Stephen Smoogen: /usr/bin/whoami

I have not done a general biography in a long time so figured I should put one out as a courtesy for people reading these blogs and emails I send out on various lists:

Who Am I?

My name is Stephen Smoogen, and I have been using computers for a very long time. According to a bug in a PHP website I was on years ago, I am over 400 years old which would mean I was born in Roanoke island with Virginia Dare. I think I slept a lot in the next 360 years as, according to my sister, my parents found me in a ‘DO NOT RETURN TO SENDER’ box outside their door. How she knew that when she is younger than me, I do not know.. but I have learned not to question her.

My first computer was a Heathkit Microcomputer Learning System ET-3400 that my Dad got at a swap meet when he was in the Navy in the 1970’s. I had worked with my Dad on some other systems he fixed for coworkers but it was mostly being bored while watching an oscilloscope and moving probes around boards every now and then. When I wanted to get a computer in the early 1980’s, he said I had to show that I could actually program it since an Apple ][ would have been a major investment for the family. I spent the summer learning binary, hexadecimal and doing the simple machine code that the book had in it. I also programmed a neighbour’s Apple ][+ with every game I could in the public libraries Creative Computing 101 Basic Games. My mom and dad saved up for an Apple and we got an Apple ][e in 1983 which I then used through high school. The first thing I learned about the Apple ][e was how different it was with the ][+. The older systems came with complete circuit diagrams and chip layouts. It had been the reason my dad wanted to get an Apple because he knew he could fix it if a chip went bad. The ][e did not come with that and boy was Dad furious. “You don’t buy a car with the engine welded shut. Don’t buy a computer you can’t work on.” It seemed silly to me at the time, but would be a founding principle for what I do.

During those years, I went with my dad and his coworkers to various computer clubs where I learned how to play hack on a MicroVax running I think Ultrix or BSD. While I was interested in computers, I had decided I was going to university to get a degree in Astrophysics.. and the computers were just a hobby. Stubborn person that I am, I finally got the degree though I kept finding computers to be more enjoyable. I played nethack and learned more about Unix on a Vax 11/750 running BSD 4.1 and became a system administrator of a Prime 300 running a remote telescope project. I moved over to an early version of LynxOS on i386 and helped port various utilities like sendmail over to it for a short time.

After college I still tried to work in Astrophysics by being a satellite operator for an X-ray observation system at Los Alamos. However, I soon ended up administrating various systems to get them ready for an audit, and that turned into a full time job working on a vast set of systems. I got married, and we moved to Illinois where my wife worked on a graduate degree and I worked for a startup called Spyglass. I went to work for them because they had done scientific visualization which Los Alamos used.. but by the time I got there, the company had pivoted to being a browser company with Enhanced Mosaic.

For the next 2 years I learned what it is like to be a small startup trying to grow against Silicon Valley and Seattle. I got to administer even more Unix versions than I had before, and also see how Microsoft was going to take over the desktop. That was because Enhanced Mosaic was at the core of Internet Explorer. At the end of the two years, Spyglass had not gotten bought by Microsoft, and instead laid off the browser people to try and pivot once again as an embedded browser company at a different location. The company was about 15 years too soon for that as the smart items their plans had as the near future didn’t start arriving until 2015 or so.

Without a job, I took a chance to work for another startup in North Carolina called Red Hat. At a Linux Conference, I had heard Bob Young give a talk about how you wouldn’t buy a car with a welded bonnet and it brought back my dad’s grumpiness with Apple decades ago. I realized that my work in closed source software had been one of continual grumpiness because I was welding shut the parts that other people needed open.

Because of that quote, I worked at Red Hat the next four years learning a lot about openness, startups and tech support. I found that the most important classes I had from my college were psychology and not computer science. I also learned that being a “smart mouthed know it all in” doesn’t work when there are people who are much smarter and know a lot more. I think by the time I burned out on 4 years of 80 hour weeks, I was a wiser person than when I came.

I went to work elsewhere for the next 8 years, but came back to Red Hat in 2009, and have worked in the Fedora Project as a system administrator since then. I have seen 15 Fedora Linux releases go out the door, and come to really love working on the slowest part of Fedora, EPEL. I have also finally used some of the astrophysics degree as the thermodynamics and statistics have been useful with the graphs that various Fedora Project leaders have used to show how each release and how the community has continually changed.

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