How did I become an engineer?
At 16 years old, we got our first personal computer at the house. At 18 years old, I’ve started my first job as a software developer.
It was the morning of a warm early summer day and I felt it was Xmas. I remember spending all my summer with my new best friend. We didn’t go to the beach once that summer, he wouldn’t have liked it and he was quite heavy to carry around. For three months of summer, the first thing I was doing in the morning was turning him on, last thing in the evening was switching him off. Here’s why…
When I was 4, I wanted to be a king. Someone told me monarchy wasn’t a western thing anymore, so I decided I’d be president instead. As a stubborn kid, I liked to rule my world didn’t like to be told what to do. When At 6 years old, I discovered space and was fascinated with this infinite universe surrounding us and couldn’t believe we didn’t explore them yet, I wanted to become an astronaut. Then I watched Top Gun when I was 9, and that’s what I wanted to become an airforce. I think I just liked Kelly McGillis very much. When I realised Tom Cruise was not only a airforce pilot but also a speed racing driver, a cool barman, etc. I wanted to become an actor to be able to do experience as many things as I could. After my parent’s divorce, we had financial issues, so one day I asked a guy at the park: “Do you think you get enough money to buy all the Legos you like when you’re an actor?”. He explained that Tom Cruise probably didn’t have any problems to buy all the Legos on Earth because he worked really hard to be where he was, however the chance to become a successful actor was little. I asked him: “What about you? Do you have money?”, he replied “I don’t have as much as Tom Cruise, but I am happy with my life”. I asked him what job he had, he replied me: “I’m an engineer”. I had no clue what was an engineer, but that’s the day I decided to become one.
Until I was around 14, that’s what I wanted to do, then I got lost in my teenage age. Boarding school was messing up with my head, I had too much imagination and I was easily distracted in class. Somehow I was already up “in the cloud”.
When I first played with that Gateway computer we had, I was really obsessed with it. When I was looking at the screen, it felt like freedom, I could do whatever I wanted to do. And when connected on the Internet, I could learn anything I wanted to learn. It’s weird to state this, but its cathode ray tube screen could kept my eyes way more opened than any good looking teacher I had. No teacher would have ever kept me awake all night. The Internet felt like space to me, I could explore anything I was interested in. It was so much more interesting than school.
I started by learning all the basics: Word, Excel, Powerpoint and everything that was installed with Windows 98. I drilled down every single feature I could find, trying to understand everything.
After my first month of summer with it, I started to experience video games on PC and the first game I ever bought was Sim City 3000. I was too impatient though, all I wanted was to build amazing cities but I was always running out of cash and time wasn’t something I liked to waste. I have to admit after a week of trying, I’ve started using cheat codes I found online and that’s when I really started to play, because I was able to express my creativity through it much quicker. I didn’t like to wait to get something done.
At school, I was getting specialised in economics because my physics teacher hated me for being a smart ass kid and didn’t want me in her scientific class the next year. Couldn’t blame her, my year average grade was C in her class and that wasn’t enough. I didn’t have much choice and went for economics. I hated it. It was too much learning by heart, not enough food for thoughts. Thankfully this computer was much more fun.
Around mid-July the ‘Hackers’ movie with Angelina Jolie was broadcasted on TV. And that was a big revelation. Somehow it inspired me and the very next morning when I pushed the button of my computer, things changed. I wasn’t interested in video games anymore, I wanted to learn how to hack stuff.
My motivation was so high that I was learning anything I could from the Internet. I joined some forums and IRC channels around security and it felt like Stargate to me. A whole new galaxy was opening its doors to me.
Quickly my motivation was to hack and defaced websites. A lot of people in the communities were doing so and I thought that was the cool thing to do to become a hacker. I was wrong, but I was also young and a stupid script kiddie. Soon my desire was to understand how things worked.
Nowadays you have YouTube, Wikipedia and so many online tutorials where you can start learning anything from. If you have the motivation nowadays, you can become whoever you want to be and do everything you can. Knowledge is power, always been and with the Internet of today, it’s much easier to learn anything. But the Internet will not provide you two things essentials: your goal and your motivation. These are only up to you to decide.
Once I felt happy about my website, I invited couple of my online friends. I couldn’t wait for them to checkout it out and see what they had to say about it. However it turned out all they did was criticizing it… and hack it. That’s when I realised that hacking was not so cool and people’s feeling could get hurt. I felt the pain of losing control of something you worked really hard on building. And I thought: “Why is it so easy to destroy things and so hard to build them?”. I keep on asking myself this question today. Although it was painful, I’ve learned from it, fixed my bugs and fixed security holes they found for me. It become fun again as soon as I understood why all this happened and how I could enhance it. It was all about learning again and acquiring knowledge.
September arrived and I knew how to code. Not perfectly, but at least I could read and understand it. I also knew how to create no-CD cracks using a disassembler. Unfortunately I had to go back to boarding school, away from computers… It was the end of something beautiful. It was short, but the little time I experienced it, it was amazing and that experience still keeps my flame burning for the cybersecurity topic. I can’t thank these guys enough to have pushed me so much to meet my boundaries and learn. If only I knew who they were behind their nicknames… Who knows.
Later on, I graduated from high school with this stupid economic and social science baccalaureate degree. Most of my classmates went to business school after that even though they didn’t know what job they wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to do anything with economy anymore, I knew I didn’t want to go to business school, I knew I wanted to code, I knew I wanted to create websites and softwares. This is all I wanted to do: going back on my computer, learn and code. It was clear that I wanted to become a software engineer, I was just on the wrong path for becoming one. I needed to pivot.
I did applied to Computer science schools and universities, they all rejected me because I didn’t have the scientific baccalaureate degree, but the economic one. Since I was in a dead end, I decided to look for a job. After 2 months of summer looking for one and building a portfolio by coding different websites, I got a job in a start-up project. I was their first employee. I worked there for 3 years, maybe the hardest 3 years of my working life, but I learned so much from being their slave working 70 hours a week for not even the minimum salary wage.
When I was 20, I was doing the job of an engineer, I only took 7 days of vacation for the last 100 weeks, I was always at my office, I had a girlfriend, I was paying my rent, I had a car I bought myself ; I had a life. But it wasn’t enough. One day I woke up and I pictured myself in the future and I wasn’t seeing this working. It wasn’t enough. That’s when I decided I needed to go back studying. At least to have this engineer master degree that would at least grant me access to an engineer salary range.
I applied one more time to computer science universities and engineering schools. And one more time they all said “no”. So what do you do when you want something so badly and you cannot have it? Well… You insist and you fight for it. And I did. I wrote a long email (if you’re still reading this, you know now that I like to write haha) where I was explaining why it was unfair to only accept people with certain backgrounds only, why being so close-minded was unproductive and not creative at all, why I wanted to become an engineer and why I deserved my chance.
One day at work someone calls and asks for me, it was a professor at this university I really wanted to be part of. We talked for about ten minutes and then he told me they were interviewing all candidates the next week. He asked me if I could come to have a chat with the jury after they finish with all the candidates. I said yes and smiled for the rest of that day.
One week later I was interviewed after seeing all candidates going in and out every ten minutes. They asked me all sort of questions for almost a hour. When they asked me why I wanted to take back studies. I told them because students don’t realise the chance they have to be in vacation every 6 weeks, they laughed and then I explained the real reasons. Another week later, the professor calls me and tell me it was very unusual but they’ve been talking a lot about my case and they were going to take the risk.
When I told my bosses, one of them started to panick. Since I was the first employee of the start-up everything was passing through me and I had so much knowledge around the products we built that he felt like it would be like a dynamite explosing in the basement of the building. I loved working with them even though it was very hard. I told them I would never let them down and that I would even do some work for free if they are really struggling to replace me. They started to invite me for lunch, they proposed me 7 times my salary. But I refused. I was looking for more knowledge, a degree and a new life.
At the end of that summer, I left everything I had and started my new life as a Computer science engineering student. It wasn’t easy at all! While I was good at programming, I was rubbish at everything theoritical. The first semester was the worst for me, I failed it. But I managed and years later I graduated with the master degree in Computer Science I came for and finally became the engineer I wanted to become.