Tech Choice: Rick Lewis Talks The Evolution of Email

Posted By on Sep 6, 2013

Rick Lewis, Principal Software Engineer at ASTL Systems, talks NASA-sponsored computer labs, the dot com boom, and how Boomerang has evolved email.

“I got interested in electronics when I was probably eleven or twelve years old. We were living in Sacramento and there was a guy across the street with a Corvette who would blare his music whenever he’d wash his car. There was a construction project nearby, so I went and found about a half a mile of wire, dragged it all home, wrapped our house in it, and built a jammer. A few days later he went out to wash his car, so I turned it on and jammed his radio. He looked at the radio and fiddled with it a bit, but when he turned the dial I found that channel and jammed it too. He never figured out that it was a kid across the street.  I also bugged every room in our house, so I always knew what I was getting for Christmas, as well as a lot of other information I probably could’ve lived without.

1970s and 80s:

I started out at Louisiana Tech. I was majoring in electrical engineering and I ran into this old PDP-8 in the basement that got me totally hooked on computers. I moved to Angelo State University the next year, where we had a little bit of an electronics lab. A few of us pooled our money and bought an Altair 8000 kit, serial number 15, probably the first personal computer in Texas.  Problem was, it didn’t work.  I fixed it–it was a clock problem–and wrote the bootloader. Towards the end of my junior year, NASA sponsored a complete microcomputer lab, so one of the projects I had to do to graduate was design, build, and program a computer.

After college, I spent seven years as a consultant and was hired as a contractor at NCR in Beverly Hills to modify check-sorting software to include the capability to process people’s payments. I worked on a giant machine for a few months and then finally made some kind of comment like, “You know, it would be a lot easier for me if I had one of these at my house,” because I was driving to Beverly Hills from Palmdale every day. I was sort of kidding, but three or four weeks later I looked outside and there was a semi-truck parked in our driveway with a thousand pound computer. The guy just said, “Where do you want me to put it?” [laughs] Eventually, NCR made a deal: if I could make their machine do what they wanted, then I could sell the software for whatever I wanted and keep the revenue. I was successful, so that ended up being a business that lasted eleven or twelve years.

When I wanted to find work in the ‘80s, the “old days,” I would get the LA Times. All the communication was by phone and postal mail, so there’d be a little ad like, “Seeking programmer blah blah blah, call this number.” I’d call the number, talk to the recruiter, print a resume, put it in an envelope, and mail it to him. The process took ages.

The 1990s:

In the early 90s, communication changed because people started getting excited about the World Wide Web. I actually had to build a computer just so I could load Windows and get to the web–my other computers didn’t have browsers. Pine was my first email client. It was text-only, there was no such thing as a GUI, so I’d type in “List” to see my emails, “Read 1” to read the first email, and then “Delete 1” or “Read 2.” Once I got Windows working there was Eudora, which was a major step up because it actually had a GUI that allowed me to click things. We didn’t have attachments back then, so if I wanted to send a resume I had to paste it into the email.

By the time we moved to Austin, email had improved a lot, you could attach documents, pictures, and videos. In 1998, Dell decided they would certify their entire operation by the end of that year so they’d be protected for Y2K. I got hired as a contractor to go through every single system that Dell used in their business department and make sure that all their data was certified. We had unlimited use of computers, which we loaded with software to simulate their accounting systems and then attacked, “If you put in the year 2000 or 2001, what happens?” They were actually in pretty good shape.

The 2000s:

By the early 2000s, things had changed a lot. Email kept growing and getting more powerful; I had to transition from Yahoo to Gmail because I was getting so much spam that I couldn’t see my real messages. Around this time, I got the bright idea that carrying a daytimer was a pain, so I wrote a website that managed my calendar. I programmed it so that when I put an entry in, “Dentist appointment at 9:00am next week,” it would send me an email to remind me. I used that for years until Google introduced their calendar.

Early websites were really primitive, mostly text, but by this point they had gotten a lot fancier. I got involved with a number of startups in Austin that were web-based; I’d put the server in, program it, and then program the web application. I did this at, a company that managed to burn 85 million dollars in a year because they decided that they would offer free shipping and a full, “no questions asked” refund on furniture. So, they lost a lot of money. One of my primary responsibilities there was to guarantee that their email servers wouldn’t crash during a Super Bowl advertising campaign that included their email and web address. They were expecting massive hits, so my job was to simulate loads on their server systems of about 10,000 emails per minute. I was quite successful at breaking their servers [laughs], so they had to buy more equipment.

The Present:

What I’m doing right now is SoC verification. Instead of cell phones and tablets having one processor chip, they’ve got this massive SoC, which means “system on a chip.” The one I’m working on right now is called Snapdragon and it powers phones with Qualcomm chips. Snapdragon has seven processors that do everything the system needs–application processors, radios, GPS, local area network–and I write new tests inside the chips to make sure all the processors communicate with each other, and obviously, that they work.

I still use Gmail, so Boomerang is a savior. In my business I’m constantly marketing myself,  talking to recruiters even the day after I get a new job–I have to look ahead. When I talk to recruiters they’ll say, “I have a requirement from such-and-such that starts in a month, would you be interested?”

In the past, I had two choices. One was to send a CV and hope the guy got back to me, and the second was to copy myself and leave the message in my inbox. The problem with that was that if I sent out a hundred resumes, I had a hundred messages sitting in my inbox that didn’t mean anything to me after a couple weeks. Boomerang has automated the process of following up on things, letting me set a time based on how far into the future I’m looking for a response. It’s not just helpful for business stuff. For example, I’m having a problem with the AC in my apartment, so I sent a notice to maintenance and Boomeranged it for two days. The maintenance department is terrible, so Boomerang kicked the message back reminding me, “Why haven’t you people responded?!”

Another cool Chrome extension is Notes for Gmail, the ability to add a post-it note to an email. Today, I finally called the maintenance department to ask what was going on. I had the email in front of me, so I was able to add a Post-it that said, “I talked to the manager at this time,” and then I Boomeranged it. When it comes back, the Post-it will remind me that I talked to them.

Does technology look the way I predicted it would as a kid? Yes and no. I never would have imagined the ability to move massive amounts of information around the world in seconds the way we do now. I remember AT&T promising picture phones in the 90s, which seemed like a huge thing, and now we have technology like Hangouts and Skype that’s practically free and can be used from anywhere. It’s unbelievable, these tiny SoC’s I work with now are more powerful than the huge mainframes I cut my teeth on.

Rick was interviewed in San Diego (via Google+) on Thursday, August 29th. Neither Rick nor Baydin, Inc. received compensation for mentioning products in this testimonial.


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