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Growing up, or why I don’t really feel part of the community

I have said that I’ve been wrong multiple times in the past. Some of it has been buying too much into the BOFH myth. With this I mean that between reading UserFriendly and the Italian language Storie dalla Sala Macchine, I bought into the story that system administrators (which now you may want to call “ops people”) are the only smart set of eyes in an organization, and that most of other people have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

But over time I have worn many hats: I left high school with some basic understanding of system administration, and I proceeded working as a translator, a developer for autonomous apps in an embedded environment, I taught courses on debugging and development under Linux, and worked on even more embedded systems. While I have been self-employed as a sysadmin for hire (or to use a more buzzword-compliant term, as a MSP, a Managed Service Provider), I ended up working on media streaming software, as well as media players and entire services. I worked as a web developer, even in PHP for a very brief time, I wrote software for proprietary environment as well as Linux and other open source systems. In addition to my random musings on this blog, I wrote for more reputable publications. And I’m currently a so-called Site Reliability Engineer, and “look after” (but not really) highly distributed systems.

This possibly abnormal list of tasks, if not really occupations, has a clear upside: I can pass for a member of different groups relatively easily. For months I had people think that I was an EE student, at work a bunch of people thought I had previous experience with distributed systems, and of course at LISA I can talk my way around as if I was still a system administrator. Somehow I also manage to pass for a security person, because I have a personal interest in the topic and so I learnt a bunch of things about it, even though I have not worked or researched that officially.

On the other hand, this gives me a downside that, personally, is much heavier: impostor syndrome. In all those crowds, while I can probably hide within for a while, I’ll feel out of place. I have not used a soldering iron (or a breadboard) for years by now (although I’m working to fix that), and I have not really worked on much on the small discrete electronics for years — the last time I worked as a firmware engineer, it was for a system that had 8GB of RAM and an i7 Xeon. I don’t have the calculus skills to be an actual multimedia developer: I know my way through container formats, but I need someone else to write the codecs as I have no clue how to go to decode even the simplest encoding, well maybe except Huffman codes at this point.

So while I can camouflage in these groups, I can’t really find myself feeling as a real member of them.

You could say that the free software community should be something I’m more at my ease with, given I’ve been a developer for over fifteen years at this point, but there is are two big problems with it: the first is that I’m not a purist, I use proprietary software any time I feel it’s the best tool to do the task, and the second is that free software and privacy advocacy mix up too much nowadays, and my concept of privacy does not match that of the activists.

While at 33C3 I realized I don’t really match up to this crowd either, and not just for the privacy topic. I somehow have more respect for the rules than most of the people I see around here, though I still enjoy the hacking and breaking, so when the Twitter people starts complaining that Nintendo and PS4 exploits are not released, I find that a perfectly reasonable approach. After all, hiding behind outrage for blocking Linux on PS3 was the intention to pirate games, and that’s not something I’m happy to condone.

I have hang around a few of my previous acquaintances, and friends of theirs, while they were working on the CTF — and that was kind of cool, but that’s also not something I’m very interested in: while I can work m way around security problems, and know what to look out for, I don’t really like that kind of puzzle. Just like I don’t enjoy logic puzzles, or sudoku. I much enjoy Scrabble, though.

The evenings were the least interesting to me, too. Most of them included parties that revolve around alcohol, and you know I don’t care for it. Given that this is C3, I’m sure a number of other drugs involved too — I’m not an expert, but I can at this point tell the smell of weed quite clearly, and the conference centre was smelling more than Seattle. So effectively the only night I left after 10pm was the first, that only because Hector was talking at 11pm. (On the bright side, Hamburg makes procuring sugar free fritz-kola very easy.)

To stray away a bit from technology, I should add that even when going to non-software related conventions, such as EasterCon and Nine Worlds, I feel as an outsider there too. Much as I’m a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, and a would-be avid reader, I don’t have the time to read as much as I would like, and I’m clearly not tailored to be a cosplayer or a fanzine writer. And most of these events also involve a disproportionate amount of alcohol.

So why did I title this post “Growing up”? The answer is that acceptance comes with growing up. For some of the subcultures and groups I get myself sometimes in, but I know I won’t fit in. For some of them it’s because I don’t have the time to invest to join them properly, for instance while I would love to actually be an EE, I did not really go to university (two weeks don’t count) and going right now is not an option, I’m too old for this. And I would not be ready to compromise my ethics with regard to piracy or legality.

And, much as I understand people do enjoy those “responsibly”, I don’t really think that weed or any other drug would be something I care about using. I know how I feel when I’m not in control, and though that may be able to “relax” me enough to not be afraid of every single social interaction, it is not a pretty feeling afterwards. Even though there is a chance I’ll always feel isolated without one of those “social lubricants”.

Unfortunately this does mean that for many things, I’ll always be an outsider looking in, rather than an insider, which makes it difficult to drive change, for instance. But again, accepting that is part of growing up. So be it.

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