This is the first of a 3-part series on a fellowship programme I was truly privileged to be part of this year – the Microsoft Windows #Insiders4Good Fellowship. This pictureless part is about the history – how my obsession with Windows started. Part 2 will be about the post-selection boot camp. Part 3 will be about the mid-point meeting and reflections on lessons learnt.
At the beginning of the year, I came across an announcement for something called Windows Insiders 4 Good – East African Fellowship. I actually don’t recall exactly where I saw it but I suspect it was on Twitter. I clicked the link immediately and was greeted by a suspicious looking webpage. Suspicious because the URL was a *.azurewebsites.net link. Anyone who has worked with Azure will know azurewebsites.net is their free hosting service. I thus found it very suspicious that an official Microsoft programme would be announced via such a website. To make matters worse, even though the landing page had all the right stuff (inviting applications from East African startup founders who happened to be Windows Insiders to be part of a 25 person 6-month learning/mentoring programme), the actual application web form had a warning message at the top. The warning had something to do with having to fill in the entire multi-step application form at once since all the information would only be saved at the very end. Surely this couldn’t be right – I thought – surely Microsoft knows how to implement a web form with persistent data? Eventually, I’d find out why all this was the way it was. But after taking a good look at the site, discovering that the Nigerian I4G fellowship was already ongoing and generally sleuthing around the web & social media, I was convinced it was actually genuine. With that out of the way, of course I applied. To understand the “of course”, lets go back a couple of decades.
My first encounter with a personal computer was, as far as I can recall, toward the end of 1996. I was in Form 4 at the time and my school – Ntare School – got 3 computers most probably as a donation from overseas or from one of its many powerful OBs. As students, we had extremely limited time with them and it was even worse for us candidates since the school administration didn’t want us to be distracted. Still, I managed to spend quite a bit of time tapping away at their keyboards. They were running MS-DOS and Windows 3.1 but we used to spend most of the time in the DOS environment since that’s the only way we knew how to launch our favourite programmes (what everyone calls apps nowadays). What were these favourite programmes I hear you ask? Well – ever heard of Wolf 3D and Dangerous Dave…? If you haven’t, you can actually try out Wolf 3D here!
I went back to Ntare for my A-Level and 2 things that would have a lasting impression on me happened during my S. 5. First – a new boy from a pretty wealthy family joined Ntare for his A-Level. Whereas many of us were content with smuggling in portable radios, his contraband included, among other things, a laptop! As luck would have it, Barnet was assigned to the same dormitory as me. The second thing that happened in S. 5 was a visit & talk by one of the OBs. His talk was about some strange but wonderful thing called the Internet and he proceeded to demonstrate using a dial up connection via the school’s telephone line. To be honest, I didn’t understand much of what he was saying but I remember being fascinated beyond belief. Barnet’s laptop, which was running Windows 95 was the device that introduced me to the wonders of the Start button and programmes like Paint. In addition to Wolf 3D and Dangerous Dave, he also had a Pool game that commanded our attention for hours. It is safe to say that 1997 was the year I got truly addicted to computers. And that marked the beginning of my relationship with the Windows OS. When I completed my A-Level exams, the addiction was so intense that I did something today’s school kids cannot fathom – I stayed at school for an additional 2 days just to spend time in the computer room…
During my vacation, I didn’t have computer access even though my dad’s workplace had recently procured one along with a printer. That one was totally out of bounds especially for nosy teenagers. Luckily enough, the 9 months passed by very quickly and I joined Makerere University’s Faculty of Technology to study Electrical Engineering. Imagine my joy to discover that the Faculty had a lab full of computers that we could access any time (as long as one of the lab admins was around). The computers were relatively old machines running mostly DOS but within a few months, the Faculty received a consignment of brand new Compaq workstations running Windows 2000. From that time on, the lab became a second residence for me. Despite the intense competition for access, I got enough time to master lot of stuff about the OS, word processing, presentations, QBasic programming and so on. My lab time was supplemented by access to two laptops: an ancient portable with a tiny monochrome screen that a friend loaned me for a semester as well as a much more advanced Toshiba machine belonging to a friend & hallmate and super talented Linux guru – Noah Sematimba. Later on, in my third year, I finally wrangled enough money from my parents to buy a “clone” PC (bought at a discount thanks to my aforementioned friend Noah’s connections) that I proudly set up in my room. The specs: Pentium III, 32MB RAM and 20GB HDD running Windows 98. I must say – that PC lived a full life and served with distinction. There is absolutely nothing it didn’t do! So many friends and classmates used it to edit their project reports and dissertations, practice their programming assignments, play all sorts of games (in addition to Wolf 3D and Dangerous Dave, we had stumbled across Jasper’s Journeys). I had learnt enough Photoshop to earn a little bit of money from campaign poster design and I remember using the same machine to DJ at several functions (anyone remember Winamp?). Note that this was a tower PC with a CRT monitor but that never hindered its mobility. On one occasion, I was traveling home (Kisoro) for the holidays with a friend and we had to disembark from the bus some 20 or so kilometers from home because a mudslide had completely blocked the road. Of course, I had carried it along. We then had to carry the poor, long-suffering PC along with our luggage through fields of treacherous mud as we tried to make our way to safe ground. There’s so much I learnt during this time courtesy of that PC – hardware stuff such as swapping/upgrading disks, upgrading RAM, installing all sorts of cards (sound, video etc), installing CD drives etc. Then the software stuff – apart from learning how to use all kinds of software, I did all sorts of installations and troubleshooting (I remember installing SUSE Linux using a newly installed CD drive). I even remember using serial cables to copy data to another friend’s PC when we got tired of splitting files so as to use floppies!
In all this, the real story was how I got to love Windows. The Faculty had a special lab for the Architecture department that had only Macs. For some reason, the few times I sneaked in and checked them out, I was left cold. Believe it or not – I think part of it was down to the mouse – the single button just irritated me. I also dabbled with Linux a lot but I didn’t really enjoy it especially after I got my hands on a copy of Windows XP and got introduced to the Delphi programming language. Delphi was pretty much Windows only despite the release at one point of a Linux version called Kylix. I fell in love with Delphi as soon as I did a “Hello world” app and that basically sealed the bond with Windows.
In the 15 or so years since, I have used practically every version of Windows from XP onwards (including the Server editions) in both my professional and personal life. Interestingly enough, I have rarely experienced the pain points (viruses, crashes etc) that many complain about. I even used Vista for a long time on a personal laptop before Windows 7 banished it to history. In addition to using Windows all the time, I kept a very keen eye on all Windows (and general tech) related news, a habit I’ve maintained to this day. Along the way, I switched from Delphi to C# as my primary language. In 2014, I got the opportunity to purchase a Surface Pro 3 – something I’d promised myself I’d do as soon as it was launched to rave reviews. Not only was I eager to use Windows on a machine purpose built for it but I suspect – deep down- I probably felt the need to atone for all the pirated stuff I’d used in my early days of PC ownership 😊.
With this background, it isn’t hard to see why I downloaded the Windows 10 preview the day it was made available. I later signed up as a Windows Insider which meant getting continuous OS updates long before they were made available to the general public. In all this, I got to learn about (and follow) some of the key Insider programme people including Gabe Aul and later Dona Sarkar.
So – back to that day earlier this year. Of course I had to apply. How couldn’t I? The details of the Fellowship sounded as if it was a programme tailor made for me. After all, I was already a Windows Insider running preview versions of Windows 10 on Microsoft’s own hardware and running a business that was developing Windows based software for our customers. As a matter of fact, our brand new product (myChild.ug) was running on an Azure server (later AWS and then back to Azure). As I read the ad for the Fellowship, I thought there couldn’t possibly be a better candidate than me. Thrilled at the possibility of getting some ‘insider’ time with Microsoft, a company I love and respect , I put together the information required and went ahead and applied.