Jim Showalter worked for Rational before it became a division of IBM and helmed numerous startup companies before going back to his roots as a programmer in 2005. In this interview, Matthew Heusser talks with Jim about working life and the evolving Java technology stack at Intuit, open source tools he uses every day, and where he currently finds challenge and inspiration as a career programmer.
Jim Showalter is an old-school engineer, which in his case means that he started programming with punch cards, coding Fortran on an OS/360 mainframe, in 1970. The price of a mistake in those days was 24 hours of calendar time, because his middle-school computer science teacher had to take students' punch cards to the school district's mainframe and run them overnight. Jim got very good at writing tight, solid code as a result, and he's still doing it today.
Most people don’t stay in programming for over 40 years, and Jim is no exception. After a stint as a technical consultant, he eventually felt the gravitational pull toward management, where he spent a half-dozen years pursuing management roles, including line manager, director, and VP of engineering.
In 2004, Jim decided to return to his first (technical) love of computer programming. He learned C# and Java and became a programmer at Intuit. In the end, he stuck with Java, and today he is a principal engineer at Intuit, where he writes code for a living.
It's not uncommon for software engineers to swing from development to management and back, but Jim's depth of experience is unique. On a recent visit to Intuit headquarters, I took the opportunity to ask him some questions. We talked about what compelled him back into programming after a career in management, what inspires him about software development today, and what he sees on the horizon, for himself and enterprise Java technology. I also got a glimpse of the working culture at Intuit, and learned how Java fits into Intuit's technology stack.
Matt Heusser: Let's start at the beginning of your career, Jim. What happened after you discovered coding with punch cards in middle school?
Jim Showalter: In high school we had some access to programming, but it was off and on. You had to take a programming class, and only a few were offered. It used to be that computers were really expensive, but that was just about to change. After high school I went on an eight-year baccalaureate program that included an associates degree in electronics and ended in a CS degree from the University of California at Santa Cruz. My final semester at UC Santa Cruz, I was working on a minicomputer, and it used to run out of memory running
vi, so I got my first personal computer, a Kaypro II, to run Turbo Pascal. It ran CP/M. After graduation I went to Plexus, where we used C. I still like that language a lot: small, fast, and dangerous. The Ducati of languages.