by Michael McCallister

Author Michael McCallister
Author Michael McCallister

My standard author biography looks like this:

Mike McCallister is devoted to the idea that technology need not be feared, and can be mastered by anyone. After all, he grew up in the days when computers filled entire rooms, and spent 13 years as a civil service clerk doing nothing more technical than recording WordPerfect macros.

He is devoted to making computing easier for the full spectrum of user levels and experience. As a technical writing consultant, freelance computer magazine writer, and book author, he understands that ordinary people can and should make the most of their tools.

Besides Linux and open source software, interests include tools for communicating via the Web (blogs, social networks, wikis, and the like) and bridging the digital divide.

McCallister has been running Linux as his primary day-to-day desktop operating system since 1999, but he also documents software for a variety of platforms as a technical communication consultant.

When he’s not staring at computer screens (which he admittedly finds strangely alluring), you’ll often find him trying to make the world a better place. Or reading, watching a baseball game or other sporting event (live or on TV), hanging out with the grandkids and walking around urban landscapes.

All that is true as far as it goes, but maybe you’re interested in a little bit more. So here’s some filler:

The Early Years

I was born in San Diego, California in the summer of 1958, and spent perhaps the most glorious five weeks of my life there — before my mom took me back home to Milwaukee, where I grew up. Mom and I were a single-parent family long before that was common, but it was OK. I had my grandparents, and aunts and uncles all over the place.

I’ve been a reader since I was practically out of the womb. The family story is that I was reading the funnies at age 2, and I have no reason to doubt that. They bumped me out of second grade after I’d pretty much gone through all the books they had at that level.

My newspaper-reading habits continued, so that by the time I got to high school in the early 1970s, I was someone teachers would call on to explain current events, but wasn’t exactly your model student. Out of a graduating class of 850 students (James Madison High School was then the largest three-year high school in the state of Wisconsin), I finished 424th. Aside from consistently avoiding doing homework, I was involved in student government, theater and forensics (speech, not CSI). Despite my underachieving nature, sneaking under the wire within the top half of my class meant UW-Milwaukee had to take me in.

Having absolutely no clue about what to do with my life, those first four years at UWM were pretty much more of the same, in terms of classroom performance. When people asked me what I was going to do when I finished, I’d usually say “Oh, go work in a factory, I guess.” So in the summer of 1979, I did exactly that. Over the next three years, I bounced around from one industrial job to another, realizing that despite being a full-blooded working class kid, I was not really cut out for manual labor.

My soon-to-be-wife, during one particularly bad stretch of unemployment, had a brilliant idea. Since I was pretty much obsessed with keeping up with what was going on in the world, maybe journalism was what I ought to do. At the same time, she also suggested that I might try getting a civil service office job. Took her up on both ideas. I even took one civil service test on my wedding day! Six months later (on April Fools Day 1985), I started a career with the State of Wisconsin. I was the receptionist at the busiest probation/parole office in the state. It was stressful, but I learned to type (on a typewriter!), and was pretty successful.

That same fall, I went back to school at UWM (full-time office worker, full-time student) with the idea of becoming a reporter. Having been raised on newspapers my whole life, I guess I got the inverted pyramid structure of news stories down pretty well. My News Reporting 101 teacher (a seasoned pro sports writer) said after a couple of daily exercises “Are you sure you haven’t done this before?” And I still can’t stand really long paragraphs. Can you tell?

For the next few years I juggled work, school, and a gig as the lead political reporter for the UWM Post. This involved a weekly column and campaign coverage from city council to the 1988 presidential campaign (even including a long weekend road trip to Des Moines for the Iowa caucus!). It was great fun!

Yet nowhere in my résumé will you see any listing of me as a full-time newspaper reporter. How did that happen? A few reasons for that: I never got to major in Mass Communication, never got an internship, and the state was paying me better than I’d get as a “cub reporter,” and I had a teenage stepdaughter to support!

What’s that about the major? Well, in my previous stint in the halls of higher learning, I’d kinda stocked up on history classes. Also, you had to take two classes to enter the print journalism program — and one of them was never offered at night! So at one point in the spring of 1989, I asked to see an undergrad advisor, who determined that with a little effort, I could get a BA in history by December. Indeed, she was right!

Growing With Computers

Taking advantage of a transfer opportunity, I moved the day job from the probation office to vocational rehabilitation. Somewhat inadvertently, I found my calling there — though not exactly what you’d think. First day on the job, they showed me a PC with WordPerfect v4.2 and said I should learn this. It wasn’t exactly my first contact with a word processor — the Post went heavily into debt to buy a newsroom full of Tandy (aka Radio Shack) PCs running WordStar shortly after I joined the staff — but I never got the time to burn all those WordStar shortcut keys into my brain and fingers. With hindsight, it was much better to learn WordPerfect anyway.

After graduation, I tried getting into “regular” journalism, with relatively brief gigs as a suburban news stringer for the old Milwaukee Sentinel, and the government reporter for the Cudahy Reminder-Enterprise weekly. Even did a few stories for Milwaukee Magazine (my editor back then has since gone on to bigger and better things) Eventually I settled into a regular freelance role with the Shepherd Express alternative weekly.

Meanwhile, I was spending ever-more-increasing hours on the day job helping people with their computer issues, starting with WordPerfect and spanning printer connections, networks, and eventually all the vagaries of email and the web. Eventually I found myself taking on network administration tasks and a little web content development at the UW-Madison Land Tenure Center.

It was about that time that I started thinking there might be a future for me in the wide world of technology. My wife spotted a newspaper ad for a tech support person at a software company (how quaint!) in the fall of 1997, and approximately 52 hours after I sent in my résumé, I was hired as the first full-time tech support person at a startup that made a Zip archiving program and a Windows file manager. Two months after I started there, we all moved from Madison, WI to Boulder, Colorado.

Full Time Tech Guy

During the five years I lived in Boulder, I rose from solo tech support guy to Senior Documentation Specialist (that is, solo tech writer). In between, I wrote my first book, and first installed Linux on my home system (Corel Linux, if you must know). I became active in the Boulder Linux User Group and the Rocky Mountain chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. All good things come to an end, though, and the startup was bought, then sold in the fall of 2002.

Feeling a bit homesick, my wife and I came back home to Milwaukee. I worked as an independent tech writing contractor for a few firms in the Milwaukee area, and worked on a few book projects that never saw the light of day. When Novell bought SuSE, AG in 2004, though, I got my break. Pearson Publishing wanted to do a SuSE Linux book, originally for the Novell Press imprint, but eventually for the Sams Unleashed series. As a longtime SuSE user, I got the job. Some months later, I finished it. At about that same time, Compuware called to ask if I’d be interested in a consultant role with them.

For the next three years, I worked for Compuware during the day, and on updating SUSE Linux Unleashed at night (not continuously, though it sometimes seemed that way). That pattern continued through February 2009, when the downturn hit Compuware Milwaukee pretty badly. Fortunately for me, PKWARE scooped me up almost instantly to take over their documentation.

Today I live with my wife in an aging bungalow in West Allis, Wisconsin, a block from McCarty Park, and a mile or so away from State Fair Park. My stepdaughter and her family lives a few miles west, so I get to see them often. Time marches on.