Bash and Self-Bashing - Lessons from my first day at Hacker Society

Once upon a time…

Maybe you’re screaming right now:

“MICHELLE I thought we were going to do badass technology stuff! Nobody asked you for your *#$@$ life story!”*

Well, I promise we’ll do that in my next post, but first I need to tell you a story about the time I first was introduced to command line tools. And subsequently almost ruined my career path.

During my college days, I was a pretty active member of CWRU Hacker Society. Basically, it’s a club for any students interested in technology - the main club activity is a weekly tech talk. Oh yeah, this is my HacSoc origin story - sadly, it’s not as cool as Spiderman’s origin story.

I was introduced to HacSoc when I was wandering campus my first semester at Case (honestly, I was probably lost) - I was sold as soon as I saw a flyer for the first talk of the year, promising to include introductory topics! At that point, I probably didn’t even know what a CPU was, so the prospect of tech talks in a friendly environment was appealing.

I showed up that Wednesday for the talk, thrilled and nervous about the knowledge to come. (Knowing my freshman self, I was probably also 20 minutes early). The first speaker that evening, a fellow student, got up there and started showing us how to use Bash in Linux.

Within five minutes, I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

Only in hindsight do I realize that the talk was about Bash. All I knew about command lines is that it was probably what people who were amazing at computers used.

I desperately wanted to be amazing at computers, but the talk was not as introductory as promised and had gone way over my head. It didn’t help that half the people in the room seemed like they learned to code at age 7.

This is how it went in my mind:

People who are good at computers know how to use Linux and the command line. I don’t understand anything about either of those things. Therefore, I am not good at computers. QED.

This may be disheartening to a lot of my HacSoc readers, but my first experience with the technology club made me feel terrible about my technological abilities. It made such a big impact on me because it set the stage for my entire college computer science career - I quit going to Hacker Society for 2 years. Also, it was the beginning of a long relationship with Impostor Syndrome.

The story has a happy ending!

After a while, I came around. I slowly realized that I could do things on computers sometimes (though any sort of real passion for them didn’t come until… probably my senior year. It may have been late, but boy, am I glad it showed up). Those other people who learned to code at age 7 and can talk in great detail about networking for hours - I just care about different things than they do. If you want to write some awesome scripts or hear about memory management, I’m your girl. If your wifi is down… I’m hiding from you.

As far as HacSoc goes, I got a lot more involved and some really great things happened.

  • Remember how I said I didn’t attend for ~2 years? I came back because some guy I’d never heard of was giving a talk on Windows file system filter drivers. That sounded pretty cool to me, so I showed up. It was the most interesting HacSoc talk I’d ever been to - I didn’t know at the time that it would work out this way, but that guy is now my boyfriend and we will be celebrating 3 years together on Friday.

  • Today I’m friends with the student that gave the Bash talk from freshman year - I won’t name him, since I don’t want him to somehow blame himself for the way I reacted (friend, if you figure it out - it’s not your fault!).

  • Some of my best friends in the world are from HacSoc (shoutout to Diego, Cameron, Andy, and Aaron).

  • Earlier this year, I actually went back as an alumni and gave my own beginner HacSoc talk about some of the reasons that Windows bluescreens. I really hope I didn’t scare anybody.

  • Oh, yeah, and now I know how to use the command line.

Do I have advice? Maybe.

  • Non-beginners (especially in clubs and learning environments): Remember that not everybody has the same skill level as you. Do your best to be accommodating and accepting of extreme beginners. Most beginners don’t even know where to start. They probably look up to you, but that doesn’t mean you should look down on them.
  • Presenters/authors: Do not bill something as introductory unless you really mean it. Test it on your cousin who doesn’t know anything about the topic and take his feedback into account. It is not a coincidence that I like to write most of my blog posts for a beginner audience.
  • Listeners: Don’t get scared if you don’t understand something. Ask questions. Read about it yourself. You can always learn, but you have to put in the effort to do so. You will not become magically good at a thing just by liking the idea of the thing. You have to actually do the thing.
Written on November 30, 2016