William Vaughn enjoyed a long career at Microsoft, as an expert in products such as Visual Basic and SQL Server, publishing twelve books on a variety of technical topics during his 14-year tenure as a product manager, trainer and writer at the technology company.
These days, he is still writing, but he’s immersed in a much different world, as the novelist WR Vaughn — conjuring up stories about forest elves and time travel rather than databases and software development.
The Redmond resident has published five novels: three in the young-adult series The Seldith Chronicles and two in the new adult (18+) series The Timkers. He’s also an avid photographer and graphic artist, creating his own book covers and some of the illustrations in his books.
As a child, he was an Army brat, going to kindergarten in Germany, elementary school in Texas, middle school in Virginia and high school in Bangkok. He flew helicopters for the Army in Vietnam, before earning his BS in Computer Science at Mary Hardin-Baylor, and a Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.
After a wide-ranging career at companies including EDS, Mostek, Challenge Systems, and Digital Research, he was recruited by Microsoft in 1986 to help get Windows 1.0 off the ground. In 2010, he retired from the technical world to take up full-time fiction writing. As he notes, he’s also “the proud dad of two brilliant daughters and a grandfather to two darling girls.”
Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
What do you do, and why do you do it? Nowadays, I’m a writer. Even when writing my (boring) Microsoft documentation, I felt a compelling need to tell the rest of the story. Frustrated by the “no-nonsense” style imposed by in-company editors and internal politics, I wrote my own version of what developers should do—and not do—with Microsoft technology. These books like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Visual Studio and SQL Server were irreverent, made fun of my own documentation and sometimes Microsoft itself—but they were always highly technical and well-respected sources of information and commentary on the ever-evolving technology. They were also funny—at least most geeks thought so, and they sold like ice-cream on a sweltering day at Disneyland.
And then it struck me. Few of the technical books I’ve written over the last forty years would be useful to engineers working today or in the future, and especially not to those who have no need for technical documentation—funny or not. I wanted to leave a legacy for my grandkids and their kids. This is when I began work on a project I had only dreamt about. Over a year later, I had completed my first Young Adult fantasy novel The Owl Wrangler. It let me weave a story about kids and adults dealing with problems society has not handled very well and how they found their true purpose in life. Over the next couple of years, I wrote Guardians of the Sacred Seven and Quest for The Truth.
Wanting to expand my readership and scope of the story, I wrote my first New Adult (over 18) novel The Timkers—A Stitch in Time followed by The Timkers—Déjà Vu. In this series, I address real issues men (but mostly women) faced in the past and still face today, contrasting the uphill (more like up-cliff) battle women still wage in the workplace and in society. Given the current political climate, these issues are more important than ever. The latest book in the series (a work-in-progress) describes the world of 2084 where the earth is on its knees as mankind struggles to survive.
So why do I do it? I want to tell compelling stories about our lives and times as I see it—to leave some mark on the world that people can look back on and say, “Ya know, he was right.”
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Everyone has a story to tell. Sometimes it’s an insight into the inner-workings of ADO.NET or SQL Server, and sometimes it’s just a yarn about a point of view that’s off the beaten path or just needs to be told. In our field, one has to accept that technology itself is ever-changing, morphing to adapt to the evolving needs of the industry and the market. This is why online and printed tech documentation has the shelf-life of bananas but still needs to be written and updated—constantly. The best technical writers need to bring two skills to the table. The ability to express themselves in words, coupled with the ability to translate complex technical (jargon) concepts into terms ordinary mortals (at least competent developers) can understand. That is, tech writers need to be able to communicate and interact with the architects, developers and product managers and describe, define and explain their creations into clear English documentation.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. All too often we see documentation written by developers who slept through their English classes or books written by people who don’t really understand the inner-workings of what they’re supposed to be documenting. However, engineers are usually entirely focused on their specialty—perhaps some tiny part in a far larger, far more complex mechanism. Sadly, some neither understand nor appreciate the rest of the technical universe where their application, driver, user interface or database has to cooperate and work with other creations. It’s the job of the technical writer to provide that context and to provide feedback to the engineers to help them understand these issues.
Where do you find your inspiration? Everywhere. When I’m sitting in a Denny’s, passing through a crowded airport late at night, strolling on a beach, or standing on a craggy hill in the Atacama Desert. I witness people of every walk of life struggling to live and enjoy their lives. Each of these people have stories worth telling. Sure, it makes my family and friends crazy—they’re constantly bringing the Walter Mitty in me back to reality as I imagine stories about the people and places. I’m also inspired by good writers and the images they create. My latest inspirations are Boys in the Boat (Daniel James Brown) and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Reza Asian).
When I worked in the technical disciplines, my students, clients and the men and women who asked questions (or corrected me) during my lectures helped me write better documentation and gave me ammunition when it came time to hold Microsoft’s feet to the fire in an attempt to get them to fix their problems. I saw myself at their advocate.
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? My world is made far, far easier and richer by technology—and I’ve made my living writing and talking about it—but frankly, my life would not end if it were all gone. At first, I’d be miserable, cold and cut off from the world without it, but I could survive. As a writer, I can’t imagine having to use a manual typewriter to compose a novel—it’s an instrument of torture but I could write (albeit painfully) with a piece of charcoal and a strip of bark. In my more recent books, I imagine a world after a cataclysm that takes out our technology in a flash. It’s not a pretty place, but it’s survivable—except for those hooked on Downton Abbey or Making a Murderer.
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? My office, my writer’s hideaway, is a cool, dark man-cave where I’m surrounded with books, mice and monitors—and cats seeking warmth. The window shades are drawn so I would miss a meteor shower until it hit the house. I use two separate systems—one for communications (with two monitors) and a development/writing system (with two monitors) and a new Surface for away-from-the-office needs. I have satellite systems I pull up with Remote Desktop to do sundry testing or to pull up research that won’t fit on the Windows desktops. The lights are on motion sensors and controlled electronically with X10. In the adjoining room, my “lab” resembles the bowels of the robot scrap yard on a Star Wars land crawler. This is where I build and maintain my systems and house my nineteen-inch rack host my web and file servers, as well as my mini-museum of old hardware dating back to the ‘70s. And yes, that’s where I keep shrink-wrapped copies of CP/M and Windows V1.0.
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life: When I worked for Microsoft, I kept regular hours. I came in around eight to get a parking place and to be able to work quietly before the kids came in at ten. I also focused during the day, trying to keep distractions to a minimum. I also left about six, or earlier if my kids had a soccer game. I felt that a happy family made for a better, more relaxed job environment in which I could do my best work.
Now that I work from home, I still establish a routine. I think the “trick” is to set a goal to be accomplished in the day and the week, and do what it takes to meet those goals.
Mac, Windows or Linux? Excuse me? I’m a Windows guy — always have been — at least since ’86. Before that, I was GEM and CP/M.
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Ah, I liked Star Trek, but I’m not an uber-fan. I liked Picard only because Patrick Stewart is a more accomplished actor. If you asked me to choose between, Clinton, Sanders or Warren, I would have an opinion.
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine, hands down. My new series, The Timkers, describes an elaborate time machine controlled by the government in an attempt to save the world from ecological disaster. Going back (or forward) in time has fascinated me since I read Orwell’s The Time Machine and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. We’ve all wondered how we would fare in a past time we’ve only seen in books and movies. Would our knowledge of technology help keep us alive, make us more powerful or fabulously wealthy? Consider you couldn’t make a transistor radio much before the 1950s, much less a modern computer so your geek skills might not be so valuable after all. In the future, our year 2016 knowledge would seem as quaint and primitive as tube radios today.
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would: Feel ill-prepared to make a go of it. I understand my limitations—without an MBA, I would not be a great CEO. If I had a spare million, I would probably endow a scholarship for aspiring writers or build a neighborhood using Habitat for Humanity. So many of the startups with which I’ve been associated have failed when grandiose and optimistic ideas ran headlong into the reality of the marketplace.
I once waited in line for: A haircut I didn’t want. On my twenty-first birthday, I stood in line to have my head shaved at Fort Polk Louisiana. It was my first day at Basic training. In my brief time in the Army, I was always standing in line for one thing or another. But no, I never camped outside in the cold to get the first iPhone or Star Wars tickets. To me, time is precious and I hate (as in really hate) to wait for anything.
Your role models: I’ve had a few really good role models in my life. My best (and worst) managers were at Microsoft. Mark Ursino was the best by far. He taught me how to be a manager, coach and champion to the people who worked for me and with me. He was able to keep a diverse group of high-achievers focused in the face of intense political drama. My co-author Peter Blackburn is my technical role model in that he had the talent to remain totally focused and dedicated to getting the job done—regardless of the number of (often continuous) hours it took. Morally, I think President Jimmy Carter is a man who has lived an exemplary life that anyone would want to emulate.
Greatest Game in History: I’m not a sports buff, but I think watching the U.S. Women’s soccer team win the 2015 World Cup was a game for the history books. I think the women play a smarter game with (ironically) less drama and faked injuries than the men’s teams.
Best Gadget Ever: There are so many gadgets in my life, it’s tough, but if I have to choose, it would be (with apologies to Apple) my iPhone. I feel lost without it.
First Computer: My first computer was a hand-made S100 bus system I soldered together from new and cast-off components in the mid ‘70s. I designed and built the case, power supply and front-panel with a bazillion lights and switches. I also wrote the BIOS, designed the fonts and burned them into an EPROM at the local computer store (one of the first PC stores in the country). I wrote my Master’s thesis on and about this system, and yes, I still have it today. When Ross Perot found out I had built it, he invited me up to his office to discuss the significance of an article written in Popular Electronics that extolled the future of the 8080 microprocessor. After that conversation, I was hired as his personal consultant and we formed the EDS Business Systems Division.
Current Phone: I carry an iPhone 5s. I have a drawer full of old phones including a couple of old Windows Mobile phones that hit the market too early to be mass adopted.
Favorite App: I spend most days pounding words into Word. I’m currently using Office 365 (2016), but I have Office 2013 installed to take up the slack when it gets silly (as in lately). I also enjoy Photoshop and have learned enough about it to create my book covers. For fun I play (seemingly endless) games of Civilization V. But Fred (my daughter) tells me I should mention my favorite phone app. It’s written by the American Medical Association—I use it to track my meds, doctors and allergies.
Favorite Cause: Causes? I’m what they call a progressive liberal—we have lots of causes including the Girl Scouts and Habitat For Humanity. My favorite? Doing what I can to keep the planet habitable by the time my grandkids’ grandkids are born. So far, I’m not doing very well.
Most Important Technology of 2016: Technology is rushing headlong into the future—dragging us along whether we like it or not. I see a real opportunity in the advancement of solar technology where the panels are lighter, stronger and produce more power per square inch than ever before. That coupled with new battery technologies, the cost barrier on renewable energy should break our dependency on fossil fuels.
Most Important Technology of 2018: 2018 is just around the corner, so it’s pretty easy to see how media and consumer-based technologies continue to draw a lot of attention. I think Microsoft’s HoloLens is very exciting, but I think the creation of vast solar farms in North Africa can revolutionize the power industry and bring much of Africa out of poverty and are far more important. As I see it, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is on the threshold of singularity. This is by far the most important technology of the near (and far) future, and as Mr. Gates (the other Bill) suggests, we need to be very aware of the social and human implications of these advancements. To better understand it, I’ve folded AI into my new book “The Timkers—Borrowed Time” where an AI entity takes over and rescues humanity and the planet—and sends certain individuals back to the year six BC. Look for it this fall.
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Short answer: Get outside your cubicle. Understand the world around you so you can write code that does the same. This also means learn more about how your applications fit into the larger mechanism—or gets in its way.
Long answer: Technology resurrected the American and worldwide economy in the ‘60s as NASA took men to the moon. It brought us personal computers, cell phones and the iPod. It has meant better diagnostic and treatment tools in the medical community, better point-of-sale systems, and better, more efficient ways to deliver half-ton precision guided bombs. We have UHD TV and fiber-optic connectivity, satellite dish-provided media and ecommerce links across the world. The list is endless, and overall, technology has employed millions both here in the US and throughout the world to architect, implement and manufacture new devices and the software to run them. Technology also permitted the creation of the Internet, which, like it, or not, has linked the entire planet together. Now anyone, with any agenda good or evil, has the ability to reach billions at the touch of the Enter key. This has meant misinformation, propaganda and rumor are given the same weight as the truth, facts and science-based thought. As a result, the Internet both increases and actively degrades our overall level of education.
Some see technology as mankind’s savior and, as I see it, too many of us assume technical innovations will somehow rescue us from ourselves. IMHO, if developers don’t gain a better understanding of the world around us—outside our cubicles, outside our corporate offices, outside our own country—the programs we write and the electronics we create will be hard pressed to undo the environmental, political and social damage we do along the way.
As technologists, we don’t think hard enough about reliability—expecting components to only last a few years with little thought as to their impact on the environment or the consumer. Yes, I understand, one makes more money if the product has to be replaced instead of repaired—but at what cost to the environment and the people who have to pay for them? In addition, we ignore the fragility of the network connectivity our systems depend on so heavily. It’s not hard to envision a massive failure of all things electronic triggered by any number of naturally occurring or man-made events. We ignore that connectivity of any kind is still absent in many countries and remote areas—some places where technology is needed most. I can also see a day where the scenario played out in the movie Gravity comes to pass—but it takes out all of our orbiting satellites. We routinely park data in the Cloud, but have little recourse to recover it or even function once it’s inaccessible. We create billions of files, pictures, documents and manuscripts and record them on media not expected to last out the decade—even if nothing happens. Perhaps this is why I stepped away from technology to create books printed on paper—books about worlds where technology is gone or in ruins.