Me with Commodore 128 in 1985

40 things I learned in 40 years about technology

Forty years ago this month, I started my first job in the computer industry. I got an internship with EnTech, a small Commodore 64 software company in the San Fernando Valley. I’ve been working in the computer industry ever since. (A couple of my novels, Offline and Amiga. are set in that industry.) Like other milestone anniversaries, I put together a list of what I’ve learned from working in technology.

  1. Good technology is useful technology. If it’s easy to use, enables you to accomplish tasks more efficiently, and makes your life better, it doesn’t matter how cutting edge it is.
  2. Technology has destroyed entire fields of work and created new ones. We no longer need clerk typists or bookkeepers who maintain paper ledgers, which were jobs my wife and I did when we were younger. We have whole new careers like IT, data security, and web design. It has created opportunities as old professions have faded.
  3. If it weren’t for video conferencing, we wouldn’t have made it through the pandemic.
  4. Technology has democratized journalism. Think about critical news events that have taken place over the past decade. The public wouldn’t have even known about them if people didn’t have smartphones on the scene to record and broadcast instantaneously events as they happen.
  5. Technology has also increased the creation and dissemination of disinformation. Photoshopped images, deep fakes, and conspiracy theories can easily spread and be accepted as fact before anyone has a chance to refute them.
  6. No industry leader stays on top forever. Commodore, Compaq, Yahoo, MySpace, and Twitter are just a few examples of companies that dominated the market and then fell off because of their own missteps or a better technology came along.
  7. Privacy is important, but people would rather have convenience and personalization.
  8. Programming boils down to a few basic principles: input, output, variables, operations, declarations, data types, if-then-else, do-while loops, functions, subroutines, and global/local scope. When you learn these fundamentals, you can pick up any programming language.
  9. Debugging software is one of the most valuable skills I’ve learned. It requires patience, persistence, objectivity, trial and error, and careful observation. I’ve found it useful in areas outside of programming.
  10. If a feature isn’t documented, it doesn’t exist.
  11. Screen readers, Braille laptops, and AAC devices are some of the valuable tools that help people with physical limitations. They show how technology can improve the quality of life.
  12. Technology can also improve the quality of life for people in the Global South and disadvantaged communities everywhere. Microfinance, access to information and education, and tools for community organization can help people climb out of poverty and flourish. At the same time, we need to prevent the exploitation and ecological damage caused by mining for materials used to make computers and other high tech products. Recycling and reuse help.
  13. Rather than isolate, technology brings people together. We can communicate with people around the world and reconnect with old friends we haven’t seen in years. Online friendships can be as rich and fulfilling as in-person ones.
  14. On the other hand, we have catfishing, unsolicited nudes, and scam artists of all kinds.
  15. It’s unfair to blame all of society’s ills on technology. There have always been bad actors. Technology does make it easier for them to do widespread damage.
  16. Politicians should learn how a technology works before they regulate it.
  17. Beware when governments want to shut down social media platforms “for the public’s good.” When governments become repressive, the first thing they do is shut down those gathering places. The real danger doesn’t come from social media. It comes from those who want to restrict where people can meet and what information they can access.
  18. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But technology has become so commonplace and ingrained in our society that it’s no longer magical and any advancement is expected.
  19. QR codes are an underrated user interface.
  20. Passwords are a poor form of security. They can be easy to use and vulnerable, or they are secure and unusable. Biometrics are better, but they require passwords to set them up.
  21. The biggest problem with digital media is its lack of archivability. Paper books remain readable for centuries. You can look at 170-year-old photos and play 100-year-old phonograph records. Digital works can be lost within years because they are in obsolete file and media formats. With most of us keeping our photos and documents in digital media, decades of history can be lost if this media becomes unretrievable.
  22. Save and back up frequently.
  23. If you’re giving a computer-based presentation, always have backup plans. Back up your presentation to a USB drive in case your computer crashes. Print out your slides to read if the overhead projector fails. Do a test run of your demo software before you’re ready to present. Be ready to give alternative content if the demo doesn’t work. Expect everything to fail.
  24. Version 1.0 products always have problems.
  25. Point to a successful company with world-class products, and you’ll find a dozen or so products that didn’t make the grade. Remember Microsoft Bob? Apple Lisa? And how many products has Google tossed out over the past few years?
  26. If you need to upgrade your computer, don’t cut corners. Get the best equipment you can afford. If you buy a computer that doesn’t meet your performance and storage needs in the long-run, you will have to go through the cost of upgrading sooner than you’d like.
  27. One of the reasons why I’m currently an Apple fan is how all the pieces in its environment work together. My Mac works with my iPhone that works with my Apple Watch. I add something to my calendar, and it appears automatically on my other devices. I take a photo on my iPhone, and it shows up on my Mac. I get a message, and it dings on my iPhone and Mac and vibrates on my Apple Watch. And I don’t have to configure anything to make this work.
  28. I’ve never had as much fun with a computer as I did with my Commodore 64. Great games as well as excellent music programs and productivity software. And there was GEOS, which gave the Commodore 64 a Mac-like interface. It was a highly capable computer for its time.
  29. Like all advancements in technology, generative AI is just a tool. But tools can be misused. (Even a screwdriver can be a deadly weapon.) Rather than be afraid of generative AI and other new technologies, we should understand them and learn how to use them. This way, we can prevent their misuse.
  30. Hacking isn’t like the movies. It doesn’t involve someone in a basement typing really fast on a computer and declaring, “I’m in!” It’s usually someone sending out an email or text with a malicious link or download and hoping someone is dumb enough to click it.
  31. Don’t click unless you check.
  32. Don’t forward emails or social media posts unless you check.
  33. The biggest joy of technical writing is that it’s an evolving and expanding field. We use technologies that haven’t existed before that change how people live. We are part of a global community that looks for better ways to make technology accessible to users of all kinds. This is why I’ve enjoyed the journey as a technical writer for these past 40 years, and I look forward to many more years to come.
  34. Each step forward in documentation creation requires us to master new tools and skills. We need to rethink how we present information. Long narrative descriptions gave way to numbered steps and chunked information. We must also think about how information will appear on different size screens and meet the needs of different types of users. These challenges give us opportunities to learn and grow.
  35. I credit technology for my growth as a creative writer. Word processing and editing tools make writing easier. Print-on-demand and eBooks spurred self-publishing and indie presses. Social media has become vital for marketing and connecting with publishers, agents, and other authors. I wouldn’t have gone as far in my creative writing career without technology.
  36. An EV is a computer you can ride in. (That’s the way I feel about mine.)
  37. I’m still amazed that my Apple Watch has more computing power than the first computer I used at a UCLA computer lab in 1980 that took up an entire air conditioned room.
  38. Technology makes our lives easier. In an increasing number of cases, it is necessary for our survival. Embrace new technology, but understand that our dependency on it makes us vulnerable. We must recognize the tradeoffs and be ready when that technology fails, because it will.
  39. I like technology because it enables us to do things better and more efficiently. It solves problems, offers opportunities, and helps people overcome challenges. I’m proud to be a part of a field that improves the quality of life for all people.
  40. We live in the times science fiction authors wrote about. Let’s work to give this story a happy ending.