July 24, 2001

Beer, soccer and Open Source: Back to the basics with coder Bastien Nocera

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people -
Bastien Nocera, bad-ass code-name
Hadess (as in Hades), bought himself a laptop so he could code during his
daily train commute from Guildford, in the United Kingdom, to Chelsea, where he is a
systems developer for a small company called Frontwire. But he finds, without
the benefits of Web access, his efficiency is too limited to fulfill his
craving for participation, which he approaches in the same way I might approach
a buffet, concentrating on surface area instead of committing to one
dish. A little of this, a little of that, narrowing the selection on repeat
rounds.

It's a long and growing list of projects, but
it's on the PenguinPPC Web site that
I first noticed his name. He's listed there on the credits page for
providing moral support. Besides the fact that his name alone is
interesting, I figured the praises of the person administering the
moral support is usually unsung--an integral element, but not in the
spotlight, kind of like that of an accountant or the person who hands you coffee
in the morning. And indeed he is integral, not because he's out there
proselytizing or convincing bosses that using Open Source software can
help cut costs or foster stronger security, but because he's just some
French kid that grew up playing video games.

Growing up in Moulins, France, he
was "tripping off his computer" as his younger brother was
"tripping off his moped" -- just two boys trying to make their toys go faster.
Neither of which, says Nocera, ever worked. But the potential prize was worth
the effort, because the speed of his computer dictated the quality of his
gaming experience, and the quality of his gaming experience was important.

He was about 6 when his father, a teacher, responded to the French
Education Minister's decree that all schools should have a computer. Dad bought one for himself so he could gain proficiency sufficient enough to instruct his students. Bastien tinkered with it some. He played the games
that came packaged with it, and after his father bought him a book on
Basic, he wrote some games of his own.

"And then I started making more games and then making modifications
and enhancements to the games. When you think about it, it was very very
scary code, it was just awful."

It wasn't until his console broke that he turned his full attention
to a seemingly lesser platform.

"My father had gotten some leftover PC parts and we put together a
486 SX 25 with 4MB of RAM. It was really just another way to play games. I
put it all together using DOS and then I discovered on a CD in this French
magazine that there was this new 32 bit OS that was out.

"That was Linux."

He never went back to the console.

"I knew a bit of code and I had done a bit of programming in PASCAL
and DOS and because I had the source code I could take a look. It all
basically started with the kernel, being able to see what did not work and why it
did not work.

"Even with my three years studying computer science, I reckon that I
wouldn't know as much if it weren't for Linux, if it weren't for all
the people that answered me while I was asking stupid questions on mailing
lists and user groups."

Granted, what he learned formally was probably not hard to beat
considering it was accumulated over three years at three different
institutions and through a combination of classroom and correspondence
courses. His university years were all spent in Clermont-Ferrand a
town near Volvic, which
is best known for its spring water sold around the world in a distinct square, blue-tinted bottle. He says he failed his first year out of boredom
because it was on the brink of 2000 and they were teaching him Cobalt,
which he knew would be of absolutely no use once the millennium came and went.
By the time he knew he had to, it was too late to get into a different
computer science program, so he supplemented a concentration in linguistics with
a computer course by mail. His third year was spent at Apollinaire,
concentrating solely on the computer side.

He grew up and studied in France, but he lost his heart to England
during his role-playing game days, when he cultivated a preoccupation with all
things medieval. He coerced his parents into traveling there by
threatening not to go on vacation at all unless it was to England. The entire
family had a splendid time touring castles, churches, monasteries, and, he
says in his accent that sounds to be two parts French and one part
Brit, the "Abb-ays."

But, he says, in the end it was England's football (that's soccer
for us ignorant Americans) and beer that inspired him to take the job with Ericsson, who sponsored his move to the UK in March of 2000. He learned a lot, setting up and testing the
infrastructure for Ericsson's GPRS project, but
he never fell in love with telecom, nor did he get used to the
unprecedented number of managers involved, so when the company started making layoffs, Nocera essentially volunteered.

Now he works for Frontwire, a smaller, more approachable
operation where lengthy games of Quake are sanctioned, as long
as they're outside of traditional work hours. He says the company is building a
product to do email-based marketing, and employees spend their days
"just hacking away and working hard." At age 22, he finds this less
corporate setup much more agreeable. Currently, his only regret is that he
doesn't have more time to do all the things normal 20-somethings like to do
-- drink pints with friends, go clubbing, visit the cinema and, you know,
write code.

More about Bastien Nocera

Text editor: VI

Mail reader: Evolution (when it works)

Linux distribution: Debian (currently working on becoming a Debian
developer.)

Favorite movie: Delicatessen

Favorite band: Beastie Boys

Favorite beer: London Pride

High-tech toy: MP3 player and Walkman or his all-white iBook 2

Author: Lovecraft

All time favorite game: Advanced Dungeon and Dragons

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