The Road to Geekdom

You’ve seen the TV commercials: young white man stuck in a dead-end, low-paying job wakes up one morning, decides to sign up for classes at Foo Tech, and is transformed into a skilled computer technician working in his dream job. Apparently degrees from Foo Tech translate into good salaries and co-workers and customers who are pleasant, and do not drive you insane. Riiight. But stereotypes and hype aside, how does a person become an ace computing deity? Do you need college, certifications, apprenticeships at the feet of wizened gurus? Why would a person even want to consider a tech career? Aren’t all the good jobs being outsourced? Isn’t the tech industry full of unwashed grumpy guys who hate everything?

I’ll answer these in reverse: No, not really. Yes, lots of tech jobs are outsourced, but I wouldn’t call them good, unless your idea of good is unrealistic expectations, time zone and language barriers and an unswerving focus on paying people as absolutely little as possible.

Why consider a tech career? I think if you have to ask this, you’re probably not suited for it. People should choose careers that excite and challenge them. Choosing a profession because it pays well, or carries prestige, or means you get to work in a nice climate-controlled office means you probably won’t enjoy your work, and will burn out early and become bitter and cynical and no fun, and your friends won’t call anymore, so you’ll be lost and lonely too. My favorite take on the subject is by Dick Hamilton the PC Man (hey Dick, are you still around?):

“In a past life I was a contract applications programmer. Self-taught … I have been fortunate to pretty much always do what I have been interested in at the time.

“Hasn’t always paid well but I have found the saying of ‘Do what you love and the money will follow’ to be true …

“The point I always found amazing is that in the ‘old days’ people were drawn to computers because of their fascination with them but a great many of the college grads joined the field because: it was the thing to do, it paid well, it was ‘sexy’, etc. No real interest, just show up at 8:00 and go home at 5:00. This is what I could not understand- how could people work at something they were not passionate about …”

This is a grand time to be in high tech, because the opportunities are nearly limitless. You can be a wage slave, or enter the exciting crapshoot of startups, or freelance. I love freelancing, because for me working for other people is itchy and galling. Whatever you like best, you can find it.

What Kinds of Jobs?
Computers run everything these days: toasters, cars, games, greeting cards, slot machines, cash registers, telephone systems, heating and cooling, alarm systems, prisons, toys, surveillance devices, home automation, telescopes, medical equipment, voting machines (ahem), washing machines…If you focus too narrowly on the PC-and-server world, you’re going to miss out on the majority of the fun.

How do I Get There?
Curiosity and not being afraid to wade in and try things. The barrier to entry is low: all you need are a couple of PCs, an Internet connection, and the vast resources of the Free/Open Source software world. Want to learn how to build Web applications? Code specialized embedded devices? Write operating systems? Network administration? System administration? Digital sound and video? Start with FOSS projects. But, you say, the world revolves around Windows, or I wish to do cool Mac OSX stuff. That’s fine — you should still start with FOSS, because that is foundational to all computing. Everything you learn there will apply to all computing arenas; the reverse is emphatically not true.

Should you go to school? That depends on the school. Too many of them are behind the times. High tech is a fast-evolving industry, so you’re better off knowing to how teach yourself. I’m not saying formal schooling is bad — of course you should take classes if they are worthy and taught by actual gurus who are not entombed in the last millennium. No matter how brilliant your formal education, you’re still going to need the ability to keep up with new developments and advancing your skills.

The best part of the FOSS world is making friends all over the planet. Because it is free and open, unencumbered by delicate corporate sensibilities and paranoia, we can trade knowledge and information freely. I think the best minds in tech are in FOSS, and most of them are generous with their time and knowledge. (Even the grumpy ones can be baited into revealing good stuff – just say something you know is way wrong and wait for the informative flames.)

But I’m a Girl or Too Old or Too Dumb
A pox on all silly self-defeating delusions. As my official bio says:

Carla Schroder is a self-taught Linux and Windows sysadmin who laid hands on her first computer around her 37th birthday…Carla is living proof that you’re never too old to try something new; computers are a heck of a lot of fun; and anyone can learn to do anything.


These contain sage advice for people of all genders:

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