My Tech of the Decade

As is the norm for this time of year, the web's full of top ten lists. And the portion of the web I read on a regular basis is naming their top ten tech items of the decade. In that spirit I thought I'd post about the most significant piece of technology from my decade, the one thing that, more than any other, shaped my life for the past ten years. Looking back now I realize that there's only one thing that really qualifies: Mac OS X.

I began seriously using computers late in life. It wasn't until graduate school that I even owned one. In 1998 I got my first computer, a beige G3. The original G3. It ran Mac OS 9, of course, because that's all there was, but I loved it, and it's on this computer that I really cut my systems teeth. It was the beginning of what would later become my career in systems.

A few years later I got my first real systems job at an art school in New York City. In the interview I claimed that there was "no Mac problem I couldn't fix," confident in my knowledge of the simple Mac OS. Little did I know there were major changes on the horizon.

At that job there was a QuickTime Streaming Server under my purview. It ran Mac OS X Server 1.0 and provided me my first experience with what would eventually become Mac OS X. It was very strange looking, had UNIX shell access, and was not like any Mac I was used to using. I can't say I ever quite fully understood that system, but it did give me a good deal of advanced experience, a chance to learn about what was coming. It was like that Terminator arm that Cyberdyne finds that leads to the rise of Skynet and the end of the world. I have to admit, I found it terrifying.

Mac OS X Server 1.0

When Mac OS X 10.0 finally came out and I began poking around its internals, that fear crystallized. This was an entirely new animal, far more complex and mysterious than my simple, easy-to-manage Mac OS 9. Suddenly I had our UNIX sysadmin knocking on my door, wanting to look at it, trying to show my how to use the command-line. I would have none of it. "Sure, the command-line is useful," I'd say, "but it's not the Mac way."

Nonetheless, as the new platform progressed I found myself forced to learn more and more about it. And the more I learned, the more I realized some things. For one, it turned out I really liked Mac OS X. Here was a system that, while infinitely more complex than its predecessor, was infinitely more powerful as well. I also realized that, though it was challenging, I was capable of handling the new OS, and capable of learning far more than I ever realized. But, perhaps most importantly, I discovered that I liked learning about Mac OS X. For the first time I realized that I liked systems work in and of itself. That realization, for me, was life changing.

As time went on, the OS became increasingly sophisticated, and I grew more confident in my abilities along with it (these days I'm even pretty proficient in the command-line). Before long I was doing lectures on the OS and had solidified a career in systems administration.

Mac OS X 10.6

It's now ten years later, and the OS is fully mature, advanced even. And I'm still doing systems administration and finding it fascinating. It's a trend that doesn't seem to have an end in sight.

These days I work for a prominent New York museum and my job involves far less Mac administration and far more programming. I've built a web app and even learned how to program certain video hardware as well as the mysteries and intricacies of serial data. It's all been on-the-job training, learning on the fly. But without those formative experiences with Mac OS X I doubt I'd ever have had the confidence to do what I'm doing now. Mac OS X taught me that I was good with technology, that I enjoyed it, and that my capacity for learning was far greater than I ever realized. These were powerful discoveries that have led me to where I am in life. So I just wanted to acknowledge, here, at the end of the decade, my admiration and affection toward this amazing piece of technology.