Fred Lifton Wordsmith


I was born in San Francisco, California on December 6th, 1963. At the time, my parents, French mother Yves and American father Mitchell, worked as a fashion model and college theatre teacher respectively. We moved to England in 1967 so my father could pursue his career as film producer. We lived in England—in London and out in the country near Oxford—for the next eight years.

In 1974 we returned to the States, living first in Southern California and then moving to South Bend, Indiana where I attended a Catholic high school, St. Joseph’s. At that time, my father taught theater, film and communications at Notre Dame and my mother was a fairly successful artist, painting abstract landscape works.

After I graduated from high school, I attended Brandeis University for two years taking a broad range of arts and science courses, becoming especially interested in Native American cultures and American literature. In my Junior year, I transferred to the University of California, Santa Cruz where I focused my studies on American literature and anthropology and from which I graduated in 1985 with a B.A. in Literature.

Starting in 1976, I had become an enthusiastic visitor to the American wilderness, mostly as a backpacker and rock-climber. I was first exposed to the outdoor life at Camp Unalayee, a non-profit, multi-cultural wilderness camp in California's Trinity Alps. It was a life-changing experience, not just because of the setting, but also because of the amazing and diverse people I met there. I stayed strongly involved with Unalayee for many years, working with the kids, developing programs and serving on the board.

After graduating college, I spent the next two years traveling a lot in the outdoors of the western US, including a six-month backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Washington. I supported myself mainly with retail jobs at bike and outdoor stores and as an editor and writer. I was lucky enough to work with some prominent people in American outdoor culture, including Ron Kauk and Edward Abbey.

In 1987 I enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Education program at the University of California, Santa Cruz completing a year of coursework before I left for the English Graduate Program at Duke University where I concentrated on critical theory and American studies.

I earned my Master’s from Duke in 1991, then spent the next year traveling around the country, fortunate enough to again be doing what I love as I did the social research needed for my dissertation. I lived in my Subaru station wagon and visited National Parks, campgrounds and wilderness areas all over the US, but particularly in the South- and Northwest. I supported myself with odd jobs, my savings and my credit cards. After returning to Duke to finish my doctorate, I supported myself by teaching composition and literature courses, and by working in an animal shelter and as a bicycle mechanic.

The job market for English professors as I finished graduate school was abysmal. From 1994 to 1996 there was an average of 500 applicants per position, tenure-track or not. The lucky ones got three or four single-course lectureships at different schools and held office hours in the parking lot out of their trunk.

After applying to over seventy-five positions over a two year period, I re-tooled and moved to Bishop, California. I spent the next four years in Bishop, teaching at the local high school, managing a bike shop and mostly successfully starting an internet coffee-shop, Kava Coffeehouse. In 1996, I was also spectacularly successful in meeting my beautiful wife, Laura Ohm. Laura is a remarkable chef, baker and restaurateur (she is currently Cuisine Manager at Grand Central Bakery). In 1998 we moved to Portland, Oregon where we were married in 1999 in a summer rain on the bank of the Sandy River.

In Portland I worked first at a Macintosh computer store doing sales, internal documentation and marketing communication, and also as a freelance consultant and writer. In 1999, I was lucky enough to get hired as the first Instructional Technologist at Reed College.

I grew tremendously in this position, developing technology, communication and teaching skills. I learned exciting new technologies like digital video and I honed my skills at explaining technical concepts to the layperson.

In 2004, eager to apply new skills in new directions, I started a new part-time position at Reed specializing in digital media. At the same time I grew my freelance writing and web development business.

My Reed job also helped me buy my first house, a 1910 fixer in Northeast Portland's King neighborhood. With Laura's help, I’ve been restoring it myself for the last ten years.

In 2007 I left Reed for a position as a Senior Technical Writer contracted to HP. This position not only challenged my writing and organizational skills, it also allowed me to deepen my knowledge of software and firmware development, architecture, and UI design.

I left HP after four years for the exciting world of the tech start-up, taking a position as the second tech writer hired by Puppet Labs in downtown Portland. I was given the job of documenting Puppet's flagship product, Puppet Enterprise. After two years of explosive growth, I'm proud to say that sales of Puppet Enterprise are approaching $50 million annually. Given the many compliments we've gotten from our users, I like to think the docs have helped fuel some of that growth.

I left Puppet in 2014 to pursue an exciting opportunity at Docker, Inc., helping to forge a new culture of documentation at a young startup with huge potential. Today I work full-time for Docker from my office in the now-finished upper story of my old house. I share the space with Laura and an Australian Shepherd-based dog named Pennyroyal.

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