The 1980’s were a veritable playground for anyone who could gain access to what was quickly becoming one of the most coveted inventions of all time: the personal computer. No longer the size of a refrigerator, innovations from companies like Tandy, Commodore and Apple made personal computers a reality and, like so many others, I couldn’t get enough. I spent hours pouring over the technical manuals for the two computers I had scraped together the change to purchase; the Tandy TRS-80 model 100 and the powerful Commodore 64. I even managed to cobble together my first few programs for my cherished Commodore.
Today, it’s hard to believe that a computer sporting 64K of RAM could ever be seen as powerful but, at the time, it was the next big thing. After all, how much memory do you really need when everything is textual? Dial-up bulletin boards gave unprecedented access to information, and friends that were worlds away were suddenly right next door. Then, acoustic couplers gave way to smart modems and, suddenly, AOL was king.
As more and more of the world transitioned into the information age, an ever-increasing number of virtual playgrounds appeared for those of us who saw the Internet as our own personal sandbox. With the American legal system struggling to catch up, the lines between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, quickly blurred.
Hollywood had already left its mark on the cyberculture with the 1983 thriller WarGames, and many of America’s youth found themselves drawn into the glamour we saw on that silver screen. Cyber-celebrities like Kevin Mitnick, Kevin Poulsen and Robert Morris became our mentors, our idols. Being a part of this apparent elite required a level of knowledge not taught by the educational institutions, so we found ourselves transfixed by technical manuals and developer documentation, absorbing knowledge like a sponge.
By the time high school came around, I had worked my way into the upper echelon of the local cyberculture. Our school district was just beginning to stress classes like Keyboarding (is that still a thing?) and Computer Science (which has changed a LOT), so those precious few of us who were already familiar with these concepts were the proverbial kings of the campus. Our knowledge bought us out of detentions, granted us unprecedented access throughout the school, and made us both respected and feared by the faculty. In a world where everything was controlled by computers, yet so few understood them, knowledge was truly power.
But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.
Shortly after graduating high school, I found myself at an impasse. I knew I was on a dangerous path; on one hand, I could leave things as they were and find myself behind bars, guilty of any one of a number of violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (18 US Code § 1030). On the other hand, I could put all that behind me and put myself in a position where criminal activity was, at the very least, difficult. So, I found myself on Parris Island, South Carolina undergoing Marine Corps recruit training.
My experiences in the Corps are a story for another time, but suffice to say it was a memorable experience. I grew as a person, matured, and learned a great deal about discipline, tenacity and leadership. When I finally got my separation papers, I thought that the most difficult period of my life was behind me. I was wrong; the biggest trials of my life were about to begin.
Being a veteran, particularly of the Corps, is no picnic. I left the Corps with no real prospects, no money, and nowhere to go. For years, I drifted; living as a sort of vagabond, doing odd jobs as I could and sleeping wherever I found shelter. I applied to job after job, and consistently found myself being turned down for any of a number of reasons. No permanent address, no experience, no formal education… the list goes on. My personal favorites were the companies who turned me down solely because I had served my country in the Corps. Any other branch would have been fine, but apparently some people see Marines as nothing but killers, ready to snap at any moment.
Finally, I turned to the one thing I knew… technology. Not having a permanent address meant I spent a long time working from libraries and cafes, but it worked. I spent time as a developer for Arch Linux, worked on various other open source projects, and finally discovered WordPress in 2007. My knowledge of the Internet was several years out of date, but I decided to give web development a try. I contracted for a few local companies, picked up the occasional project on line, and finally stumbled across an innovative little project called Easy Digital Downloads.
While I had no real use for EDD, I found the project fascinating. I had learned PHP and WordPress development by dissecting and tweaking other plugins, but I was still really an amateur. Looking back, my code was sloppy and inefficient, and getting my first plugin in the WordPress repository was nothing more than pure dumb luck. In comparison, Pippin’s code was pristine, efficient, and miles ahead of anything I could hope to achieve. He became my role model and I spent every waking moment combing through the EDD issue tracker looking for things I could fix, if just to have an excuse to dig through the codebase and learn something. And learn I did.
Through random chance, I submitted a pull request in a long line of pull requests and, for some reason, it caught Pippin’s attention. He contacted me and gave me my first real break since returning to the civilian sector. Suddenly, I was making a legitimate income working on a project that I actually cared about. I continued to study and soon was writing moderately acceptable quality plugins of my own.
Pippin became my colleague, mentor and, most importantly, my friend. His decision to take a chance on someone who was an unknown quantity opened up a world of possibilities for me, and put me on the path towards becoming a successful professional in the WordPress community. For that chance, I am forever in his debt.
In late 2012, I decided to take the single biggest step of my professional career. I wanted to make development my sole source of income. Over the course of six months, I overhauled all my existing plugins, build out a company website, and phased out all of my side jobs. Focusing completely on development was a challenge, and I still spent a lot of time financially leaning on EDD, but I was getting closer to being completely self sufficient.
Between my company, working on EDD, and a few side projects, I survived comfortably for longer than I had hoped. Unfortunately, by early 2017 it was getting harder to find good work. My long-term work kept me going, but left little wiggle room, and I was struggling to find new clients. Eventually I had a proverbial Come-to-Jesus discussion with a friend and came to a few startling conclusions.
Don’t get me wrong, I was, and still am, extremely thankful for the people I worked with over those few years. The vast majority of my income for over four years came from working as an independent developer. More simply put, people paid me to write software. It is these people whom I am thankful for. They provided me with a steady income, knowledge and, perhaps most importantly, became my friends.
Unfortunately, that consistency came with a downside. Doing the same things day in and day out resulted in me being effectively stuck in my comfort zone. No matter how many great ideas I came up with, I never seemed to get them beyond the early conceptual stage because what I was already doing was comfortable. I didn’t want to take a chance on the unknown, so I kept doing the same thing day in and day out.
Burnout is a serious thing. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’m sure it’ll come up again. Sadly, it’s a fact of life (or at least a fact of being an adult). For those of you who are fortunate enough to have not experienced burnout yet, it is commonly thought to result from long-term job stress. Burnout is clinically similar to depression, and presents with exhaustion, chronic headaches, quickness to anger and loss of creativity.
Burnout is remarkably common in the development world and can cause an otherwise productive individual to grind to an abrupt halt. My work environment and the hours I was keeping had resulted in a slow spiral towards burning out, and I knew it. But I tend to be exceedingly stubborn, and I had been ignoring the warning signs.
Ok, that one is a pretty massive understatement. Granted, “work” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. In my case, I was spending over 90% of my time awake doing work of one sort or another. If I wasn’t working on my 9-5 job, I was working on one of a million pet projects. Outside of meals, about the only time awake not spent working was the ten to fifteen minutes a day I spent working on a crossword puzzle before going to bed. Weekends? What weekends? And don’t even mention vacations; I don’t think I had taken an actual vacation in ten years.
To make matters worse, I didn’t even have a real hobby anymore. For the last few years, my job has been in software development of one sort or another. Also for the last few years, my one and only real hobby has been… software development. At some point in time, the line between “work” and “hobby” blurred to the point of virtual erasure and I lost my hobby.
Working nonstop had resulted in my diet consisting mostly of takeout and coffee. Granted, neither of these is bad in moderation, but day in, day out is another story. My sleep schedule was nonexistent, averaging only three-four hours of sleep a night, and frequently working for days at a time without rest. Most importantly, I was only utilizing about 150 square feet of a two-bedroom apartment that I was rapidly losing the ability to afford.
So… with everything that was definitively wrong with my life, what could I do to fix it?
I hesitate to call what I did quitting my job. True, I shut down my company, but it wasn’t bringing in any money anyway. However, I still held out hope that I could find enough freelance work to keep me going. I realized that I’d originally left corporate America because I hated the daily grind of a 9-5 job. Somehow, I’d worked my way right back into a 9-5 job by taking on numerous long-term clients. Unfortunately, this aspect of my “fix” didn’t work out the way I wanted it to. Rather than making my job more manageable, I ended up effectively putting myself out of work. As I write this, it is October 2018, and I haven’t worked in any meaningful way since September 2017. Thankfully, I have friends who have helped me get by, but something will have to give soon.
I finally picked up a real hobby, that had nothing to do with my work! Technically, I picked up two hobbies, but I’ll elaborate on the second one shortly. Thanks to some guidance from a good friend, I finally started putting real effort into playing guitar. I’d wanted to really learn for years, but never put serious effort into it before. It’s ironic that as musically inclined as I am, I never bothered to learn what is most likely the most popular instrument in the world. I’ve been playing piano my whole life, and I play several other instruments, so it’s not like I had to start from ground zero.
In October 2017, I finally exhausted my savings and had to move. I simply couldn’t afford my own place anymore. But, I have a few friends who have always been there for me and were happy to put me up. I’ve been living with them for the last year and, while I’m still thankful to have a roof over my head, I think we all want to see me find a place of my own soon.
In my current condition, buying or renting are basically impossible, and will end up putting me in the same rut I was in last year, so I found an alternative. As I mentioned earlier, I’d grown accustomed to living in a small space. Additionally, I’ve wanted to go on vacation for a while now. This means that the idea of living in a vehicle is quite appealing to me. Buying an RV gives me the opportunity to have a more stable home, while being able to take that home with me if I want to travel outside of the immediate area. No more grubby hotels when traveling!
In this economy, the average initial cost of an RV is $122,000. Ironically, despite the price tag, the average RV is little more than a death trap on wheels. They’re made as cheaply as possible with very little safety in mind. Do five minutes of research and you’ll see that very few RV accidents end well. On the other hand, a bus is designed to transport a large number of children on a daily basis. As such, buses are designed with safety in mind. Even better, most states have restrictions on how long a bus can remain in operation.
School buses are built around a diesel engine which will generally run well past 500,000 miles if properly maintained. In fact, there are buses that have run well into the millions of miles! However, the restrictions on operational length frequently result in buses being decommissioned with less than 200,000 miles and sold for virtually nothing. Today, you can buy a decommissioned bus for a few thousand dollars and rebuild it to your own tastes. After gutting and redesigning the interior, you end up with a completely built out mobile home designed specifically for you for a fraction of the cost of a traditional RV.
So, now you know my story. Today, I’m still looking for work in (or out of) my industry, write the occasional product here and there, and contribute to Open Source projects. Despite my current situation, I’m eating better, I’ve switched from coffee to tea, and I’m trying to scrape together the money to buy my bus.
So who am I really? I’m an amateur artist and author (I’m particularly fond of doing photo restoration and colorization). I’m a former Marine, and darned proud of it. I’m obsessed with knowledge… in general. I’m a father to an incredible son who is already following in his fathers’ footsteps. And I believe that for every person, no matter what their current place in life, there are infinite possibilities for the future. This is my path, and my future begins today.