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12 Lori MacVittie

This is Lori MacVittie's contribution the Careers course. Thanks Lori!

My career: Technology Editor

My apologies right up front because this grew rather long. I had a tendency to
change jobs purposefully every year for a while to avoid boredom so I've been
all over.

I'm 35 years old and live in what we sarcastically like to call the
'technological mecca of the midwest', Green Bay, WI. I'm a second generation
programmer, my mother was a COBOL programmer in the 70's, and I've raised at
least one third generation programmer, my son is planning on going after his
Computer Science degree in the fall. We'll see about our daughters ;-) They
want to build web sites, but haven't sat down and tried yet, but they've got
time.

I fell in love with computers when the Apple ][e was the computer to own and
my mother brought one home. I taught myself BASIC and painstakingly copied
hex out of gaming magazines so I could play Montezuma's Revenge for hours. The
first code I ever wrote that was truly worthy of being called a program was a
baseball
statistics application for the Milwaukee Brewers (I was a baseball freak at
that time).

I took one of the computer science courses they offered in high school. One,
because I orally tested out of the first one because
the one thing that was true then that is still true about me is that I detest
being bored and I was absolutely certain I already knew everything they'd be
teaching.

I eventually started college in Tennessee and there was no question I'd focus
on computer science. My first professor was a chixor - how unusual and
lucky for me - and aside from the math requirements I loved it. My husband at
the time agreed we could get a Tandy computer and life became
all about coding again and figuring out that thing called "Compuserve".

We moved back to Wisconsin and I finished up my degree in Computer Science at
the local university. I met a bunch of local geeks on the BBS, the beginning
of career
networking, though I didn't realize it at the time. My experience BBS'ing
(which was quite addictive) eventually led to the president of the
university's
computer club asking me to join. They voted me vice president because I'd
actually used a BBS :-) and then we set one up. It was an amusing past time
for a semester that waned quickly because
there were very few of us and as we graduated the club kind of died out.

The summer before my last semester I scored an internship with a local
software firm that developed tax software. I worked the summer and after I
graduated in
Dec 1993, they hired me on full time. Six months later I was a team lead on a
forms project and, having divorced before I graduated, was dating the team
lead
for another project. This, I discovered, is generally a no-no. But he was
perfect for me and he was the only person who seemed to be able to get me to
see
that my first husband was an abusive, controlling freak and that I needed to
get out. I consider myself fairly intelligent so I'm sure that my ex-husband
telling me "your father
cannot come to your college graduation or else" was just his way of saying he
didn't like my father. Yeah, right.

I left because I found out I'd negotiated poorly for salary. I was making
enough less than the average entry level position and I was screwed. My
student loans were about to go into repayment and I was trying to raise a
child
on my own. I sat down and figured out that I needed a second job just to pay
for day care and all my bills. Child support? What's that? So I got in touch
with the other chix0r that
had graduated from my university with a computer science degree (we'd stayed
in touch) and the company she worked for was hiring. It helped that the
company had a policy against married couples
working in the same department and was by then engaged to the project lead I'd
been dating, so one of us had to eventually anyway.

A few months later (and a 25% raise in salary, enough to cover all my bills!)
and I was coding in Smalltalk V for a telecommunications company. A year
later, bored to tears and now married again,
I quit without a place to go. I took a couple months off and then decided to
follow my husband down to another software company, this one involved in
digital cartography.
I was the technical lead for a geographic translation application, one that we
would later integrate into AutoCAD R13 (and which would be known by the world
at large as AutoCAD Map 1.0).
A good rule of thumb is not to make fun of the name of the product you're
working on too much, because eventually it will bite you. We used to call
AutoCAD R13 "ErrorCAD", because we worked
with pre-release code and it was quite buggy during development. I was told I
had a call from the project manager for the mapping piece of AutoCAD and
during our discussion accidently referred
to it as "ErrorCAD". Oops! I learned to be very careful about such things
after that. While the project manager wasn't terribly upset, I was angry at
myself for such a faux pas. Unfortunately,
The company I was working for was failing financially, and with both my
husband and I working for them we were nervous. I was also displeased with
the general manager of the company, who
was as sexist as the day is long. He was a horrible man who nearly got himself
decked when he put his arm around me in a more than friendly manner. I'm an
old school, German Lutheran. We don't
touch anyone unless there's a marriage license involved. ;-) Seriously, it was
a horrifying experience for me to deal with because I was so unused to being
treated as a woman by men. All my
friends were male and they never did such things. All the students at
university in Computer Science were male and they never did such things. But
he was a sales and marketing kind of guy and
this was my first experience with this kind of attitude. It's been helpful,
actually, because now I have to deal with Press Relations people and they are
touchy in general. I can actually
receive a hug from people I don't know that well and not cringe . Of course
the first time our publisher did the "kiss" thing I nearly freaked. I am an
archtypical geek - touching
and emotions are just scary things to me, especially when shared with
strangers.

The digital cartography company was horrible in terms of chauvinism. I had one
of the map production tech guys come looking for my husband early one
morning. He poked his head in my cube
and asked "Where's Don?" I said, "What do I look like, his secretary?" He
replied, "Yes." He was serious. He was one of those guys who would gladly
announce that women belonged barefoot
and pregnant in the kitchen, like his wife. I'm sitting and writing code to
deal with set topology (3 of the most frustrating weeks of my life) and he's
thinking I should be at home dusting.

It was while we we working for the digital cartography firm that we wrote and
published our first book on OOA/D/P. The experience was rewarding and we
enjoyed it, though we later would learn
that choosing a publisher is the most important part of writing. The publisher
screwed us hard and left with our copyrights. The book's been translated into
Polish and we've never received a
dime from it. We chalked it up to a life experience and moved on.

We both left the digital cartography firm and went to a local consulting firm
where we spent the first month of employment in California working directly
for AutoDesk while we finished
up on AutoCAD R13. We were offered positions there, but the cost of living was
triple that of Wisconsin and with a young son we decided that even though
we'd love developing
for them, we just weren't willing to put our family in such a place. Out of
our relationships with AutoDesk and GIS in general, my husband and I ended up
co-authoring an FGDC
standard that would later become an ANSI standard for the transformation of
digital maps - the CAD Profile for SDTS (Spatial Data Transfer Standard). We
stayed for three
years developing software and consulting. It was here that I began to learn
networking and ripped apart our Novell 2.1 LAN at home and built an IP
network.
I've been primarily responsible for the home network ever since.

Eventually I was assigned as a consultant to a local transportation company
(the one with the big orange trucks).
I was the primary developer of their first Internet based shipment tracking
system and it was while here that I registered our first domain as a birthday
present for my husband. In between projects the company refused to let me go
for fear I'd be busy when the next project started, so I spent an entire
summer
doing no real work. I studied and took the Java Programmer 1.1 Certification
for fun, memorized pi to 100 significant digits and surfed the web a lot.

At home I was writing code and networking Linux boxes. We started with ISDN
and moved to DSL with a Linux box our primary router back then. I spent a lot
of
time learning web technologies and working on our gaming site. The friends I'd
made back when BBS'ing were growing up and one of them, who would eventually
become
my brother-in-law, had gone to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
where Network Computing Magazine had a partner lab. He freelanced for them
through
his connections down there, and soon asked my husband and I if we were
interested in trying our hand at writing. We said sure, why not? This seemed
less risky than the book
deal we'd had - no question of copyright ownership, the magazine owns
everything, so we moved ahead.

So we started testing networking products and writing articles. I was never so
scared as the first time someone shipped me an SSL accelerator and a
four-processor
server and said "test this". I hadn't a clue how to do that, didn't even
really understand what they were. The Internet is my best friend. I read and
researched
and eventually muddled through the review of the products. I continued to do
an article here and there for a year or so, learning more and enjoying the
research as much
as the ego boost that comes from seeing your name in print.

Then I had my second bad experience with a male manager in my career. I was
perusing the firewall logs at the consulting firm where I worked, having been
returned
from the big orange place to the office, and found an inordinate amount of
p0rn being transferred. I started tracing the path and in the end it led to a
tape drive
on my manager's desktop. I remotely hacked into his machine and double
checked, then printed the appropriate logs off and marched into the
president's office and
had a chat with him.

When the president refused to do anything about it I was incensed beyond
belief. I told him if he didn't farm me out to a company I'd quit. The file
names on
these were beyond pornographic - they included beastiality and a few other
things that made me horribly uncomfortable around my manager, so they sent
me back to the big orange trucking company.
A few months later I'd wrangled a full time position on their technical
architecture team - me and seven other guys - responsible for architecting
the network and development
framework for the entire application development staff.

I was still writing for Network Computing off and on this entire time.
Eventually my compatriot in Madison married my sister and wanted to move back
to Green Bay. The catch
being that he needed to build a lab to test products. So I hooked him up with
the trucking company and we were all quite pleased with ourselves.

I could not deal with the enterprise environment. I never could - I'd been
spoiled by the less structured atmosphere's of commercial software
development companies. People
got upset with me because I dared to care about the code. They worried about
politics and personal feelings, I wanted the code to be elegant, fast and
right. I knew it
was getting time to leave about a year into the job and I had really grown to
like testing and writing. Flexible time, no one breathing down my neck, and I
was expected to
take the initiative and research. I could manage myself and they'd pay me,
essentially, to learn if necessary. I wrote to the editor at the time and
told him I was interested
in a position. They offered me a stipended position - half time. I tried to
resign my position at the transportation company and they begged me to stay
at least half time. I
agreed to do so for six months.

It was a bit much to handle, but I managed. Then I was down to half time for
the magazine. I wrote like crazy, doubling output expectations and when my
brother-in-law left to join
a consulting firm and his position opened up, I took the opportunity. I spoke
up and told the editor I was interested and pointed out my contributions and
bam! I was in full time.
That was almost four years ago and that's the absolute longest I have kept a
job since I graduated in 1993. In 2000 my husband and I both went back to
school to get our Masters
Degree in Computer Science and finished in 2002. It hasn't done much for my
job, but I really did it for me and don't regret it at all. Someday I may go
for a Ph.D, but I don't know
if I have the energy to do it. My dream job always has been, and always will
be, researching AI. I specifically tailored my education to include things
like semantics, linguistics, communication
theory and philosophy because I really believe that in order to truly model
human intelligence you need to first understand human intelligence.

I still code. Every year or so I completely rewrite our gaming site - it's
currently a LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) solution and just keeps getting
better every time I rewrite it. It keeps
me in touch with development (which is what I love most) and forces me to keep
learning to be up to date.

So for almost four years I've been reviewing products and writing articles
about them. Network Computing Magazine, if you aren't familiar with it, is
like the Consumer Reports of
the networking world. I learn about technologies and products, then try them
out in the lab and compare them. I've given presentations on EAI, Web
Services and XML security at various
trade shows and conferences. I've written on so many topics that I can't
recall them all. There's a lot of research involved and I find that my
development background gives incredible insight into understanding
almost all of them, because in the end everything is code. It doesn't matter
whether it's running on an FPGA, a Windows or Linux box or on a flash card -
it's all just code.

I'm not required to know how to write that well - we aren't journalists and no
one expects us to be. We have editors that handle turning our writing into
something that's digestable by
the reader. I like the job and can't imagine doing anything else right now,
even though I've been offered a wealth of different positions through the
contacts I make every day.
It's not just the testing that makes you learn, it's dealing with the
infrastructure to support the test. I build Linux boxes, Windows boxes,
Solaris boxes. I configure entire
networks within the lab to support a test. I install software, write code and
make sure our lab internet connections stay up 24x7. We talk to companies
about technology, about
business, about products. We debug software, hardware and dance naked in the
dark by the blinking lights in the rack. Okay, not the last one, just
checking to see if you were still awake. :-)

The most exciting part of the job is watching the influence I have on the
industries I cover. Companies call for advice, venture capitalists want to
hear my opinion before they
invest in a new company or technology, readers write for help. It's probably
the most satisifying thing to hear a company tell me "You were right, we did
what you told us to
do and we've seen our sales increase".

It's not all rosy, though. I don't always enjoy the travel, there's late
nights testing/writing and there's a fair amount of backlash you have to be
willing to deal with. Some people get very angry
when you write that their product isn't up to snuff and they let you know it.
You have to be able to be honest and direct and not take the anger
personally. That can be difficult
sometimes, at least I find it difficult. The worst part of the job is the time
between when testing is finished and the article prints. That's because I
know who's going to be angry
or disappointed and I'm dreading dealing with it. Well, maybe the worst part
for me is the touchy feely stuff. ::shudder:: I really don't deal with that
well but it's part and parcel
of dealing with publishing people. That and getting up in front of people to
give presentations or hand out awards. I don't like being in the spotlight at
all so this kind of stuff
gives me stomach aches for days.

But if it's something you think you're interested in, the best way to start is
to freelance first. In fact, it's about the only way to get in. Networking
and freelancing is the way to
get a position in the publishing industry. If you're reading an article and
you see problems with the conclusions or the testing that was done, write to
the editor. Be constructive,
tell them not only what is wrong with the article but how you would have done
it or why you believe the conclusions are wrong.

Several of our regular freelancers and stipended writers were hired because
they did just that. It's the best way to get noticed if you've never been
published before. Networking,
obviously, is another way to get in. Networking cannot be underestimated in
the publishing industry. It's unbelievable how much goes on behind the scenes
that involves "do you know
someone who could ... ?" Books, magazines...it's all about networking and who
you know. It's how you get your foot in the door.

Blogging, believe it or not, is getting noticed as well, especially well
written technical blogs. The media is watching and at least in our case we
aren't afraid of them, we're intrigued
by them - because there is talent out there that can be tapped.

If you aren't willing to stretch yourself technologically, this job isn't for
you. You have to be willing to take on a technology you know nothing about it
and become an expert in it
in less than two months. If you like to be challenged and refuse to let
technology beat you, you'd love it. It's mind numbing sometimes, but the rush
you get when you realize you
understand how 802.3ad trunking works and configure a couple routers and
switches to support it correctly is as great as the rush when you compile
that code and it runs - correctly. You do the
"happy dance". It's like seeing the Linux kernel you just compiled actually
run. Woo hoo!

My Random Conclusions:

1. Networking should never be underestimated.
2. Formal education does not keep up with technology. You have to go after it
on your own, but a formal education lays the groundwork for being able
to assimilate and truly understand the technologies. I never thought I'd
use LISP outside of college, but guess what AutoCAD R13 used as its primary
scripting language? Yup, LISP.
3. Grab what you want. Speak up, don't let it pass you by. If you think you
can do it, you can, you just have to let someone know you want to.
4. The Internet is your best friend. You can learn just about anything on the
Internet if you take the time.