Carla Schroder is a self-taught Linux and Windows sysadmin and the author of the Linux Cookbook and writer of thousands of Linux tutorials.
If there is only one message you take away from reading this, let it be this: Linux and FOSS do not need more glamorous elite uber-rockstar coders. We need more ordinary, dedicated individuals from all walks of life contributing however they can. Just plain ordinary people with whatever they have to offer.
I am a born nerd, born to take things apart and put them back together, and to combine unlike things in imaginative ways. I am one of those people you never want to go shopping with, because I have to stand in front of any item I might ever under any circumstances consider purchasing, and work through in my head the nine zillion ways in which I might use it ... and then move on to the next item and repeat the trance. Because why not? Is it not all about possibilities?
It is Wrong to Be Me
If I were a cute little baby boy, or even an ugly one, I would have been given tools, trucks, stompy boots, and guns to play with. But no. Girls don't get those things. Instead I was given girly, impractical clothing like a Dale Evans skirt, hat and boot outfit. The boots and hat were nice, but a skirt? Seriously? You can't ride a horse in a skirt, or climb a tree, or dig holes, or anything. My childhood was one long frustration because nobody ever wanted to teach me anything. I wanted to do all the things my dad did, like till the garden with the big scary roto-tiller, fine woodworking, go target shooting, make fires in the burn barrel and work on cars. Obviously there are things you don't let a young child do. But I knew-- I KNEW I could do these things, and do them competently and safely if someone would just show me how. I have that kind of brain wiring where I can "see" inside things like cars and computers and structures and know how they work, and figure out what's wrong with them. I'm sure a lot of you have that same feeling; you KNOW you can do a particular thing, and you just need a little boost, someone to believe in you and get you started.
My life was one long series of discouragements both subtle and blatant. I wanted to play the baritone horn. Girls don't play horns, so I got stuck with a flute. I wanted to take shop, but girls have to take home economics. I couldn't wear pants to school, not even in the winter, not until junior high when there was this giant earth-shattering revolutionary change in the rules, and girls were finally allowed to wear weather-appropriate clothing. (I guess hypothermia is ladylike.) I was nuts about astronomy and the Apollo space programs and I wanted to be an astronaut, and my teachers just laughed at me. Literally. In high school I would have sold my soul to join the audio-visual club, but-- you guessed it-- no girls. We got the crappy old gym and leftover equipment, while the boys got the giant beautiful new fieldhouse and new everything.
High school was the worst, all kinds of pressure to be a proper lady and find a boy and plan for marriage and babies. I had occasional brief flings with girl fashions, but they don't work for anything other than standing around posing like a living ornament. You can't do stuff and be a fashionable girl, so it was jeans and tees for me. Which meant a continual stream of "You would be so pretty if you would do your hair and wear nice clothes!" comments, and reminders that boys would not be interested in me if I didn't dress up and behave. I was too loud, too funny, too smart, too fat, too rebellious, too opinionated, too everything the wrong thing.
So the message I kept getting, over and over every day in every way was that I didn't fit in and I wanted all the wrong things, and acted all the wrong ways, and that being a girl was some kind of fatal defect, and I should never have my own dreams or goals. My response to all this was to withdraw, tune out, and try to do my own thing. Which I did, poorly, with many detours and setbacks. I never got to go to college or trade school, and everything I know I learned the hard way. But persistence is more important than brilliance, and now at the ripe old age of 56 I have some achievements to be proud of, and a lot more to look forward to.
How I Found Linux
I have a lot of interests, and I need ten lifetimes to do everything I want to do. Between having to earn a living, pursuing the things I wanted to learn, and not being able to settle down and focus on one thing, I've had a whole lot of different jobs. I worked shit jobs just to make a paycheck, but mostly I've worked for myself. I had a short stint as an auto mechanic, but as vehicles became more computerized I couldn't afford the training to keep up, or buy the necessary equipment. So I got into landscaping and housecleaning, and that was good for a few years. I became a massage therapist and did well, because I could "see" inside people's bodies as well as inside mechanical objects. But that became dull after a few years; my brain was bored and I needed some intellectual challenges.
The majority of Linux nerds back in the mid-1990s were old Unix nerds. Not me. My first computer was a borrowed Apple something or other. It was all right, and it came with a manual that encouraged hacking it. (How times have changed.) Then I got a Windows 3.1/MS-DOS 5 PC. I spent most of my time in DOS because Windows was so unusable. Not long after that I discovered Linux, and became proficient in both Linux and Windows, and became a freelance system and network administrator. Several years ago I left Windows behind for good, except for occasional forays to help friends. Every time I have to touch it it's like trying to drive a glossy but mechanically-defective, limping, belching, stinking, oil-dripping 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, the car with the biggest tail fins of all time.
I tried working for some tech companies like Microsoft, Tektronix, IBM, and Intel. What a fiasco. I can't count how many young men with way less experience and skills than me snagged the good fun hands-on tech jobs, while I got stuck doing some kind of crap customer service job. I still remember this guy who got hired as a desktop technician. He was in his 30s, but in bad health, always red and sweaty and breathing hard. It took him forever to do the simplest task, like connecting a monitor or printer. He didn't know much and was usually wrong, but he kept his job. I busted my butt to show I was serious and already had a good skill set, and would work my tail off to excel, and they couldn't see past that I wasn't male. So I got the message, mentally told them to eff off and stuck with freelancing.
If I had to pick one single job title it would be author. My earliest dreams were of becoming a famous fiction writer. I haven't gotten there yet, but since the late 1990s I've made the bulk of my living from writing Linux howtos, hundreds of them. I like to give myself credit for helping and inspiring people to become happy Linux users. I've written three Linux books and they all sold well, though I'm not sure I want to write any more because the market is changing so quickly. It's a heck of a lot work to produce even a small book.
I discovered Linuxchix.org early in my Linux adventures, and it's a good thing because without them I might have told the whole Linux and FOSS world to eff off and die. I met a lot of cool helpful people as I got into Linux, and I also became the target of a lot of evil jerks. Linuxchix gave me a safe haven and I made a lot of great friends. I've tried to be a role model and encourage more girls and women to get into tech, and I also hear from men who tell me I inspired and encouraged them. Which is great, because the more the merrier. We absolutely need to make diversity a primary goal, because (I think it was Matt Zimmerman who said this) "A lack of diversity leads to a failure of imagination."
It's no good wasting energy on regrets, but I was so obviously a messed-up kid I'm still a tiny bit bugged that no adults took notice and reached out a helping hand. So I make a point of reaching out to people who are overlooked and marginalized. Survival of the loudest is a poor criterion for building healthy, creative communities; we need to pay attention to everyone.
I've been fortunate to have a number of wonderful mentors in my Linux career: Paul Heinlein got me started as a tech writer, and Michael Hall has been opening doors for me since 2003. Brian Proffitt, Joe Brockmeier, and the all-seeing all-knowing goddess Esther Schindler have all lent helping hands at crucial times. I haven't figured out how to pay them back, so I hope paying it forward is good enough.
The Real Linux Killer App
The greatest and most important challenge for Linux and FOSS is the most overlooked, and the most dismissed, and that is universal access for everyone for everything: blind and vision-impaired, deaf and hearing-impaired, and various physical limitations like not able to type or mouse, or to sit up for extended periods of time. Linux lags far behind even the inferior overpriced accessible aids in Windows and Mac. We should lead. We should be showing the world how it's done, and make Linux computers fully-usable with no barriers to any activity: coding, Web surfing, multimedia production, writing, whatever is possible to do with a computer should be possible for anyone.
There are many fragmented independent accessibility projects. We need an accessibility stack that is just as fundamental as networking, audio, and video. To that end I have started Universal Tux, with the goal of bringing together the various independent accessibility projects, and making accessibility a priority rather than an afterthought. The home for Universal Tux is universaltux.org. This just launched so there isn't much there yet, but I'm in this for the long haul, so, as they say, watch this space.
The Adventure is Just Beginning
I figure I have a few good years left, and I plan to enjoy them to the hilt. Linux and FOSS are going to continue to be at the center of my professional life, and I hope you'll come along too.
Thank you to Karen Leverich for the wonderful shopping quote