How I got here: Chapter 1
As I've gotten older and gained perspective on my life, I've concluded that many aspects of my personality and career have been broadly shaped by the era, location, and community of my childhood. In this blog series, "How I got Here," I plan to retrospect on a few different periods of my life and some of their lasting influences on my professional pursuits and hobbies.
Growing up in Fairfield, California, an exurb of San Francisco adjacent to a major Air Force base, I was exposed to computers and the military much more than the average child. This greatly impacted my worldview and interests. Many people consider the military mentality antithetical to the hacker ethos of the valley (a sentiment I largely disagree with), but if you want to see a place were aspects of these two cultures mix, checkout my hometown.
For countless generations, my McBride ancestors worked on a family farm in Romulus, Michigan. Had that continued, I could imagine an alternate version of myself more interested in tinkering with engines than with software. However, this didn't happen because my grandfather, Harry McBride, discovered pleasant California weather while serving in the Air Force. Following the Korean War, he decided not to return to the family farm and instead used his GI Bill to attend the 1950s equivalent of a coding bootcamp run by U.C. Berkeley. This taught him the basics of operating mainframe computers, which led to a job at Ampex, a major tech company headquartered in Redwood City. While at Ampex, my grandfather migrated data processing workloads from the IBM 1401 mainframe to the IBM System/360.
While my grandfather ultimately left tech for stable government work when the "Go-Go Tech Boom" crashed in late 1969, leaving many engineers unemployed, he inspired my great aunt to move to Silicon Valley. By the time I was a young child in the early 90s, my great-aunt was well-established at Amdahl Corporation, a company that made "plug-compatible" mainframe computers.
My great-aunt was a hard-driving woman that had foregone children to focus on her career, so when Amdahl held their first-ever co-ed "Bring your (Son or) Daughter to Work Day" in 1993, she invited me instead. At seven, I thus got the opportunity to tour a major technology company. I toured the facility, played a handful of games on mainframe terminals, and listened to an engineer give a presentation and demo of a revolutionary new technology called the World Wide Web. To my seven year old mind, the concept of a web covering the world sounded vaguely menacing. I imagined armies of giant spiders crawling all over the place, eating all the family pets.
Having the opportunity, as a child, to hear about the world wide web when there were less than 1,000 websites is pretty fantastical. What if Harry McBride had gone back to Michigan? What if my great aunt had kids of her own? What if the family car had blown a tire on the drive from Fairfield out to Amdahl? It's hard to know, but this tour helped me understand the opportunities in computing, framing my hobbies as a teenager and influencing my career path as an adult.
Stay tuned for the next post to learn how my desire for a home computer led me to build a PC from scratch in 1995.