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Growing Up Geek: Zachary Lutz

Zachary Lutz

Welcome to Growing Up Geek, an ongoing feature where we take a look back at our youth and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. Today, we have our very own Contributing Mobile Editor, Zachary Lutz.

Perhaps it requires a special breed to proudly wear the label of "geek." No, I'm not talking about circus performers that bite heads off chickens (check the original meaning of the word), but about people like you and me, the folks who pursue their interests to a fantastic degree. It doesn't matter whether your passion is knitting, fishing or kayaking; if you're a curious individual who's always thirsting to learn more, there's a good chance we'll get along. For me, my pigeonhole just so happens to be computers -- and, more recently, mobile technology. Sure, you could blame it on way too many hours in front of the screen, but as a certain self-empowered pop star might say, I'd like to think I was born this way.

Few would know it, but I greeted the world on a relatively important day in computing history. Just 150 miles away in Twin Falls, Idaho, Apple's 1984 commercial -- the very ad famous for being broadcast only once, during Super Bowl XVIII -- aired for the first time on December 15th, 1983. As a little industry trick, the company purchased a 30-second slot at 1:00 AM so that the commercial would be eligible for that year's advertising awards. You could argue the tactic was a bit devious, but I'd like to think that magic was in the air on that cold winter day.

Of course, this alignment of the stars has relegated me to serve as my family's go-to tech guru ever since. This began when I was two years old and was coaxed to program the time on the VCR to stop the clock from blinking. Admittedly, my family wasn't very forward-thinking when it came to technology, but all that began to change when I contributed part of my savings so that we could buy our first computer, the Commodore 64C, from a local elementary school that had upgraded its lab to IBM PCs. The C64 remained our only computer until 1996, but during that time, my passion for technology was born -- even if I didn't realize it. You see, like many, I treated the Commodore as a gaming platform, and while the command "LOAD "*",8,1" may be forever ingrained into my memory, I still didn't learn much from the experience.

Let's fast forward in time a bit to '96, with the purchase of our first PC, a 133MHz Pentium from Packard Bell that ran Windows 95. Like many computers of that era, it featured a customized UI, here known as Navigator, which provided a house metaphor for completing tasks, accessing applications and so on. These interfaces were presumably intended to save novices from the horrors of the Start Menu, which was obviously meant for pros only. Fortunately, there was an Exit sign that brought the user to the proper Windows desktop. I relate this experience to the current landscape of Android phones and tablets, where custom UIs are largely the norm, except now, there's no Exit sign -- no way to access a proper home screen. Perhaps I find the current situation so frustrating because looking back, had I not been able to exit Navigator, I wouldn't have learned much at all.

Thankfully, that wasn't the case. Combined with my obsession with viewing full motion video in Encarta '96, hand-coding web pages with as much bling and animated GIFs as possible and building up my metropolis in SimCity 2000, I spent ample time playing with alternative window managers, dabbling in Linux and more or less breaking the computer while forcing myself to fix it before my parents could find out. Then, everything changed for me again. I discovered the PBS documentary titled Triumph of the Nerds, which taught me the history of computing and inspired my fondness for the Macintosh.

I'll admit it, I was under Steve Jobs' mind-control abilities at the time. Apple was the company that built tools for people who'd change the world. I was convinced that once I owned a Mac, my entire computing experience -- and hence, my entire life as I knew it -- would change for the better. There was nothing I wanted more than a Bondi Blue iMac for Christmas. So, I created a teal-and-white paper chain to represent the countdown, and would tear off a link each day. When December 25th, 1998 finally came, I was overjoyed for sure, yet humbled by how much I still had to learn. (I'd originally thought the CD-ROM drive was broken, because the eject button wouldn't work. Turns out, as you know, discs are ejected by dragging them to the trash.) Still, I loved Apple so much, I was convinced I should join the company.

I've never thought of myself as an engineer, be it of the hardware or software persuasion, and hence I decided the only meaningful way I could go to work in Cupertino was as part of Apple's marketing division. I majored in the subject while at the University of Idaho (Go Vandals!) and while there, served as the Apple Certified Hardware Technician for the campus and local residents. At a particularly low point in the company's quality control, it seemed that I was replacing the logic board on one-in-three iMac G5s the bookstore sold. I even began timing myself and, at my best, was able to do a full repair, from non-functional to good-as-new, in less than 13 minutes. Later, I served as the Apple Campus Rep, where I ran promotions, set up demos and got to meet many talented people across the northwest. My sales figures were consistently among the best, and it seemed as if the path was being laid for my pilgrimage to Cupertino. Yet somewhere along the way, I fell out of love with the company. I graduated without much fanfare, unsure that marketing was for me.

My next few years could be analogized as wandering the desert, where everything I'd been working toward was no more. I eventually found myself in a small Boise law office, where -- surprise, surprise -- I became (among other things), the resident tech expert and helped drag the attorneys slightly more into the digital age. Let's just say I didn't get along with paper calendars...

Let me confess to you, I've never written professionally before. After finally deciding that I had little interest in pursuing a legal career, I began formulating my next step, where I'd combine my two primary passions: writing and tech. I figured I'd start my own site, and while I didn't have the means or access to a litany of mobile phones, nothing was going to stop me from going into retail outlets and crafting reviews of the experience. Maybe, just maybe, Engadget would one day take notice. As fate goes, that never came to be. Instead, I learned my favorite tech site was hiring for the first time in years, and knew I'd forever regret not taking the chance. The review I submitted was of my aging BlackBerry Tour, which was perfect for having a little fun. Then, Tim called. Then Darren. Then Tim, again. Before I knew it, I was reading my own stories on this incredible site. Sure, I look back and wince at some of the early articles, but I will be forever thankful to this team of talented writers and experts for showing me the ropes and bringing me up to speed. Just like the technology world, life moves pretty fast sometimes, and if there's anything I've learned, you've got to be ready for when that moment comes. No matter what your interest or passion, I firmly believe these moments happen in all our lives. Just be ready, and when the time comes for you, don't be afraid to let your inner geek shine.

Zachary Lutz can be found on Twitter (@zacharylutz). Sure, he's not the most outspoken of the bunch, but he'd love if you dropped by and said, "Hi," or "What the hell??" once in a while. His ultimate man cave might just look something like this -- although, with a bit more diversity.

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