It’s been a passing fad lately for some acquaintances of mine to write about their tech origin story—how they came to tech, perhaps as a child or young adult, and found a place for it in their lives and identities. I probably haven’t shared much about mine. The story gets a bit personal, touching on class background, among other things. Its trajectory, though, took me far away from where I started.
I started my story growing up in a rural area of southern Georgia. I didn’t have any access to a computer from a young age. My family had a TRS-80 that I struggled to hook up to the TV, and I managed to tinker with it a bit, but it was never much more than a toy I used for a few weeks and forgot. I don’t count it. It didn’t come with games or programs, nor the ability to store these. It didn’t connect to any other devices or networks. All it did was run BASIC instructions. I didn’t get far with it, and I didn’t remember much about the whole thing until later in my life.
I don’t recall childhood as a time of achievement, either. From about the second and third grade, I began failing classes and getting punishments such as writing assignments, detentions, and eventually in- and out-of-school suspensions. The reasons why are complicated and personal. We’ll skip ahead a bit. Suffice it to say, I spent most of this time ignoring school and just reading and writing things outside of class. I got a typewriter instead of a computer.
I failed too many classes to graduate high school on time, nor did I make it to graduation, and I certainly didn’t have the kind of GPA or scholarships that would have put me on track for college. This put college almost out of reach. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and mental illness intervened and prevented me from making much of myself for a few years. During this time, I set foot in a couple of college or college-like settings, but only for a few months, and I invariably failed every class I took.
Let’s turn to the tech part of the story. I didn’t get a computer of my own until the end of high school, and I was incredibly lucky at that (interesting story full of weird happenstance, but I’ll save it for another time). I didn’t really know what the Internet was until high school, and programming was unknown to me until around the time I finally got a computer of my own.
I did learn programming, though, around that time. I did so quickly at that. It soon became really important to me to be able to control a computer on every level. Awareness of open source followed closely upon that. Within a couple of years I started trying to throw up websites for people. To round out my abilities, I ran my own server out of my house and set up everything from scratch on it, learning how to run e-mail, web, IRC, and everything else. I read everything I could to the point of exhaustion.
This all happened while I worked in food service, and while I had a vague awareness that these sorts of abilities were useful, my profound failures in school had daunted me, and I had already long ago decided I needed to finish college before I considered some sort of “real” job. People began telling me quickly I should try to apply for this or that, or asking why I wasn’t in a computer-related job, and all I could say is, I have no degree! I have no qualifications, experience, education, training, certifications, or references! This grew into a litany—I could knock down others’ vicarious ambitions for me more quickly than they could even articulate them.
I dreamed someday of going to college and getting on track to become well lettered, researching interesting problems, meeting people brilliant beyond reckoning, and having the means to drag myself out of the dreary life I led driving around in an old station wagon catering for people. Yet, I felt like I had squandered my one chance, and that dream was out of reach. I didn’t know what to do.
I can describe this time as basically wandering around. For several years, I moved through a handful of towns in Georgia. A lot of very important things happened to me, but those are other stories. Eventually I wandered by chance up to the Pacific Northwest, living across the river from Portland. I did transcription work for a half a cent a word to bring in a little money, but I wasn’t getting by very well.
I began to meet people, and most of the people I met through IRC in the area were into tech in some fashion or another. One day, someone told me to apply at their company for a programmer position. I took a look at the requirements and instantly said, no! It required a four-year degree (or equivalent, whatever that means) and experiences and technologies I knew nothing about. At this point, I had never touched SQL, nor had I ever used Perl.
He told me to apply anyway. Here’s the important part: Had not someone from the company specifically told me to disregard the formal requirements, I would never have acted. As it is, I did, and that changed everything. Despite my lack of experience, they saw potential and gave me a chance. From that point, I picked up the job really well, getting two promotions over the next two years and in the meantime gaining all the experience I had previously lacked.
I’m glad I applied, but even more, I regret not applying to tech jobs before that point. I think back at so much time in my life I spent holding back, being my own worst enemy and dismissing my opportunities out of hand before they could even happen. I have spent more than a few moments wondering why I didn’t apply before. Even if I hadn’t hit success right away and met with rejections, what was I holding myself back from?