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posted by esells on Jan 13, 2017

It’s an uncomfortable feeling when you have to tell your mom that the internet service she had been paying for had just been terminated.

For the second time.

Or at least it was for me.

It was the mid to late ‘90s and the latest craze was the statd exploit that had been released for Solaris. I had a list of potential targets (thank you nmap) and wasn’t really looking to do much, but being young and stupid I thought I’d give one target a quick test without using any of hiding techniques that typically accompanied a more thought out attack. Fifteen minutes later I was explaining to my mom why she wouldn’t be able to read her e-mail anymore. She didn’t really mind as she wasn’t a big fan of Pine.

So, let’s go back a few years… Your typical upper lower/lower middle class home. Single mom who is dating a dick. Young male teenager. The situation made-for-tv movies are usually based around. The internet has just started creeping into the mainstream and AOL is king. Windows 95 is the shit. My mom and her boyfriend had just come back from some create your own business rip-off conference thing and were convinced they were about to make it big reselling random shit. In order to be a legit business though they needed a computer, every business had a computer right? At that point I was the happiest kid around because my school had started accepting typed reports instead of handwritten and my family was about to get a computer. I could have given two fucks about the internet, I just wanted a text editor and a printer. It took a while for them to build up the computer fund but they did it and I can still remember going to K-mart to get some generic, shitty ass pentium 133Mhz PC. Of course the great business plan failed and the computer ended up being primarily used by me. Early on I just did school reports but at some point the AOL bug bit and I found myself doing what most teenagers on AOL did at that time: acting like an idiot in chat rooms. Now I had ventured out on to that scary world wide web place but not very often, everything I needed was right in AOL and life was good.

Then my life changed.

A person in a random chat room was “hacking us”. When I say “hacking us”, I mean spamming the shit out of the channel to the point where nobody else could get a word in. I had heard of “hacking” before, my friend and I had even created an encrypted file once on an old Apple with the flying toasters screen saver, but this was the first time I’d seen something like this. How could this single person essentially take over and control a chat room managed/owned by AOL? I had to know how this person was doing this and so began my journey…

We’ll skip over the boring part where I started creating websites with flaming skulls, loading up the latest AOL scripts and playing around with virus “generators”. The important thing that happened during this period was my discovery of texts and zines.

As I started to go deeper down the rabbit hole the need to read everything out there started taking over. There were times where I wouldn’t go to bed but instead would lock myself away in my room, read texts all night and then go to school in the morning with little to no sleep. This new world I was discovering was amazing, you could cobble together some nonsense (code) and end up with something that allowed you to gain access to another computer! You could take a fucking whistle from a cereal box and use it to work your way through phone systems! Sadly, by the time I had come across most of this stuff it had already been fixed but that didn’t matter, the fire had been lit and now I was all in.

All the “legit” people were using Linux so I spent a week downloading the different packages for a Slackware install and put them all on 3.5” floppies only to have the install fail. I should mention that up until this point I had basically zero Linux experience. Luckily for me there was Cheap Bytes which was a site that would burn everything to a CD and mail it to you for a small fee. A few weeks later that old 133Mhz Windows 95 computer was a lean and mean Linux box. I can still remember the panic when I saw that “darkstar login” prompt come up. What the hell had I done? As I said earlier, I was all in.

For a while I just spent my time learning what the hell I was doing. Things that seem basic today were quite a bit more interesting back then. An example would be setting up your PPP dial-up connection when you had no clue what PPP was. These first couple of months with Linux were really the first time in my short computer using history that I had to start problem solving and reading documentation to figure out what to do next. A lot of it didn’t make sense but I was able to piece enough of it together to get a functioning system up and running that would allow me to connect to the internet, send and receive e-mail and browse the web with lynx. The satisfaction of building my own Linux kernel was pretty awesome. Sure I was just following a menu-based system, but the fact that I had to take source code and turn it into this working blob of magic was pretty badass.

At this point I was in full on consume mode. My nights and early mornings were still being spent searching and reading. Places like linenoise.org, bronc buster’s forum, the l0pht and technotronic were like fucking crack. I had the hacker’s manifesto memorized. I knew all about war dialing and to prove it I had one angry fellow call my house and leave a message after my war dialer had called him multiple times between 1-4am. Luckily I was able to delete that message before my mom heard it. My friends were playing video games, watching TV or doing homework at night while I was reading monospaced font filled text files one after another, writing perl scripts and learning the amazing world of awk and sed.

Again we’ll fast forward a bit to a time when the ashtray lumberjacks, ytcracker and milw0rm were making waves. I was in a small but tight knit group (telehack.net yo!) whose main fame, aside from a few webpage defacement shout outs, was our large stash of texts and zines. Also that time we had a “feud” with the UPL. We were all addicted to learning so we just took all of the files we already had locally and combined them into a single site. Outside of that we did what I think the majority of bored teens in our world did back then which was hang out on IRC 80% of the time, dabble in some gray area security things and read. I was lucky enough to live in an area that had a fairly vibrant hacker culture (_THE_ 303) and although I never made it to a 2600 meeting on the 16th st mall, I did meet a few like-minded individuals to help bolster my skills and add to the knowledge I was accumulating.

So here is where I talk about how I never liked school but was still able to get amazing grades, go to MIT and become some badass computer/technology guy. Unfortunately (maybe fortunately?) that wasn’t me. I didn’t like school but because of that I never went which meant I got shitty grades. I didn’t go to college because I had shitty grades and was never going to be able to afford it without some type of scholarship. I’m not a genius or one of those people who think at another level. I’m just a guy who likes to learn and tinker.

What does an 18 year old who isn’t going to college do? Get a job so they can GTFO! A few weeks after I had graduated high school I was interviewing at a shitty shipping company for a sysadmin position responsible for two NT boxes, three QNX boxes and about 10 diskless stations where the workers scanned packages.

All connected via an ARCNET setup.

Using Zebra thermal printers.

I am certain that if hell exists it is a cold (below freezing), dusty world where your only job is to keep Zebra thermal printers working. I will never take a job again that involves those horrible devices.

I ended up getting the job and was just killing it (in a good way). By the end of my first year I had scripted most of our processes so that even the non-computer people could do some of the more mundane tasks like uploading inventory files, looking up packages in the database, etc which meant I could spend more time on the fun things. I ended up making our location the spot to send your jacked up Zebra printers to for repair and at 19 years old was being flown around to fill in for IT managers when they were on vacation. What was really amazing was that I had full health care, a 401k and was making just about twice as much a year as my mom had ever made. I don’t say that to be negative or to slam my mom, she did the best with what she had and managed to keep me fed and clothed, even if it did come from food stamps or government programs. The key takeaway is that because of technology, at 19 years old, I was already living an arguably better life than either of my parents had ever had.

Seriously, think about that for a minute and try to understand how much of a game changer that is, I’ll wait.

That single job was a foundation for a career that in my mid-thirties allows me to live comfortably and debt free, own a home, raise a child who has access to everything he needs and occasionally even do fun things like take vacations to another country. All of that with no formal education. What other industry would you ever find that in? I am not well versed in all of the other roles and trades, but I am willing to bet that it’s pretty rare. Even the more “blue collar” jobs typically require some type of apprenticeship (aka formal schooling) before you can actually start your career. Most jobs in the world of computers need either proof of formal education or experience. This experience is what has allowed me to climb the career ladder and get to a point that as a kid I never thought was possible. Do you know where that entry level education that allowed me to get that job came from? From those years as a teenager that I spent dicking around on the computer being a script kiddie.

Let’s take the serious level up a notch. Think about how much luck was involved in order for that computer to enter my home so many years ago. I am almost certain that had it not been for that computer I wouldn’t be living the lifestyle that I have now. Now think about how many other children do not have such luck and never get the chance to get in flame wars on IRC or read 2600. Are we shorting a huge section of our population and missing out on talent? I know people will say things like “you could have used computers at the library” or “you could have used school computers” but that is bullshit. The availability of both of those locations is pretty limited and typically locked down with regards to what you can access. People who are not born with the gift need to be able to immerse themselves in the world of computers with no roadblocks or barriers, that’s how we make up for the lack of natural talent. Also you can’t install python on those computers to make 1337 scripts.

Now comes the part where I talk about the purpose of this post and that is to ask: what are you doing to help evangelize the world of computers? Are you donating time and/or money to organizations that help people who might not typically have computer access get it? Are you giving your old (but still working) hardware to someone who could really use it? Are you explaining to your nieces and nephews not only what a payphone is but how you used to use a redbox to get free calls on those ancient artifacts?

Not everyone has to be a developer so think outside of that. Think about all of those DBAs out there or the desktop PC admins. What about the network engineers or the Active Directory people (god bless their souls)? Take the opportunity to help the kids who have no idea what the world of computers can offer them and help them realize what is possible. Go out and light a fire under the ones who are into it, show them cool shit! Setup a hack day at your work and invite schools from lower income areas to come in and hack on hardware or software. Show them some of the cool stuff you can do with computers and help them understand what is out there waiting for them if they want to work at it. If you have a story like mine share it! It’s great to talk about computers if you come from a privileged background (seriously, it is), but it’s even more impactful when you can talk about a story that relates to the world they live in. Shit, share it at your local users group or meetup in the hopes that someone else is inspired and starts helping. Have no clue where to start? My contact info is at the top of the page, contact me and I’d love to help.