Rolling Up My Sleeves

Well I’m a week or two into my plan to be a master developer/hacker…designer…uh-oh…

So maybe I’ve got some big picture things to figure out. It’s hard to know what you’ll love or hate until you try it, after all. Luckily, I’m enough of a noob that I don’t really need to make any hard decisions about my end goal yet. I have some idea of the direction I want to head, and the shared topics across all those fields is still plenty big.

As such, I’m taking a dual approach for now. First, I’m carrying on with my CS50 course. I’m a few weeks into it (and working with my brother on it now!) and thus far it has served as an excellent refresher course for general programming while also giving me plenty of new tips and tricks (I’d never coded in old-fashioned C before!). Beyond this course I’ve got several excellent free and online courses to continue with.

I’m on the right track.

Second, I’m learning by doing with a VPS I recently set up. Starting from a fresh Ubuntu install that doesn’t even have nginx or Apache installed has been a tremendous learning experience so far. For this side of my education I’m not quite as worried about being so slow and methodical. I set a task (install WordPress, for example), find a good looking guide, and jump right in. Copy/pasting code is fine here, and as stuff breaks I’ll dive in deeper at that point. In a worst case scenario I nuke the VPS from orbit (i.e. reinstall the OS) and start fresh. Setting up a virtual hosts file gets easier every time.

I’m on the right track. How do I know? Several times already I’ve found myself so absorbed in a problem that I miss meals. I find myself itching to jump back to continue my DNS experiments, or to finish going through the thread on Github related to the error message I’m getting about user permissions. Reflecting back I realize entering this flow state has been a hallmark of whenever I’ve found myself dabbling at the command line. Similarly, I’ve realized that there are very few other things (if any) that lead to this same state for me.

This realization adds to the general sense of excitement I’m feeling. I’ve read/watched story after story where the person talks about missing food and sleep as they lose track of time while working on a problem. I knew education wasn’t inspiring this level of fervor, and I wondered if perhaps this level of passion/commitment wasn’t available to me. Maybe only the lucky few find a true passion, I thought. Sometimes being wrong feels great.

Biggest threats to my plans now: dipping during the fade. In other words, I know that there’s no high which lasts forever. At some point I won’t want to finish the next assignment, fix the next bug. It’s pushing through on those days that will be the make or break difference for me in the long run.

But for now, in the short run, I’ll enjoy this initial sprint and flurry of activity 😀 Now…back to that virtual hosts file…

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Starting A New Career

I passed the 5 year mark for my Asian residence this past Summer. What started as a bit of an aimless wander has turned into a comfortable life, complete with domestic bliss and a good job. However, those who know me best will remember how I railed against the idea of working in education in my youth. Somehow, despite these youthful protests I’ve spent more time working in education (between GHP and my work in Vietnam) than in any other field.

Now don’t get me wrong — I have really enjoyed this foray into teacherdom. There’s no doubt about it: teaching is hard. After 5 years of practice I still feel like a beginner — maybe just barely moving into the intermediate range now. I honestly consider education to be a field where (unless you’ve got a special gift or inhuman work ethic) you can’t consider yourself even “good” until you’ve put in a decade of practice. That said, I know folks who have taught for 10 years who are also quite sure they’re not good. So.

Doing hard things feels good, at least after you’ve overcome the initial trepidation and sense of drowning. That all passed a few years ago, and now I can walk into a classroom of any age/size and operate with comfort. It’s a confidence that gets shared across all other avenues of my life. Also, I expect that no matter what the future holds, being able to teach will always be a skill in demand.

I could comfortably continue to work my way up the skill/job ladder. There’s a lot of earning potential and exciting aspects to the future of education. For example, COVID saw a massive shift towards online offerings, which thrills me. After years in the Boy Scouts learning “leadership skills” I’m afforded ample opportunities to practice and build them with my current management position. The company I work for is wonderful, with an A+ culture of respect from the top to the bottom. But.

But for some reason I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not living up to my potential. Maybe it’s some Freudian slap making my cheeks burn when I hear my mother’s voice urging me to do something more. Maybe it’s just realizing there’s not a lot of connection between a math degree and managing a learning center. Perhaps its all my brilliant coworkers who are pursuing graduate degrees, setting an example of not resting on one’s laurels. Regardless of the cause, I’ve been racking my brain for the last 2 years (especially) in search of what’s next.

Two weeks ago it finally hit me. I’d eaten some THC gummies to enjoy the end of a hard-working week and in that space of creative flow I was walking from the kitchen to my room when I realized what I want to do next. I’d read an article a few weeks prior to that talking about the growing demand and lack of supply for cybersecurity experts. I guess my mind had finished processing this and connecting up all the wires because in that moment I had the mental equivalent of a cheesy Vegas neon sign light up: “Cybersecurity Career (Free Buffet)”.

I got started playing around with computers when I was 8 when our first Windows 95 PC appeared. I remember diving into every single menu and setting as a warmer, and then picking up some C programming books at the library, excited to join the fray of sexy, anonymous hackers. Well…admittedly I quickly gave up on the programming, but the tinkering never stopped. I ended up writing my first public program as a response to a project assigned in a middle school class, in QBasic. I don’t remember the details, but I remember working on it with my old man and the teacher giving me top marks with zero feedback, because clearly she didn’t know how it worked (thank god–I’m sure it was awful).

Over the ensuing decades (I’m 30, I can talk about living for decades now) I had many more little projects. An idea pops up, or maybe I’d just go through some tutorials online. I picked up the most basic of skills bit by bit, never really feeling like I was doing anything impressive, clearly aware of how I’d be ridiculed if I showed up at DEF CON with my paltry skills. I kept telling myself the story that computers were a hobby at most, and the dream of being some kind of computer wizard weren’t realistic.

Well…take one article on the growing need for cybersecurity, decades of tinkering and learning a wide (but shallow) range of basics, and the confidence that comes from buying a one-way ticket to Asia and building a career and you get…a sudden realization that one of my earliest childhood dreams isn’t actually out of reach.

But for the first time in a long time I know what I want to do, and I have the confidence and patience to get there.

I’m two weeks into researching next steps, and to be clear I’m still essentially a novice in any area that counts. There are many paths into the field, and many areas of specialization. If I’m lucky I’m 5 years away from being able to properly call myself an ethical hacker…by some more conservative measures it’s going to be another decade.

But for the first time in a long time I know what I want to do, and I have the confidence and patience to get there. I’ve got no specific goals around blogging, but I think it would be interesting for me to keep some records of the journey, so I expect I’ll have some more posts about things as I go. Stay tuned.

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