my nerd story

My nerd story isn’t just about computers, but they do come in to play & fairly significantly in the later days. My story also involves a lot of books and comic books and games and cameras and a small number of very dear friends, most of whom remain unnamed.

So it began

One of my earliest memories was the first time I read a book out loud to my parents. I was young — I don’t remember how young, but it was well before I started school — and I had learned to read by following along as my parents read to me, which they did every night before sleep.

The first book I remember reading was “Miffy in the Snow”.

Miffy in the Snow

My parents were both teachers so it’s not really that odd that I learned to read as early as I did, but they were pretty excited about the whole thing and encouraged me to read anything I wanted, all of the time. So I did, and it was great, because I lived in a house full of books and there was a library right around the corner where I remember telling the Librarian I wanted to read every book they had, and so the librarians encouraged me as well. The result was that I read voraciously, spending long summers in the back on a lawn chair reading books and eating popsicles and pretty much doing nothing else.

So that’s the book thing: I read a lot and I started early and I’ve never really stopped.

The Birth of a Gamer

The next nerdy theme to enter my story involved games. There were other toys, of course (Lego mostly, and Star Wars action figures — nerdy unto themselves), but games of all sorts really ruled the day. It started with boardgames and puzzles, but quickly evolved to include hand-held electronic games and the (very) early console games.

Board games: Checkers and Chess and Monopoly and Scrabble. I played Chess semi-competitively through the latter stages of grade/middle school but am really, really terrible at it now. Not sure what happened there. Brain, I imagine.

Electronic hand-held: Merlin, Baseball, Football. Loved them. Killed hours on these things.

Consoles: Pong in all of its black and white bi-directional-paddley goodness. And an Atari 2600 that was mostly Adventure and Centipede and Defender and Pac-man and Space Invaders. I guess I played the Atari a lot, but it never really hooked me so much as the next stage of my gaming life: pencil & paper role playing games. The combination of games + reading was intoxicating.

Defender

Gamer Part II: RPGs

I’m not sure why (and unfortunately he died a few years ago, so I can’t ask him), but one day my Dad bought the original red box Dungeons & Dragons set. I expect he got it because my Dad was a huge, huge Tolkien nerd, and Tolkien pretty much laid the groundwork for D&D and it all sort of flowed together in a great and gloriously-nerdish blob which I was exposed to at so early an age that it all just became part of my normal.

Anyhow, I remember seeing my Dad’s D&D set and asking him what it was and if I could read it. And since I was allowed to read whatever I wanted, he let me and that lead to an abiding love of reading RPG rulebooks which continues to this day.

D&D red box

By then (grade 6, I think?) I had some nerdy friends, but we didn’t start to play D&D until grade 7 and 8. Regardless, some part of my brain latched on to those rulebooks and structures and logic and formulae and charts and tables and descriptions of monsters and dungeons and castles and I was pretty much a proper game nerd from that point on.

Confessional aside: I still buy and read the core rulebooks from each edition of Dungeons & Dragons, with no expectation of ever actually playing them. It’s just a thing I do, although I draw the line at any of the ridiculous expansions and extensions and other malarkey. Core rulebooks only. Learned that lesson with “Unearthed Arcana”, amirite?

this is a terrible book
this is a terrible book

And lo, the Computer Age

Shortly after I started reading RPG rulebooks for fun, I got my first computer. My folks offered to get me a grade 6 “graduation” present, and I asked for a Commodore Vic-20. I can’t remember why I wanted a computer, or even where I’d ever heard of one, but I got one and I learned enough about how to use it and program it that two years later (grade 8 graduation), I asked for a Commodore 64.

I learned a lot about computers from the “Bits and Bytes” TV series that we watched on TVO, but that was after we already had the Vic-20.



My Dad and I got pretty into the whole C=64 thing, and we ended up with two (!) disk drives, a hacked expansion slot, a hacked (like drilled & soldered-in) reset button, a drawing tablet (KoalaPad), a 300 baud coupler modem, and several hundred pirated disks. This was also my first exposure to the Internet — dialing in to Compuserve through Datapac. I don’t remember much about Compuserve other than it was insanely expensive and I never really got to use it, which was fine.

We were Commodore nerds enough that we belonged to the local users’ group (Track 36 User Group in Hamilton) and attended at least 2 or 3 of the World of Commodore expositions. During one of these, I saw the brand new Commodore Amiga system demoed which I desperately wanted but we couldn’t afford. Alas. I still have one or two of the WoC posters around somewhere, which I should really get framed.

World of Commodore - 1986

Middle school: When “G&T” wasn’t a gin & tonic

In Grades 7 & 8 I was part of the local school’s “gifted and talented” class. The “gifted and talented” program, as far as I can tell, is what they did with all of the kids they weren’t sure what to do with otherwise, clumping us together and letting us do whatever the hell we wanted. In the first year, I read some 70-odd novels and wrote a bunch of essays and otherwise just played D&D and read comic books. I recall the next year being similar, but involving more D&D and comic books.

I wish I remembered more about those times, really, but maybe it’s for the best. It was a crucible in which were formed some pretty epic friendships, but it was equally great and terrible, and unfortunately did absolutely nothing to prepare me for highschool.

Interlude: Photography

During this time I also picked up photography (again because of my Dad who was a huge photo nerd), buying my first used camera ($110 Fujica) which I used straight through the end of university. Photography is one of my less-nerdy hobbies, I guess, but is yet another of those learned-early-became-lifelong-love sort of things which I really should have paid more attention to at the time.

Later on I bought my first Nikon (FM2n) and a handful of second-hand lenses, and then I got into digital stuff and now I’m a full-blown photo nerd with a gear acquisition problem.

Nikon FM2n

Highschool

Then came highschool. In grade 9 I joined the D&D club. I think I was the only girl, but I didn’t really notice or care so that was mostly irrelevant. We played weekly after school for a while, then the core D&D crew decided I was cool enough (it’s a nerdy definition of cool, shut up) and invited me to join in their weekend games. I played RPGs with that crew until the end of highschool, including D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Villains & Vigilantes, Car Wars, GURPs, etc. If you’ve never played V&V you should give it a shot. It’s a great deal of ridiculous fun.

Villains and Vigilantes

In highschool, I also did my first and only programming course in a classroom full of Commodore PETs. Unfortunately it was just one course and really didn’t make a huge difference in my life since I’d already learned all of that on my own. I had decided that I wanted to be a writer by then, anyhow, so I more or less turned my back on computers as a hobby until my 3rd year of university.

The Dropout Years

The rest of highschool is a bit of a blur – I liked the academics well enough but it wasn’t really challenging and I really disliked the social aspects. I hit my rebellious phase in grade 10, essentially morphing into Ally Sheedy from the Breakfast Club, and I finally dropped out part way through grade 13. I was 17, got a full time job working as a line cook, and soon moved in with my first serious boyfriend.

Breakfast Club

[time passes]

Three years later, I decided that the food service life wasn’t for me, moved back into my folks’ place long enough to finish my last year of highschool, and then I went to university as far away as I could manage.

University

At this point I still wanted to be a writer, and was still taking photos as often as I could afford film & processing. I owned an IBM 286 computer that I had been given by my Dad (“congrats on finally graduating highschool” present), and that was it other than an extensive collection of David Bowie, King Crimson & Peter Gabriel CDs.

Academics, the short version: I initially declared my major as English, then switched to Sociology, then switched back into a double-major of English and Soc, and eventually graduated with a B.A. Soc (Hons) & English with (un-official) minors in Philosophy and Comparative Religion.

The rest of university was about gaming and photography and my re-introduction to computers as a hobby.

Gaming: I had moved far enough away that I knew absolutely no one, but I managed to fall in with a friendly group of nerds almost immediately. There were RPGs (D&D, Shadowrun), the fancy new trading card games (Magic: The Gathering, for the most part), and video games (mostly Civ…lots and lots and lots of Civ). Gaming formed the core of my social life at university as it had in highschool.

Alpha Serra Angel

Photography: I worked as photo editor for the campus paper for a while, which was great because it gave me unlimited access to a private photo processing & printing lab. That was fun and way, way cheaper than buying film by the roll and paying someone else to process & print. This was well before the advent of digital cameras.

Computers: As I mentioned before, I gave up computers as a hobby until my 3rd year of university. I was still using my computer regularly — upgrading it from a 286 to a 386 to a 486 and splurging madly on 4 whole megs of RAM, while moving up from a 2600 to a 14.4k baud modem — but I was only using it for word processing, video games, and what rudimentary internet we had in those days (IRC, elm, gopher, telnet, ytalk and the like).

Random aside: I was the 2nd arts student at our university to get a UNIX account. It was on a Solaris system where I learned to love elm and vi and IRC. I am still friends with my sys.admin buddy from those days (hi Hutt!) and I have been on IRC more or less every day since.
Random aside #2: The first time I logged into IRC I tried to get the nick “rael”, but it was taken, so quickly came up with “dria” as an alternative. It stuck.

Teh Webs

Anyhow, I was just using my computer as a tool at that point, not really doing any hacking beyond the basics needed to keep the damn thing up and running. But then someone handed me a book about HTML and showed me my first web browser (no idea which it was, but probably Mosaic). And so I encountered the Web.

Initially I was not sold. The web was slow and it was ugly and it was different and it was weird. I may have gone so far as to declare it “a fad”. But then I started playing with it, and then I started reading the HTML book and figuring how it all fit together. Then I discovered the Netscape DevEdge site (foreshadowing) and learned enough about JavaScript to be able to copy-paste code for rollover buttons into my personal homepage. And then I was hooked.

Netscape DevEdge Online

By the time I finished University, I helped develop an initial campus-wide online web-based courseware system and was teaching professors how to use the web and computers in their classrooms. It was great. We had our own computer lab where we hung out hacking all night and/or playing Diablo. We built a streaming radio station (max 5 listeners). I started writing (and getting paid for!) web site reviews for some previous incarnation of The Net magazine. I was introduced to Linux (slackware), and fell right down that rabbit hole for a few years. It was good, and I made some amazing friends, and we had a ridiculous amount of fun, and they paid us to do it — it was the best paying student job on campus.

Thesis, Graduation & gettin’ out of Dodge

When it came time to write my thesis, I wanted to do something related to the internet and the web, so I (as a Sociology student focusing on social theory) wrote “Towards a Theory of Information Technology, an Analysis of Opposing Perspectives” (or something equally dry….I need to dig up the actual title). It was interesting enough, and was intended to lay the groundwork for a Master’s thesis, but the internet and the web were already developing way too quickly and there were too many people writing too many things about it to ever really keep up. I lost interest in the theory side of things pretty quickly.

Anyhow, I graduated in 1997 and immediately applied & was accepted into the Masters Sociology program. I had done this out of sheer reflex, however, more than out of any real desire to continue on with my studies, so when a friend emailed asking if I wanted a job as a Tech Writer I decided that I was tired of being completely broke, said yes, and dropped everything to move to Ottawa two weeks later. (Dropping everything to move to places is sort of a thing I’ve done a few times.)

Workin’

OmniMark: My first job out of school was a 2 year stint at a tech company where I spent most of my time learning and documenting a programming language that was focused on parsing and manipulating SGML documents. SGML fell out of favour as XML started to be a thing, so I learned all that, too.

Slashdot & Linuxchix

In my spare time I was still messing around with Linux and video games, learning PHP and MySQL. It was around this time (1998?) that I ran across a site called “Slashdot”. (My slashdot user # is 9758, which may be the nerdiest thing on my resume.) I already knew about open source and Linux, so Slashdot was sort of a natural place for me to hang out. But then one day I got tired of Slashdot commenters being complete asshats, so I started a Linux users group for women that I called “Linuxchix“.

Linuxchix.org

Linuxchix started off as a mailing list and a website where everyone was welcome so long as they followed the general guidelines of: “Be polite. Be helpful.” It worked (in my opinion, although apparently not everyone agrees) and Linuxchix became a bit of a thing for a while, growing into a handful of more focused mailing lists and regional chapters all over the world.

Here’s the earliest version of the Linuxchix site on archive.org: Linuxchix, circa 1999 in all of its gorgeously orange and hand-coded glory.

Open Source Writers’ Group

Around the same time (1999) I decided that the state of open source documentation was a bit of a mess, so I started an organization that worked to match interested writers and editors with open source projects that needed their help. This was the Open Source Writers Group (OSWG) and, while it was a valiant effort and we did some good work, the project ultimately failed, primarily because I burned myself out trying to work a full-time job while running two open source projects.

OSWG logo

Aside: In early 2000 I did an interview on Slashdot (sort of an early AMA) about the OSWG, during which I said, “There are a number of projects (Mozilla!) that I would really like to work on. Unfortunately, I just can’t take on any more work at the moment.” Little did I know…

The Puffin Group

Slashdot also lead to my first open source job. I read this story on Slashdot and the Wall Street Journal and realized that these “Puffin Group” people were located in Ottawa (where I was at the time).

Chris and Alex

I dug around their website for a bit and then emailed them asking for a job. Within a day or two I was contacted by one of the Puffin Group founders — a local fella by the name of Chris Beard. He and I (and Alex deVries) chatted over pints one afternoon, and they hired me as a technical writer to pen such epics as the PA-RISC/Linux Boot HOWTO.

I didn’t know then, but that one random email asking a total stranger for a job determined the course of my entire future career. The world is small, and the world of open source is even smaller. As part of The Puffin Group I ended up attending the first bunch of Ottawa Linux Symposia, through which I met a whole bunch of people who would become some of my closest friends and future colleagues: Mike Shaver, Phil Schwan, Zach Brown, Stuart Parmenter, Ryan Tilder, Chris Blizzard, and a jillion others. Those were good good times, indeed.

Linuxcare & Zero-Knowledge Systems

Anyhow, The Puffin Group was eventually acqui-hired by a company called Linuxcare and we all ended up working there for a while. Eventually (as happens) I got bored and started trying to figure out what I was going to do next. Shaver — who had recently started working at Zero-Knowledge Systems in Montreal — was in town for a visit and we went out for pints and (long story short) I was caught up in one of Shaver’s recruiting sweeps and moved to Montreal.

I worked at ZKS for 2 years where I did webby things with LAMP, and we collectively tried to build a thing on the internet that would help protect people’s privacy. Unfortunately, we were a decade or so ahead of our time.

In Montreal I met Graydon and Alice and Adam and Alex and Ian and Dov and Austin and a bunch of other brilliant and great people. I also learned a lot about food and how goddamned amazing it could be, so I started teaching myself how to cook but wasn’t very good at it for an awfully long time.

The Bad

Then 9/11 happened and shit kinda went sideways. Most of the people I knew in Montreal had left or were leaving, I was bored as hell, and ZKS went through a round or two of layoffs. I was spending (literally) most of my time playing an early MMORPG (Asheron’s Call – Holtberg, represent), and the whole 9/11 thing made me really sad and really angry and really, really, really tired. I left ZKS before having another job lined up (the first and last time I’ve ever done that), but I managed to pretty quickly wrangle an interview and job offer from a place out west. I began prepping to move to Edmonton.

Holtburg banner

The Good

Remember that first sys.admin friend I had in university (hi Hutt!)? Yeah well he came to Montreal to visit me before I zoomed out west, and another friend of ours from university decided to crash the party. That party crasher was Rob Campbell. I’d met Rob in 2nd year university and we stayed in touch over the years via email and silly online chat boards and whatnot. Two weeks later I decided I wasn’t going to move to Edmonton after all, opting instead to move in with Rob in Ottawa. That was Nov 2001, and we’ve been together ever since. ❤

Rob, Sandwich, Man

Back to Ottawa

Ok, so then I was unemployed for a while which sucked. I probably sent out 200 resumes and managed only to get two interviews – one with a contractor guy who wanted me to lie on RFPs to win government contracts (no, thanks), and another with the Tech Dept of the Canadian Real Estate Agency who were considering a switch to LAMP. I got the CREA job and worked there (not on LAMP, turns out) for 3 years or so. It wasn’t really my favourite gig (understatement), but it paid the bills and I learned a lot about real estate, which turns out to be useful in some pretty specific situations.

Mozilla

Then one day in late 2004, Shaver pinged me on IRC and asked if I would be interested in working at Mozilla. “In a heartbeat,” I responded, and so that all began. Shaver had been involved with Mozilla since the beginning of time, of course, and Chris Beard had joined Mozilla by then and was the hiring manager for the role in question. Many discussions and interviews and a holiday break later, and in Feb 2005 I started as Mozilla’s first full-time Canadian employee.

Mozilla Party Member

My first project at Mozilla was to create the first iteration of the Mozilla Developer Network, revamping the documentation system and doing something with the old Netscape DevEdge content which had recently been licensed to Mozilla. It genuinely delighted me that I was tasked with doing something useful with the very content I had used to learn how to hack the Web years before. That was really special and rather a lot of fun.

Here’s a super old version from Oct 2005: Mozilla Developer Center:beta.

I think the most important decision I made in those first months at Mozilla was to make MDN a wiki, rather than continuing with the cvs-based doc system we had been using. I think the impact of that decision is obvious now, as the work of thousands of contributors has turned it into the best source of web technology documentation currently available. I haven’t been involved in MDN for some time, having handed it off to Eric Shepherd years ago, but I remain deeply proud of what it has become.

Today

So here we are some 9 years later.

I’m now 42 years old. I still play games a lot – mostly video games (mostly Skyrim), and some boardgames. I am still a photographer, and I still read a lot, including comic books. I still love cooking, and I think I’m pretty good at it now.

And I still work at Mozilla, having been through a bunch of projects and departments, watching Mozilla grow from 30-odd people to the 950 or so we have today. My current role is as one of the Product Managers for Firefox for Android, where I have the privilege of working with a really amazing, fun, brilliant, creative and crazy bunch of folk. I still love this job and am incredibly proud of what Mozilla does and what Mozilla represents.

The end. I can’t believe you read the whole thing.

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4 thoughts on “my nerd story

  1. So I guess I’m a year late to this party. Thanks for sharing so much of your story. This is one of those I woke up at 4am for no good reason and spent 3 hours in quietude reading random stuff on the web sessions. Ever have those? I happened to come across your site while sorting through a backlog of old e-mail on an account I rarely check. Among them was a crazy spam mentioning my old Advogato account (remember that place? I was user suso). Anyways, an old post from 2000 I made there I mentioned you needing some PHP4 rpms and I wondered “Who is this person”, but now I remember. So now I’m here. Anyways, hi Deb. Thanks for your all your hard work.

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