By Bob Rhubart
“A tiny little map dot of a town.” That’s how Oracle Groundbreaker Ambassador Mark Heckler describes Sumner, Illinois, the town where he grew up. It was there, as a high school student, that he first developed an interest in computers.
For Heckler, now a principal technologist/ Spring developer advocate with Pivotal, programming computers was a way to exercise control. “So many times, we operate within boundaries. We’re told to do certain things, and we do them, and sometimes we are given latitude. To program a computer, to write a program, actually means you’re determining what boundaries exist, if any. So it’s an incredibly elevating, liberating experience, because all of a sudden, you’re the one who decides if that wall should be there or if you’ll just bust down all the walls and go out and make something happen in that particular way that no app currently is fulfilling. So you determine where you go. It’s empowering. You define what you want to have done, and the computer does it—that is, in the best of circumstances, of course. There are many failed efforts that may lead up to that, but you dictate the rules.”
As a teenager, Heckler engaged in early programming efforts that grew from simple, “Hello, World”–level experiments. “In early years, I started playing with music and some graphics, a little bit of gaming, but nothing terribly sophisticated,” he explains.
The local high school offered no computer classes, so Heckler grabbed every bit of available material he could find either online or in books. Lincoln Trail College, in nearby Robinson, Illinois, offered more resources. “I took all the programming courses that I could take,” Heckler says. “The courses were listed under the mathematics program, but many of them were programming.”
Heckler went on to attend Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in information technology and business and an MBA with a focus on finance. “I wanted to understand more of the business side,” Heckler says.
The Oracle Groundbreaker Ambassador program recognizes modern experts who blog; write articles; and give presentations on topics such as containers, microservices, SQL, NoSQL, open source technologies, machine learning, and chatbots. Learn more and follow the Oracle Groundbreaker Ambassadors.
“I felt like the MBA would be really useful and helpful to me in understanding how the rest of the business works and how to convert those higher-level strategies and tech business tactics into actual code,” Heckler explains.
For a time, Heckler wrote his code in C++. “I really didn’t see anything terribly wrong with that,” he says. “But when I saw Java in action and its garbage collector—this thing that meant you didn’t have to allocate free memory for everything you did—at first I thought it was a little crazy.” But not for long.
Although he found the initial versions of Java to be slow, garbage collection was a major temptation. “So much of your time is spent avoiding or finding and addressing memory leaks,” Heckler says. “I felt that if they could get the performance under control, it would be an incredible language and environment in which to run applications. And then, of course, that’s exactly what happened.”
Now a Java Champion as well as an Oracle Groundbreaker Ambassador, Heckler finds his attention drawn to security as well as the Internet of Things.
“I got my first taste of that several years ago, writing code for an Arduino. Very simple, very limited in what it can do,” Heckler says. “But what it did, it did exceedingly well. And then I started looking at ‘Hey, can I plug that in here and there?’”
Heckler appreciates the process by which interaction feeds innovation. “One of the things I love about being a developer advocate is that no matter how I might envision how Spring data or Spring security might be used, when I’m out speaking with people, I’m constantly being challenged,” he explains. “Each of us has in our mind what the valid use cases are for a piece of software or a component or a library. But when you talk to somebody who’s using it differently, you realize, ‘Oh, that’s still a valid use case.’ That expands my mind and expands the valid use cases and ‘Wow, I see how that may be a problem using it here.’ We need to accommodate that. That’s challenging and interesting.”
Heckler now lives in Godfrey, Illinois, a dot on the map a scant 160 miles from Sumner but light-years away from the early attempts at “Hello, World.” These days that greeting means so much more.
Photography by Bob Adler/Getty Images