( Excerpt from Professional DNN7 Open Source.NET CMS Platform by WROX Press )
In 1979, when I was 9 years old, my family relocated from Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, to Ashcroft, a tiny community in the south-central interior of British Columbia with a population of approximately 1500 people. We relocated with a grand vision - to start a commercial vineyard. My grandfather had owned a vineyard in Kelowna and he had sold it with the idea that the hot arid climate in Ashcroft, combined with cheap abundant land, would be a perfect environment for him and his children to establish a large, successful vineyard.
My mother and father, grandparents, and two uncles bought approximately 200 acres of sagebrush-covered land about 30 minutes outside Ashcroft, an area known as Basque Siding that was only accessible by navigating 5 miles of unpaved roads. We each had our own 50-acre parcel of land but the family all worked together to establish the infrastructure to develop our vineyards. We installed power, irrigation systems, cleared land, and built houses. Then we planted seedling grapes, and grew alfalfa and other crops to provide some initial income, as a vineyard takes five years before it reaches full production. We were extremely self-sufficient and raised our own cows, pigs, turkeys, and chickens, as well as our own fruits and vegetables.
When I was 12 years old we visited my cousins in Kelowna and I was introduced to the Commodore VIC-20 for the first time. My cousins were using it to play games but my parents clearly saw my fascination in this little machine. Money was scarce, so I am not sure what ultimately motivated their decision, but they decided to purchase a base model VIC-20, which came with an integrated keyboard, a cassette tape drive, and a user manual. They also had one stipulation - the only games I could play were games I created myself.
So I spent a lot of time typing BASIC code into the computer and storing the programs on cassette tape. My parents got me a subscription to COMPUTE! magazine, which provided source code listings for more advanced games. Pretty soon I started to recognize the patterns and techniques required to write programs, and I started building my own applications. Living on a remote farm created a perfect environment for investing myself in computers, as there were few distractions - I was either outside working in the vineyard ( pruning, weeding, picking, cultivating ) or I was inside the house typing code. My two younger brothers were more than happy to play the games that I created for them.
When I saw the movie War Games in 1983 starring Mathew Broderick, I really got excited about the potential of computers as more than just a standalone device. In the movie, the character played by Broderick hacks into the NORAD super computer nicknamed "Joshua" using a backdoor password and mistakenly invokes Global Thermonuclear War. In the climax, the supercomputer is tricked into playing Tic-Tac-Toe against itself until it reaches a draw and declares that "the only winning move is not to play." After watching this movie numerous times I was convinced that I wanted to be a "hacker" and I sent off handwritten letters to many of the vendors listed in COMPUTE! magazine asking how I could become a programmer.
In the summer of 1983 we took a long road trip to Disneyland in California and spent some time visiting my uncle in the Bay Area. During this trip my parents finally caved in to my demands for a computer upgrade. The Commodore 64 was a large enhancement over the VIC-20, and we were able to get a good deal on a Commodore 64 package, a 1702 color monitor, and a 1541 floppy disk drive. I could not wait to get home and plug in these amazing new devices.
The following winter my family suffered a significant setback. Some exceptionally cold weather killed all of our grape plants, which ended my parents' dream of operating a large commercial vineyard. They did not have the resources to replant the vineyard, so they both had to work traditional jobs while continuing to operate the farm by selling fruits and vegetables to the local markets to try and make ends meet. This was very hard work and demanded the family's full attention almost year round. The entire family pitched in to try and keep the farm afloat as my parents tried valiantly to preserve their investment.
When I reached high school I was allowed to participate in an accelerated learning program that allowed me to take Computer Science courses that were two grade levels higher than my current grade. This exposed me to IBM PCs and Apple II computers and some new programming languages. I loved the challenge of solving problems and got a lot of satisfaction out of being able to tell the computer to follow my specific instructions. I had found my passion and I knew at that point that my future career would involve software development. This was well before the Internet was invented - in fact, my household was still on a party line for phone service that we shared with four other families. It was also well before graphical user interfaces, cell phones, and other technology that we take for granted now.
When I was 17 years old my family had another major setback. My father collapsed at work and was rushed to the hospital in Kamloops. The doctor discovered that he had suffered a brain aneurysm - at the age of 37. The high stress of trying to keep the farm afloat was identified as one of the potential causes for the aneurysm, which finally prompted my parents to make the decision to cut their losses and get rid of the farm immediately. Because there were no interested buyers, my parents decided to walk away from it with only two vehicles and enough money to put a minimum down payment on a small house in Ashcroft. Financially, this was an extremely challenging time for the family.
As ironic as it sounds, moving into Ashcroft was like moving into a big city, as previously it required a 30-45 minute drive to get even basic necessities such as groceries. I got a job as a dishwasher at one of the few local restaurants and worked 20-30 hours a week during my final years of high school. In addition to working, I also played competitive ice hockey on a rep team and probably could have pursued a scholarship if I had taken it more seriously. I graduated with honors in 1989 from Ashcroft Secondary School. My graduating class had only 30 student, most of whom left town almost immediately to find suitable work.
The opportunities for scholarships in a small town were rather slim, and because my parents were in the process of starting over financially, they did not have the resources to help me with my education. So I decided to take a year off from school and focus on working and saving some money. I moved to Sunnyvale, California, to work in residential construction with my uncle. I got an apartment with two friends from high school. This was a huge culture shock moving from a town of 1500 people to an apartment building in Silicon Valley, which had almost 1500 people. I grew up quickly that year, taking care of myself and learning about life and responsibilities. But I knew after 1 year that I needed to get back to my true passion of software development.
I decided to go to Okanagan College in Kelowna and take a 2-year diploma program. I would have considered taking a university degree program but the cost was too prohibitive for my meager financial means at the time (I was denied access to student loans because of a technicality in the application process). I got a job at the Keg Restaurant in Kelowna and worked full time as a dishwasher, cook, and server while I was going to college so that I could make ends meet. The Computer Information Systems program had a co-op option that allowed me to get some work experience at a small software company in Mission, British Columbia, which was a provider of financial products for school districts and municipalities. This was a great launch pad for my career as a software developer, as I was given a lot of freedom and authority to build and enhance enterprise products. I graduated from college in late 1992 with a CIS diploma and entered the workforce as a software developer.
One thing that my family always emphasized to me was to focus on solving problems in a repeatable manner. It is not a good use of time to have to reinvent the wheel each time you encounter a problem - it is better to build a solution that you can utilize over and over. In my early software career this served me well, as it is a mindset that is essential to building software products. And going beyond single-use applications, my passion was on building tools that could be utilized to build many types of software products. Essentially, this involved creating libraries or frameworks that could be the building blocks for larger application. Between 1993 and 2001 I worked in a variety of private and public software product environments, creating many tools and frameworks in different languages, environments, and on different hardware platforms.
Next: The Dot-Com Era
Shaun Walker has 25+ years professional experience in architecting and implementing enterprise software solutions for private and public organizations. Shaun is the original creator of DotNetNuke, a Web Application Framework which is one of the pioneering open source software applications native to the Microsoft platform. He was one of the original founders of DNN Corp, a commercial software company providing products, services, and technical support for DotNetNuke, which raised 3 rounds of venture capital from top tier Silicon Valley investors. Based on his significant community contributions he has been recognized as a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) as well as an ASPInsider for over 10 consecutive years. He was recognized by Business In Vancouver as a leading entrepreneur in their Forty Under 40 business awards, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of the Outercurve Foundation, and is currently the Chairman of the Advisory Council for Microsoft's .NET Foundation. Shaun is currently a Technical Director and Enterprise Guildmaster at Cognizant Softvision ( Arrow Digital ).