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Serendipity: Another out-of-band win. - Elf M. Sternberg
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elfs
Serendipity: Another out-of-band win.

While at the genetic engineering gig, I was regularly scouted for positions elsewhere. I didn’t want to leave: the pay was terrible, but the freedom and professional satisfaction was immense. But really, I had teenagers and Omaha has her epilepsy, so we needed insurance more than I needed professional satisfaction. If Obamacare had been a thing back then, maybe I’d have stayed all the way. They’re still doing well there.


The one job that really threw money at me was a textbook company, of all things. They were looking for front end developers who would help them transition from traditional publishing to on-line, and they wanted their website to be a “core value proposition,” a place where school districts could describe their needs and their requirements, and get customized textbooks to meet their district needs.


During the interview, the other guy asked me if I was working on anything interesting in my spare time. I mentioned that I’d just written “a little thing,” a toolkit that glued together a markdown processor, a couple of python scripts, and a JSON file to automatically create ebooks. He asked me to explain how it worked, I explained the simplicity of the NCX and OPF formats, and how I hoped to put a visual front-end on this tool someday. “You actually know the EPUB standard?” he said, his eyes wide and genuinely hungry.


“Well, most of it.”


They hired me. A year later they laid me off. It turns out they were hoping to add automatic EPUB generation to their existing LaTeX-based production line. But I never got to see any of that; I was stuck doing the website for a year, my Epub skills reserved for “When we get to it…” I think part of the idea was that EPUB 3.0 would come soon, which had some Javascript and interactivity built in, and the interactive chemistry and biology lessons I was building for the website would be book-ready by then. But it never happened.


The serendipity here is obvious: I had no professional reason to know the EPUB 2.0 standard. But I did for unprofessional reasons. They wanted me for it, as yet another an in-house expert. They never used me in that capacity. They had too many in-house experts spending their days doing the more routine parts of bootstrapping; that may be part of the reason they failed to really get anywhere.

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