I have taken the “non-traditional path” in both my education and Google Product Manager Job career. At age eight my parents discovered my aptitude and (more importantly) interest in programming. My mother was always learning new things and as a result when she got our first computer and started to learn to program it gave me access to everything I needed to teach myself.
I remember vividly when she purchased our first modem it was a 150 bits per second acoustic coupler. To put this in perspective COMCAST’s lower tier is 106 times faster than my first network connection. Even then it was painfully slow but it opened an entire new world to me – one I never knew existed.
At some point that year I decided I wanted to host a Bulletin Board System of my own (a BBS is very similar to a forum website today) so I asked my parents to buy me the software and telephone line to do this — they of course laughed and said no after all it would cost close to $1000 just for the software.
I had read enough of my moms programming books that I realized that I didn’t need to buy the software I could just make it myself. As a child my mother would always tell me “No does not mean no. It means find another way.” so thats what I did. I completed every exercise in every programming book she had along with a few others from the local library and set off to make my own BBS.
I made very quick progress. I implemented forums, chat, multiline, a download library, ZModem, XModem and more. I remember printing out the source on reams of continuous feed paper using our dot-matrix printer. My father heard the printer going for quite a while so he came in to stop me because he thought I was wasting ink and paper. As an aeronautical engineer by training and former Air Force officer even though he was not a “computer guy” after a few minutes of looking at what I was printing he recognized what I had accomplished and immediately he and my mother began the process of getting get me in programming classes at the local colleges.
This moment was probably the most significant contributor to where I am today. It was possible because I was lucky enough to find myself in a situation I was given:
This set me up for what I now think of as a series of unpaid internship and apprenticeships. I helped my professors and teachers teach their classes, grade homework, help students and create courseware. I also helped a few small businesses create automation to help with inventory management and invoicing — all for free.
The system of apprenticeships has been around since the middle ages. A cobbler might teach their children or someone else’s (in exchange for pay) their trade. In essence these experiences allowed me to learn my trade.
My parents wanted nothing more than for me to go to University and get a degree. The problem was the independence of the path I was on made it hard for me to do give up control and go this route. I also wanted to learn everything I could about computers, programing, applied cryptography, security and realistically not even the most prestigious schools had much to offer in these areas at the time.
This resulted in me dropping out of high school and college where I was taking classes that interested me. My parents didn’t exactly approve and I was a bit rebellious at this point in my life so I got a job in technology and moved out.
This choice came with a set of unique challenges; for example some who looked at my resume would ask “Where did you get your graduate degree?” and when they heard I didn’t even have a diploma many would essentially look the other way. Fortunately computers were still relatively new and I was able to demonstrate my raw abilities which meant I still had plenty of opportunities I just had to look a little harder.
Two years after I moved out my first son came along. At this point I understood the benefits and challenges of the path I had chosen for myself but like all parents I wanted more for my children. I remember watching a television show called Gilmore Girls which was about a single mom who had her own realization along the same lines. She was also a drop-out but decided her daughter would go to University so she could have the benefits that path represented but still wanted her daughter to embrace the benefits of her personal approach to life.
I had decided this is what I wanted for my own children. But as they say they say “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry” and my oldest is on a path much closer to my own. He finished high school and moved on to being a software developer in Silicon Valley.
As a parent if my goal was to “get him into University” I made a fundamental mistake. That is by exposing him to an extensive computer science education at home by the time he was ready for college the only schools that looked challenging in computer science were out of reach due to admission requirements. It wasn’t that he wasn’t capable of the better scores and grades that were necessary to get into these schools but instead we got him unpaid internships where he could hone his skills and his grades suffered as a result.
Is this a failure in parenting? A failure in the school system? A little of both? Probably a little of both but a parent’s goal should not be to “get their children into university”. There are lots of ways to find success but what is important that we help them have choices in life and find happiness. The path he is on gives him that and while I still hold out hope that he goes to university the reality is he has the job that most Computer Science graduates dream of after four years of university and doesn’t have the associated debt.
Don’t get me wrong — there are many merits to University (which is why I think he should still go) but the reality is it is not the only path to success.
I bring all of this up because the other day Bill Gates, someone I really admire, blogged about the abysmal college completion rates. In this post there is a quote that stands out:
By 2025, two thirds of all jobs in the US will require education beyond high school.
As a hiring manager in technology I know how hard it is today find people with the right skills and experiences to build products and services the market demands (Don’t get me started on our visa system!). As a parent I also know the school system is still failing our kids so this talent drain is surely going to get worse.
With that said I think we are not looking at the problem holistically. There are lots of ways to get the skills that are necessary to have options in life — Universities do not have a monopoly on success. Thats not to say University isn’t a good option or that there are not careers where a degree is both useful and/or necessary. It is just that there are lots of ways to get our children choices and we should be embracing them as well.
In my mind the apprenticeship is still one of the best ways to get a practical education. It works exceedingly well in technology. I also know a number of lawyers who have passed the bar without having gone to law school as well as a number of small business owners who essentially got their start as apprentices.
Unfortunately the unpaid apprenticeship is under attack and when combined with recent living wage initiatives it makes it hard for those with the interest and skills to offer these apprenticeships. This the most damning element of this attack is a court has ruled that an employer can derive no immediate advantage as a result of the relationship.
Now to be clear I am not arguing the path I went on is right for everyone and I am a believer in formal education (my great grandmother and wife were teachers) but we have to look at this problem more holistically than we have been if we want to help our children and grandchildren to have choices.
The computer network is arguably one of the most important innovations in my lifetime. When we got our first modem over thirty years ago, it opened a whole new world to me. No longer was my view of the world limited to where I lived. I now could travel across the world (albeit at 150 bits per second) and talk to people from all over the world. Some of these people were honest good folks and others… well, they were criminals.
What all of these people had in common was a passion for learning – a thirst for knowledge and for the most part they saw everyone in their digital realm as kindred spirits. Don’t get me wrong, these people also could be ignorant, hostile, mean and rude, but they also understood: not everyone knew this world even existed.
Every morning before school well beyond my bedtime I would be online stumbling across this endless online world, trying to see everything I possibly could. IRC and Usenet were the primary mode of discovery. You see, there wasn’t really a search engine like there is today where you could just look up the information you wanted someone had to share it.
The best places to go and learn things were warez chat-rooms. In my mind these were filled with kids like me who were motivated to learn by the desire to get access to the latest games. In reality, while there were kids, for the most part it was adults. Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing wasn’t legal, so they were secretive and it took a long time to earn their trust.
I started earning their trust by creating ANSI intros for their cracks, but to work up the food chain in these organizations you, really needed to be a cracker. To be a cracker you needed to be good at assembly, so off to the library I went to get a book on 68000 assembly (I had a C64 at the time). The library system only had a few of these books, so I had to be put on a waiting list. A month or so later the book came in and I started on the path of learning to crack games.
I remember starting with a game that I had and diff’ing it to a cracked copy, working back to what was changed and then figuring out why. It took me months before I could figure out how to find flaws in the copy protection logic games implemented or to simply NOP these checks out all together. Once I was able to do this, I started to create my own patches that would effectively remove the copy protection.
Able to display these skills, I was allowed into the inner circle where people shared information more freely. In these forums (even 30 years ago) exploits, credit card numbers and identities were traded openly. There were even well written how-to documents on how to use the exploits along with electronic copies of the manuals showing how to use the compromised systems.
This was exciting for me. You see, I did not fit in at school and I never felt “special” like the kids who were in sports or in the “cool crowd”, but now I was special – I belonged somewhere.
While I was exposed to morally questionable things in these forums, I learned a ton at the same time. It also exposed me to lots of new things. For example, my first exposure to building electronics was due to phone phreaking. I also learned networking, system administration, how to “hack”, and probably more importantly, I learned how to navigate complex social structures.
Along the way I got into trouble and sometimes did things that probably put me in danger or in jail if I were an adult. That said, these experiences also helped me develop the fundamental skills I still use today as a professional.
My father and I were recently discussing this topic and he reminded me of an argument we had where my parents were trying to get me to stop “hacking” in that argument apparently I said:
How am I going to learn about computers without this hacking stuff?
Looking back I have to say that at least in my case, that is true. In an earlier post I mentioned the BBS I wrote; a big part of my motivation was to be able to learn more from this group of people and running a BBS was a status symbol of sorts to impress them.
This journey proved to be a motivator for me. One, where in addition to the support of my family in learning about computers from this community I also was given:
Long story short, for me the dark side of the internet was really a path to the bright side and I am sure I am not alone in this. This is one reason why I worry about poorly written legislation attempting to control security research.
Today there are an unimaginable set of resources available to help people get involved in computing and you do not need to “go to the dark side” to get access to this information. It is up to us as a parents, friends, neighbors, business people to help provide these other needed elements to encourage kids to learn practical skills that will give them choices in life.
I think apprenticeships are a great way to do this, but each situation is different, and there are many options out there where you can help. Take the time to do so.