Growing Up Geek: Chris Ziegler

Chris Ziegler
C. Ziegler|11.02.10

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Growing Up Geek: Chris Ziegler
Welcome to Growing Up Geek, a new feature where we take a look back at our youth, and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. This week, we have our very own Senior Mobile Editor, Chris Ziegler.

I can't remember a time when technology wasn't in my blood. Yep, that's me up there, sporting the OshKosh B'Gosh overalls, hunting and pecking my way through BASIC on a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A while basking in the warm glow of a 13-inch RCA color TV with a rabbit-ear antenna and faux wood veneer... in a booster chair. I don't even know if I was eating solid food at this point.

Okay, I was probably eating solid food, but what I'm getting at is that I was smitten by all things digital when I was still just a wee tyke... and I never really looked back. You know how as you're growing up, your family and your teachers tell you that what you can do is limited only by your imagination? Well, I think what attracted me to computers so very early on was that they represent a concrete incarnation of that philosophy -- if you've got an idea and you possess the skill to code it, it can exist. That's a pretty magical and powerful realization to a kid fixated on someday ruling the world.

In preschool and elementary school, my summer days were often spent working through Number Stumper on my beloved Speak & Math. I had a Speak & Spell, too -- this was back before the days when they were hardware hacking targets, mind you -- but the Math model was my true love, and I eventually wore down the membrane keypad to the point that the top layer peeled off. I think I was kind of mesmerized by the weird-sounding man inside the machine; I didn't have a firm grasp on the concept of speech synthesis, you see. To this day, I can vividly hear it saying "Number Stumper, level len" in my mind. (When it said "one," it sounded like "len." Go ahead, if you still have a Speak & Math, pull it out and try it.)

As obsessed with computers as I was becoming, my family didn't have a "popular" machine until I was quite a bit older -- the TI-99/4A was it. I never had a Commodore 64, an Amiga, an IBM PC/XT, an Apple II, or a Macintosh. Like many schools at the time, mine had an Apple II in every classroom -- the original sickly beige ones with the giant keyboards, dual 5.25-inch floppy drives, and no persistent storage -- and that quickly became my main exposure to mainstream computing, if you could call it that. As I recall, we had one fancy IIGS in our library, but it was mostly reserved for librarians and teachers; playing with the glorious color display was a special treat, a break from the green monotony of the monochrome IIs. Like most people my age, I have countless memories of being rewarded with Oregon Trail time for good behavior in the classroom, happily wasting away my recess dying of dysentery over and over again.

I was probably 9 or 10 years old when my parents sprung the news on me that they were getting a "real" computer. We had family friends who worked in education and were big into Macs, but my dad was insistent we go the PC route to make sure I learned a popular, well-supported platform. At that time, there were local shops sprouting up everywhere that made a business out of manufacturing "clones" -- in retrospect, it's funny to think that these machines were thought of as fake IBMs, but IBM was still the bellwether of the PC industry back then, so that's how it went. Of course, the real IBMs were much more expensive -- and companies like Compaq, Dell, and Gateway had yet to make a big splash in the consumer market -- so that's how these clone shops made a living. Anyhow, my dad took me down to the shop, and over the course of a couple weeks he picked out a model that was roughly equivalent to an IBM PC/AT with 5.25-inch and 3.5-inch floppy drives along with a 40MB hard drive and had it built. I remember being blown away by the 14-inch Samsung VGA CRT -- talk about photo-realistic! Looking back, I'm pretty sure we didn't legally own a single piece of software on that machine (sorry, Microsoft), but that giant brick is where I cut my teeth.

Fast forward a few years; the family went through a 386DX, signed up for Prodigy, and bought our first cutting-edge PC, a Dell Dimension XPS with a 90MHz Pentium. I'd literally wear out my PC Magazines every two weeks (John Dvorak and Abort, Retry, Fail? were my favorite sections), but the issue where my beloved Dimension was tested and declared the winner of the publication's 90MHz shootout was eventually destroyed from my incessant nightly readings. When I was 13, I'd somehow talked my way into Microsoft's Windows 95 beta test -- I still have every single build CD neatly stacked somewhere -- which at the time was pretty much the crowning achievement of my unabashedly nerdy life. I remember that if I got home from school and I saw an Airborne Express envelope on the doorstep, that meant a new build had been delivered and I had a fun night of installing and testing ahead of me.

In high school, I founded the computer club and co-ran a monthly programming competition. Needless to say, by the time I got to college, I couldn't get down to the advising office fast enough to declare my major in Computer Engineering, and I spent most of my twenties coding. I also spent the early part of the decade desperately searching for decent smartphones that worked in the US, cursing the fact that manufacturers like HP, Compaq, Palm, and Handspring didn't seem to realize that these two awesome devices -- the PDA and the cellphone -- should obviously be one. That aggravation drove me to the brink of madness, which in turn led to a pretty early obsession for mobile technology... which ultimately led me to become a daily reader of Engadget Mobile later on. You know the rest.

So how and why did I make the switch from programming gadgets to writing about them? I don't think I can explain that, to be honest -- as far as I can tell, it was mostly happenstance and dumb luck. Despite the fact that I went through the entirety of my college education avoiding writing, it turns out that I actually love it... I just needed to be writing about something I love. Maybe it's that some of the mystique of programming is gone -- the proliferation of the internet has been one of the most transformational and positive events in mankind's history, but I think it's taken away some of the joy you got when you found a new programming technique or a place to buy that modem you were looking for, because information is everywhere now. The downside to that, of course, is that the deluge of information needs to be filtered... and I like to think that's how I fit into the puzzle these days.

And I've never lost sight of my nerd street cred, by the way: I'll be wearing my MSN Direct watch the day the network goes dark early next year. Geek 'til I die, yo.
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