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Friday, May 22, 2015

Toptal (Sort of an Interview Request...)

So after fifteen years a major system I wrote is finally shutting down.  If you live in the USA and have an insurance card from a health care provider software I have written has touched your life.  This system has produced enough insurance cards for virtually every human being in the country to have several.

The client, who I shall not name here, got into the business around 2000.

They took delivery of a digital press sold by a client of mine and needed software to run it effectively.  At that time converting a print file in PostScript to something the machine could actually process took a very long time.  So long that it would take a year to rasterize the work that needed to be completed in a single month at year end.

Around that time I had recently created a product called pdfExpress.

pdfExpress was a C++ application that manipulated PDF files as data as opposed to rasterizing them.

At the time I created it a previous version, which was linked to Adobe Acrobat, was all that was available to manipulate files for printing.

One day, while sitting on the couch at home, I realized that the content stream of PDF was actually just well structured data that could be manipulated directly, so long as the rules of PDF were maintained.  Really, PDF is just a programming language, sort of a constrained PostScript.

I had spent about five years writing software to automatically convert programming languages, or more correctly, source code for applications, from one computer language, e.g., Fortran, to other languages, e.g., C.  (The company was called "Lexeme" and founded around 1985.)

It struck me that this was doable for PDF (though not PostScript for complicated reasons).  PDF was designed as short hand for PostScript.

I built the initial version of pdfExpress in about two months using a collection of C++ code I had written as well as a lot of new code.

(pdfExpress is the subject of these two patents:

US 6,547,831 - Method of Generating Documents Having Variable Data Fields

US 7,020,837 - Method for the Efficient Compression of Graphic Content in Composite PDF Files)

We needed pdfExpress to perform manipulations for projects like the insurance card system because Acrobat was too slow and licensing issues prevent it from being used as a server.

We set up a test run that normally took about a minute to do with Acrobat (the precursor was an Acrobat plug-in).

I hit "RETURN" and the DOS prompt came back instantly.

My associated and I gasped!

"Shit, something is wrong," he said.

"Yeah, it must have died," I replied.

We poked around and couldn't see a problem.

We tried it again.

Same thing.

My associate said "see if there's an output file."

We did, and there it was, correct!

We knew we had a winner.

In the end the C++ version outperformed Acrobat plug-ins about 1000:1.

So I've spent a long time at this - some 15 years.

In that time pdfExpress has grown to several hundred thousands of lines of C++, split off into sub-applications (like this) and branched out into other things entirely.  In this same time, at least according to Moore's law, the number of transistors in the processor of the computers I use as increased by a factor of about 16,000.

For the last few years I alone have been supporting the insurance card system which continues to emit tens of millions of cards per year.

Unfortunately, though, the printing devices are now too expensive when compared to things like smart phones, i.e., you've seen the GEICO pig showing the cop his insurance card.

So printing is dying and finally, after fifteen years, taking my client with it.  Oh, they'll still be around for a while making credit cards but Apple Pay, phone apps and the like will eat away at that as well.

So that leaves me with nothing major to do on the programming front.

(Yes, I still have other activities to keep me busy but not doing what I was born to do...)

So I found the company called Toptal.

Its a pool of folks who find people like me things to do rather than me trolling around trying to entertain myself on the software front.

So pdfExpress is sort of my calling card into Toptal (I don't know if they will like me or not but I am writing this to tell them about why I would work for them).

There's still which talks about some of this, but its not really very current.

I am interested in working with Toptal because to me it seems like a really good idea.  I am not great at fitting in in a corporate world and this company will (hopefully) eliminate the need for me to do so.  But I think I can do things that would make a relationship between us a, as they say, "win/win."

I also don't like cold calling nor do I like bidding against folks who live in a different world where the cost of living is 1/1000th of what it is here.

I haven't talked to them (Toptal) as of yet but presuming they pass muster with me I should like to think I pass muster with them.

I figure that pdfExpress was competition with the corporate Adobe Systems.  It (I) beat them in my little niche.  So perhaps I can swing a gig with them.

(Actually a relative of mine interviewed there but went elsewhere.  So I know a bit about them.)

I've outlived printing but not programming...

Seriously, though, I like the idea these guys are presenting.  I've created plenty of "disruptive" technologies over the years - pdfExpress being one.  At the same time I have always mentored people along the way.  I've converted playground installers into master programmers.

So guys, give me a chance!

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