How I wound up as a professional technogeek is a long and semi-interesting tale. It involves multiple computing platforms, multiple job shifts, and a whole lotta dumb luck.
After getting out of the US Air Force in 1982 after a nine year stint as a radio technician, I immediately began working for a huge Midwest-based communications equipment manufacturer, at their paging and commercial two-way radio manufacturing and R&D facility in south Florida. I worked in the manufacturing engineering organization as a bench technician, but had many of the responsibilities of a full-fledged engineer but for a whole lot less money (it was, however, double what I was making in the Air Force). I began playing with HP desktop computers and calculators writing simple programs in HPL (high-performance language) and HP Basic, controlling arrays of test equipment over their GPIB (general purpose interface bus).
At home, I was playing around with my new toy–a Timex/Sinclair 1000 computer. I spent hours trying to get the cassette interface working, and cried the blues (and repeated many of the bad words I learned from 9 years in the Air Force) when the external 16K RAM module would flex slightly, sending six hours of work into the ether. Soon after, I bought a Commodore 64. I especially loved the C-64’s I/O functions that controlled external devices like the floppy disk drive and printer. It seems that Commodore, in an effort to save some money, used the I/O chip from the lower-powered (and priced) VIC-20 home computer. This chip was limited to a maximum throughput of 300 baudyup, that’s right300 baud. I had a video collection database that literally took several hours to generate a report because the data moving in and out of the floppy drive did so at the speed of a modem of the day (this was, oh, late 1982-early 1983). It was a computer, though, and with a 300 baud modem, I began accessing local bulletin board systems and an early teletext system operated by the Knight-Ridder publishing house. Wish I could remember the name of it.
Digressing a bit, back in my Air Force days, I was very involved in my amateur radio hobby, particularly during my final three-year assignment in Wiesbaden, Germany. I volunteered to be the newsletter editor. I used my trusty early 1940s Royal portable typewriter to cut stencils (remember those???) for the mimeograph machine. I learned all about the properties of various papers to achieve the best print possible quality (the cheaper and more porous, the better), how to store very fragrant (and flammable!) spirit ink in my dorm locker room so the fire inspectors wouldn’t confiscate it, and I learned a lot about using our club’s very clunky mimeograph machine that I also had to store in my dorm room. Fortunately the distribution list was relatively short, as I probably threw away more sheets of paper than I distributed! Later, one of our members made his office’s Xerox copier available, and the quality (of print—not the writing) improved dramatically.
Back to 1984 or thereabouts, I volunteered (apparently, the nine years in the Air Force taught me nothing about volunteering) to do the newsletter for my company-sponsored amateur radio club. The first few editions were done on my trusty Royal, but then a good friend of mine bought one of the very first 128k Macintosh computers, and made the mistake of showing it to me. I was hooked. I had been exposed to the possibilities of desktop publishing when our engineering specs organization had a Xerox Star Office System and an original HP LaserJet laser printer for evaluation. It was the first time I had seen a paper white display and fonts rendered just like what you saw in a book or magazine. Around this same time, my sister’s husband had bought an Apple Lisa 7/7 office system with 5 MB hard drive and 2 MB RAM for some $12,000. Both were absolutely amazing (the Star Office System was another sad example of Xerox not being able to market any technology that wasn’t a copier). I saw the promise of “wysiwyg” (what you see is what you get). As my friend traveled extensively, I got to “hold” his Mac in his absence for “safekeeping”, and did my next few newsletters with his 128k Mac, MacWrite, and the ImageWriter dot matrix printer. I think he paid over $5,000 for the complete setup including an external 400k floppy drive. For you old timers, do you remember that if you printed in “high quality”, it wasn’t WYSIWYG? Line breaks were very different. Because of the way high-quality printing on an ImageWriter worked, the MacOS (this was probably System 1.0—all on 400k floppies!) substituted the font in use with one that was double the size (for example, Times Roman 24 point was substituted for Time Roman 12 point), which was then scaled down 50% before going to the printer. The metrics between the two fonts were so different that nothing matched up. These were the days before scalable PostScript or TrueType fonts. HQ printing also made the ImageWriter move like molasses.
By early 1985, my office purchased a MacPlus and one of the first LaserWriters to run Lotus Jazz (remember that one?). It predated products like the Microsoft Office Suite, and AppleWorks. It had very tightly-integrated modules (wordprocessing, spreadsheet, graphing, database). I used it to generate weekly factory production yield reports. I also convinced them to purchase a copy of ReadySetGo for producing department newsletters and other presentations. I did a number of ham radio club newsletters and department presentations with this setup over the next few years.
In 1987, I was asked to apply for a technical writer position in a newly formed technical publications department. Not only was this a new opportunity to do more of the things I liked, but it was a move into the “salaried” pay grades. My newsletter work, both writing and layout “skills” (a term I use very loosely), had been noticed by the manager of this new department, who was also in the ham radio club. The only thing was, my new boss felt it was his personal mission to prove you didn’t need to use Macs to produce quality technical documentation. So, I got to learn all about pre-Windows PCs in a facility that was almost 100% Mac—and here we were using PCs for publishing! My boss was an Extra-class Amateur Radio licensee, who loved to tinker and disliked Apple’s closed-box concept. I still remember the arguments when he would spout: “Macintoshesbah! There are no DIP switches! There are no jumpers! There are no batch files! How can you call a Macintosh a computer???” My usual response was that Macs didn’t need those things and that a Mac user simply sat down and was immediately productive. His usual response had something to do with me being a Mac bigot or words to that effect. At least it was (mostly) good-natured.
So, my first office DTP workstation was a PC-XT clone. It had something like 4 megahertz of power-packed speed, and a whole 1 megabyte of RAM. Of course in those days, unless you had an expensive memory management program, the OS only saw the first 640 K of RAM. We had 20-megabyte hard drives (Seagate ST225s), but no networking. Our monitors were 15-inch no-name amber monitors with Hercules-compatible graphics cards (720 x 350 pixels). This permitted a relatively high-resolution view of about 1/8 of the page. The publishing package was Xerox Ventura Publisher 1.0. As clunky as the computer was, the software was surprisingly pretty good. At that time, there was nothing on the Macintosh to touch it. Ventura revolved around the use of stylesheets and paragraph tagging to ensure a consistent and structured look. It generated indexes and tables of contents, and especially for the times, was really sophisticated. The downside was that all files used by Ventura were external files, so all the tagging was done directly in the wordprocessing file (we used either WordPerfect 5.1 or MultiMate), so once you started tagging, you really couldn’t easily share these files, as each writer had their own ideas about their own styles and tags. To print, we copied our working files over to a 1 megabyte 5-1/4 inch floppy which we carried to our “typesetting station”: a 6 MHz 80286 PC-AT clone with two megabytes of RAM, hooked up to a 19 inch monochrome Viking Moniterm monitor, and to a QMS PostScript laser printer. The idea was to only adjust layouts and print at the typesetting station. It got harder and harder to get printing time when fellow staffers needed to use it, too.
Kind of a sidenote, Xerox did release a Macintosh version of Ventura Publisher in the early 90s, but it was so completely buggy and not completely compatible with the PC version, that it died a rather quick death in the marketplace. FrameMaker eventually took over this market niche on the Mac and many other platforms.
By 1989, we got networking! Our consultant was able to work out a system using the Sun TOPS networking software and LocalTalk wiring (230 kBPS) to a “GatorBox”, which converted the LocalTalk networking protocols to Ethernet (10 megabit 10Base2—coax, in a daisy-chain, hubbed configuration—when we left that building in 2002, it was still wired with hubbed 10Base2 coax cable wiring, except for the IT area, which had modern Cat5 wiring, 100 megabit switches, etc.), and in turn connected our workstations to a chunk of disk space on our Sun Unix network. It was really all pretty seamless when it worked, which was most of the time. Please keep in mind that at this time, Macintoshes were actually the standard computing workstation at my employer’s site—PCs were the unusual and “foreign” devices. My boss liked that—it meant it would be almost impossible for outsiders to “get at our stuff”.
As our graphics needs expanded, my boss realized that GenericCADD would not do the trick anymore, so I got to learn and use CorelDraw 1.0 with Microsoft Windows 2.0. What a bloody horrible trainwreck that was! Windows 2.0 didn’t even have overlapping windows, and Corel’s EPS files caused our print vendors no end of grief. The performance hit justified upgrading all of our PCs to 25 MHz 386SX via a motherboard swap—my boss’s boss was too cheap to buy new PCs, so the entire department lost almost a week of productivity while my boss and I swapped out motherboards and got the fellow staffers PCs back on-line.
In the midst of all this, I had bought my first Macintosh, a 512KE, thanks to a very generous bonus. I also picked up a used Apple Serial HD20 hard drive ($600.00!), which was glacially slow. I later bought a MacSnap RAM upgrade. The MacSnap board literally snapped on top of the RAM chips mounted to the memory board (and if the temperature shifted too much, would intermittently and randomly disconnect itself, causing the dreaded bomb screen). It also provided a SCSI port, so I was able to use my new Crate 60 SCSI hard drive (also $600.00). I purchased a copy of ReadySetGo 4.0 and continued with the ham radio club newsletters, as well as a new project, editing and laying out the Grinnell Family Association newsletter. This was a fun project, which also taught me a lot about Mac publishing. I didn’t have a scanner at home or work, so when I had to publish photographs, I determined the reduction or magnification needed for each photo and delivered them to a local graphic arts store, which had a device called a “stat” or “process” camera. This camera took a picture of the photos, and added a line screen (converted the picture into dots) for offset printing. I had to mount the main laser printed pages of the newsletter on art board with glue sticks and had to glue down the photos (called halftones) to the pre-scaled openings on the artboard. I sent the whole thing in a big flat yellow Kodak litho film box to one of our members in California who had a deal with a local printer. This was a very expensive process, which was later streamlined (stay tuned).
Back in the office, I wound up being the troubleshooting guy – keeping the PCs running, and when engineering provided graphics in one of many Macintosh formats, I found the tools to convert them into something we could use in the PC world.
My boss hated Macs so much that when we got an older Mac Plus to use the new corporate email system, using QuickMail from CE Software (in those days, all connected with LocalTalk wiring), he gave me his account information and had me check and answer his mail, because he actually refused to even touch that accursed Macintosh! And he called me a computer bigot! I just did a quick internet check and discovered QuickMail is still out there, marketed by Outspring.
By 1990, to go with our nice TOPS network, we upgraded everyone to the same 19 inch monochrome Moniterm monitors we used on our typesetting station, and bought a NewGen Turbo/PS 800 dpi PostScript clone laser printer. This gave us much higher quality masters to hand off to our printers—at least when the blankety-blank printer didn’t crash, drop off the network, or other fun things it loved to do. We also inherited a MacII ci for font development, using Altsys Fontographer. My boss really hated the fact that we had that Mac in the office, but I was able to prove the improvement in throughput and efficiency. We developed custom fonts that replicated the icons and text as displayed on our pagers, which made it much easier for the writers to place in-line graphics. At the time, the best tool was Fontographer, and it was only available for a Mac. I also had to figure out how to make these fonts work in Ventura Publisher and CorelDraw. Quite the challenge!
This all came about because of our first mass-market alphanumeric pager, which had a very rich icon library that needed to be represented in our user guides. My boss valiantly tried to create the graphics with GenericCADD, but the end result for a 48 page user guide was a 9 megabyte PostScript file (luckily, it “zip’ed” down to about 1 MB so it fit on a floppy) that literally took 12 hours to output on our printer’s Compugraphic 9400 imagesetter. Heck, it took about 90 minutes to print on our local laser printer! I made the case that we would have to do a lot more of these in the future, and those huge inefficient files would be nothing but trouble with our print suppliers. I got approval for Fontographer and the Mac, and developed the font to replace those individual EPS graphics in a few days. I substituted the font characters for the graphics and regenerated the PostScript file. File size went from 9 megabytes to about 1.5. Output time on our printer’s imagesetter went from 12 hours to 45 minutes. We still create custom fonts for our product user guides to this day, though it does create problems when we have to repurpose our content for HTML delivery.
By the time my boss retired in 1992 and handed the supervisor’s job over to me (sadly, my boss was unable to enjoy much of his retirement—he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about six months after he retired, and passed away four months after that), our PCs (upgraded with 25 MHz 386SX motherboards a few years prior) were on their last legs. Windows 3.1 was coming on the scene, Ventura Publisher 3.0 needed Windows, and Moniterm (makers of our monitors) had gone out of business—so no new device drivers. Fortunately, my department was taken over by one of the R&D groups which had plenty of budget, so we got all shiny new beige no-name 486/50 PCs, Windows 3.1, Ventura 3.0, Corel 3.0, updated our networking solution to AppleShare 3.0 and AppleShare for Windows, and QEMM (a Windows memory manager—you needed those back in those days), and nice new Sony 17 inch color displays. We got our first department server, a Mac Quadra 650 with two 1.0 GB SCSI hard disks, and all the staffers got their own email accounts for the first time—Microsoft Mail client for PCs (QuickMail was abandoned when it became very clear that it didn’t scale well in the enterprise—and there was no PC client available). I knew I would eventually go back to ask for Macs—I just didn’t have time to deal with the training and other issues at the time we got approval to get new machines. We did get a few new Mac IIci computers, one with a Radius Rocket accelerator card, for our graphics designers to run early versions of Illustrator and Photoshop.
Windows users got backed up using Norton Desktop for Windows (an enhancement to Windows 3.1 to make for a more Mac-like desktop experience), but I don’t think I was ever completely successful in restoring anything. Some time later, I got Dantz (now EMC) Retrospect and had a nearly 100% record of restoring anything that had been backed up. We transitioned from Ventura Publisher to FrameMaker 3.0 around this time. This was the final piece of the puzzle of standardizing on applications that would work well in either a Windows or Macintosh environment, and which made for a very smooth transition to Mac workstations a few years later.
Oh, speaking of Microsoft Mail, I got a look inside one of the computer rooms at work during the period my employer used the Macintosh version of Microsoft Mail. What a nightmare scene for the IT folks! Even though you could theoretically connect 255 users to a server, the reality was that you could only connect maybe 25-50 users per server—especially over an overloaded 10 megabit 10Base2 coaxial cable network. To deal with the 3000 people who worked in my facility, there were banks upon banks of Mac SE/30s acting as mail servers, as far as the eye could see. To tell you the truth, this is probably one place where moving to Microsoft Exchange was a good idea!
Within a few months, I realized that I wasn’t cut out for management. Fortune smiled upon me with a job offer from another division within the company, which I used to leverage myself into a newly-created position in the technical publications organization where I was, basically as a “technogeek”. In my new role, I did everything I was doing (desktop support, server/backup administrator, technical architect, and a year or so later, webmaster), but had no managerial responsibilities. Frankly, there just weren’t enough hours in the day to do both.
In 1994, I attended a publishing conference and got my first exposure to Adobe Acrobat. This was another major defining moment in publishing. I showed management some of the capabilities and everyone was very excited about the possibilities of putting our manuals on-line. We hired a temporary contractor and began testing serving about 100 manuals in PDF format on the internal corporate web. This was pretty radical for the time—especially when management considered the web to be nothing more than a time sink (maybe they were not entirely wrong). I learned a little bit of HTML, and built a web server from a Mac IIcx using freeware AppleScripts and webserver software that talked to FileMaker Pro to extract information from a simple query screen. We later experimented with more sophisticated database middleware products like Tango, and in the end, switched to BlueWorld Lasso, which we used for many years. By late 1995, once we proved the concept and got management buy-in, we upgraded out department server environment with several PowerMac 9500s that ran FileMaker Pro Server, WebSTAR, Lasso, and Retrospect. We finally got the staffers PowerMac 8500s that ran FrameMaker and Adobe Illustrator, hooked to gorgeous 20 inch Apple color monitors. Files were compressed with StuffIt Deluxe, which had Windows-based unstuffers, which turned out to be useful later on when we were forced to move back to Windows.
We also began exploring on-demand publishing. Our service manuals, whose press runs seldom exceeded 1000 pieces, were redesigned to use the new Xerox DocuTech Copier/Printer. This was an amazing piece of technology. Essentially, it was a PostScript laser printer capable of printing 150 or more pages per minute, double-sided, and could print on 11 x 17 sheets (that we needed for our schematic diagram pages). While we didn’t use the feature, the DocuTech could also automatically handle a lot of the bindery work (folding, collating, glue-edge binding for large documents, etc.). We later expanded upon this idea, printing our user guides on a high-speed toner-based print-on-demand solution using devices from Oce and IBM. In high volumes, that turned out to be uneconomical, and we reverted to using conventional offset printing for our user guides, which often had press runs in excess of 500,000 pieces.
I also got involved around this time with a very interesting user group, the Electronic Design Association (EDA). This organization was formed by graphic arts professionals to help their fellow professionals make the transition from the manual prepress processes to a fully digital environment. Believe me, the handwriting was on the wall for a lot of these people. Traditional “stripping” departments (the people who assembled the graphic art film and put it together to create the printing plates) suffered massive cutbacks as digital prepress techniques replaced the older traditional methods. One printer I did business with went from three shifts with over 100 strippers down to a single shift and 3 strippers, whose main job was to work with existing jobs that were still on film and would not be converted to digital. Anyway, I was very active with this group, eventually serving on their board of directors, for almost ten years. When we closed it down a few years ago, we did so with the satisfaction that we achieved our goal, and helped a lot of people make that difficult transition. We also got to see some neat demos in the process. Maybe someday I’ll tell you all about David Biedny’s presentation of the first version of the Penthouse Interactive CD (just before the internet blew all those multimedia CD products away) that he developed. The EDA organized vendor shows, art exhibitions, helped the career of a number of budding digital graphic artists, printed the first 4-color newsletter on a prototype of the Heidelberg GTO-DI digital press with the Presstek spark gap plate burning system (that was quickly scrapped and redesigned using lasers to image the plate—in part due to the way in which our test newsletter came out—suffice it to say, there were some definite print quality issues that had not been observed prior to our test), and gave away some amazing door prizes due to huge support by software and hardware vendors. I personally won a full copy of Photoshop 5.5, among other items.
With a slew of software conversion tools like Kandu CADMover, Adobe Streamline, Transverter Pro, EPSConverter, and other such tools, we were stopped creating large pieces of artwork (schematic diagrams and pc board artwork) and created completely electronic manuals, sent to our printers in PDF format. This meant no more large paper file storage, no more PPD (PostScript Printer Description) files to match each of our print vendor’s imagesetters (no two had the same devices). Prepress costs plummeted as we could provide a single PDF file with everything our printer needed. It also meant we could serve everything from our internal website. Eventually the external web teams figured this out too, and began copying our content to the external company servers.
I was sent on two trips to Singapore to set up a publications organization there, and a similar organization was established in China with my department’s assistance. I made two trips to Dublin, Ireland to look at global translation suppliers, but discovered that my boss and I were just too far ahead of our time (each marketing department in each country handled translation of manuals and felt they didn’t need a centralized translation function).
Then, in 1998, the bottom fell out of the paging business. Cellphone service got much cheaper, so folks stopped buying pagers—at least in the quantities that my employer deemed necessary to sustain a profitable business. At the same time massive layoffs began hitting our facility, my employer’s IT organization embarked on a huge program to switch everyone and everything to Windows NT. Our lovely PowerMac 8500s were replaced with ugly Dell desktop machines. At least we kept the monitors My department had to spend thousands of dollars to replace Macintosh versions of software with PC equivalents (fortunately, I had anticipated some of this, as all of our primary applications were available on either platform, so the transition wasn’t nearly as painful as that of other departments). The good news was that we were able to take over the responsibility for publishing user and service manuals for cellular phone products, as there had not been a centralized group to handle that task for some time, and the company had gotten into trouble on multiple occasions for missing or incorrect legal, safety, and warranty information, thus saving all our jobs for another day.
Because IT didn’t have an appropriate plan to migrate our servers to Windows, we got what turned out to be a six-year reprieve, finally forcing us to migrate to Windows servers when the crack IT organization (or was that the IT organization on crack?) threatened to literally pull our network connections unless we complied with their demands, without regard to the mission we supported. Oh, to have that much power! We finished that project just before the area suffered through a major hurricane (Wilma) shut things down for several days at a time. That outage got my boss’s boss so mad I was nearly fired (because we didn’t have a disaster plan, and in his view, that meant the servers should have always been near the headquarters in the Midwest—and where my department staff should be located), and we were forced to move our primary department server to one of our Midwest facilities, and in case that facility gets hit with an F5 tornado, we were told to set up, at great cost and complexity, a redundant server down here with the hope that a killer tornado doesn’t hit our facility in the Midwest at the exact same time a killer hurricane is destroying our facility here in south Florida!
In 2001, my boss paid for me to take Microsoft Certified Systems Engineering certification training. I received my certification in early 2002, after seven grueling exams. As it turns out, I never really was able to use the training as I have been able to remain in this department, though some of the training did help me when I had to configure a Windows 2003 Server and IIS 6.0 (Internet Information Server). The IT folks certainly won’t give me access to the main Active Directory user account area, so my expensive training has been mostly for naught.
We survived the transition from PCs to Windows PCs to Macs, and back to Windows PCs because I always kept my eye on cross-platform compatibility—that it is indeed possible for Macs and Windows boxes to coexist. You just need to do a little extra planning. With the appropriate planning, a platform switch isn’t nearly as traumatic as you might think. Look at the apps we were using at the time: FrameMaker (unfortunately, Adobe has killed the Mac version), Illustrator, Photoshop, GoLive, Retrospect, StuffIt (StuffIt Deluxe .SEA files can be opened by the free Windows StuffIt Expander product), FileMaker Pro, PageMaker, Fontographer, Microsoft Office, Dreamweaver Even Windows Server 2000 and Windows Server 2003 support Apple File Protocol using their Services for Macintosh service. I had a network running at home with Windows Server 2000 for several years with the worst problem being unreliable, crappy Maxtor hard drives. Grrrrr. Wherever possible, we avoided single-platform solutions. We actively keep the lines of communication between us and our print suppliers open to ensure our files work correctly, that the task of transferring huge PDF files optimized for high-quality printing is reliable and efficient, and that the printers can offer suggestions to improve quality, cost, and delivery. Of course with the corporate IT folks running our lives now, single-platform solutions are now the rule of the day, allowing them to use that as an excuse to ban Mac purchases. I especially love the Internet Explorer-only web application “solutions”.
Over this same period at home, I shed my responsibilities as editor of the Grinnell Family Association newsletter, but kept my finger in, doing the prepress work. One standard we adopted was to use PageMaker for page layout. Again, because this application was available on both Mac and PC computers, the file transfers were flawless and seamless. The newsletter editors used their Windows boxes, and I remained (and remain!) on my Mac. We have actually gone through several newsletter editors, but we have remained in this software environment. I also set up a web presence for the Grinnell Family Association. Originally running on a PowerMac 6100, using Personal Web Sharing, the Grinnell site is now running open source content management system software (PHP-Fusion) on a Macintosh mini at my house, and is more stable than that 6100 ever was. In 1997, I edited a 750 page genealogy of the Grinnell family in the Mac version of Adobe FrameMaker and used print-on-demand technology to publish it. Early next year, I will be revising this book, and expect to exceed 2,000 pages. I will be doing it in FrameMaker again (I still have a copy of 7.0 for the Mac, and if I get the MacBook I’m thinking of, I can run a complete Windows environment with Parallels, or use CrossOver Mac to run the Windows version of FrameMaker 7.2 directly in the Mac environment.
In the 19 years I have been in the publishing biz, I’ve learned a whole lot, and shared a lot, too. I spent a long time as the “go to guy” for cross-platform file and delivery issues, and remain active in a local Macintosh user group. Publishing technology has changed extremely rapidly over the years, which has resulted in the demise of many of the weaker competitors, but the strong get stronger. It wasn’t all that long ago that print technology was literally in the Stone Age. After explaining the printing process to a young engineer at work, he actually tried to order me to find another way to print our manuals, as materials from a company of our stature should not be printed using such ancient methods! I don’t know how long it took me to stop laughing