cherished Commodore.
Today, it’s hard to believe that a computer sporting 64K of RAM could ever be seen as powerful but, at the time, it was the next big thing. After all, how much memory do you really need when everything is textual? Dial-up bulletin boards gave unprecedented access to information, and friends that were worlds away were suddenly right next door. Then, acoustic couplers gave way to smart modems and, suddenly, AOL was king.
Would You Like To Play A Game?
As more and more of the world transitioned into the information age, an ever-increasing number of virtual playgrounds appeared for those of us who saw the Internet as our own personal sandbox. With the American legal system struggling to catch up, the lines between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, quickly blurred.
Hollywood had already left its mark on the cyberculture with the 1983 thriller WarGames, and many of America’s youth found themselves drawn into the glamour we saw on that silver screen. Cyber-celebrities like Kevin Mitnick, Kevin Poulsen and Robert Morris became our mentors, our idols. Being a part of this apparent elite required a level of knowledge not taught by the educational institutions, so we found ourselves transfixed by technical manuals and developer documentation, absorbing knowledge like a sponge.
Out Of The Frying Pan…
By the time high school came around, I had worked my way into the upper echelon of the local cyberculture. Our school district was just beginning to stress classes like Keyboarding (is that still a thing?) and Computer Science (which has changed a LOT), so those precious few of us who were already familiar with these concepts were the proverbial kings of the campus. Our knowledge bought us out of detentions, granted us unprecedented access throughout the school, and made us both respected and feared by the faculty. In a world where everything was controlled by computers, yet so few understood them, knowledge was truly power.
But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.
Shortly after graduating high school, I found myself at an impasse. I knew I was on a dangerous path; on one hand, I could leave things as they were and find myself behind bars, guilty of any one of a number of violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 US Code § 1030). On the other hand, I could put all that behind me and put myself in a position where criminal activity was, at the very least, difficult. So, I found myself on Parris Island, South Carolina undergoing Marine Corps recruit training.
My experiences in the Corps are a story for another time, but suffice to say it was a memorable experience. I grew as a person, matured, and learned a great deal about discipline, tenacity and leadership. When I finally got my separation papers, I thought that the most difficult period of my life was behind me. I was wrong; the biggest trials of my life were about to begin.
Into The Fire
Being a veteran, particularly of the Corps, is no picnic. I left the Corps with no real prospects, no money, and nowhere to go. For years, I drifted; living as a sort of vagabond, doing odd jobs as I could and sleeping wherever I found shelter. I applied to job after job, and consistently found myself being turned down for any of a number of reasons. No permanent address, no experience, no formal education… the list goes on. My personal favorites were the companies who turned me down solely because I had served my country in the Corps. Any other branch would have been fine, but apparently some people see Marines as nothing but killers, ready to snap at any moment.
Finally, I turned to the one thing I knew… technology. Not having a permanent address meant I spent a long time working from libraries and cafes, but it worked. I spent time as a developer for Arch Linux, worked on various other open source projects, and finally discovered WordPress in 2007. My knowledge of the Internet was several years out of date, but I decided to give web development a try. I contracted for a few local companies, picked up the occasional project on line, and finally stumbled across an innovative little project called Easy Digital Downloads.
While I had no real use for EDD, I found the project fascinating. I had learned PHP and WordPress development by dissecting and tweaking other plugins, but I was still really an amateur. Looking back, my code was sloppy and inefficient, and getting my first plugin in the WordPress repository was nothing more than pure dumb luck. In comparison, Pippin’s code was pristine, efficient, and miles ahead of anything I could hope to achieve. He became my role model and I spent every waking moment combing through the EDD issue tracker looking for things I could fix, if just to have an excuse to dig through the codebase and learn something. And learn I did.
Through random chance, I submitted a pull request in a long line of pull requests and, for some reason, it caught Pippin’s attention. He contacted me and gave me my first real break since returning to the civilian sector. Suddenly, I was making a legitimate income working on a project that I actually cared about. I continued to study and soon was writing moderately acceptable quality plugins of my own.
Now, several years later, Pippin has become my colleague, mentor and, most importantly, my friend. His decision to take a chance on someone who was an unknown quantity opened up a world of possibilities for me, and put me on the path towards becoming a successful professional in the WordPress community. For that chance, I am forever in his debt.
In late 2012, I decided to take the single biggest step of my professional career. I wanted to make development my sole source of income. Over the course of six months, I overhauled all my existing plugins, build out a company website, and phased out all of my side jobs. Focusing completely on development was a challenge, and I still spent a lot of time financially leaning on EDD, but I was getting closer to being completely self sufficient. In truth, I’m still not where I want to be, but every month I get a little bit closer to my goal.
So, now you know my story. Today, I still do some work with two of Pippin’s biggest projects, Easy Digital Downloads and AffiliateWP. I write plugins and other cool software, and contribute to a number of other Open Source projects.
I’ve also been involved with many venture-backed startups over the last 15 years in several capacities – as a developer, founder, operator and technical director. As an entrepreneur, I’ve been involved with the establishment of nine companies, and worked closely with many more throughout their development and, frequently, sale.
I have a passion for coffee and knowledge, and can frequently be found at development conferences lecturing and sampling local coffee shops around the country. Today I’m a venture partner at Twelve31 Interactive and am actively running an independent development studio with a focus on emerging technologies and accessible development.
So who am I really? I’m an amateur artist and author (I’m particularly fond of doing photo restoration and colorization). I’m a former Marine, and darned proud of it. I’m a constitutionalist. I’m obsessed with knowledge… in general. I’m a father to an incredible son who is already following in his fathers’ footsteps. And I believe that for every person, no matter what their current place in life, there are infinite possibilities for the future. This is my path, and my future begins today.