Welcome to Growing Up Geek, an ongoing feature where we take a look back at our youth and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. Today we have Philip Berne, who is currently Samsung's Marketing Manager for Technical Media and a regular contributor for Slashgear.
When I was in high school, I wanted to be a writer. My fallback plan was to get a degree in Psychology and become a therapist. If you were to time travel back to my high school days (which were not even 20 years ago) and tell me what I'd be doing today, I'd probably say something like:
"Are you crazy? That's not even a real job. And what the heck is a smartphone, anyway?"
I was a phone and gadget reviewer until I recently took a job with Samsung. Now I'm still reviewing phones -- I just review them a few months before anyone else. If you love phones and mobile tech as I do, it is certainly a dream job. I know how lucky I am. I wouldn't be here unless I had grown up geek. But in fact it wasn't luck that got me here (unless I mean luck of birth).
Growing up geek, in my case, meant growing up spoiled. I'm afraid to admit it, but I certainly had a spoiled childhood, especially when it came to toys and electronics. Let's go through my bona fides.
I started with an Atari 2600 and dozens of games. I've had every major gaming console except the Sega Saturn and ColecoVision. My first computer was the Commodore 64. I eventually upgraded to a Commodore 128, but to this day I couldn't tell you why. I wasn't programming, even in BASIC. I was mostly just playing games.
I owned a light pen. With it, I could draw on my television. I cannot draw more than stick figures, but I still used the light pen, mostly to show off to friends.
I didn't have my first Mac until late in my senior year of high school. A couple years later, I got my first laptop, a PowerBook 520c. In all, since 1995, I've had seven Mac laptops. Before Macs, I had some random x86 machine that I only used for games and connecting to the Prodigy network.
Additionally, I had a Game Boy, an Atari Lynx and a Sega Game Gear with the TV tuner. My first cell phone was a gigantic Motorola bag phone, which I got when I turned 16 and started driving. I was the only person I knew with a mobile phone at the time. I brought up that phone years later when I was interviewing for my first full-time technology job at the now-defunct infoSync World. My boss specifically cited my deep gadget experience -- and that bag phone -- as selling points that helped me land the job.
I didn't flaunt it. I didn't brag or show off my wares. If anything, I was sad that none of my friends had the same equipment I had. I couldn't link up my Game Boy for multi- player gaming. My friends weren't really good competition on my consoles, since their only practice was when they were visiting my house. This is still true: I sit in a weird trough of being better at games than all my friends, but far worse than any competition I find online in multiplayer modes.
Programming and coding never interested me. I tried hammering in some of the long BASIC programs that were printed in the back of old PC magazines, but I never caught the bug. I enjoyed using my computers creatively, mostly to write and share my writing, and as entertainment. They were glorified toys. I was certainly spoiled.
It was because they were glorified toys that my parents treated them as such. If I did something wrong, my consequence was usually to have a piece of technology taken away. When my grades slipped below a B in a high school class, for instance, my father would remove the adapter to my Hayes modem, cutting me off from my Prodigy connection. (Or so he thought.)
In my basement, I'd secretly reconnect myself using the spare adapter included in the Prodigy software / modem kit. Every once in a while my father would pull the parenting equivalent of a Crazy Ivan. I'd hear him get off the couch and walk to the only phone on our first floor, the one hanging on the wall in the kitchen with the 50-foot-long, tangled cord. Just as the footsteps reached the top of the stairs, as the phone rattled in its metal hook, I'd kick the modem out of the wall, killing the connection. If I timed it right, he'd only hear a dial tone and I would be safe.
On the one hand, my childhood taught me that technology is special. It's playful, but it's not exactly a toy. It's also communication and relationships: I still keep in touch with some people whom I met on the Prodigy network in the early '90s, when I was a teenager. I took a girl from Prodigy to my prom, importing her all the way from New Jersey to Maryland and meeting her for the first time in person on a train platform. We're now connected on Twitter.
Without technology, I would have never started writing. My handwriting is labored and messy. I hate writing by hand. With a computer, my writing output expanded exponentially; my grades grew markedly better as I started bringing my laptop to class in college.
On the other hand, I admit that I was spoiled and my fortune was an accident of birth. Access to technology was immeasurably valuable to me. I literally would not be who I am today if I had not been so awash in technology. In 2006, I ended a five-year stint as a high school English teacher. I taught at schools where 95 percent or more of the students qualified for a free lunch. At my last school job, the students were typing papers on iMacs that were six years old. The school had no floppy drives and the students could not afford memory sticks. They had neither reliable email at home, nor a network connection to use for research and help.
I grew up geeky and privileged, and I'm grateful to my parents for providing the means for me to succeed in a job that literally would have been unthinkably cool to the child Me. But it's always important to remember that the entire world is far from growing up geek, and the differences in the opportunity that just a little technology affords is the difference between growing up successful, and struggling to grow up at all.
You can follow Philip on Twitter (@philipberne).