How To Get Experience Doing Anything You Want!
09 Oct 2013
I should probably just end the post with that one word. It's really all that needs to be said. Of course, I like to babble so let's continue on.
I never went to college. Generally I get funny looks from people when I say that. I used to be embarrassed that I didn't go to college but not anymore. I'm proud of it. I chose to work instead for a number of reasons.
I'm gonna take this one step further. I didn't graduate high school. I was expelled in 10th grade and chose to get a GED instead of going to another school. Why? I had recently moved from Southern California to New Mexico and I hated it there. I can't stress that enough. I hated living in New Mexico. Oh, you meant why was I expelled? Long story. Sort version is I was an asshole. Moving on.
I didn't care that I was expelled. I was happy actually. I could spend my day studying on my own time and really do what I wanted. To help keep me out of trouble my mother bought me something that changed my life. A computer. The cheapest piece of crap you could find. Packard-Bell, 14.4kpbs modem I think. I don't know, I don't remember the specs. Just know it sucked but it could play Duke Nukem and chat on AOL, so I was in heaven.
Funny things started happening. I would teach myself how to upgrade the operating system. Swap out RAM and other components of the computer. I was actually sort of good at this thing. So the next step was obvious.
Become an elite hacker.
Of course to join the ranks of Zero Cool and crew I had to up my game. I read on some forum that I needed to know how to run Linux and program in C.
If you ever installed Linux in the mid 90's, you'll know how tough this was. Downloading all night, filling 10+ floppies with disk images, praying all the images were stored uncorrupted, partitioning your hard drive, etc. It wasn't a cake walk like it is today and the resources or tutorials were tough to find and always written for people much smarter than I was.
This was a challenge. I fucking loved it!
Once I got comfy on Linux (after several reinstalls because I always managed to break shit) and Vi, it was on to the next phase. Learning to program in C.
I picked up a torn up book on C from Goodwill and learned to love man pages. I obsessed over this. Months and months of just toying around with code, compilers, optimization options, network stacks, etc.
I eventually got pretty good with C. What next? Go to college! I enrolled for "Intro to C Programming" at the community college called (at the time) TVI, or Technical Vocational Institute in Albuquerque, NM. After 3 classes I was moved to the Advanced class. That's when I realized how good I actually was (or thought I was.) The class was so easy, the professor loved me, and I helped most of the class with their work.
It was so easy, I never went back. I didn't see the value (of course now I realize there is tremendous value but hey, I was young and dumb).
Around this time AOL opened a call center in Abq. I applied for tech support and was hired right away. That's when I truly learned the computer prowess of most of America. You know those jokes where people use the CD tray as a cup holder? Yea, I took that call. How about the old lady in the midwest telling the operator how sexy their voice is and that she's masturbating to it? Yea, I took that call too.
(Side note: Someone should really make a comedy that takes place in a large call center. The drama, sex scandals, politics, etc. that go on in those environments is the stuff of legend.)
Back at AOL I had been promoted to "Team Mentor". All this meant was I helped people with more difficult support calls or helped them get their call times shorter. As AOL grew, and fast, they were building a large team of system administrators in Virginia and were recruiting from within the company heavily. Got Linux experience and know your way around a shell? They wanted to talk to you.
I was offered a spot in Virginia after a few internal interviews, making way better money than I could have imagined making at 18 years old, but I had to move. They even offered something like 5K relocation assistance. I turned it down. I was from SoCal and I desperately wanted to go back. Moving further east didn't seem like a good idea, regardless of the money (dumb move probably.)
Around this time I opened an account with a local ISP called New Mexico Internet Access (NMIA) because A) It was getting to be embarrassing to admit to using AOL in the underground community and B) they offered shell accounts to all users!
A shell was important because I could write software that could run 24/7 and be connected to the internet the whole time. Pretty powerful stuff. So what did I do with this shell account? Wrote a password cracker and started cracking the NMIA user passwords.
Like a dummy I left the cracker running for days. I eventually got a phone call from a gruff old man who was not happy with me. His name was Stan Orrell. He founded NMIA and was still running the company. Stan was a true genius and old school hacker (programmer and in the negative sense). The government used to hire him to try and break into classified bases and areas. He's the guy who would build funny little robots to try and get access to secure locations. Yea, he's a fucking genius.
This old guy scared the crap out of me. Threatened to call the cops, etc. Since the account was in my moms name, he threatened to sue her. I was pretty surprised they caught the cracker running but that was just me being a dumb ass. Of course they caught it. I would have caught it. I just thought everyone else was dumb and I was so fucking smart.
Of course they closed my account and I was back to AOL. Stan also let the other local ISP's who I was and I couldn't get an account anywhere else for a while. I was pretty bummed.
Fast forward a few years. I'd left AOL, joined the ARMY, came home, started working for another call center doing support for EarthLink. I knew I didn't want to do support any more. I also knew that trying to climb the ranks in the call center world was a dead end. I still remember my old boss bragging that he said he wouldn't get out of bed for less than 28K/year... that scared the shit out of me.
I wanted to get into system administration and get behind the scenes. Work on complex networks and servers. Issue was, my only experience was personal.
I sent out emails to every local ISP in Albuquerque offering my services for free. I explained my experience and skill set and let them know that everything was self taught and I just want to get professional real world experience I could build off of.
Out of the 4 ISP's only one got back to me. NMIA. The same ISP that booted me for cracking their passwords years earlier. I assumed they forgot about that and wanted some free labor.
A few days later I interviewed with their office manager and two of their sysadmin's. It went well and they offered me part time work and the kicker was that they would pay me for my time. I was floored. I couldn't believe it.
There was one catch. The boss was away on Safari in Africa and wouldn't be back for a month. When he came back, if he didn't approve of me, I'd be let go. Of course I remember the scary old man who called me years earlier so I figured I was done for.
I spent the next month manning their phones and doing any menial task the admins would ask of me. I didn't care and I figured even if Stan fired me when he got back, at least I got this month working for a real business doing real systems work, no matter how small it was.
Stan finally returns from Safari and asks to meet with me. Apparently I didn't blow him away because he told one of the admins (who I'm still very friendly with to this day) that he didn't think I was going to work out. Thankfully Aaron, the admin, stood up for me and told Stan to give me a shot. Stan took that advice.
I ended up working for NMIA for nearly 5 years. I eventually became the Senior Sysadmin of the company and was responsible for the entire infrastructure. We were the first local ISP to offer business / broadband caliber wireless internet across the city. We had a completely home grown solution completely engineered by the man himself, Stan Orrell.
I got so much experience from NMIA. I learned to work on Cisco routers and switches. I learned about networking, services, telco's, small business operations, dealing with huge companies who are trying to crush us, etc.
Most of all though, I got to watch Stan work. He's been more than a mentor to me. I can't say enough how grateful I am to this man. More than work, he looked after my family for me during a period where I couldn't work for weeks (I was in jail, I actually blogged that story years ago but lost it back in '06ish). Any time I'd try to thank him for that, or anything, he shrugged me off. He didn't want the thanks. He didn't give a shit about it.
He believed in me and gave me the opportunity to succeed and get what I wanted. He made me earn it every step of the way and we had a few blow out arguments. One time I was so mad I offered my resignation. He laughed it off because he knew I was being a punk kid (which I was.)
About a year after starting at NMIA I was chatting with Stan and I asked him if he remembered busting a kid back in the 90's cracking passwords on the user shell server. Immediately he said "Of course, I know that's you. Why the hell do you think we agreed to talk to you when you first volunteered?"
Hah, I'm laughing thinking about that conversation now. Pure Stan. He didn't need any reminding. He heard my name, instantly remembered who I was, and told the staff to bring me in for an interview. All while he was on Safari in Africa.
Another funny Stan story I just remembered. Last year while visiting family in New Mexico I met Stan for Breakfast. He knew I would insist on paying the bill so he secretly slipped the waitress a $100 bill in advance of me even showing up. He wouldn't even consider letting me pay.
Stan, if you're reading this (and you better be, I'm sending you the link), then again I want to say thank you for everything!
I've rambled enough, but the moral is, if you want a foot in the door just volunteer. It can turn your life around and I'm living proof of that.