My Own Solo Founder / Programmer Journey
I loved inventing, designing, and creating things!
As a little boy growing up in Florida, when I wasn’t outside getting sunburned, my favorite ‘toy’ was one of those erector sets (basically a metal ‘Lego’ set). Mine even had an electric motor and gears, so I could build cranes and vehicles. I remember how excited I was at school when I built and demonstrated a submarine (in an aquarium) built out of plastic bottles, powered with that same erector set motor and ‘controlled’ from a tether of homemade switches and wires. Woops… after a glorious 10 minutes my seals failed and water ruined the electronics. But I learned early on that you only get a chance at that rush of excitement if you take some risks.
I learned to learn by doing
I might be an ‘OG’ who grew up before everyone had smartphones, but I often feel that computers have been in my brain all of my life. I was watching the original Star Trek series when I started elementary school, and my friends and I would make hand phasers out of matchboxes. The Enterprise crew had the original cellphone (communicator), original GPS/laptop (tricorder), original 3-D printer (food replicator), and most importantly, the original Alexa (the entire ship was a flying computer). I knew from an early age that I wanted to create and program computers. Even way back then, I managed in 4th grade to get into a special class where I learned to write and execute my first real computer program… on an ancient (even then) teletype terminal that had no screen and was hooked into a mainframe computer across town. I typed in code and could store it on a paper tape! You could figure out the hex code from the holes punched in the tape.
From gaming to a professional career
I won’t go into any detail here, but I was one of the first people in high school to type in a term paper using my VIC20 computer (MOS 6502 CPU, 5K of RAM, and cassette tape for data) and dot matrix printer. I remember because it could not produce true descenders on letters like j or p. I saved up and got the upgraded Commodore 64 (MOS 6510 processor, with 64K of RAM!). That is where I really learned to program in BASIC, creating my own Star Trek games firing photon torpedoes on the 320×200, 16 color TV screen. In college I went from Electrical Engineer to the new Computer Engineering department, where I programmed on everything from old PDP-11 and IBM360 systems, to the Apple IIe and IBM Compatible microcomputers. I can still hear my 300/1200 baud modem connecting to the university mainframe!
On the side, my friends and I were always trying to write emulations of arcade games in a bid to make $$$. The things that all the microcomputers had in common back then was that the hardware interfaces or slots were all open source. You could build electronics and connect them to the motherboards and program anything. I even got a job in the Biology Department where I built a honey bee sensor using an Apple IIe and BASIC. That is what really excited me. All the crazy hobby stuff I did and work-study jobs in college helped me for years in getting great jobs. I have professionally worked as an engineer on things ranging from Navy submarine computers to private sector corporate jobs detecting underground fuel leaks. I even quit my corporate job with benefits to join several engineers as we created a startup of our own. I remember flying up to New York, carry a one-of-a-kind prototype on the airplane (today’s TSA would never allow it) and meeting a shifty finance guy who wanted to sell us a shell corporation so we could go ‘public’. I barely understood any of this, mainly focusing on the hardware and software.
Startups before I even heard of the term
One of my most glorious ‘failures’, and probably one of the turning points of my life, was when on my own I founded (in my late twenties) a startup to create a navigation system for visually impaired people. I won’t go into details here, but I had found that GPS was not accurate enough to enable fixing a person’s position on a side walk, especially around tall buildings, etc. I envisioned and built a portable computer that used inertial navigation sensors and a computer program (I wrote in Turbo Pascal), and could help guide a blind person around a digital map. After reading about small businesses and funding – the term ‘Startup’ didn;t even seem to exist back then, I decided I would start a 501C3 charity to do this, so that I could apply for a Small Business Innovative Research Grant (SBIR) for the whopping value of $100,000. To me back then, that would have been like getting millions in VC funding today.
Not knowing that all of this is virtually impossible for an established team, I did it all alone and got the IRS approvals, created a Board of Advisors, applied for SBIR grants, and even started the patent application! We started having babies, and I was working as a consultant to make money, while I did all the rest of this… again alone…and in Tampa, a city know for its beaches and cigars, with zero startup scene. Oh yeah, no Internet back then either. And I got the grant! So where is the failure part? Well, a recession hit and I started getting letters from the government that the grant was delayed, then delayed again, then cancelled. I just couldn’t make it work. The other really bad thing with a recession is that instead of there being lots of jobs in the newspaper classifieds (remember no LinkedIn), there were zero jobs and all the consulting dried up! Baby #3 was on the way too.
Losing the fear of failure
Out of the ashes of defeat, a victory. One of the few, and I mean like 1 or 2, classified ads that appeared in the newspaper was about something called Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I had never actually heard that term before, but I recognized some of the descriptive language in the ad and realized that part of the software I had written in the navigation invention was indeed a GIS. I only had access to some theoretical books on computerized mapping from the 1950’s in the the engineering library I used. They were pre-GIS. So I sent in my resume and literally stapled a newspaper article that had been written about me and my invention. Years later I was told that over 250 resumes had come in for that job, but mine stuck out because of that article! I got the job. That opened up a whole new world to me that served me well for many many years – GIS.
Closed source to open source development
Software-as-a-Service has exploded and there are many ways to create SaaS, both using open source languages/frameworks and using closed development systems like Bubble.io. But based on my own experiences using WordPress, I feel that it has become a real contender for creating SaaS, especially the more specific micro SaaS. The micro part is what attracts me the most. I personally am looking for things that #1) I can design and program and create myself, as a solo founder / solo programmer, and #2) I can run mainly on my own as a sustainable business. I have also found that things have come more full circle for me too. WordPress and its very documented, open source code – with its plugin action hooks and filters, helper functions, and flexible architecture – reminds me of some of my very first experiences programming and modifying those Commodore 64’s, Apple IIe’s, and IBM PC’s. And bets of all, with the new open source legal structures and protections, this open framework is here to stay. At least until someone comes up with something even cooler!
What I am doing with PluggedIntoProgramming
So if you made it this far on this about page… you may be wondering, what is this OG guy doing with this site?
- I want to help reverse the situation we are in where fewer and fewer people know how to code and create. Our education system does a terrible job of instilling the life-long excitement and fulfillment that technology jobs can bring. I know so may people whose first impressions of programming and developing are all negative – because they were taught by someone who doesn’t have the love of it themselves.
- I want to empower everyday people, from software/IT professionals to artists to homemakers to students – with the power and potential they have access to with open source systems, like WordPress. Regular people can be given skills that can open up new experiences as well as expanded streams of income, both as career jobs and/or as side hustle projects. This is the 21st century and we need 21st century thinking, solutions, and lifestyles. Micro SaaS, plugins, apps – they are just the beginning of what will be coming.
- I want to be a mentor to as many people as possible. Through dumb luck and some perseverance, over all the years of trail and error I described above, was able to use my networking skills to find mentors. These people made big impacts on me and my career and life. Coaching others has become as important to me as has the computer programming. I know that many people who get stuck in life, in the software/IT careers, and on startup projects, sometimes just need some encouragement so they feel like someone has got their back. I know that coaching and mentoring sure has helped me.
So everything I put out from PluggedIntoProgramming – the blog posts, podcasts, and videos – and more… is focused on exploring how far we can push the open sources tools like WordPress to build a better 21st century world for ourselves and others. And I always add a dash of coaching, and a sprinkle of fun.Live long and prosper!