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Memory Health: Alzheimer's Support Group
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A thank you note to no one in particular

This is a thank you note. Sometimes people have things happen to them that changes their life; it can be something horrible, scarring them for life. Sometimes they find religion and it makes them a better person....or a judgmental piece of ....work.

The profound thing that happened to me came entirely to life within my lifetime, costs absolutely nothing, doesn't dictate how you live yet can enable you to live more comfortably than you might have otherwise.

I am talking about the advent of free software, most popularly known as Open Source Software, or OSS. NO this isn't an Amway kind of fanaticism, nothing like that. In fact, if I were not who I was before I ran into it, it might not have had any effect on my life whatsoever.

My big thing has always been learning how things work, be they locks or magic tricks or science, I liked learning. As a kid one of my favorite haunts was the Kalamazoo Public Library where I learned about everything from Harry Houdini to how to build an arc furnace. I just loved learning. Thats not to say I loved school; it felt boring and went too slow in some areas and too fast in others. I was actually at one point in Junior High School in both advanced classes and remedial classes for idiots at the same time.

Things I am interesting in or simply feel the need to learn it though always come easy. Well, not easy exactly but lets say a very easily managed level of difficult. This is where OSS helped my life so much and made me so much more than I was. It was the early 90's and while I had a good hackers background in programming, that was not what people were advertising for so I was always stuck doing something else (or two or three something elses). I was fresh out of the Army and had few marketable skills having never been to school and the work I did in the Army was classified. Those commercials that claimed you could use your Army experience on your resume was full of shit, it got me exactly nowhere. I loved programming and felt like I could do it professionally but could not figure out how to break into it with no college, no work experience and frankly little to no knowledge of the software people were actually using, let alone how it all worked.

But then I got my hands on my first CD (they were big back then) of free software, some GPL, some BSD. Allow me to explain. In general, software that is distributed under a free software license means that along with the software you are legally owed the source code for that software. The difference between the GPL (General Public Licence) and the BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) is that the GPL dictates that if you make changes to that source code that results in an improvement to the software, you are legally required to release your fixed back to the main soure pool so everyone benefits. If you don't do that, you are not allowed to use GPL software at all. Simple-sounding rule but its brought some of the biggest companies to heel. The BSD licence is similar to GPL except they don't care what you do with it, keep the changes or turn then in.

But in either case, you get the source code and once I figured that out, I realized I had the world by the tail because I knew how computers worked and had a good feel for the languages used to speak to them. What I didn't have was knowledge on how everything else worked and thats where OSS came riding in to the rescue. It started with needing to know how to use operating systems far different than the usual consumer fare. But then if a job or task needed a pro with database design, say an SQL database I could simply download the source to a working big-server level database, learn how to build it, work with it and more in a single night. Because of that I could actually get real-world experience with anything I needed to. Web server? free. Spreadsheet design? Game design? Internet protocol design? Its all there, just download, read and learn.

So thanks to OSS, I was able to learn about some better OS and windowing systems back in the DOS/early Windows 3.1 days. I had no college or real work experience in the field (plus looked like an animal). Trying to find a way to get ahead of the PhDs, I learned about the OS and developed a windowing system that I used to present an "electronic resume" to prospective employers and the best part was, it embraced the OSS model so when the employer ran the program, it gave them the option of viewing the source code to it. That got me into the first consultancy (and I had to learn to wear a suit, much to my chagrin) and from there, every time there was a need for this skill or that at work, I could go home, do some searching on the then-nascent WWW and by the next day be at least competent in whatever skill. OSS taught me enough to become good at the stuff other coders passed over (which meant I always had a job). Plus, the primarly flagship OS from the GPL world is the famous Linux. Being good at that in the 90's amd dot-com boom made sure I had employment at some of the coolest places, doing some of the coolest things, and the better I got with Linux, the more places wanted me.

Aside from the educational aspects, Linux is in fact free as in beer, as is the entire GPL universe so we have had free operating systems, games, everything for over two decades. Free upgrades for everything, forever.

But it wasn't just that it taught me alot, or that it never cost a cent no matter the program, but it was also, generally better and more reliable than commercial software and operating system as well. That meant I spent less time fixing our computers and more time using and playing with them. With Windows 95, the last version we used we were fixing shit every day it seemed, between the arms-race with virus protection to OS instability of Windows, enough was enough. I was the first between us to go full-in on Linux, making it my only OS and dealing with the world that way. At first it was hard, it made me learn alot at first because back then, the only way a non-commercial OS worked with commercial hardware was because hackers took the time to figure out drivers for each new bit of hardware and distributed the source to it. In the commercial world, you got it from the hardware makers. Thus I had to learn alot of pretty low-level OS stuff, occasionally did my own hardware hacks to the OS or drivers to make things work, even published some how-tos on getting some particularly problematic hardware to work with Linux (I am looking at you, Sony Vaio). And walking into any employment situation after 1997 and stating (and proving) you knew Linux development well was a serious plus, got you street cred that no diploma could duplicate. I guess the biggest thing was getting me into Sony, working on Playstation 3 and XPeria. Knowing Linux development got me on the XPeria design team since it was Android running on Linux and at the time I started with Sony, PS/3 was just hitting the market and still had the "Alternative OS" option which meant of course, Linux. So since I was really good at working with Linux on oddball hardware, I got a coveted position at Sony in SF in a think-tank like gig. Coolest, most challenging job I ever had and I thank OSS for almost all of it.

In short, the knowledge provided by OSS to me for over 20 years allowed me to be employed and work "way outside of my weight class". It took me out of the factories and fast-food joints and gave me a respectable profession, one I was proud of and one that provided for me and my family well until the LBD hit.

Thank you GPL, thank you Linux and OSS in general. If not for you I would still be working in factories in Michigan instead of living a great life in San Francisco with a great wife (who liked Linux like I did), swimming with the sharks to to speak. OSS allowed me to keep up with dudes from Amazon, Google, Sony and more. Me, Jeff Cobb from nowhere, with no background. It gave me a good living, pride, respect of my peers and for a guy that never tired of learning, it never tired of teaching me anything I wanted to know.

I am writing this now because I don't know how long I will still be able to and wanted to get it down while I could and while it still meant something, even if only to me.

Jeff Cobb, Sept 2017

1 Reply

Awesome testimony to persistence, self confidence, self promotion, hard work, and determination. It's a great example for those who follow. Hard as it is to accept, college is not for everyone, but that need not stop a thirst for learning.


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