Entries in David (5)


David, what's the deal with your Ph.D.?

I get the question here and there, not often but on a fairly regular interval. Yes, I did get my Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Folks ask me, "What's up with that? What're you doing working as a software engineer, shouldn't you be designing drugs?". Yep, seems like an odd transition and yet it was a pretty easy and a somewhat obvious one at the time.

First off, in graduate school I spent my time studying the relationship between protein structure and function using mostly computational techniques. In laymen's terms that added up to spending about 5 straight years writing computer programs and scripts that looked for structural similarities between different proteins. In the process I learned C, C++ and Perl and got to be a bit of sysadmin for Macs and Unix systems.

Also, when I was wrapping up my studies, there were only limited positions that were interesting and a good match for the skills I'd developed. It was fairly early in the days of using computational approaches to design drugs. Sure, there were jobs, but only a few of them in the Bay Area at the time, and it become clear that I wasn't a first choice for any of them. I could have moved elsewhere in the country but Nancy and I both have family in the Bay Area that we're close to and at the time felt strongly about staying nearby.

Now, it's time to remember that my first love (without question) is music. It's the one thing that's fundamentally "me". There are other things I do well but only one that is at the heart of who I am. It's also important to understand that during my time at G.I.T. in Hollywood about a decade before, I had become fascinated by multi-track recording (in those early days using a 4-track Fostex cassette recorder). During my years in graduate school, I had become an early adopter of a promising but at the time somewhat fickle new computer-based recording system, namely Pro Tools. From the first day I saw it demoed, I felt sure that it was going to change everything about recording, it was only a matter of time. So I started with a 4-track Pro Tools system and then eventually expanded it to 16-tracks. We used to cross our fingers, take a deep breath and very gingerly click the onscreen UI in fear that we would trigger the relatively common crashes that resulted from using Pro Tools in those days. But despite that, it really was a game changer and I was infatuated.

So when I realized I was having a tough go trying to find suitable work in pharmaceutical chemistry that I was excited about, I figured "what the heck?", I'll see if I can get work in the music software world. I sent my resume to Digidesign (now Avid) and waited. Then I followed up with a phone call and after a brief game of phone tag was able to speak to the vice president of software development. He explained that my background wasn't right for their needs (typically they hired DSP engineers out of a handful of strong programs around the country). However, he said that he'd passed my information on to the QA manager at "Digi".

Shortly thereafter, I got a call from the QA manager, and his response was quite different. He was eager to have me come in and interview for a testing position that would include both black box and white box QA. The rest transpired pretty quickly. I came in, went through the interview process, was offered the job and took it. Nancy and I agreed that we'd stay in San Francisco long enough for me to finish off my thesis (roughly 6 months), working during the day and writing at night. Once the thesis was done we hightailed it out of the foggy Sunset District in San Francisco and just far enough down the Peninsula to get out of the fog (Redwood City).

At Digidesign my responsibilities shifted a bit over time, eventually leading me into release engineering and configuration management but what I really wanted was to write code. It was clear after about 3 years at Digidesign that my path into software development would be a slow slog in that organization. Fortunately, around that time I was cold-called by Adobe about a white box QA position. I interviewed for that gig, but the hiring manager and I agreed it wasn't the best fit for me. However, within a few months I got a second chance, this time to join a previous manager of mine and take on the white QA responsibilities for a new web-related app. It was the opportunity I'd been waiting for. Adobe was positioned well in the market and in the industry and was hiring people like crazy.

Oddly enough, that project was cancelled less than a year after I started. We came in a day after a team building event where we'd all gotten T-shirts and were told that we no longer had jobs. We were also told that we had a few days to look around Adobe for other work, and otherwise move on. After a soul-searching weekend, I came in bright and early on a Monday morning, ready to look for another job. I had 2 or 3 leads, and planned to talk to each of those managers before making a decision. It was a busy time and hard to coordinate meetings, but I managed to meet with one of the managers on Monday and had a promising conversation with him and the rest of the team. We agreed that it made sense for me to talk to the other teams before making a final decision. On Tuesday, I came in first-thing, prepared to explore my other options and gather info to support whatever decision was imminent. Then I checked my voicemail. The manager from the previous day's conversation had left me a message. I had until noon to make a decision or else I'd be out of work. I never completely figured out how the timeline changed but at the time it was clear I needed to make decision immediately.

I managed to squeeze in a mid-morning conversation with the manager of a second team, but not enough to get a clear picture of my alternatives. Under the circumstances, the only obvious choice I saw was to take the position offered by the first team. I let both managers know about my decision and began what proved to be the next chapter in my life. My new manager quickly saw something in my that others had not, within a year I was given a software engineer position and eventually ended up as the lead engineer and manager of my team. I ended up working at Adobe for about 6 years and it was a great place to work and very supportive of family life. My daughter was born near the end of my stay at Adobe, and I have fond memories of bringing her to work with me every so often. She played and napped in her stroller while I wrote code.

Eventually, Silicon Valley took its first economic hit and I lost the job at Adobe. My team was eliminated and I had to tell all of my direct reports. One of them was on vacation in Disneyland with his family. He wasn't due to return until after his mandatory last day. I wanted desperately to save the bad news until after his trip was over, but I had to call him mid-vacation to deliver the news. The two weeks before I walked out of the building were two of the hardest weeks I'd ever had. Adobe had been a home for me; it had been the key transition point for my career and I had many close friends that I would leave behind.

Still, I look back on the time at Adobe with mostly good thoughts. There were a lot of tough times in that six-year period; it was emotionally and sometimes physically stressful trying to keep up the pace. But despite all that, it was a springboard for the rest of my career. I've had the opportunity now to work as a software engineer, not just for a great company like Adobe, but also for Apple. I've also had the chance to work for a number of audio-related software companies, finally closing the book on my struggle to become an audio developer at Digidesign.

I don't often think about pharmaceutical chemistry. Graduate school taught me skills that facilitated my transition into Silicon Valley. The part of my graduate studies I enjoyed the most is still part of my day to day activities as a software engineer. Still, I will always know the effort that went into my thesis and I keep copies on various shelves so I can look up and be reminded.

How many of you have planned to do one thing and ended up with something completely different?


That's friendship

Over the last week or so I've had a series of experiences that have me thinking a great deal about friendship. I am not a social butterfly; I tend to seek out close, long-term friendships and value the depth and commitment that goes along with them. For many years in the Bay Area I was surrounded by long-term friends that were nearby. Many of my friends had remained in the Bay Area and were conveniently located, even if we only saw each other a few times a year. Over time, though, some of my closest friends started migrating away, some to Oregon, some to North Carolina and then my family and I moved to Bozeman. That put a much greater distance between us and our long-term friends.

This week I was reminded that what I value in friendship continues despite the distances separating me from my friends. The other night I did my fund drive show for KGLT. My wife, Nancy, and my kids, Kiley and Zane, all helped me in the studio and, despite my graveyard shift, we all had a great time. All of our pledge calls came from friends and family and that contributed in a big way to how much fun the show was for us. My parents called from Berkeley, CA; we had friends call from Washington, Oregon and right here in Bozeman. Every one of those calls came from people we love talking to and who define what friendship means to me.

Today I was thinking about the key ingredients of friendship that make it so rewarding to me. When I'm just as interested in hearing what others say as I am to talk about my own thoughts, that's friendship. When others' opinions are just as important as my own, that's friendship. When I can go for months or even years without talking to someone and yet, the minute we see each other, the conversation picks up where we left off, that's friendship. When someone else's project is just as important as my own, that too is friendship. Feeling comfortable enough to ask for advice, to give it, to accept it and ignore it, that is friendship.

As I've traveled through life, I've discovered something about myself that hadn't hit home in my younger years. I always knew that I was an introvert. I mean that in the Myers-Briggs sense: my primary sense of well-being comes from within. If I'm not living up to my own expectations, I'm unhappy and dissatisfied. I measure my own success based mostly on my own self evaluation. What's changed over time, however, is the much bigger role that friendships play in my life. Over time, both with music and with software development, I learned how rewarding it is to interact with other people. At this point in my life I have many really great friendships, and I know damn well how important they are to my own happiness. That doesn't mean I've become an extrovert; my happiness is still determined mostly based on self-assessment. But I've learned that time spent with others, especially good friends, is the key to keeping me motivated and satisfied.

I have many of you to thank for that perspective. Your friendship makes my life interesting. You keep me on my toes, you inspire me and you make my life fun. You've helped me learn what friendship really is and you make each day unique. Please know how much I appreciate each and every one of you, even during those periods where we fail to find time together. I am always thinking of you and my life is better for it. Here's a toast to all of you - thank you for being part of my life!


I'm back

I turned it off. Somewhere along the way, I shut it down. Not all at once but bit by bit. It hit me today, decades after the transition was complete. I haven't written a single solitary phrase, let alone a full set of lyrics for years and years and years.

It wasn't always that way. Early on, I wrote words and music. Even after beginning my songwriting collaboration with Steve, I wrote songs on my own and even co-wrote lyrics for "Same Time Next Week". I have an entire folder full of handwritten, signed lyrics by yours truly. But somehow, not long after filling that up, I encased what was left of my lyrical creativity in concrete and walked away.

It was a decision steeped in pragmatism, contentedness and distraction. Steve and I had a workflow: I wrote music, usually a section or two of a song, then he wrote words and made suggestions about missing parts. We generated a lot of songs that way and it was a system that worked. I was content to focus on guitar, my first love, and was willing to let the words fall by the wayside. Life was good in Silicon Valley in those days, lots of jobs, tons of work, and sense that it would go on forever. There really wasn't any strong motivation to express emotions; there just wasn't a reason.

Then the realization came over me, all at once. I've forgotten how to dig deep down and express what I'm feeling in the words of a song. My own song. Life isn't as squeaky clean as it once appeared. I never imagined we'd spend nearly a decade trying to become parents. I never imagined I'd reach a point where my hometown wasn't home anymore. I never imagined I'd go through 4 jobs in 3 years. Maybe it was my own disbelief that stood in the way. I just never realized that the impact of life had never shown its face in my music.

And that needs to change. I am unlikely to become the next Bob Dylan or Paul Simon or even Pete Townshend. Even so, I need to get back to channeling who I am, not just into music, but into words. Otherwise, I am holding back who I am, where I came from and what I've been through. I need to express the things that frustrate, anger, terrify and invigorate me. What's inside needs to come out and I need to get back to who I am, despite knowing that I can't simply return to who I was.


Shaken, Stirred & Almost Settled: My New Life In Bozeman, MT

I love Bozeman. My wife, Nancy, and I decide 3 years ago to pick up our lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and move our family to Bozeman. We had tired of 13 mile commutes that took 45 minutes. We'd run out of patience with planning kids play dates months in advance. We wanted to be closer to the mountains, for the sake of skiing, hiking, backpacking and Nancy's photography. We were convinced even before we made the move that Bozeman would be an overall improvement for the family and that the kids and Nancy would make the most of our new home. I knew that one side of my life would be better, but...

By leaving the Bay Area, I was walking away from a songwriting partnership (with Steve Rosenthal) that had spanned decades. I was leaving all of the musicians I'd grown up with, the clubs, the music stores, my recording studio...everything musical I'd built up over the years in the Bay Area. To be totally transparent, I'd done some interesting recording projects in the last decade, but my songwriting partnership hadn't generate new material since the 1990s, and didn't show signs of picking up pace anytime soon. Those factors combined to make me hope that Bozeman would somehow be the change that I needed and would lead to a new chapter in my musical explorations.

Very soon after our arrival in Bozeman, I got some indications that my hopes would play out. While planning the relocation of my Redwood City studio to Bozeman, I met Billy Costigan of Poindexter's. Billy had attended P.I.T. (The Percussion Institute of Technology) in Hollywood only a couple years after I had gone to G.I.T. (Guitar...). My conversations with Billy over the first year or so in Bozeman led to the vision for The Music Tech Center, so in essence, Bozeman had spawned a new musical chapter.

And yet, the thing I want the most, to be writing, arranging and performing original music, well, it just hasn't happened yet. I live for heavy, melodic music and there really isn't much of that in Bozeman. Lots of country, bluegrass, Americana, even blues and jazz. But, thus far I'm aware of 3 or 4 heavy bands. My high school (Berkeley High, population roughly 3000) had more actively gigging metal bands than Bozeman does (city population around 30,000, county population around 100,000). Suffice it to say, heavy music isn't particularly big here.

So, I'm now left to wonder what really comes next. Do I somehow transform myself into an avid bluegrass guitarist? Do I admit the obvious, that I was somehow meant to be born in Finland and relocate to a country whose language I have no clue how to speak? Do I finally decide that the music "hobby" is over, sell all the gear and learn to play golf?

Some of those ideas are crazier than others but I don't think any of them really nail the solution. I am what I am. Heavy, melodic music is in my blood and has been ever since my first concert (KISS, the Oakland Coliseum, age 13). But I've also learned recently (while attending the only all-metal concert I've been to in Bozeman) that I can't turn back the clock. I'm not in my mid-twenties anymore and I can't pretend that I am. Whatever comes next for me musically has to begin where I am today. It has to reflect some unique combination of my years of classical guitar lessons, followed by jazz lessons, followed by the great realization that what I really loved was heavy, melodic rock. It has to reflect the fact that I'm now a happy and proud father of two great kids and that my wife and I have known each other for 24 years and been married for 19. The next chapter has to benefit from my ability to focus, and to complete projects that I start. In a perfect world, though, what comes next will involve other musicians, not just me.

Maybe the Bozeman band I'm looking for, the one that's ready to crank out a masterpiece if only they could find the right guitarist, maybe they're just around the next bend. Maybe the MTC gets the last infusion of funding it needs and takes off, surrounding me with inspired, creative people, day in/day out. Or maybe, it's all on my shoulders. Maybe I just need to start writing songs again and, when the time comes, put a budget together and pay to have the right players on the session. Maybe I just need to learn how to channel my musical drive directly and much more efficiently, and then use my inherent stubbornness and determination to create a finished work, or two, or three.

How have you found success where it appeared there was only failure?



Why Heavy?

Because some of us need to fight fire with fire. When we get angry or excited or frustrated, mellow, so-called calming music just exaggerates the emotion. No, it is better to meet the anger head-on with music that can rise to the challenge and go beyond. That's why Heavy.


What is Heavy?

It is music that embraces extreme emotions. It is not subtle, it is in your face. It is at home in horror movies, sports wrap-up shows, big budget action flicks and sports arenas. It is often technically challenging, whether through melodic gymnastics or up-tempo precision chugging. It hits you like a ton of lead and you love every minute of it.