Originally aired on August 24, 2020 @ 11:30 AM - 12:00 PM EDT
Human-interest segment asking Cloudflare employees what their first Internet experience was and how it informed them joining Cloudflare. Dial-up modems, bulletin boards, punch-cards, Twitch, Twitter and more.
This week's guest: Larry Archer, Engineering Manager @ Cloudflare
Good morning, everyone. Welcome to yet another episode of Dial Up Motive. Here I'm joined today with Larry Archer, Engineering Manager at Cloudflare. And if you haven't joined the show before or caught an episode, what we do here is explore the early Internet and computer experiences of Cloudflare's employees. So if you want to take a journey down a nostalgic road with us, welcome and good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, depending on when you find us. So with that, I'll hand it off to Larry for a quick introduction. Yeah, my name is Larry Archer. I'm Engineering Manager here at Cloudflare. I manage the DevTools team. So we provide all the tooling and services to keep the other engineering teams shipping software and stuff. Awesome. And how long have you been here at Cloudflare? A little over three and a half years at this point, I think. Yeah, we started January 2017. Has it felt like six? Has it felt like 10? It's felt about like three, I guess. We do move pretty fast. I don't know. This year has felt like its own three years. 2020 is the last year. Yeah. And what kind of technologies are you working with? Are you and your team working with? So we do a lot with our release pipeline, our CI and CD systems, and we write tools and services and things in Go and Python and do a lot of helping other engineering teams with some of that as well. And what do you see as kind of one of the more interesting parts of the transition from engineering as an engineer to shifting to an engineering manager? I guess the part that's been hard for me is to kind of let go. Let the team do the engineering work and I can focus on the larger things, the bigger pictures and things like that. I still have this desire, I guess, to get in there and get my hands dirty and debug things and play with stuff. But I'm working on it. It's still lots of interesting stuff to do. Awesome. Well, we're glad to have you. And thank you for taking the time to join us on the show. And with that, I'd love to kind of take a step back and really start to understand what your first experience with a computer was like. So as you can see, I kind of grew up in that. This isn't a picture of my literal setup, but I grew up in the Packard Bell floppy disk days. And I'd love to get a sense of how things started for you. So my dad was an engineer also, an electrical engineer. And so he worked a little with computers. I guess when I was first experienced with a computer was probably when I was, I think, five or six years old. My family got a computer. It was an IBM PC, the original PC. It had a color monitor, CGA, so it could do, depending on the resolution, I think, three or 16 colors. And that was kind of amazing. It's like, wow, it's color. It's great. It does all the things. It had five and a quarter inch floppy disks. You'd boot from one and then put the game or whatever in the other drive and do it that way. So yeah, I got my start actually programming stuff in BASIC on that thing. So that was on the software side. On the hardware side, I think, as I got a little older, I asked for this thing called a sound blaster for Christmas, a sound card so that you could do more than just beeps and boops and the little, from the PC, the speaker inside the case of the PC. So I was like, okay. Well, my parents were like, sure, we'll get you a sound blaster. And so then Christmas afternoon, we were trying to put it this computer. And several hours later, we're like, this is not compatible with this machine. So slowly upgraded every piece of it to be able to get the sound card working. So you learned early the joys of upgrading a machine. You find out that you buy one part and suddenly you have to buy five just to support the one part you've purchased. I was like, okay, I guess it's time to upgrade to, maybe it was an XT at that time or a 286. I don't remember exactly, but yeah, it was the beginning of the journey, I guess. I think we had that experience with RAM of like, we bought RAM, not necessarily doing our own research or homework, realizing it didn't quite fit. And so that moment of excitement of like, oh, our computer is going to be so much faster now. What do you mean it doesn't fit? Exactly. And can you go in a bit more detail of, you mentioned starting to learn basic. How did you go about either getting the library books or starting down that journey, given how new everything was in that day and age? Yeah, it was books mostly. Yeah, I think my parents got me some books. I guess also there were some classes available at the time. So I grew up in the St. Louis area and one of the community colleges in that area, Merrimack, I think it was Merrimack Community College, had a thing called College for Kids. It was like a Saturday afternoon thing and you'd go sign up for classes. And I think one of the classes I took there was a basic class and they teach you how to program and how to write some code and do stuff. I was also pretty fortunate later, like in I think seventh grade, was able to take a college level C course. And I think most of it was like over my head at first and everybody else in the class was adults. So it was kind of like, it was an odd experience. But I did pick up a little bit of C at that point, which was a tough language to learn, especially at that age. And it's just interesting to see the kind of progression of availability of both educational materials, actual classes, as both computers became more ubiquitous, the Internet became more ubiquitous. So it's always interesting to see where people are along that timeline in terms of just access to the information about their new machines or to learn more. Yeah, there was no books and in-person classes were pretty much the only options. I do remember thinking about it later after Google had been around a while. I was like, wow, this really has changed the way I figure something out or debug a problem or learn about something new. I just search for it and I'm searching it rather than go to the library and figure out, oh, this is a good book on this or yeah. Finding the right chapter in the right obscure book and realizing that you have the wrong version of the book, so it doesn't touch on what you need and kind of coming out of those classes. So you mentioned a lot of the C course might've been over your head at that age. Did it help you just continue that kind of interest and passion towards tech or what was that like? Yeah, I think it definitely reinforced it. That was always just, I don't know, maybe it was being exposed at the right time, like around young, but not from toddler age. Like my own boys, they've had devices around most of their lives. It's not like this new, interesting thing to them. It's just like part of the background thing. So it's, yeah, maybe getting started at that age and then taking classes kind of reinforced it. And I've always been kind of just interested in that stuff and keep learning about it. Now you almost think that there's kind of a loss in some ways. So you mentioned, you know, asking for a Sound Blaster, trying to install it. You can easily tear apart that the desktop, you know, the IBM PC and try to tinker with it. You know, that tinker ability has gone down with an iPad, a laptop, you know, as things have become a little bit more user-friendly, that ability to tear it apart has gone away. What were your thoughts on that? Yeah, it's kind of sad in some ways. Like people are talking about, oh, you wouldn't buy a car with the hood welded shut, would you? You want to be able to get in there and change stuff. But yeah, most of the, there's a lot of consumer products out there that are kind of like that. You can't really take apart your MacBook that easily and replace parts. Some of the things are glued in there or whatever. But I do still think there are products out there that provide that experience for people like Raspberry Pis and Arduinos and things. You can still get in there, take it apart, or put it together yourself and assemble things from pieces. And still, there are still things out there that help you learn about how all this stuff fits together at that level. So it's not really gone away completely. I think it's just shifted and you have to be more, maybe more conscious of it more actively seek out things that you can take apart and put together. So maybe a bit less organic. It is not coming out of the box that way, but you can still, anyway, you can still seek it and find a more gentle learning curve and something more focused on either your age group or what you're trying to learn. Yeah, that's true. All right. So with that in mind, I'd love to kind of pivot into, as we talked earlier, you had a very interesting story about your early Internet days. I would love to kind of dial into that, pun intended, and learn more. Okay. Yeah. So even before the Internet, again, this is just something about the time that I was growing up, I guess. The Internet wasn't just always around. It existed, but I didn't know about it until, I guess, I always think of like 1995 as the year the Internet got big enough for enough people to know about it. Went mainstream. Yeah, exactly. I think that's when I started hearing about it. I was like, oh, that's interesting. But before that, we had, so we had that IBM PC. One day my dad came home with, I've got it here, this thing. Oh, we've got a show and tell. Yeah, here's show and tell. So this is a Hayes Supermodem. It's got this giant 25 pin serial port on the back and phone lines and this really nice switch and stuff and awesome blinky lights on the front. So have you been using those as a paperweight? Pretty much. Yeah, it's nice and chunky too. It's a solid piece of metal. So my dad brought this home and was like, oh, here, this thing's called a modem. It allows computers to talk to each other over the phone lines. Like, oh, wow, that's interesting. What's that good for? So the first thing I think we did with it was one of his coworkers had a son my age and we called each other on the modem and started doing, just typing back and forth and chatting, just like, hey, how does this work? How does it send information back and forth? But then after that, there were bulletin boards, BBSs, I guess, bulletin board system is what BBS stands for. And I think, so there was this, like an entertainment newspaper in the St. Louis area, the Riverfront Times. And I think they had in some section of that, a list of bulletin boards, phone numbers that you just punch into the computer and have it, have your computer call that one and log into it. And then that's kind of how we got started as a family, like exploring this thing. Like, okay, so we call into this computer, then you create an account and log in and post messages and stuff. It was it was interesting to kind of discover this community of other computer users in the area that were just sharing random things. And that's interesting, yeah, that it came from from the local newspaper that, you know, the local newspaper was in tune enough to say, hey, here's some local, you know, bringing essentially the World Wide Web or the bulletin boards to a more local perspective and saying, here's how you can connect with other people in this region. Yeah. And it was all local at that point, unless you wanted to pay long distance. Yeah, do the long distance phone call to who knows where. Which, which is not even a thing anymore. So like long distance calling, what is that? They charge you extra to call the next state over. So they were all like, they were all 314 area code, phone numbers. And I think I asked my dad, dad, can I call this a 409 number? He's like, no, that's, that's in California or something. That's like 50 cents a minute. So and it sounds like so you got access to these bulletin boards. And you mentioned that you actually became an administrator of your own. Yeah, so I spent a few years like playing around. I had some other friends who are into computers and into DBSs and stuff. And then in middle school, at one point, a close friend of mine talked his parents into getting a second phone line, and, and letting him dedicate that phone line at a computer to running his own DBS. And I, I guess I was a co, he was the sysop, of course, because it was his, his hardware, his, his phone line and stuff. And I think I was the co sysop. Which I don't know. So we were, like I said, middle school, I always wondered, like, how many other bulletin boards in the area in this, in our community are run by just kids? Or how many are actually run by adults? Yeah, no one knows you're a dog on the Internet. You know, you could have, anyone could have spun up a bulletin board system. Help. So yeah, nobody knew we were 13, 14 year olds or something. So it was interesting. But that was a Yeah, it was, it was fun. It was a neat experience to be able to like, run a help system. So were you a popular bulletin board? Or was this just you and you know, your two, three, four friends? What was Oh, I don't remember how many users we actually had. But I think it was enough that his phone line was was tied up a fair amount of the time. The other odd thing about this was like, you have one phone line, that means one person can call in at a time. And so you'd sit there and like, I'm gonna call my go down the list of my favorite PBS's or whatever. And you try them and like, oh, it's busy, just try the next one. And, and they had time limits and stuff so that one person couldn't sit on there for hours and hours. But so the other part of it was like, you have to have some sort of attraction to get people to call in and whether that was like message boards, different topics and discussions. And I guess there was even direct messages or email or something on the on each individual board, or games. The one I remember is trade wars was like a completely text based thing where you'd like fly around space and buy and sell things and attack other ships and stuff. But it's fun. So yeah, that the beginnings of, you know, multiplayer gaming, in some ways. Yeah, it was a kind of primitive, but it was still fun. But yeah. And I guess how did you pivot this kind of dial up and bulletin board experience into the World Wide Web at large and kind of your early, early career? So I mentioned, let's see, so we had PBS's around for a while, I mentioned, like, in around 1995, I started hearing, my, my dad, especially started hearing, like, about this Internet thing. And we'd like read about it and talk about it. And then at some point, we figured out, okay, you need an ISP, you need an Internet service provider. We found some local one, it was still dial up. And it was all text based, too. So you'd call in. And basically, they give you this menu system, like, Oh, do you want to look at gopher? Or, or I don't even know if World Wide Web was an option initially, when we first started trying it out. But it was like, go for, I think, waste wide area, information system and some other things. And then one of the other options was like, just a shell prompt on this Unix machine, wherever it was. So that was kind of my, my introduction to the Internet, but also Unix and Unix type systems. So that was that was pretty interesting. And kind of got me hooked on that part of the computer stuff. I should back up a bit though, before we had like, between DBSs and actual Internet connection, we tried some other online services. So there were, I think the first one we tried was Prodigy. It was CompuServe, of course. And then, I mean, we've got so many floppy disks, three, three and a half inch floppy disks from AOL that we eventually tried that for the free month, I think, especially when it came with the 20 free minutes or the 30 free minutes. Exactly. I remember those floppy disks. The number of minutes on it kept going up, I think, after what was like thousands of free minutes, which is basically you get the free first month free, or you could stay online for a whole month or something. But yeah. But that it always felt like kind of the common complaint about those it being a walled garden, it's like this closed community. And there's, there's the rest of the world that you could be talking to, but it's limited to just the users of that service. So I think that's what kind of drove us to go look at the rest of the more open web, an actual Internet provider. And then eventually we got, I think it was a PPP connection. So you could actually have Windows software and an actual web browser going over this, this dial up connection. And trying to think of the first exposure to the web. I don't have any memories of it, any vivid memories of it. So maybe it didn't make that much of an impression. But maybe that came a little bit later. I do remember like running my own web server out of my dorm room. Like that was the, I think the next leap, being in a dorm room that had ethernet wired in, and it's like this amazing amount of speed and bandwidth to be able to, to get to things on the Internet and then even post your own website or something like that. It was a kind of another. And so when you, when you began university, did you already know that, you know, computers were the path you wanted to take? Was that kind of already locked in based off of your past experiences? Or how did you kind of come to that conclusion to say, Hey, I want, I want to make this part of my career. Yeah, it was, I think I've always been a bit of a nerd or geek or those are all good words here. Yeah, exactly. Like I remember at some point in, as I was growing up, it changed from somebody calls you a nerd to be mean. And now it's like, cool. You're another nerd like me, which is kind of cool. Yeah. And I always been interested in computers. I remember like meeting someone new in middle school and asking them if they had a computer or if they'd like to use computers to like, that's that was how I tried to make friends, I guess. So I'd always kind of known, yeah, I was interested in this stuff and wanted to do something with it. I started out in electrical engineering and then kind of after a few years working with hardware and stuff like that, realized I'd rather do software and more specifically, something related to the Internet and the web. So kind of finally found my way to that, to that area and to Cloudflare. Awesome. And what would you say kind of is your, what you saw as the biggest difference between hardware and software for those that are kind of making that decision in their career today? There's a few things. One of them is, I mean, maybe kind of obvious. It's the speed with which you can iterate. So like I worked in logic verification for working with, with chips basically. And there's, there's a certain amount of there's turnaround times. You got to like get this design off to a fab and then have it come back and get the actual silicon back. And then you can test the real thing. And there's, of course, things you can do to simulate that and test it and in software before, but it's still. A whole bunch of Monte Carlo simulations, fingers crossed. Sounds familiar. Yeah, something like that. It's been a while, but, so it's, software is much faster. It's more immediate feedback loops and iteration cycles. And that's, that's been nice. But I think the other part of it was, there's for me anyway, it was, there's a more human side to, or there can be a more human side to, to software. Like hardware is going to, it's going to go into some machine somewhere that is several levels removed from some actual human user. But with something like a website or a, even a command line tool or something, you can, you can say, okay, I'm going to write this software. And then some human being somewhere is going to use directly the thing that I'm, I'm writing. And that was always kind of a, a neat thing for me. More of a, a proactive or interactive aspect, as opposed to kind of the sound blaster you install in the box and then no one pays attention to it until you need to replace it. Yeah. Yeah. Just being able to think about like, okay, I could go talk to somebody who's, who's using this thing that, or I could write something for someone I know even, and help them out. Something like that. Yeah. No, yeah. I think I always resonated with that on, especially as I explored kind of web development and realizing that the stuff is out there, people can interact with it. You know, let's make sure it's, it's workable and usable. Yeah. And then especially I did, kind of had experience with both hardware and software in my college days. And I always just gravitated more towards software either due to the iteration or just, it seemed more, honestly, tangible. It seemed more intangible and I enjoyed that aspect. Yeah. That's the part I kind of, I do miss about software as it is. It's very intangible, but there's still some, there's like ways you can combine the two, like doing things with, I like to play with Raspberry Pis and then hook them up to things in the house and you can write software and then you can see lights turned on or something actually happens in the physical world from, from some software. So. And with our, with our last few minutes, I'm definitely curious, what are you most excited about? You know, either the future of the Internet that you're helping build here at Cloudflare or the future of tech, you know, in the CICD space, what, what, what helps get you up in the morning? Yikes. That's a hard question. Other than the coffee. Yeah. Yeah. I think I got that. I guess just goes back to that, that human component, doing things that can help make people's lives better or improve, yeah, improve things for, for real people. Like on a, at the company level, that's like on our team, gets to help out a lot of people, write tools and things that automate, automate workflows and make things easier and, and actually just like get to talk to people and help them, help them work through problems and stuff. Now, are you seeing automation kind of becoming an increasing part of, you know, both deployment of code, maintenance of code, configuration management and policy management, is that becoming another thing that the computer is kind of taking over to help scale any human work or how do you see that? I guess I don't really think of it as replacing human work or, or taking over. It's, it's kind of like, that's what the computers are there for. That's, this is what, why, part of the reason computers exist to do this monotonous thing that free up the humans to, to do other things that can take actual brain power to, to think about and figure out. So, yeah, we should automate the things that computers can do easily and, and, and yeah, make it easier and then pick up the possibility for error, hopefully. Yeah, it's, it's always interesting. Humans are more likely to make the error, the little typo or mistake or, you know, missing the semicolon. But of course, once you reach a machine level of scale, the, the machine can ultimately make the bigger mistake since that can just be multiplied in the same way that benefits can be multiplied. And it was, as we've seen, you know, across the Internet and through technical history. Yeah, yeah, there is that, that danger there. So, need to be careful about it, but yeah, I think it's still worth, worth trying to, to automate those things. And yeah. All right. And with that, I know we're near the end of time. So again, Larry, I appreciate you walking us through, you know, your early history of, of, of bulletin boards and managing your own and, and what your career journey looked like. And yeah. Yeah. Thanks for having me. This was, this was fun. All right. And for everyone joining us on the live stream or via recording, thank you for taking the time and hopefully you enjoyed that, that trip down memory lane. Thank you everyone. Bye.