To understand me today, we have to go back in time to when I was around 5 years old, growing up in The Bahamas. I was given a set of Construx, and then another, and another. I played with those three sets of Construx for the next 5 years or so – day in, day out. A rough estimate would put the number of permutations of things I built out of those same sets of Construx number easily in the thousands. My family believes that this seemingly unhealthy obsession was the start of my science and engineering career.
When I got to high school, I was able to choose electives alongside the required course work of English, Math, Biology, Physical Education, and Religious Education. The electives I chose were Physics, Chemistry, Art, Technical Drawing, and Typing. My 12-year-old rationale for choosing Typing was based on my assumption that computers were the future, and computers required copious amounts of typing. This was a position I held after many years of reading Marvel Comics, especially Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, where computers were often featured. There was a course on computer programming, but by reputation it was boring, and I figured I should become proficient at Typing before I tried to learn how to use a computer.
For the rest of high school, there were no computers, but a lot of Super Nintendo video games. Just to get out of the house, I engaged in a flurry of extracurricular activities that included the Science Club, Drama Club, Soccer Team, various Martial Arts, Boy Scouts, and the Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) Awards program. The Boy Scouts and DofE programs complemented each other, and by the end of high School I had (along with two life-long friends) met the requirements for the Queens’ Scout Award and the DofE Gold Awards.
I had an opportunity to get my Awards presented to me along with my peers by the Queen of England, but I elected instead to make extra money by being a boat hand on a Scuba Diving charter, as I was a certified PADI Rescue Diver and a Red Cross Lifeguard. I have a hammock I macraméd in my office that was inspected by the Queen of England on her visit, but I was about 5 miles out to sea at the time (later I was shown a photograph). This pattern of achieving something, but not sticking around for the ceremony is a pattern in my life. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it, it’s just that I know I achieved it: I was there and did the work. Standing up and getting recognized just never seemed worth the effort of getting dressed up.
After High School, I started the first year of A-Levels in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Math. The summer after I finished my first year, I was suddenly informed by my family that a Scholarship was available to an American college to Study Physics. I politely declined, as not only was I not prepared for the American educational system (which was very different from the British), but I did not want to specialize in Physics. I only studied Physics to round-out my MacGyver-esq education, as being MacGyver was the closest I had to career aspirations. My polite decline was rejected, and less than a week later I was standing in line being matriculated into a College that I had not even applied to, much less desired to attend.
It is here that things went a bit squiffy.
Up until this point in my life, I had a been a good kid. I never stole, cursed, stepped out of line, and was generally a model citizen. I was a very resourceful and independent 18 year old, with a fair number of accomplishments under my belt, but I was utterly unprepared to attend an American College. I had not even taken the SAT exams. I had taken the PSAT exams, which we were required to do in the Bahamas, but I saw no point in them and walked out half-way through, mainly because I had to pee and you would not be let back in if you left the exam hall. Furthermore, I knew nothing about College generally, as I figured I had another year to learn about it as I finished my A-Levels.
I was to learn that I was one of two people awarded an undergraduate Scholarship to study High Energy/Nuclear Physics. I was told I should be happy – I was not. The other person went on to get a PhD from Harvard in theoretical Physics, but I would escape that fate. I was also told I would be a member of the university’s first Sailing team, which I was a walk-on for considering my aquatic and knot-work proficiency. At the time, I considered it something of a consolation prize, as I was coached by Garry Bodie, who went on to coach the U.S. Olympic Sailing team. After College Coach Bodie wanted to me to represent the Bahamas in the Olympics in the Finn class, but I declined as I had decided to pursue a career in software development. I digress.
Though I was miserable all through College, I made the best of things. I won the university Engineering competition twice, was President of the Society of Physics Students, and had a traveling Physics Demonstration show. Every summer I went to a particle accelerator facility (either TJNAF or Fermilab) to do research. I even got my name on a paper for summer research I did at the University of Michigan, who at the time had the world’s most powerful laser. All of this may sound like the setup for an amazing career as a particle physicist, but my second summer doing research, I discovered how the internet worked. This was the beginning of the end of any potential career in physics I might have had.
I remember my discovery of the workings of the internet vividly. It was the summer of 1997, and I was in one of the computer labs at TJNAF on a weekend, so I had the lab to myself. I had decided to teach myself HTML, and had just brought a book at the local mall. I was methodically working my way through the book step-by-step, slowly building my first web page. The book’s instructions had the webpage hosted at an IP address (not a domain name), but other than that it seemed to work like any other website I had every used up until that point. I am not sure why, but I had the thought to entire the IP-based URL at another one of the lab’s computer, and I saw my web page there as well. I remember making a change on the first computer, and seeing it reflected on the second immediately upon refresh. It was a Eureka moment that would profoundly impact the rest of my life. I saw the entire future of the internet unfold before me, because if data could be replicated this easily, from any computer in the world to any computer in the world, then anything that could be represented as data could be as well. I was dumbfounded at the possibilities.
Considering I didn’t want to be at the College, and I didn’t want to be a Physicist, this was the “out” I had been waiting for, and I threw myself into the internet head-first. My only interest in physics from that point out was getting the minimum grades possible to continue to grant me access to the campus computer labs where were powerful on the day, and were connected via Ethernet. Shortly, games like Quake would come out, where a group of us would be sitting around a table playing not only with each other, but with teams around the world. This was the last 2 years of my college education: skipping class and building things that worked with the internet. My first website, with my own domain name, was called neilsmachine.com (long-since abandoned by me), and for the time, was very cool. Using a pager-watch, and an online service that sent messages to pagers, I connected the contact form on neilsmachine to send me a page when someone submitted it. For 1999, this was all very cool.
Then, I was informed that due to my lack of class attendance (as in, I stopped going entirely my last semester), I was not going to be allowed to graduate with my peers. I would be allowed to make up the two missing classes that summer. This was the final straw. A week later I was in Atlanta starting my first job at VerticalOne as a web designer at the height of the dot-com boom. VerticalOne was acquired by S1 for around $150M, and had my timing had been a few months earlier, I might have been a millionaire at 21 years of age. Such were the days of the dot-com boom.
But of course, no one remembers the dot-com boom, they only remember the dot-com bust.
Thus was the inauspicious start to my career. I had no college degree (2 classes left, remember), but there was no way I was going back with my tail between my legs. I decided I was going to go all-in with the software industry that had no jobs, and any jobs that were left were being off-shored to India. I formed my own company – which failed of course – but in the course of failing I learned far more that I could have every dreamed. You see, while I am a poor student in a classroom, I learn real-world lessons very well. The rest of my career had me laid off twice, fired twice, and bouncing around more companies that I can count. I figured, “Maybe I should write down all the stuff I learned, so other people don’t have to learn things the hard way like I had to.”
That brings us to current day.