my life story

A few years ago I kept a personal blog called howisjon.com for the purpose of communicating with my family and friends. From my brief blogging experience, I decided it was best to stay focused on a particular topic and spare the audience any opinion pieces on politics, art, lunch, etc. With this new site’s blog I plan to keep a purely technical focus. However, for those of you who are interested, here’s my life story.

BIO: Jon Marston was born in Escondido, California, in 1948. He grew up in El Cajon, California, which means ‘The Box’ in Spanish, where he did things like wash dishes, sell women’s casuals, and work as assistant for a husband-and-wife artificial-flower-arranging team while freelancing record reviews and pretending to go to college until 1971, when he moved to Detroit and went to work for Creem magazine.

Young Jon at the sandbox Actually, that’s someone else, although I did wash dishes and freelance record reviews. In reality I was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1973 and grew up with happy parents and two older siblings in the very pleasant suburb Manchester by the Sea. It’s a nice town with a beautiful beach. However to make things clear, I like to explain that I wasn’t a member of the local country club. Instead I worked in it’s kitchen and on it’s grounds crew. It was a good job. Growing up I was a doofus hipster, an Eagle Scout, and a student at St. John’s Prep. I graduated from Catholic school well prepared for college with a gold medal in Computer Science and a thrist for a secular education.

At Cornell University I studied Applied and Engineering Physics, which is one of the toughest degrees at the school. I was ambitious. Perhaps the most important lesson that I learned while pursuing my degree is if you are going to succeed at anything then you must have a passion for what you do. As I surveyed the Ph.D programs, Post Doctorates, and window-less basement offices that comprise a life in science, I found myself spending more and more time spinning records and writing news at my college radio station.

In the WVBR studio My passion wasn’t for physics, it was for WVBR, Ithaca’s Home of Rock and Roll! So one night I walked out of the library, looked up at the sky, and knew that I would pursue a career in radio. To the relief of my parents I also walked back into the library and finished my quantum mechanics homework.

After graduating, I went on to work as an audio engineer at NPR News Station WBUR in Boston. It was my dream job at one of the best public radio stations in the country. Over the next few years I moved through a number of production roles: mixing audio stories, writing news, directing live events, and everything in between. I worked on Only a Game and Car Talk (my nickname was Superhighway-Sideburns) and helped launch the programs Here and Now and On Point.

Tokyo Squid For some time I had the enviable task of producing food stories with my friend Scott Haas. We traveled around the world in pursuit of Brazilian cocktails, Japanese tea ceremonies, Italian truffles, and Icelandic hot dogs. We won the Associated Press award for Best Use of Sound three times and after a few nominations we brought home the big prize: a James Beard award for Food Journalism.

Over time, as the world wide web started to take off, I found myself more intrigued by online media and the computer science behind it than by the art of producing and mixing stories. I had the technical background necessary from my high school and college education so I began learning about all things internet and switched to working on the WBUR website. I started off focusing on audio streaming, database architecture, and online fundraising. We were a Microsoft shop and I ran with Asp and the .Net vision of Web Services SOA. As the internet bubble popped I found myself in a great stable place to learn and build things.

News TunerMy big project was trying to turn a consultant’s concept of a next generation audio player into a reality. Speech recognition, web cameras, scheduling, a blend of live and archived audio, intelligent story suggestions, this thing was going to win a Nobel prize. Towards this end, I became an expert in Flash MX and taught myself Object Oriented Actionscript. I also hooked up with designer Gavin MacCarthy and some senior researchers at the now defunct Digital/Compaq/HP Cambridge Research Lab. Together we published a paper titled News Tuner, a simple interface for browsing radio archives which was accepted at the IEEE International Conference on Multimedia. After years of study and work, the News Tuner was born. It was brilliant, of course, but it had a fatal flaw. WBUR’s thousands of hours of audio was encoded as Real Audio and Windows Media, which were both superior formats to the more common MP3. However my beautiful Flash interface could only play back the sound with some clever yet very delicate scripting tricks. As a result it only worked for certain IE browser combinations. Podcasting came along as a more open approach to listening to archived mp3 audio and immediately my project was obsolete. I tell this story because it led to one of my next big lessons. Superior technology can be trumped. A simple, reliable, and open solution will usually beat out a complex and proprietary approach to addressing user’s needs. I thought of NewsTuner as my self study education thesis project and moved on.

Jon and Sheela Wedding I traveled. I got married. I got sick. I got better. I got a new job. Check out the old blog at howisjon.com for more details. My wife and I also organized cleanups of the conservation area near our house. Pictures and more are on the web at billericaconservation.org. Sheela likes privacy, so I’ll her part of the story brief.

After a decade at WBUR I was ready for new challenges and I joined IBM’s Boston Innovation Center as a Rich Internet Applications developer. Over the next couple years I worked with an amazing group of people and learned all kinds of new technical tricks. In consultant speak: “Our team leveraged interoperable reusable frameworks to deliver superior user experience focused client solutions.” My projects included several Flash and Ajax commerce applications for L.L.Bean, a prototype Tablet PC program, a website for Commerce Insurance, and a Flex Data Services extranet for Hanover Insurance. We won a MITX award for Best User Experience for the L.L.Bean Winter Outerwear guide. The experience made my world bigger and I learned a tremendous amount, but eventually I decided it was time to go.

I became a self-employed web developer, picked up a couple clients, and now work work mostly for DanceJam.com, a Silicon Valley startup founded by MC Hammer and a high school friend of mine named Geoff Arone. We haven’t launched yet, but we have been getting lots of press including a page one story in the Wall Street Journal. As part of the venture I’ve been spending lots of time in San Francisco, but I continue to enjoy living near Boston. I’ve also recently become a Research Affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. So far, life as an independent has been good.