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3 Life Lessons I learned from HACKS

It was the fall of 1991, and I had only been at the University of Arizona for a couple of months, recently transferred from California Lutheran University, when I got a call from Joe Fico. Joe was the president of a univ club by the name of HACKS, the Hardware And Computing Knowledge Society. I had no idea how HACKS would ultimately shape my career, or that I would one day be president of the club, all I knew is that they were having a lot of fun and I wanted in.

I had just recently finished building my first computer with the money I had saved up from working a summer job at a computer store in Culver City, CA. I remember the specs well. It was a 386-33Mhz with 4MB of RAM and a 200MB IDE drive...and of course, a 2400 baud modem. It was running DOS, and I mainly used it for BBS'ing. Until that point, my main exposure to "Internet stuff" had been a local BBS running waffle that had a UUCP connection for email and a handful of usenet news groups. The university system that I had an account on also had a full time Internet connection, but I hadn't learned much about that yet and only used the account for doing my pascal assignments, but I was primed and ready to learn more.

The Loophole

Joe explained how the club worked. The University had donated a pair of unused computer rooms to the club, and the club acted like a university department. When another department had an old machine to dispose of, they could either send it to salvage or they could transfer it to another department. Salvaging gear was a lot of paperwork, but transferring it was relatively they transferred their broken stuff to us.

Oh...the toys!

The club had already managed to making two working VAX 11/780's out of 3 broken ones, had a working Microvax II, and had used a University license to get a VMS cluster working across all 3 devices. They also had a working PDP-11 system (I can't recall which one) running AT&T System 7 that no one liked to play with because the only editor was ed (no vi), and command line editing sucks, and a VAX 11/750 running BSD 4.3.

Members of the club got admin/root on all of the devices so that we could learn systems administration. This was the real carrot. I gravitated towards the Unix systems, and built up a new 11/750 running BSD to run the Quartz BBS code on, and we called it Sunset BBS (after the amazing sunsets in Tucson). I rebuilt the kernel more times than I can count, a process that took hours.

Sometimes you just need a toy for yourself

It wasn't long before I longed for something that as 100% mine. I took my 386-33 and upgraded the RAM to 8MB, installed a Quarter Inch Cartridge (QIC, pronounced 'quick') tape drive and spent $1000 on a copy of System V Release 4 (SVR4) Unix from Dell. I then got SLIP working (serial line IP, a protocol for establishing a fully functional Internet connection over a modem) to the UofA dialup modem bank with a static IP, and was born. I gave away accounts to people on the Internet (John "Resident Lunatic" D'Allessandro as one of my first "customers") and their requests for software became "support tickets" for me to work, many of which involved porting source code from BSD over to SVR4. This is part of lesson 1. Customer's will either teach you things, or force you to learn things. Embrace customer's wherever you can find them, even if it's not a monetary transaction.

Why spend $1,000 on a commercial operating system you ask? Open source Unix wasn't really a thing back then. FreeBSD and Linux were just starting to release functioning distributions, but they didn't have Xwindows yet, and only had support for the most basic of devices. I had done enough research on Usenet, reading posts from the like of Karl Denninger, to know that SVR4 was the way to go, at least for now.

The best part

The best part of HACKS wasn't really the computers though, it was the friends I made and the people I learned from. Two of the friends I made, Tom Duff Micheline (Moebius) and Rawn Shaw (Adobe), would become great friends that I would later start a company with (RTD Systems & Networking, Inc. ... the RTD stood for Rawn, Tom and Dave). Molly Carmody and Pierre Padovani (DISCO) would also later join the company, as would Mark Beeson (Fender) and Matt Ramsey (, all friends I met in HACKS. Other friends that I made that were a huge source of inspiration include Ehud Gavron (, Joel and Jan Snyder (Opus One), Chris "Face" Janton (UofA, FaceTones Studio), Jot "Trent" Powers (Paypal), Tammy Powers, Rebecca "bectile" Willey, Nancy Hull, Brett Bendickson (UofA), Earl Spencer (UofA), Chris de Young (UofA), Vance "Lutan" Hammerle (JPL), Bill Petrisko (co-founder of Internet Direct, Limelight), Paul Gallegos (Wells Fargo), and Wayne Bouchard (Limelight).

HACKS grows

HACKS would go on to form the SRCC, or Student Run Computing Center. Our VAX/VMS cluster was the foundation of the computing center, and had the support of the University because MUDding wasn't allowed on University systems, but it was permitted on ours. We later got a terminal room and old wyse terminals donated to us that we got up and running to get the mudders out of the main terminal labs. We received transfers/donations of new systems, such as a fault tolerant machine from Symantic(?), some weird graphics workstation that ran LISP as it's operating system, boatloads of AT&T 3B2's, and other stuff, but our VAX 11/780's remained our pride and joy.

The VAX 11/780 is an impressive machine. The VUP computing benchmark was based on this system, and as such a 780 is 1 VUP. 1 VUP is only roughly twice as much as an Intel 8088 processor, which is what was in the IBM XT, but the difference is in the I/O bus. Those massive backplanes enabled us to support 40+ simultaneous users without really breaking a sweat. A single 780 is a chassis about the size of two refrigerators side-by-side. The top part of the chassis contains large boards that plug into the backplane, each about 2 feet by 2 feet. The CPU was 12 of these boards, the RAM was another 12 boards (or so) and then there was an optional math co-processor that was another 4 boards. Below the line cards was a row of power supplies, each weighing so much it was challenging for a single person to remove them. Last but not least, there was a PDP11/32 with an 8" floppy drive that was dedicated to use as a boot-loader. None of that included I/O. You had to put another refrigerator-sized chassis next to the CPU and connect the backplanes up with lots of fat ribbon cables, and then you could connect tape drives, disk drives, etc. I apologize if I am remembering any of this has been over 25 years sinceI saw one of these things.

I came to appreciate just how lucky we were that the University donated not only the space to us, but the power to run these monsters. A single VAX 11/780 consumed roughly $11,000/year in electricity! I am grateful to our sponsors in University Telecom and CCIT, Aaron Leonard and Ted Frohling, for supporting our club!

There are several broader life lessons that came from this work, and they apply to anyone who is early in their career.

  1. Learn how to teach yourself Teach yourself by creating your own projects that will teach you what you want to learn. I mentioned in a past post how important it is to find a learning project for yourself. You don't have to be in tech to leverage this to your advantage. If you want to make clothes, then start sewing something and sell it on Etsy. If you want to be a graphics designer, then start designing logos for free, or take on some projects on If you want to get into a specific field, find a non-profit you can volunteer at, or start your own non-profit on a topic you're passionate about. There are a million things you can do to give yourself relevant experience.

  2. Don't seek networking opportunities, look to make new friends Don't get me wrong, networking is part of professional life, but friendships outlast the ups and downs of business relationships. Even if you don't keep in touch regularly, those friendships will be there forever. Find interest groups of people with similar interests and passions as yourself, and you will make friends easily.

  3. Teaching reinforces learning Even as a 19 year old, there were new students coming into HACKS that were hungry to learn and sharing what I had learned so far was greatly beneficial to cementing my own knowledge. Whatever you may have learned by doing, you will learn it even better if you teach what you know to someone else. Don't ever feel like you aren't "expert enough" at something to not teach someone else what you know. No matter how novice you are, chances are you know more than someone else and sharing the knowledge you have obtained will help you grow in that subject.

And finally, I leave you with this picture of a VAX 11/780 chassis that my friend, Vance Hammerle, converted into a bar (affectionally named VAXbar). The woman in the picture was a wonderful woman by the name of Tamara, and Vance's fiance', who passed away many years ago now. We all miss you, Tamara!

HACKS - "It should work..."

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