Tag: personal history

My Nerd Story

What follows is my tech origin story. Thank you to my colleague Crystal Beasley (@skinny) for the inspiration and for shepherding #mynerdstory (follow along on Twitter and Facebook).

TRS 80 Model II
TRS 80 Model II, source: Wikipedia Commons

Like a lot of folks who grew up in chaotic home environments, memories of my younger years are fragmented and hazy. I can’t say with certainty what our first computer was, or when exactly it arrived in our home. I remember both an Apple II and an IBM PC with an 8088 processor making appearances in the mid- to late-eighties. Both were second-hand. The IBM machine stuck around longer and was the one that I did the most exploring on. I can still vividly recall many evenings spent during my sixth grade year in front of the blue Wordperfect screen and clackity-clack keyboard typing essays. I also recall spending a lot of time online that year as we somehow managed to have a modem and a subscription to Prodigy.

Wordperfect 5.1
Wordperfect 5.1, source: Wikipedia

Aside from really liking Wordperfect macro and formatting codes, I knew nothing yet of programming. That changed when my father came home with a used TRS-80, which I was allowed to have in my room. The computer must have come with a book on BASIC programming, because within a short while of having it, I was making simple programs. This was around 1991, when I was 10 or 11 years old. My first program was designed to help my mother figure out what to make us for dinner.

BASIC interface
BASIC interface, source: Wikipedia

That initial rush of programming activity didn’t resume until a long while later. Family life was especially chaotic then. We weren’t doing well financially and shortly we relocated under some duress from the SF Bay Area to Sacramento. I don’t think the TRS-80 followed us, or at least I didn’t have access to it again.

The summer of 1992 was my first in Sacramento. It was especially long since my parents pulled us out of school early in order to move. I spent a lot of time riding my bike and exploring the neighborhood, somehow unaffected by Sacramento’s blazing summer heat (much hotter than my native Alameda). I also spent a lot of time inside, on the computer. At some point I decided to read the entire DOS 3.2 manual, the one with the spartan cyan-colored cover. I wanted to know everything I could about how our 8088 worked and what I could do with it. The manual included a section on BATCH programming which I totally loved.

IBM DOS 3.2 Manual
IBM DOS 3.2 Manual

Summer ends and I begin 8th grade, transferring schools after the first quarter so that I can participate in our district’s accelerated program. I am now bussed across town for school. The curriculum there is more challenging and interesting to me, but does not include any computer science and there is little time or support for it at home. I start high school, at a school that is very good but not in our neighborhood. I spend my entire freshman year being late to everything because my father is largely in charge of transportation. Fortunately we move to a house about a mile away from my school the summer before my sophomore year and I gain the ability to take myself to school (with my own two feet!).

Three significant “nerd” things happened during my sophomore year. The first was that I got my own computer again. As with the machines before it, a second-hand PC appeared without much explanation. Sometimes I wonder if these things were stolen or otherwise acquired under dubious circumstances, as was my father’s habit. In any case, this machine had an 8086 processor and CGA display. It ran DOS, probably version 4.0 and came install with PoliceQuest. I think I stayed up all night the first day I had it. The second thing that happened was that a I took the required computer literacy course and did so well I ended up helping the teacher run the class and being allowed to work on my own projects. This lead to the third things, which was to connect with the other students of my ilk who had quickly exceeded the basic computer skills curriculum and were allowed to work on other things. I actually ended up marrying one of the boys I met that year in computer lab (it didn’t work out in the long term).

Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel
Police Quest: In Pursuit of the Death Angel (source: Adventure Classic Gaming)

Around this time I got very into using BBS (bulletin board systems; remember this was per-internet) and in learning how to build and upgrade computers. Friends whose families were better situated financially than ours would always find ways to give me their old components and they upgraded theirs. I’ve never forget the pure joy I experienced the day I upgraded from my 2400 baud modem to 14.4k (my friend had just upgraded to 56k). Glorious. Having the ability to connect to others via BBSes was incredibly important to me. In fact, I think it may have saved my life. The summer between my junior and senior years was very, very dark. I was allowed virtually no social interaction outside of my immediate family. I was depressed and lonely and so being able to connect with others in a meaningful way via technology was a godsend. Even during the period that my father prohibited me from using it, as punishment for some now forgotten transgression, I managed to do so by waiting for him to fall asleep, quietly secreting the equipment back into my room, using it all night and then returning it in the morning before he woke up.

LORD: Legend of the Red Dragon
LORD: Legend of the Red Dragon, one of my all-time favorite BBS games.

I mention that last story because not only were my interests in computing not supported, but my interests were actively used against me at times as a form of punishment. I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve talked to lots of people whose parents saw any computer use as a waste of time and actively discouraged it under any circumstances.

Sometime during early high school I took my first programming class, during the summer. It was C programming at the local community college and I totally bombed it. It was the first coursework I’d ever encountered that I couldn’t understand right away and I had no idea how to ask for help. I didn’t even know asking for help was within the realm of possibility. All I felt was deep shame that I wasn’t automatically understanding the material and making progress. It might sound silly now, but keep in mind that this was before the internet, before Google and Stackoverflow and Youtube, before all of these resources were readily available. I didn’t have a readily accessible connection with anyone else who programmed. At some point I just stopped going to class. This early failure haunted me for a long, long time.

Borland C for DOS
Borland C for DOS

Other computing events from my high school years that I recall vividly: I introduced a virus onto our home PC. I don’t recall which one, or the exact results, but I recall my father being very angry and it’s probably what lead our family to get a newer PC (a 386!). I did the DOS-equivalent of ‘rm -rf’ in C:/ trying to free up disk space. Opps. I wish I could say that’s the first and last time I ever made that kind of mistake. And I played a lot of Nethack and Civilization. I spent a lot of time working on an Asteroids-like game written in BASIC.

Nethack (source: Wikipedia)

During my junior year, I started taking classes at Sacramento State university as part of a program that allowed low-cost concurrent enrollment to high-school students. I took a computer fundamentals course that gave me my first shell account and internet access. It was awesome. This was 1996 and we used the Lynx web browser and learned about searching the world wide web. We also learned PINE mail and gopher and telnet and irc. It was my first exposure to Unix/Linux and Open Source and I loved it. It was also my first exposure to really shitty computing/internet-related legislation, for that was the year that we started hearing about the DMCA. The following year, among other course, I took an introduction to programming, this one taught in visual basic, and did incredibly well. So well, in fact, that I was all set to apply to colleges for Computer Engineering… until I fell in love with physics. AP Physics amazed me. I was able to use something I loved, calculus, to solve real-world programs. I applied to UC Davis as a Physics major and was accepted and awarded with a full Regents scholarship.

Lynx web browser
Lynx web browser (source: Wikipedia)

My early university years did not go well for me. The summer before starting university was a rocky one. As it turns out, undiagnosed and untreated ADD and PTSD is a particularly unproductive combination and made the already difficult task of navigating university on my own completely unmanageable. When I think back on it, as with so many of my early years, I’m amazed I made it through alive and relatively in tact. I have some very good friends to thank for that. UC Davis kicked me out for poor academic performance twice, and in order to return and complete my degree I was required to switch majors to something in the humanities school. I chose English Lit. I’ve always enjoyed reading and had recently discovered that, much to my surprise, I was capable of writing decently well. Somehow I was able to create enough stability in my life that I graduated with a decent academic record and even earned an ‘Outstanding Graduating Senior’ commendation.

Despite my academic struggles, I did managed to have some very valuable computing experience in college. For a time I worked in our NOC as a student systems administrator. I learned about a huge range of systems: Unisys mainframe, VMS VAX, Unix and Solaris and I used Unix daily via the terminal as well as KDE desktop. Later on I worked for a climate change research group and my duties there include Windows NT as well as Unix administration and even a bit of ColdFusion programming.

2002 turned out not to be the best year for a new grad to enter the job market (though there would be worse years to come). My graduation also coincided with my fathering being arrested for solicitation of murder. I floundered for a bit. After quitting my job at UC Davis that had started as a student position, I canvassed for Sierra Club and CalPIRG, went to Burning Man for the first time, worked at WebEx giving demos, got married hastily and then worked at my husband’s company writing technical documentation and leading product training.

In 2003 I moved back to the Bay Area. I found a job as a print production manager with a small technology marketing publisher based in San Fransisco. In many ways it was a really great job for me. I had a lot of autonomy and I was able to use my diverse skills to streamline the company’s existing publishing process. It was fast-paced and deadline-driven, which kept me focused. I was able to hire and manage two staff members. Looking back, one of the most important things I was able to do was learn PHP/MySQL and bring the website programming and server administration completely in house. My experience at that small publisher allowed me to get a job at a more prestigious agency at which I was able to pivot completely from print production work to full-time IT/programming. In 2007 I stopped working at the marketing agency so I could freelance . Later that same year I moved to Portland and immediately got involved in our awesome tech community by attending a Code ‘n’ Splode meeting.

For a while I regularly attended PHP meetups and then started volunteering for events like BarCamp Portland. Meanwhile, freelancing was starting to get old and I returned to salaried employed at a local agency. I stayed there for about a year and then went to work for a local e-commerce startup in 2010. I continued to hone my programming skills and switched to using desktop Linux full-time (from OSX). In 2012 started at Mozilla, working first within Webdev on the Web Productions team and now on Tech Evangelism.

These days I program mostly in Javascript and Python.

I don’t consider myself a superstar programmer, nor do I aspire to that designation. I’m a well-rounded technologist. What I’m most interested in these days is finding ways to use technology to drive social change, to empower citizenship and to build better communities and relationships.

My back-to-school, beginning of college story

Trigger warning: This post references emotional and physical abuse.

It’s the back-to-school time of year, which always seems to arrive excessively early. Living in the colder Pacific Northwest, summer feels like it’s only getting started by mid-July when big box stores signal the return of fall by with campaigns selling backpacks, pens, notebooks, shower caddys, extra-long twin sheet sets, and all the other ephemera required of returning to school. And as we march towards the September, it’s impossible to escape stories in the news about the profound and emotional act of leaving one’s child at university for the first time.

I find myself stuck in the middle of these two audiences. Sherri and I don’t have children together of any age, so we aren’t buying school supplies for a return to the classroom, and we aren’t escorting any nearly-grown children at college. Reminders of this fact often make me sad, even if for brief moments until I am distracted by the many duties of everyday life. While I hope we will find a way to bring meaning and guidance to a child’s life, I don’t know for certain that we will have any back-to-school experiences beyond our own.

Stories about leaving for college can trigger a melancholy nostalgia for another reason: they remind me of the violent and abrupt way I left home many years ago.

I applied to three universities and was accepted to two: UC Davis and UC Berkeley. I was proud to have been accepted at UC Berkeley and it probably would have been my first choice. But like most decisions for which my father was gatekeeper, Davis was really the only viable selection. They offered me a full Regents Scholarship, which offset numerous parental threats around not supporting me financially, and the campus was located close enough to home that my father felt comfortable sending me there. The plan might even have been for me to commute to Davis until I won the scholarship and was accepted into the residential Integrated Studies program. In any case, during the summer of 1997 I was working at Radio Shack full time. With wages from that job, I did college back to school shopping on my own.

That last summer at home I led a largely invisible existence, punctuated by blinding visibility on the radar of my father’s temper. These flashes happened with increasing frequency as the date of my departure from the household grew nearer. Was my father responding to an increasing display of independence from me, or was he responding to the inevitable loss of control? Earlier in the summer we had a huge argument about the use of the new family computer. The details of the fight aren’t important, but the results were devastating to me. My punishment was handed down not in person, but in writing. Somewhere among my things, I still have the hand-written noted my father taped to the kitchen cabinets outlining my loss of privileges, which included a prohibition against using my car until I repaid my half of its purchase cost, and a resolute recension of any support for college. The note said something about “good luck keeping your job without a way to get there” and ended with “good luck asshole.”

I took the note down and walked back to my room. My mind seared with anger and desperation. I resolved to leave home right then. I packed a bag and climbed out my kitchen window.

A well-throughout plan I did not have. Rather, I had as good as a plan as 17-year old who feels like escaping home is a life-or-death matter. I walked the half-mile or so to the local grocery store where I used a pay phone to call a cab. The driver looked at me strangely, but obliged my request and dropped me off at a cheap motel near Sacramento State University. This area I was familiar with because I took classes at the university. I thought somehow the motel’s proximity to the university would make it less strange that I was trying to check in to a motel with a university ID and credit card, which I had hoped would be sufficient. But the motel clerk insisted on seeing my driver’s license and when he saw I was under age, he refused to let me register. I walked across the street to the Denny’s, feeling dejected and having no idea where else to go.

And that’s when things got strange.

Right away I recognized one of other patrons, a man seated with two other women. He had been a recent customer of mine from Radio Shack, and although I’m unsure of his actual name, I always think of him as Aaron. I recognized him because sometime during the prior weeks he bought expensive speakers from me which helped me earn my commission for the day. Aaron was in his early twenties and I looked up to him in the way that adolescents look up to those who are only a few years older than them, but seemingly light-years away in independence and all the things that come with it.

Instantly I felt embarrassed and hoped he didn’t recognize me. But he did and he came over to my table. He invited me to come sit with them, I did and it eventually revealed that I was trying to leave home, not giving many details other than that my mind was made to follow my course. They listened to me, empathizing and not once condescending to me, which was a kindness I so rarely received. What Aaron said to me next has stayed with me all these years: “I don’t know anything about your situation, I’m not judging that. What I do know is that what you’re trying to do is very hard. If there’s anyway you can stick it out just a little bit longer until you go to college, I think things will be better for you. We’re staying at the motel across the street, and I’ll get you a room there so you have a place to sleep tonight and some time to think it over.” I probably knew he was right about having to go back home, but wasn’t quite ready to acquiesce. I was ready to have a room for the night, though. We finished our meals and then drove across the street to the other hotel in Aaron’s tiny sports car.

And that’s when things got even more strange.

There is a police cruiser in the parking lot of the motel. This fact puts Aaron on high alert, and rather than parking as expected, he hops out of the car and ducks into the manager’s office. He emerges moments later, gets back in to the car and puts it in into gear. “The cops are here trying to serve a warrant on me,” he says. “We have to go.”

And so we do, heading westbound on highway 50 toward downtown Sacramento. At this point the feeling of having an out of body experience, watching myself in a film, that started when I climbed out my bedroom window is now complete. I am stuck in the back seat of a tiny sports car with a near-complete stranger, apparently wanted by the policy, driving and I have no idea where we are going.

We exit and race through empty downtown streets. I don’t know where we are since I haven’t driven downtown very much. Suddenly we pull in to the Vagabond Inn and Aaron hops out and walks to the manager’s office. Shortly he returns with a key and hands it to me. “Checkout is at noon. Good luck,” he says. Dumbfounded, I realize he’s kept his word. I wave goodbye to Aaron and his companions. They speed off to somewhere I never know, and I go to my room for the night.

The next morning I call a friend of mine to give me a ride home. It must have been a Sunday, because traffic was light and my mother was at home, in the kitchen when I walked through the door. I could tell my invisible state had been restored because no one noticed I’d been gone. I would have thought walking through the door first thing in the morning with a backpack and wearing the previous’ days clothes would have been a sure tell. Now I know that people have an uncanny ability to see, or not see, exactly what they want or need to at any given time.

After that weekend’s adventure, I recalled Aaron’s advice like a mantra. Keep your head down. Just get by for another two months until school starts. I worked every Radio Shack shift diligently, welcoming my escape from home even though it meant biking miles in the heat. I stayed in my room when I was at home, watching movies, reading, and playing Nethack and Civilization.

This strategy was working, and as mid-August arrived, so had relative calm in our house. I began gently reminding my father about the car, and when we could negotiate the terms of its release to me. Rather than providing a concrete answer, he said now wasn’t a good time to discuss, and we’d go over it later that evening or tomorrow. I grew tired of these rebuffs and one evening, as he sprawled on the couch watching TV, I pushed him further. “No, we need to talk about this now,” I said. “You aren’t busy right now and this is important.”

What happened after that occurred in an instant and in slow motion all at once. Something about what I said provoke his temper and he charged at me, red-faced from the couch. Was he going to slap me, or just man-handle me back to my room as so often was his preference?

I had became adept in my teenage years at simply outrunning or out maneuvering my father when he tried to strike or otherwise physically control me. If my path to the front door were clear, I would go outside. This was the best option by far, since the front yard not only provided freedom of movement and fewer obstacles, but also a potential audience. A person is generally less comfortable smacking their kids around when an audience is present. If my path to the outside wasn’t clear, I would just try to make him tired before he was able to make contact with me. Sometimes ensuring that I retreated to my room was enough to get him to stop.

This time, however, I didn’t move or so much as flinch. Instead, I locked eyes with him and the split second before he was going to make contact with me, I said, “You touch me again, you are going to jail.”

To this day, I can’t explain what made this change in our power dynamic possible, I only know that a profound change came over me an empowered me to do what I did. Ever seen the last season of Buffy, when all the slayers are activated? It was like that.

He stopped. His posture changed. Surprise registered in his eyes. I was leading in this dance now and he knew it. Then came the rage. “Get out, now. You have 15 minutes,” he commanded, pointing down the hall not towards any outside door but in a gesture that clearly meant you are not welcomed here any longer.

And so I left.

First I called a friend and was able to utter, “I need you to come get me right now,” to which he responded, “I am on my way. Meet you out front. Bring only what you need for tonight.” before my father cut the phone line. My friend arrived within a half hour and I never lived with my father again.

As so began one of the most surreal times of my life, the month between my last day living at home and my first day of college. Parts of it I recall with visceral detail. Others are a blur. I continued to work my shifts at Radio Shack, but in many other ways I shut down. The friend who picked me up the night I left home asked our friends to ask their parents if I could stay with them. One family said yes, and to this day I feel immense gratitude for their generosity. They gave me what I needed most at the time, at some risk to themselves (since I was a minor), and asked nothing in return.

When it was time to leave my temporary family, a friend of a friend helped me begin my life at UC Davis. He had a large white pickup, into which we packed my things and then drove the 15 or so miles to campus. I recall the conversation between us during that time being awkward and tense, although I couldn’t tell you exactly what we talked about. When we arrived at B Building, my assigned dorm on campus, we unloaded and then my helper departed. There were no words of advice, no teary-eyed embraces, no last-minute gifts of pocket money. I was alone.

If the strangeness of my situation crossed my mind, I ignored it. I had an extra-long twin bed to make, a room to settle into, and classes started in a few days.

For a long while after leaving home and even graduating college, I couldn’t pass through this time of year without feeling profound anxiety, and then sadness. Much of that has faded now, as most scars do. I remain grateful that I survived such a difficult transition and for the people who helped me through it. When I see 17 and 18 year-olds now, heading off to college for the first time, I think how impossibly young they seem and realize just how young I was when all of that happened.

There is nothing we can do to change our past, and yet if we aren’t vigilant we find ourselves trying to do just that. Healing must take the past into account, but can only be performed in the present. When I think of the 17 year-old me, I comfort her and I let her know she’s going to be okay. And then I bring my attention to the present and look forward to the future.