My life with Linux: A retrospective

To wish Linux a 30th birthday, Jack Wallen describes how the operating system changed his life.

Linux celebrates 30 years of open source goodness

Linux is 30 years old. What started as a student project by a young man studying computer science at the University of Helsinki, has become an operating system that enterprise businesses around the globe depend on. It's massive. It's crucial. And without Linux, most businesses wouldn't be nearly as agile, flexible, and reliable.

Huzzah! But that's not what I want to talk about right now. I want to make this a bit more personal. Why? Because Linux changed my life. Sounds like hyperbole. It's not.

Let me explain. 

SEE: Linux turns 30: Celebrating the open source operating system (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

My life was going really, really well. I was, quite literally, living the dream. I was a professional actor making a living doing what I was most passionate about. Nothing could stop me. And although I wasn't making what anyone would call a reasonable living wage, I was able to support myself (albeit by eating a lot of Poptarts and Ramen) doing what I loved.

Portrait of Linus Torvalds

Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, in 2003.

Image: Kim Kulish/ Corbis Historical/Getty Images

But then 9/11 happened and things took a turn for the worse. I was a resident company member of one of the largest, most well-respected children's theaters in the country. In the post-9/11 world, schools stopped going on field trips, which meant children's theaters around the country took a big hit to their bottom lines. After 10 years with that one company, I had to make a very hard choice ... one I never thought I'd have to make.

I retired from the thing I adored and sought out something new. Said something turned into me attending yet another university (I already had a bachelor's degree and a Master of Fine Arts), this time around I would be studying computer science. 

Here's the thing: Back in 1997, I had purchased a Pentium 75 computer and was growing tired of the Blue Screen of Death. At some point, my curiosity got the best of me (as it is wont to do) and I sought out an alternative. Being on the poorer side of the economic tracks, that alternative needed to be cheaper than Windows. 

And better. Did I mention how much I hated Microsoft Windows?

SEE: Linus Torvalds' greatest hits: A retrospective of the Linux kernel founder's impact on technology (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

So, one fateful day, I was visiting the local CompUSA (remember those?) and found exactly what I was looking for: Linux. I'd read about it and understood what it was (at least on the surface). It was an operating system. Windows was an operating system. I could use Windows, ergo I could use Linux. Ipso facto, ad nauseam. And given everything I'd read, Linux would never fail me.

So, I purchased Caldera Open Linux 1.0, took it home and set about installing the OS. A few hours later, I had a working instance of Linux on my machine and the dreaded Windows was no more.

But then trouble set in. I couldn't get online. I needed to be online. What good was this collection of bauds and bits if I couldn't get online? It took me quite some time to figure out my PC had a ... gasp ... Winmodem. Back to CompUSA for a U.S. Robotics external modem. With that piece of hardware up and running, everything changed. I had a working copy of Linux on my machine, I was online and I could start learning the ins and outs of this operating system. 

It was summer. Birds were singing, the sun was shining, school was out and I had plenty of time on my hands. My Linux education came hard and fast. I found a guru online (I can still remember his name, though I won't share it with you) who introduced me to the AfterStep window manager, which kicked everything up a notch. Not only was I using a bombproof operating system but the interface also looked as though it came from the future. 

I was so cool I couldn't stand myself.

 SEE: Linus Torvalds offers the secret to Linux's long-term success (the answer won't surprise you) (TechRepublic)

And like that, I was channeling Rodney Dangerfield and heading back to school. During that first semester back, after having felt as if I'd mastered Linux, things were different. I felt as though I knew something my fellow students didn't. Most of my peers were still using Windows (the gall) and had no idea what they were missing out on.

That pseudo feeling of superiority led me to the Student Linux User Group (a.k.a. SLUG). The group met once a week to talk Linux and hold "Install Fests," where we'd install Linux on computers for other students. It was the third or fourth meeting when a guest came to talk to the group. It just so happens, that guest was from a new startup called TechRepublic that was looking for someone to spearhead the development of LinuxRepublic (RIP). They were hoping to find someone to write about Linux and help make the world aware of this new operating system. Without hesitation, I shot my hand in the air and said, "I'm your guy!"

Two weeks later, I had a freelance contract with TechRepublic, making more money than I ever had and was doing something that had never crossed my mind ... writing about technology. And then, in November 2000, I received the call from a TechRepublic higher-up asking if I'd like to join as a full-time senior editor. My response? "Let me think about it ... yes!"

That gig lasted about three years until the dot com bubble burst and (like all tech companies) TechRepublic started downsizing. They'd grown to more than 200 employees and without the benefit of all that magical VC funding, couldn't support that level of payroll. 

For whatever reason, middle and upper management saw Linux as a fly-by-night fad, so they figured they could jettison me without losing much. I returned to acting and remained there for a few years.

SEE: 5 Linux server distributions you should be using (TechRepublic Premium)

But then that siren song of Linux just wouldn't let go. Sure, I'd continued using Linux as my go-to operating system (still do to this day), but I hadn't written about tech in a while. That hiatus came to an end (after two years) when TechRepublic and I reunited. I was once again doing the other thing that felt absolutely natural for me ... writing about Linux and open source. Fast forward to now and, on the day commemorating my own birth, I'm writing how the birth of an operating system altered the course of history.

So, yeah, Linux changed my life. And to this day, when I look at how everything fell into place, I realize it all happened so naturally, as though it were meant to be. On a daily basis, I'm grateful that Linus Torvalds created Linux. And although I'm short of few years of using Linux for 30, I can at least say I was there for Linux kernel 2.0 and will (most likely) be here for plenty more releases.

Happy 30th birthday, Linux. It's been a great ride so far, and I'm certain it's only going to get better.

This is part one of a four-part series on Linux's 30th anniversary. See parts two, three and four of this series. The entire series is available in this free PDF download.

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Image: Jack Wallen