Tonight, I met up with a very old friend, Duncan. He and I lived together in the basement of a house shared with 4 other students (including my friend Mike, another denizen of the basement) on Albert Street in Waterloo. I tried not to count the years since I’d last seen him, but it’s got to be on the order of nearly three decades.
But we had kept in touch during that time, if not actively, then watching at a distance via such tools as LinkedIn. It was largely at-a-glance updates, though, typically one-way, and as Duncan actively avoided social media, it was only when I got luck to see an update. But his most recent position requires a more public persona, which drove him to post that he would be nearly in my back yard (well, Red Deer), which seemed like a heck of an opportunity to get together.
And boy, was it ever. But it’s not so much about us, or him, but specifically at how we met, and who indirectly pointed us at the careers we would have: Professor Neil Randall.
I was entering my third year at the University of Waterloo, just started my second academic chapter. My first, Computer Science Major, had largely failed on account of the sheer amount of deep mathematics UWaterloo required me to take, and math and I have a tenuous relationship. While I had no issues with the computer science, Combinatorics and Optimization, among others, had different plans. In effort to remain a university student, I slid over to my “second” love, English.
I will also point out that, at this point in my life, I had zero idea what I was going to do. I kept Computer Science as a minor, but if I wasn’t going to be working on operating system software, then what?
One of the many English Rhetoric and Professional Writing prerequisites was English 109A: Introduction to Rhetoric. At the time, “rhetoric” was some florid word used when describing some politician’s oratory, or at least that’s what I knew of it. I didn’t know what else to expect when I walked into the classroom, being (now) one of the older students, and took my spot at the back.
Joining me, as it would happen, was a younger man who was also not sure what the class would be about – he was aiming to slide into Biology, English was not his desired path, just one he could get into. That was the moment I met Duncan. And a moment later, we met Neil.
With roughly chin length wavy hair, roundish spectacles and an almost impish grin, he walked to the blackboard (this was 1993, they still existed at the time) and scrawled the course’s designation on the board, then turned to us and said: “Welcome to Rhetoric. After this course, you’ll hate everything.”
Aside from eliciting a chuckle from everyone, he was making a point: be prepared to rethink what you know. And little did either Duncan or I understand what that really meant.
In the second class, he wrote something else on the board that we hadn’t expected: HTML. Until that point, I’d never heard of it before. And, to be fair, most people hadn’t. It was a fringe project from some guy working at CERN in Switzerland. But it had the advantage of making simple linking between pages easy. HTML had been published before, but only recently had gone into full 1.0 release. And Professor Randall said: you can type your assignments if you want, but I’m happy to take them as webpages.
Only three decades later could Duncan and I realize how much our lives changed at that moment. It was very subtle, a slight step to one side, away from the “norm”, but it was a path that both of us would go down for years to come. It would influence the courses we would continue to take, the companies that we would work for, the things that we would learn. Although Duncan and I went different places – he went enterprise while I went into digital marketing – both of our paths started at that moment, with a four-letter acronym.
Neil Randall wrote extensive for PC Magazine at the time and was part of UWaterloo’s Human-Computer Interaction group, even back in the mid-90s, long before most people had even heard of the Internet, let alone the tech giants that wouldn’t be born for another decade. He knew that the Internet was going to change the way we interacted with the world and he was quick to expound upon that with anyone who would listen. While I can’t speak for the rest of the 109A class, Duncan and I were caught.
(I would later work with Neil Randall as a thesis advisor in my final year. My proposal was that there were three primary tracks of content used on the internet: informational, commercial, and personal. I regrettably never finished the thesis, being caught up in my first digital marketing job.)
Professor Randall is still at UWaterloo, still teaching the next generation to climb outside of the box. I know you won’t remember me, Professor – it’s been 30 years – but if you do happen to come across this, please know that your efforts were heard, understood, and are deeply appreciated.
Thank you, Professor Neil Randall!