November 30, 1999

Netscape programmer was there for the "wild ride" of Mozilla.org's birth

Author: JT Smith

- by Tina Gasperson -

Open up Netscape 4.x and type "about:akkana" in the location bar. You'll get a page full of information about Akkana Peck: she's a Mozilla developer who's actually employed by Netscape and paid to work on the open source stuff. She's been employed as a programmer since 1983 and has been with Netscape since 1996. She was there when the Open Source Mozilla project began. She loves her work, calls Netscape "the promised land," but what really gets her going is watching the moon.Peck, 37, lives in California with her new husband, and works at Netscape's Mountain View, California offices. She recently took time from her busy schedule and newlywed status to share some of the reasons behind her unique status as one of a very few female Open Source programmers.

Newsforge: What were some of your earliest experiences with computers? How did you get hooked?

Akkana Peck: My first exposure to computers was when I checked some books out of the
local library when I was about 12 or 13. One of the books was a manual
on programming that covered three languages -- Algol, Fortran, Cobol --
with a short appendix on BASIC. Partway through the Algol chapter, I
found out that the local Radio Shack had demo models of their new TRS-80
computers sitting out where you could type on them. So I skipped to the
BASIC chapter and learned how to do some little "Hello World" type
programs, then bicycled down to Radio Shack and typed them in.

Most of my programming was "on paper", though, just for the fun of it
since I didn't have access to a computer. The next summer, I got
involved in a program helping in a chemistry lab; the professor in
charge asked me whether I knew how to program, and I said sure!,
because I'd been writing all these programs on paper. It didn't
occur to me until later that I had no idea whether any of them worked.
Fortunately it worked out well and I spent the summer writing data
reduction programs on a Tektronix BASIC workstation.

A year or two later, I was taking science courses at Cal State LA,
and the physics department let me have an account on their PDP-11,
and I fell in love with Unix and C right away.

NF: Describe the path you followed to get that first programming job back in 1983 at Beckman Research Institute.

AP: It started as a summer program when I was in high school -- they matched
up science students with local labs, and the student would help on a
summer project, then write it up for science fairs the next year. I
worked at the City of Hope writing data analysis programs in BASIC for a
cell sorting machine. I had a blast, coming up with different ways to
display the data which would give you different insights into what was
going on in the cell population. Then a couple years later I
took a year off of college, and spent the year working in a cell
biology lab at Beckman (a branch of the City of Hope), this time
doing image processing in Fortran.

NF: Did you already know then that programming would become your career?

AP: No, I was originally planning on physics. But I sort of burned out on
science while in college, and wasn't sure I wanted to spend my life
worrying about grant proposals and tenure, and just sort of fell into
programming.

I still think now and then about going back and getting a physics or
astronomy degree. Or maybe geology.

NF: Why did you decide to get a math degree?

AP: I spent a year at Harvard on a scholarship, then the money ran out and I
ended up transferring to UC Santa Cruz. I was going to double-major in
CIS (Computer and Information Science) and either Physics or Math, but
the CIS degree required that I take a bunch of intro courses like Intro
to Programming in Pascal. I asked whether I could maybe take a
placement test instead, since I'd already been working as a programmer
in Pascal as well as Fortran and BASIC, and their attitude was, "No, it
says right here that course is required." I thought that was pretty
silly. The math and physics departments were much more reasonable.
So I flipped a coin and ended up in math.

NF: Do you consider yourself a geek?

AP: Sure, I guess so. I don't get too worried about teminology.

NF: Tell us how you got involved with Netscape. You've been there six years;
they must be keeping you busy.

AP: Just over five years now. (ed: Tina's not a math major, obviously.)
I was contracting at SGI, on their software installation tools, when
the first Netscape betas started making the rounds. I got really
interested in the web -- set up project pages for the group, started
building my own home page, and eventually wrote some code to make SGI's
installer work over the web, so you could just go to a web page and
click on a link and the software would magically download and install on
your machine. Anyway, after the SGI contract I worked at Sun for a
while, but Netscape was really where I wanted to be, sort of the
promised land, so when I got a call from a recruiter at Netscape
I jumped at it.

I worked in the mail group for a couple years, then got traded to the
editor team in one of the reorgs. Just when things seemed like
they were slowing down and the place wasn't that much fun any more,
they came up with the idea of opening the source and forming
mozilla.org. What a wild ride that was! Most of the Unix developers
in the company were very much in favor of open source, but had never
dreamed that the company would consider a model like that.
I feel lucky I was able to be a part of it. And then it was a lot
of work (but fun) learning the techniques you need for coordinating
a big project like that and helping new people get involved.
We didn't do too well at first, but we learned.

NF: You are involved in a lot of recreational endeavors: photography, sketching,
astronomy, kayaking, biking, motorcycling, etc., etc. How do you make
time for all these things?

AP: Finding time for all the things I'd like to do is always a problem.
There's too much interesting stuff to do! Generally I do a lot of one
thing for a while, then cut back on it to do something else. And some
can be combined: like I do most of my photography while out hiking, most
of my sketching is of astronomical objects, and so forth.

What I really wish I had is more coding time outside of work -- there
are so many projects I'd like to work on (especially kernel and graphics
projects) that I have a hard time finding time for. Sometimes there's
a temptation to spend all weekend sitting in front of a monitor, but
I need to get outside now and then, go out on trails and do other
non-electronic things, or I go crazy.

NF: Is coding a recreational activity for you (even though you get paid for
it)?

AP: It definitely can be. I really enjoy working on a tough programming
problem and finally getting the program to work well. And I find that
one of the best ways to understand something is to simulate it -- I
thought I knew how airplanes flew, but when I went to write a flight
simulator I found out I had completely misunderstood it, and I ended
up with a much better understanding of the physics. And I've gotten a
better feel for celestial mechanics by writing astronomy programs.

NF: Of all the software you've written, what's your favorite piece?

AP: That's a hard one. I was fairly proud of the http installation tools I
wrote at SGI -- they were fun to write, and awfully useful. And I wrote
a little Java starchart applet, back when comet Hale-Bopp was on the way
in -- there weren't any web pages where you could get a chart of where
to look for the comet, and I wanted something like that and figured a
lot of other people would too, and I'd been wanting an excuse to learn
Java, so I wrote an applet.

Then there was a little project I worked up a few weeks ago -- I'd taken
a series of photos of the Jura mountains on the moon, spread out over
an hour or two, and I wanted to combine them all into an animation
showing how the light changed, but the images had to be rotated and
shifted to match them all up. I thought about the problem and
thought gee, why can't you just have a program where you click on a
couple of stationary points in each image, and then the program figures
out how to rotate and translate the images to match them all up?
I looked around and couldn't find any program that did that, but I
thought, how hard can that be? Why not just write it? So I did.
The math turned out to be pretty easy; the hard part is finding a
library that helps with the image transformations. I want to turn
it into a gimp plugin eventually.

NF: Anything you've written that you now think, why did I do
that?

AP: Oh, sure, but mostly little stuff (why did I use that
algorithm,
why didn't I think of this shortcut). I'm more likely to wonder why
I didn't do something -- why didn't I rewrite that piece of code early
on rather than spending six months trying to maintain it. There are
some parts of mozilla that could seriously use a rewrite, but that's
true in any big project.

NF: Why did you create the hitchhiker's guide to the moon?

AP: I had just gotten interested in lunar observing, and there
weren't any
good books available on the subject like there were for deep-sky
observing. I couldn't find any good web pages, either. But I knew
there were a bunch of lunar observers out there who posted on AOL but
didn't come to the high-traffic groups like sci.astro.amateur, and I
thought, what if I set up a web page where people could send in their
observations, and I collected and organized them? Then I could learn
and so could everybody else.

It worked out wonderfully -- I've learned a huge amount about lunar
observing, and I think the guide has been helpful to a lot of other
people getting started observing the moon.
I was very fortunate that Jay Freeman, a very experienced local
observer
and excellent writer, had written a collection of notes on lunar
features and let me use them to get started. So even from the
beginning, I had enough there to make it worthwhile for people to
visit the page and consider contributing their own observations.

Ironically, lunar observing is getting popular now, and quite a few
good books have come out on the subject recently. So the need isn't
as great for something like my guide, but it's still useful. I wish
I had more free time to keep it more up to date.

NF: It's a fact that a very low percentage of women become
programmers. Is
it completely a result of environmental pressures, or is something
else at
work?

AP: I wish I knew. I think a lot of it is that girls just don't
think about
the possibility -- people around them don't think of girls as liking
computers, so they give them other presents for christmas and steer
them toward other courses in school. I don't see any inherent reason
that girls would be less interested in programming than boys, but
it's pretty clear that adults have different expectations of them.
And there aren't many role models for girls interested in programming
-- maybe groups like LinuxChix can help there.

NF: Did you feel those pressures growing up?

AP: I was lucky -- my parents always encouraged me in any
direction I wanted
to go, and if other people around me had expectations that I wouldn't
like science or math or anything else, I was probably just too dense to
notice. I remember one high school counselor steering me away from
calculus, and I sort of shrugged it off, like, "What a silly idea, of
course I'll take calculus" and never thought much of it. It never
occurred to me to wonder at the time whether he did the same thing
with the boys, and I'll probably never know.

NF: Free Software or Open Source?

AP: I don't care what you call it, as long as you make it
available.
I have a lot of respect for the FSF folks (and I've been using their
software since forever), but when you're talking to people outside
the community, "open source" is more likely to get the point across
without having to make a philosophy speech, so I use that term more
often.

NF: Favorite distribution?

AP: I mostly use Redhat, largely because it's what we use at
work and
I'm familiar with it, but I also have Mandrake and SuSE on other
partitions, and my husband runs SuSE and Debian and just about anything
else he can find. There are good and bad things about all the distros
I've seen. I haven't found the perfect one yet.

NF: GUI or command line?

AP: Command line for most things, definitely.
GUI for things that need graphics -- gimp, web browsers.

NF: Favorite coding beverage?

AP: Chai -- spicy Indian tea with milk and honey.

NF: What's something unusual about you that not very many people
know about?

AP: I'm bi -- I like both vi and emacs, and use them both.
I've gotten over my compulsion to write Lisp interpreters in every new
language I learn (the weirdest was the one for the HP 41CV calculator).

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