The Practical Developer #DevDiscuss tonight got me thinking about mentorship and how it’s impacted my life. It doesn’t fit in a tweet or a thread of tweets so you get the story about how a mentorship gave me my entire career in security. This is going to be a bit stream of mind so give me a break on grammar and spelling :)
I was raised in a small farming town in Minnesota. There wasn’t a lot to do and naturally children would grow up to inherit the farm. When I was 8 I got a computer, learned basic by changing lines in gorilla.bas. When I was 15 the town got a 2 line BBS. My dad got us an account for a small fee and the mischief began.
I mostly played LORD (Legend Of the Red Dragon) but there was content that wasn’t accessible to me at 15 that I wanted access to. So my curiosity got the better of me and password guessing I went. I managed to gain access to the sysops account and I still remember the password 070257. Then I broke the first rule of any hack, don’t talk about it, promptly bragged to my friends and in a town of 1300 people, word got to the sysop pretty quick.
Instead of being in trouble I got a discussion about ethics. Instead of having my account banned I got promoted to co-sysop. This was not like what I had experienced any other time in my life. I did something bad or mischievous and I got punished. I was being rewarded here for being curious and what I didn’t realize was I gained a mentor.
Soon co-sysop turned into a job and after school I built computers, replaced sound cards and set IRQs. I learned a lot of things at this job and Jim my mentor was patient with me teaching me so that next time he wouldn’t have to show me again.
I learned a lot of skills from sales and customer service to technical troubleshooting skills. All core to what I do today.
He taught me visual basic and introduced me to c and assembly. But he also let me explore my mischievous side. He introduced me to +ORC / Fravia and reversing. That included how to use softice debugger (I still remember removing the neopaint nag screen and how excited I was that it worked and didn’t crash).
I learned about integrity the hard way after I took a job moonlighting doing the same work I was doing for him and of course got caught and got a stern talking to. I never have forgot that discussion and to not take advantage of people for money.
When I was 17 we turned off the BBS installed a 56k line (lol that’s slow) and turned the modems into an ISP with an uplink to Fargo, ND. The world wide web was now my playground and this opened up tons of things to learn, DNS, systems administration, networking, tcp/ip, proxy servers and every time we got hacked into the list grew for things I had to learn.
Shortly I left for college, got a job at our ISP’s upstream provider then through a series of acquisitions and 80 hour work weeks and shitty bosses I found my way to Symantec. (as a side note my boss to be Tim took a huge chance on me only after a 17 min phone interview, again we see a trend of believing that people can do it if you enable them). After 6 years there I decided to go out on my own and start my own consultancy with a friend.
What happened next was a punch in the gut.
While I stood in the MGM Grand parking lot in Vegas I got a phone call as I was leaving for the last day. On the other end of the line was somebody telling me they were the owners of the ISP my mentor had started (Jim had got additional investors a few years back to create a large rural wireless network, it’s really cool what you can do with really flat country and really tall grain elevators), but it wasn’t good news. He was calling because Jim had cancer and had little time to live. They knew they needed to transition the technical knowledge Jim had to their team but wasn’t sure how to do that, when they asked him who he trusted to do this, he said he trusted me. We had not talked for probably 7–8 years at that point but it didn’t matter he said that I would know how he did things and how to take care of things when he was gone. They became our first customer. That revenue was one of the only reasons we survived those early months as a business. That company sold and in it’s ashes it because ^lift, where I work today.
I owe a hell of a lot of my career to my mentor. If I look back on that mentorship, I think of a few things made it successful.
He always believed I could do it and told me that, it was in every word and action.
He was patient with me, he pointed me in the right direction but he expected me to run there as hard as I could and I did. I listened to his instruction. (at the time I had NO idea it would have an impact or that he was even mentoring me)
I’ve always wanted to help others like Jim helped me, I can tell you two things about my experiences mentoring; I’ve got a long way to go to be more patient and mentors learn just as much from mentees as they do from mentors.
ps fuck cancer. I miss you Jim.