Saturday, July 11, 2015

The importance of mentoring, or "how I got involved in FreeBSD"..

Here's how I was introduced into this UNIX world, or "wait, WHO was your WHAT?"

So, here's 11ish or so year old Adrian. It's the early 90s. I was hiding in my bedroom, trying to make another crystal set out of random parts and scraping away the paint at my windowsill. In walks my Aunty, who introduces her new boyfriend.

"Hi, I'm Julian." he said. That wasn't all that interesting.

"Oh, are you making a crystal set?" .. ok, so that was interesting.

And, that was that. Suddenly, someone role-model-y shows up in my life out of the blue. There I was, an 11 year old who felt very mostly alone most of the time, and someone shows up who I can look up to and think I can relate to. So, I'm a sponge for everything he shows me. Whenever he comes over, he has some new story to tell, some new thing to show me. He would show me better ways of building transistor switch circuits when I was in the "make large arcs with car alternator" phase of my early teens. And, when I saved up and bought a PC, he started to show me programming.

Now, I was already programming. My parents had saved up and bought me an Amstrad CPC464. We had a second-hand commodore 64 for a short while, but that eventually somehow stopped working and I didn't have the clue to fix it. But I was programming Locomotive BASIC and dabbling in Z80 assembly when I was 12, and had "upgraded" to Turbo Pascal 6 when I hit high school. (Yes, school taught Turbo Pascal at Grade 10 level, and I decided to learn it a bit earlier. That's .. wow, that dates me.) I hadn't yet really stumbled into C yet. I had heard about it, but I didn't have anything that could write it.

Julian explained task switching to me one day during a walk along the beach. He explained that computers can just appear to be doing multiple things at once - but the CPU only does one thing at a time, and you can just switch things really quickly to give the appearance that it's multitasking. With that bright spark planted in my head, I went home and started dreaming up ways to make my Z80 based CPC do something like this.

My mother dragged me to McDonalds to apply for a job the moment I was legally able to (14 years, 9 months) and I saw a computer at a second hand shop - it was a $500 IBM PC/AT, with EGA monitor, two floppy disks and a printer. We put down a down-payment and I paid it off myself with my minimum wage money. Once I had that home I quickly erm, "acquired" a copy of Turbo Pascal for home and was off drawing funny little fractals.

So yes - it's Julian's fault I discovered FreeBSD. Yes, this is Julian Elischer. One day he showed me his computer, running something called BSD. He was trying to explain bourne shell scripting and the installer. I nodded, very confused, and eventually went back to the VGA programming book he lent me. He also showed me fractint running in X on his monochome 486 DX2-50 laptop. I had no idea what was going on under the scenes, only that the fractals were much more interesting than the ones I was drawing. So I took the VGA book home and started learning how to use the higher resolutions available. One thing stuck in my mind: so much bit-plane work. Ugh. One other thing stuck in my mind - reading from VGA memory is one of the slowest things you can do. Don't do it. Ever. (Do you hear that console driver authors? Don't do it. It's bad.)

One day he explained pointers to me. I had erm, "acquired" a copy of Turbo C 2.0 from a friend after failing to make much traction with the less friendly versions (Tiny C, for example.) I had coded up a few things, but I didn't really "get" it. So he sat me down with a pen and paper, and drew diagrams to explain what was going on. I remember that lightbulb going off in the back of my mind, as I dimly connected the whole idea of types and sizes together - and that was it. I was off and doing bad things to C code.

I eventually saved up enough for an updated 286 motherboard, then an updated graphics card (full VGA!), then a sound blaster card, and finally a 486-DX33 motherboard. He introduced me to his friend Peter (who had, and I believe still has, a rather extensive electronics collection) and handed me a FreeBSD-1.1 CDROM. I took it home, put it in, and .. it didn't do anything. My 486 had a soundblaster pro + CD-ROM, and .. well, FreeBSD-1.1 didn't speak to that hardware. So, I eventually put Slackware Linux 3.0 on the thing, and became a Linux nerd for a bit.

I did eventually try FreeBSD-1.1 on it - after putting a lot of FreeBSD bits on a lot of floppies - but I couldn't figure out what to do when it booted. This is going to sound silly - but the lack of colorls turned me off. I know, it seems silly now, but that's honestly why I went back to Slackware.

I eventually went back to FreeBSD in the 2.x era once I had an IDE CDROM and I was working part time at an ISP after (high) school finished. Yes, I figured out how to get colorls to work, I got in trouble disagreeing with a Michael (O, not M) at iiNet about Squid on Linux versus FreeBSD, and well.. stuff. Here was this 17yo kid disagreeing with things and acting like he knew everything. I'm sure it was endearing.

Fast-forward a couple years, and I had been hacking on FreeBSD here and there. I got in a little erm, "trouble" before I finished high school, which phk reminded me of - when they granted me a commit bit. I forget when this was, but I wouldn't have been much older than 20.

So - this is why mentoring kids is important. It may seem like a waste of time; it may seem like they don't understand, but we were all there once. We wanted someone to relate to, someone to look up to, and something interesting to do. Julian was that person for me, and I owe both him and my mother (of course) pretty much everything about my existence in this silly little computer industry.

(This is also why you don't skimp on hardware support for popular, if cheaper platforms and "shiny" looking features if you want people to adopt your stuff -  but that's a different rant.)

Ok, that's done. I'm going back to hacking on VGA/VESA boot loader support for FreeBSD-HEAD. That's long overdue, and I want my pretty splash screen.


  1. Hmm, you got your 486 computer working with Slackware first (bcs it supported your hardware out-of-box unlike FreeBSD), so was it mere curiosity why you ended up installing using FreeBSD later? Or was there some other motivations?

    I am asking this because it feels like most computer users these days do not bother trying a system that would require them to actually learn those systems first. To me it seems like most people want "intuitive" graphical user interfaces and automation that trades away power and control for convenience. Would be nice to know how you got yourself motivated to learn FreeBSD.

  2. I've always had a motivation to figure things out. I also remember wanting to learn how to hack on various pieces of the OS, and the source tree / port organisation in freebsd was much easier than trying to hack on software pieces in slackware.

  3. Adrian, that was a pretty nice write up. I wish I had a mentor but I have always been self taught. Even now I hope to get into development but I am very new to C. IE I just started learning about pointers this week.

    I think even us adults can use a mentor. So if you know any in the Nashville Area let me know :) .