Thoughts on cast-iron seasoning, programming and everything…

Gap Year

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So I followed through and took one year off from school. A “Gap Year” as it is somewhat euphemistically referred to. I spent some time working for a cousin in Portland doing construction. After that I helped my dad move a boat from Puerto Vallarta to San Diego. When I returned from that, I was hired by a family friend, David Firth, as a shop hand for his small business.

That was about six months into my Vacation. Shortly after I started working for him, I had to start thinking about whether I was going to return to school the following fall. It was immediately clear to me that I was still not ready to go back, so one year turned into two.

I ended up working for David Firth for most of the balance of my Vacation. I learned a fantastic amount there. David is an amazing man, both incredibly intelligent and talented, and incredibly driven.

I learned many things during my time working with him. He directly trained me in many tasks and skills; through my work I got the chance to practice and develop others. I learned how to pressure seal and test a vacuum tank, prepare and wire complex devices, turn metal on a lathe, use a mill, hand-form sheet metal, arc-weld sheet metal, pour a polyethylene mold, along with many other skills.

David also taught me to use “gentle but appropriate force.” When I first started working for him, I had a tendency to apply all of my strength to any given task. He taught me to pay attention to what I was applying force to - whether it was tightening a bolt, or replacing a light bulb - and to gauge whether or not I was over-stressing the material. This was an invaluable help to me, at a time when I was still becoming used to the full strength of my adult body.

David also taught me many things implicitly. Since I was his only employee, I got to work very closely with him. My job was essentially to build the machines that he spent his days designing. When I encountered unexpected difficulties in production, I would ask David how to resolve them. This occurred often at first as I was still learning the process of building the machines. Later, the difficulties were fewer but often more profound.

Sometimes when I encountered a difficulty in some assembly step, it wasn’t indicative of my lack of expertise. Sometimes it was the process itself that was flawed. As David inspected every issue he would analyze the problem out loud. He didn’t do this for my benefit; it was his process. But it gave me the chance to watch him at work. As he was analyzing the issues, he compared them to his intentions in the design phase; he triaged which problems were design flaws, and which were caused by imprecision in the work done by outside contractors. And he talked about the solutions.

It was during one of these reactive design sessions that I decided to go back to school. I was so inspired by my exposure to his design process, that I wanted to pursue a discipline that would allow me to do that kind of work. I have always loved “inventing” things. When I was little, my mother had a box of mechanical, electrical and plumbing junk that was my “invention box.” Really the process that I love is designing things. I used to spend hours drawing pictures of devices that I wanted to build. I’ve continued to do this throughout my life, up to and including while I was working for David. However, I rarely, if ever actually ended up building any of my creations. Working with David, I got a glimpse of what it would take to bring my ideas into the world. It made me want to be able to do that.

I decided to return to college to pursue an engineering degree. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I decided on engineering. David’s degree was in Industrial Design. Perhaps I felt intimidated by the art requirements. Regardless, because of my new rationale for college, I started looking beyond St. John’s to different schools with good engineering programs. During this time, my mother urged me once again to take a look at Western Washington University.

Going Back?

Mostly to humor my mother, I did some browsing around on the internet about Western. Somehow, I stumbled across the Fairhaven College website and was intrigued enough to stick around. I ended up finding a list of colleges that had similar goals as Fairhaven. Seeing both St. John’s College and Colorado College - another college I was very intrigued by - on the list, I was immediately sold. Once again, when it came time to apply, I knew that Western, and specifically Fairhaven, was the only school that I was interested in attending. I applied only to Fairhaven, and visited the campus for the first time on the day of my Fairhaven interview.

As I was preparing to go to Western during the last few months that I worked for David Firth, I started to teach myself programming. That was actually part of how I knew I was in a better space to go back to school. I had rediscovered my love of learning, and was pursuing it in my own free time for my own sake. I have wanted to learn to program for a long time. It’s very difficult at this point to pinpoint when that desire first manifested itself, because for a long time it didn’t seem feasible. I didn’t have much access to computers when I was younger, and certainly no mentors to help me get started on that path. So I just sort of admired computers from arm’s length. When I combined this long standing semi-obsession with the sense of empowerment and increased interest in learning I got from taking time off, it was inevitable that I would start programming; and I loved it.

I spent most of my first year at Western taking mainly Fairhaven classes. Along with those, I took the entry level programming class during winter quarter, and did quite well. During spring quarter, I took my first engineering class. The difference between the two was extreme. Despite some initial frustrations with the programming language used in Computer Science 141, I thoroughly enjoyed the class. Engineering Technology 110 was a very different story.

From a certain perspective, it might just have been happenstance. I enjoyed the engineering class, but I had no preparation for it. At the same time, I got the feeling that a significant number of the other students already had a greater amount of knowledge and experience. In the programming class though, I was clearly ahead of the curve. During the weekly labs it was obvious that there were only a few other people that knew as much about programming as I did. For this class I was clearly over-prepared. These seemingly minor differences resulted in massively different reactions from me. Solely on the basis of those two classes I decided to pursue a computer science major instead of engineering.

In another lifetime I can see myself getting more hands on experience building things when I was little. Instead of spending all of my energy on the initial design phase, I would have learned more about how to actually build things. This would have prepared me better for the engineering class, and I might have had an experience more comparable to the programming class. What I don’t know is whether that would have made a difference. As I said earlier, I spent quite a lot of time building things with David.

In some respects, this story about how and why I became a CS major is another “single story” that I tell myself about my life. But this story isn’t really serving a particular purpose; it’s mostly because I forget the other parts. In reality, I didn’t first teach myself to program while I was working for David Firth right before I started at Western in 2008. It really started six years earlier, when I was 14.