Growing Up Geek: Terrence O'Brien

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 our very own Associate Editor, Terrence O'Brien.

Growing Up Geek: Terrence O'Brien

In case you hadn't guessed, that's my father up there with a tiny me cradled in his arms. He's OG -- original geek -- and a defier of easy categorization that clearly explains how I ended up as the son of a gun I am today. In fact, without an understanding of where he came from and who he is, much of what would fill a completely self-centered Growing Up Geek simply wouldn't make sense. So, that's where we'll start the story, with a quick look at the man who, for better or worse, made me the nerd I am today.

I won't spend too much time explaining every facet of my father's life, but let's start with this quick fact: my father played both high school football and Dungeons and Dragons. He was a bit of a jock who didn't mind engaging in imaginary sword play. He was also a voracious devourer of music who, at the age of 16, tried (and failed) to hitchhike to Woodstock. Out of high school, and unsure of what do with himself (college didn't appear to be an option) my father joined the Navy. In the service he toured the globe, took up boxing and became an electrician on his ship. Not long after his peace-time tour of duty ended, my father decided to take what he had learned keeping the electrical systems of his destroyer humming and make the jump into the growing field of computers. He started at a time when a computer repair kit included a soldering iron and PCs were called microcomputers (and still largely the realm of hobbyists).

Why am I telling you this? Well, without setting the stage, an anecdote like: my father had me memorize Monty Python's Lumberjack song and perform it at parties for peoples' amusement... at the age of four, just seems cruel. It's a natural starting point since my introduction to practically everything I love (save punk rock and hip hop) came via this man. In fact, I was only five years old when my father brought home our first computer, a MicroVAX II, courtesy of his job with the now defunct DEC. Granted, I couldn't do much outside of play a clone of Lunar Lander at first, but eventually I began to learn the ins-and-outs of VMS. There was a steady stream of DEC computers through my home in those early years: a Rainbow, a VAXstation and eventually a VAX2000 (which is still up and running in the basement). I cut my teeth on VMS, but it was the PC AT (which my father purchased used for over $3,000) that became my first true computer love. I spent hours mastering obscure DOS commands and learning to program in BASIC. I was not particularly good at coding, and never made it beyond a few prank programs that simulated formatting a hard drive and simple text adventure games.

That didn't stop me from showing up many of my father's coworkers and engineer friends. He routinely took me to work and had me setting up PCs three times faster than his staff. There was also a constant influx of gadgets, like gyroscopic mice, which left his IT department stumped, but I quickly had in working order. During grammar school I owned my geek badge, even giving my classmates a lesson on logic gates for show and tell and building my first PC before I became a teenager.

It was around this time that my father also began to instill his love of music in me. I was fed a steady diet of reliable '60s and '70s rock, but it was Bruce Springsteen that became my focus. I obsessed over The Boss's work -- memorizing every lyric first on Born in the USA, then Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. By the time I entered high school the breadth of my tastes had expanded and the extent of fixation had deepened. I was collecting Motown 45s and Nirvana B-sides, while memorizing every meaningless bit of trivia I could (if I missed a single question while watching Rock & Roll Jeopardy I'd be disappointed).

Of course, I needed a way to actually put this knowledge to use -- so, naturally, I picked up the guitar. I couldn't even tell you how old I am in that horrifying photo to the right (perhaps 15?), but that Fender Toronado, with its Jazzmaster-style body and dual humbuckers, has been with me ever since. I took lessons, like any good student, but spent most of my time carefully analyzing the playing techniques and equipment setups of guitarists I admired. The odder and more distinct the sounds, the more I was drawn to a particular player (which is why, for all of his musical crimes, I still have a soft spot for Tom Morello). But, like with many other things, I hit a stumbling block -- I can't write a song to save my life. So, I gave up my dreams of being the next Thurston Moore and moved on to film.

Let's just say my place was neither in front of, nor behind, a camera and put this thing on fast forward. There's a noticeable pattern throughout my life: I find something I'm interested in, I obsess over it, hit a wall and move on. Plenty of other things followed: baseball, politics, cosmology, cooking, hiking, electronics... I'm never satisfied with the breadth of my knowledge, but usually willing to settle pretty quickly on the depth of it.

When the whole college thing didn't work out (the first time through) I followed in my father's footsteps and entered the IT world. I brushed up on my computing skills, which had atrophied, and found myself fixing PCs, processing software requests and bending the rules for a bunch of research analysts at UBS. After only a year and a half of ulcer-inducing stress working at one of the world's largest (and most scandal-ridden) banks, I landed on the wrong side of a departmental restructuring and was laid off. Most people would have probably sat at home in their underwear, collecting unemployment and wallowing in self pity. Or at least I hope so -- otherwise, I'm a pathetic human being.

That almost brings us up to speed, believe it or not. I didn't sit around feeling sorry for myself for long. Instead I decided that, with at least six months of unemployment coming my way, it was as good a time as any to actually pursue my dream of writing. Alright, maybe calling it dream is pushing it. I decided during my second of three attempts at a bachelor's degree that I should give it whirl since I was always told I had a way with words. Though, I believe it had more to do with my ability to BS my way through anything and less to do with any technical proficiency. I applied to all the big name outlets, but I knew those were long shots. Finally, I got lucky when I stumbled across a wanted ad on Craigslist that turned out to be for the now defunct AOL property Switched. I honed my craft over the course of four years there, before it was shuttered and I was brought on board at Engadget.

All of these passions I've dabbled in over the years have never left me. They may not take up as much of my time as they once did, but I'm not one to abandon anything (including that fine nerdy lady standing next to me with our absurd vinyl collection). I just keep expanding my repertoire and adding new hobbies to my already impossibly hectic life. And that, to me, is the essence of geekdom. It's not about comic books or gadgets, or even about expertise. It's about the quest for knowledge and input, whether that be learning to code in C# or perfecting your overhand right.

Terrence O'Brien spends a lot of time on Twitter (@TerrenceOBrien) complaining and being angry. When he's not doing that, he's either tracking down new and interesting beers, marveling at his father's ad hoc computer museum or getting as far out of his cellphone's coverage area as possible.