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My Nerd Story: Class, queerness and the transformative nature of technology and open source.

Beth 'pidge' Flanagan is a Senior Software Engineer for Intel and spends most of her time working on Open Embedded Core and the Yocto Project, mainly as the release engineer and maintainer of the yocto-autobuilder. She is also a geek, a queer trans woman, a motorcyclist, and a practitioner of random bits of general purpose geekery. She has been working in IT/software engineering now for the past 23 years.

I was born and raised right outside of Newark, NJ. My family was working class and I grew up in a working class neighborhood full of first and second generation immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Brazil, Italy, Peurto Rico, etc. Basically, a neighborhood that most people wouldn't think of as a fertile bed for nerds. I tell people to basically imagine some of the more gritty scenes from The Sopranos and they'd get an accurate idea of where I grew up.

 

The Sopranos - Satriale's Pork Store

I realized at a very young age that I was a trans woman and that without a well thought out plan, I wouldn't be able survive the conservative confines of that world. This concept of needing to escape was further compounded by the fact that I was on the bottom of the social rung at school. I was bookish, had a serious lisp and a severe femoral torsion which caused to walk pigeon toed (hence the nickname I carry to this day) and a classroom full of boys and some of the girls who marked me as "different" from my first day at school and did not let up in their abuse for the entirety of my elementary school career.

When I was about 9 or so, I had a pretty good idea that all the praying in the world wouldn't make me not trans and that I should probably spend some time figuring out what to do about it. So, I petitioned my father for an adult library card (remember a time when 'looking stuff up' included a trip to an actual library?). I remember asking him if he would sign the papers for my library card and he handed me the largest book on the bookshelf he could fine,'The Crusades' by Zoe Oldenbourg. He told me "Read this and do a book report and I'll sign the permission slip". I read it in about a month or so and that signed permission slip opened up a world I could never have dreamt of.

That library was my salvation. In its stacks I learned, in carefully hidden books, that I could do something about being trans. For the first time I could remember, the serious depression I had been in since age 6 when I figured out that I wouldn't grow up to be a woman, not at least without a little bit of help, abated somewhat. The library became my second home. It was where I spent my  days, hiding from the world. I went into full on reading mode, devouring anything I could get my hands on, but always ending up back in the science row with it's miniscule amount of books on computer science. But, they did have an entire set of "The Art of Computer Programming". I flipped through it somewhere around age 10 and didn't understand one bit of it! Somehow though, I was strangely enamored with the idea that language could be turned into something that made machines do work.

I mentioned before that people generally don't think of working class people as a hotbed of nerdism. If anything, I think that the reality is the  exact opposite. When you grow up without a lot of money you end up learning how to make things last and fix things that need repair. My family was no different. My father was a fairly decent carpenter who tried, bless him, to teach me with absolutely no success. His mechanical skills were impressive, something I ended up being able to learn much later in life. My grandmother however taught me how to crochet. In crocheting I saw math and patterns and it taught me how patterns could create beauty.

When you're the kind of strange effeminite kid in a working class world that I was, you end up spending a lot of time alone and learn to quickly entertain yourself. One summer I spent a full week alone in my backyard with a roll of tin foil, a magnifying glass and a thermometer seeing what the highest temperature I could achieve was. That was also the year I built a boobytrapped for the backdoor to the house. (I was afraid of burglers). I forgot to unset it and it almost knocked my mother out when she opened it and a few of my brothers baseball bats came flying out, full speed, towards her face.

1982 came around and something happened that would change my life forever. It all started with two lines.

10 PRINT "I HATE SCHOOL!!!"
20 GOTO 10

I still remember those first two lines of code I ever wrote. It was a 10 year old kid's 'Hello World'. The Catholic school I attended had invited this computer education company in to do an optional computer class. I  begged my parents to let me take it. I remember the first day I stepped into that class. About a dozen or so Commodore PETs, with the ever so high tech audio cassette storage devices.

 

Pet4016

After the first few classes, you just stopped trying to load your prior work from tape at the start of class as it took forever to load. You got really good at remembering what you did the week before and learned to type quicker than the audio tape could load. I ended up
falling asleep at night listening to those tapes (SkreeeetchWoooooSkreeeeeeetch!); in love with the idea that you could store STUFF on tape other than music!

So, here I was, this kid who was absolutely on the bottom of the social ladder. I was despised by the kids at school and my ability to have control over my life was greatly impacted by overly protective parents, my age and obvious gendered behavour difference, but... for those 45 minutes a week in 1982, I had, for the first time in my life, actual agency. I could sit there and tell a machine to do whatever I wanted it to and the results were up to me. It wouldn't beat me up. It wouldn't make fun of me for the way I walked, or held my books. It wouldn't call me awful things. It would just do what I told it to do. (This generally entailed new and more complex ways of spitting out how much I hated school, to be perfectly honest.)

Those little two lines of code turned into a much larger program that year and my parents ended up trying to nurture the one thing I had shown an actual interest in. I'm still unsure of how my father afforded it, but one day he came home with a Timex Sinclair 1000, literally
the cheapest computer there was. I actually recall using it quite a bit, but, as the concept of needing to store things was a bit beyond my dad, who was a truck driver, he had neglected to buy the audio tape drive. I would have to leave it on for weeks with a note on it, telling people not to shut it off or I'd lose my program.

 

Zx81-timex-manipulated

But, no matter how much computers could act as an escape for me, there was still this huge thing I had to deal with and as I got older and the effects of puberty started to hit, my depression worstened. I stopped writing code in my Junior year of highschool and just focused on trying to make it through the day. By the time I hit university I was an absolute wreck from trying to deal with being trans. So, after the first year, I made the best decision ever. I quit and moved to Washington DC and was able to have space to figure out what my plan was.

I moved back home after about a year because I had gotten fairly sick. By this time, my mother had gone from being a secretary to getting a degree  in accounting to being a VP at a small software company. Behind my mothers back, I finagled a job there. I will always remember the engineering manager who risked her wrath to give her weird, green mohawk having kid a job. So, my lucky break came in 1991, at age 19, writing insurance software in MagicPC for 5 dollars an hour.

Eventually, I left to take a job at the local university. Here is where I encountered the second thing to change my life. Windows 95.

It was 1994 and we were previewing the beta of Windows 95 for a migration from Windows 3.11. I absolutely loathed it. There was no integrated TCP/IP stack. I was use to the Solaris command line by that point and it was still the clunky DOS shell. It was nothing I wanted and while it was an improvement, I wanted something more so I went searching for a better solution and found it in Slackware.

I don't remember the exact version of Slackware I finally got to install, but I know the kernel was around 0.99 (before loadable modules and ELF binaries!). It was like a dream and a nightmare rolled into one. When you got it working it went like clockwork, but it was an absolute TERROR to set up. Package management? Nope, tar.gz and make was your friends. I got really good at debugging makefiles.

But, I was hardly bored. I spent way too much time getting kernels recompiled, fighting with X11 settings on my Diamond video card, wondering why the NE2000 card in my box, when the box was the end node  of a token ring would blue screen all the Windows 95 boxes on the ring. Bored? I was too busy tearing apart this amazing thing that people had put together, in part, just for something cool to do.

It was magic. Here was this thing that didn't work out of the box! I had to actually sit there and figure it all out. That year and a half I spent learning the operating system inside and out gave me a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride and a sense that if I could survive a Slackware install and make it out on the other end, a gender transition should be a piece of cake, right?

I had finally figured out the logistics of my transition and set a date. To put it mildly, the concept was sound, but the exectution went poorly. I lost my job, my family and the entire situation created a rift in my family that will probably never, unfortunately heal. So, here I was, age 24, with a brand new gender presentation, a high school diploma, a job history I couldn't use because it was under a different name. I had moved to Philadelphia and was living on a friends couch because I was kicked out of home. Things were not looking very positive.

But, there were a few things I did have.

I knew how to write code.

I knew Unix and Linux.

I was too damn subborn to take "No".

And I was left with no other choice.

I'm not sure how I got hired, I'm sure in part it was a bit of desperation on their part, but within the month, I ended up getting hired as a sysadmin, administering 250 AT&T BSD boxes that ran a computer based testing suite. I ended up working on porting the program over to Linux which got me hired into writing the next generation of that software.

From there it was on to trying my hand at UI design with stops in animation, power grid, control systems. And then, eventually, to my current home in the embedded world.

I look over the past 30 years since I first sat down at that old Commodore PET and am thankful. I had a mother who, despite our differences, firmly instilled in me the idea that women, even women like me, could do anything. I had a work ethic that instilled in me that as long as I could do the job, nothing else mattered. I had the stubborness to not believe the people who were telling me "NO!". I had the curiosity and the drive to figure it out for myself because I knew that no one was going to tell me how to do it.

My nerdcred doesn't come to me from a piece of paper, but by sheer force of will.  I know a lot of my collegues came to where they're at by the "traditional" route, university, internships, etc. I'm glad for them but I do not envy them a bit. While my route was the hard, tough slog, I would never trade it for the world.

I firmly believe that my past gives me a perspective in geekdom that is relatively unique. It has made me a better engineer than I think I would have been had I gone that traditional route. It has defined who I am and has made me a better person because of it. I can look at people from non-traditional nerd backgrounds and see their inner engineer. I've learned that sometimes, you find the most brilliant of people in the least likely of places. I approach new experiences, be they personal or technological without one iota of fear.

And lastly I always know that the first program I write whenever I learn a new language is going to be my own, special, personal version of the first two line program I ever wrote.

 

Comments

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  • Jaye Said:

    Wow! Excellent story. I still have some of my" data "cassettes! Best of luck.

  • Adam Said:

    10 PRINT "BETH, YOU'RE AWESOME!" 20 GOTO 10

  • Sarah Said:

    Thanks for sharing your amazing and inspiring story! I re-shared it in my Facebook group and we would be honoured if you are on Facebook and would like to join us. We need more geekly women in our group! :) https://www.facebook.com/groups/linuxbanshees/

  • Carol Willing Said:

    Beth, Awesome nerd story. I'm so glad that I had the opportunity to share stories and hardware hacking at AdaCamp SF. You rock and I'm honored that I have had the chance to meet you in person :-)

  • Dave Stewart Said:

    Beth: Thanks for sharing your story. I'm so delighted that I have been able to know you

  • Martin Said:

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring story.

  • Nithya Ruff Said:

    Powerful story and so proud to know you Beth.

  • OvationFan Said:

    Incredible story. Thank you so much for sharing and best to you!

  • Jorge Llarens Said:

    (SkreeeetchWoooooSkreeeeeeetch!) I remember that... with less fondness :)

  • straygrey Said:

    Except for the transgender this could have been my story. Very, very well written and thank you for sharing.

  • Alison Chaiken Said:

    Beth, I too feel that my high school unpopularity has made me strong and contributed to my long-term success. At the worst moment of my entire life, I realized that being nerdy was not a problem for me, but a problem for people who tormented me for being different. Instantly I was liberated from worrying about what other people thought about me. I only hope that today's needy teens have enough contact with other geeky people on-line that they don't suffer the loneliness I felt then, convinced that I was the only person in the world who was more interested in how things work than in football and cheerleading. I can't imagine being transgender, too. Congratulations on surviving, let alone prospering the way you obviously have. Your and geekygirl Dawn's story are inspiring and surprising to me even though I have known you both for years, at least casually.

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