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Why I Love Computers

“Great, that all sounds great.”

I force a smile. My heart is still racing. My hands are damp and sweaty. This pitch has gone well. Very well, actually. It’s one of the smaller funds but they would still be a great addition to our seed round. The only thing I can do now is mess it up.

“I have one more question, something I like to ask all our founders…”

My body tenses. I’m concentrating completely on the next words that come out of his mouth.

“Why did you first want to work in tech?”

I’m stunned for a half-second. And then I start to stammer a response.

“Well…I mean…I’ve always loved computers. Ever since I was a kid….”

“Ok. But why?”

Why I love computers

My older brother Mark first started playing with a ‘pooter at his kindergarten school in the late 80s. He was instantly hooked. Mark was born in 1985, 10 years before me. By the time I came onto the scene, Mark was deep into his obsession with computers. Some of my earliest memories are of visiting him at his job in the local flea market. He worked at a stall that sold second-hand computer parts. He opted to be paid in the same parts. His logic was simple; he was only going to be spending his money on them anyway.

Often I’d come home to hear him describing a new ‘upgrade’ he had performed on the family computer. It would no longer connect to the internet, or even boot up to a GUI (a graphical user interface), but it now ran ‘Linux’, whatever that was.

Sometimes, I like to put Mark's old email into the GitHub search bar and see his open-source contributions from the early 2000s (when he was 16 or 17).

The forum archives are littered with comments like this one:

Hey all,

I'm delighted to see the rewrite of glade going full steam
in gnome cvs. And the code is looking great.

One thing that has always frustrated me about glade is the
inflexability of the UI. It can be quite frustration. I
felt the same about GIMP 1.2.x but GIMP 1.3.x uses a really
excellent docking system that allows me to customise my
GIMP UI and only show the items that I actually want to use.
And very importantly it lets me have all the all of it
in one window if I want.

I'm not going to go into detail about how it could work but
I'm wondering if you guys have/would concider using the
docking code in glade3?

Mark Finlay - 25 May, 2003

Mark was one of a small group of hackers who kicked off the open-source revolution that we take for granted today. In a time before git, before GitHub, when working on open-source projects meant little on your CV, they hacked away out of sheer interest and passion. I remember seeing Free as in Freedom stickers on the front of Mark's futuristic desktop towers. Sometimes I daydream about traveling back in time with an Android phone; how would 18-year-old Mark react to seeing his beloved Linux at the heart of over 2.5 billion portable devices?

Mark lives in California with his wife and two kids - my niece and nephew. He's part of the core team for a number of major open-source projects and he's a principal engineer at one of the cooler tech companies. I call him whenever I'm stuck on a project or I need some advice on what to do next. He's always 10 years ahead of where I'm at now and he's got reams of experience to draw on.

Except that last part isn't true. Mark died on the 9th of January 2004, about a week shy of his 19th birthday. I was 8. I didn't really understand that he was sick; that he'd been battling an aggressive cancer for 2 years. I came home one day and he was gone.

I remember recreating our routine of afternoon Stargate SG1 tv marathons after he passed away. I’d flick on Sky 1, sit on the floor in my usual spot, and pretend that Mark was lying horizontally on the couch behind me. Sometimes I’d convince myself that if I turned around quickly enough I’d catch a glimpse of him. He was never there.

There was a pillow in the cupboard upstairs that smelled like him. When I really missed him I would sneak up and bury my head in it. When I noticed the smell fading I started to ration the visits. I remember the feeling of emptiness when it was finally gone.

The dreams were the worst part. They weren’t bad dreams - they were actually quite nice. The whole family hanging out together. Me and Mark going for Pizza. Surfing on our holidays. Normal stuff.

Then I’d wake up. I’d have a few seconds before remembering Mark was dead.

For the rest of my childhood, our house was filled with relics from his passion for computers. Futuristic desktop towers and silver palm pilots, Red Hat stickers and bizarre ergonomic keyboards. We didn’t know how to operate most of it. They were like monuments from a lost civilization - their magic forgotten. The genius behind them was gone.

For a long time, I avoided coding, avoiding learning how, avoided diving into the depths, because it hurt.

At first, it hurt because I thought I wouldn't be as good as him, that I’d never compare to his mastery.

Then it hurt because if he was still here, I would be so much better. I would have been a child prodigy, tutored by one.

Now it hurts because it would have been something that we shared.

My journey to software engineering was a tentative one. I never really admitted to myself that I was moving in that direction. I was going to study Neuroscience in college but impulsively transferred into the Engineering program. And then I specialized in Computer Engineering. Then applied for lots of different jobs. And I picked the one I liked best.

One day I woke up and realized that I was a software engineer, that his thing was now our thing. Even then, I felt like there was a difference between his mastery and my imitation. I wasn’t a real software person.

When I was in college, I started to piece together the fragments he left behind. I felt like an archeologist uncovering hidden treasures. Suddenly it all started to make sense. I could see why he was so passionate about open source software, about Linux, about the internet. I read his copy of Rebel Code by Glyn Moody so many times that the binding wore away and the pages became dog-eared.

Sometimes, during my lectures, the new information would unlock a memory from my childhood. One day while learning about memory limitations in early computer graphics, my 7th Birthday came rushing back in vivid detail. Mark gave me a new graphics card for the family computer. I could finally play Rayman in 3D! I remember him slowly explaining that the new graphics card was ‘16MBs’ and that it needed to be that big to play the game. I can remember the excited hug I gave him, the giddiness I felt while he set up the game, how clumsy my tiny hands felt while trying to control Rayman on screen. Pressing A shot a sphere of light. Space bar was for jump.

The smaller moments are gone now - the walks to the park, the Friday evenings at the local pizzeria, the sunny summer afternoons on holiday. There was nothing solid to hold them in my head. All I have are photographs.

But the endless details of computers - the specifics of RAM and CPU, hard drives and operating systems - these details act like beacons and bring me back to sitting in the front room, listening to the chirp of the dial-up modem, hearing excitedly stated stats and facts wash over my little head.

That’s why I love computers. Because they help me remember him. Because they keep my big brother alive in my heart.

Mark gave me the greatest gift I’ve ever received. He left me with a lifelong passion for technology. He’ll always be a part of me. I read somewhere that loving is something you do, it requires action, it’s a verb.

If loving is a verb, then so is remembering.

And this is how I remember him.

If I was to say something glib about grief, it'd be that it gets better after the first 10 years. But the reality is that when someone dies young, the grief rips open again at each milestone. Mark would be graduating from college, then starting a career or getting married, or maybe starting a family. But he’s done none of those things. He never will. That feels so fucking unfair.

I don't really know why I'm writing this now. He died over 18 years ago. It's not a particularly big milestone - a 10 or 20 year anniversary. It was well over half my lifetime ago. But today, when I was making a change to a Web App I'm working on, it finally hit me that I'm actually a peer, I'm a real-life software-tech-person, and we would now have conversations about the subtle points of different programming languages or the history of different operating systems.

I finally concider myself his peer. And now I miss him all over again.

One small ask - if you're reading this and you ever interacted with Mark online (or Sisob as he was known on a few projects) back in 2003/04, I'd love to hear any stories you might have. Send me a DM on twitter 🤘