Friday, September 18, 2015

Nerds Unite - Standing with Ahmed, for Tech and for Passion

This week's social media storm (there always seems to be one) was about the saga of one Ahmed Mohammed, 14 year old student in Texas. As I'm sure you're aware, Ahmed was taken from his class, questioned by the principle, and arrested by the police because school administrators were too racist to think that a Muslim boy could have electronics for any reason on than a bomb scare and the cops were too stupid to see that the thing he had was just a clock. Yes, I do have a slight bias towards the young student and against the administrators and teachers and police. What brought joy to my heart was the outpouring of support Ahmed received from the tech world including Mark Zuckerberg,

Commander Hadfield) and the political world - all the way up the President of the United States.

That said, there are things that make me quite sad. First, there's the reminder that we still have a long way to go in terms of diversity in the tech sector; when I attend industry events, I see an awful lot of white men. This kind of anti-encouragement isn't going to help. For every Ahmed whose story resonates across the world, I'm sure there are scores of hidden Ahmed's we don't see: the ones whose passions are quietly discouraged or quietly ignored until they stop caring and stop loving the things they love. That's the element of this about which I want to talk today: about passion and about the element of the all-too-predictable backlash against Ahmed about which I'm the most disappointed.

Fred Shen (the Shen of Shen, Milsom and Wilke) has said that one thing he's learned in his decades of business is that a positive attitude is more important than knowledge, experience, or most anything else. I'll add passion as one of those elements of attitude; people will do their best, learn the most, and accomplish the most in endeavours about which they care. This is why I adore my friends in the #AVTweeps community; someone who goes to work, does his job, and then logs onto twitter to talk about his industry is someone really interested who really cares. It's someone who will go the extra kilometer because they feel the joy in a thing well done, because they want to learn, perhaps even to show off a bit for their peers. It's the spirit of a kid who wants to learn more about electronics so he assembles a clock from spare parts to bring to his teachers, to show them "look what I'm doing. I want to do more of this." This is the call that nerd-twitter was answering - that we have our passions as well and do not wish to stand by and see the joy in learning, in doing snuffed out. Who doesn't understand this? The police. They've been soundly mocked (justifiably so) for not knowing what a clock is. What bothered me most was the statement from police spokesperson James McLennan that Ahmed maintained that it was a clock but was unable to give a "broader explanation" as to what it would be used for. Setting aside the obvious answer that clocks are used to tell the time, the broader implication to me is this: the police don't understand what all of us do. They don't understand doing a thing simply to find joy in doing, and further joy in sharing. They have no passion. They walk, yet they are dead inside.

This brings me to the people who should know better: the nerdier-than-thou techdude gatekeepers who want to dismiss Ahmed as "not a real maker" because what he did is, to them, not all that impressive. They've see pictures of the infamous clock and pointed out, perhaps accurately, that the clockish parts which make it work appear to be repurposed rather than created from individual components. It's a cake from a mix, it's a shortcut. It is, to some "not real nerdery". My answer to that is twofold. First, we all start somewhere with the tools and guidance available to us. Remember what Fred Shen said last paragraph: the kids who disassembles and reassembles devices because they loves to tinker with them will, in the end, likely travel farther than the ones who solders at the component level because they are forced to. Ahmed as the passion, he has the attitude. The rest of is is just stuff. He'll learn the stuff - if the love isn't beaten out of him first.

The second thing is that I'm an AV System designer.  There are some on the AV contracting side who will implement the systems which I design. We've all read the technical musings and heard podcast  appearances, for example, from Crestron programmer Hope Roth. Does she get fewer "techie points" because she doesn't design the hardware and didn't create her programming tools from raw assembly language, or can we honor the art in what she does and the passion for the task she has?

I, of course, design systems at the component level; I have some idea of how the parts work, but I don't build them. Over the past years I've spent literally hours talking to people like, for example, Paul Harris of Aurora Multimedia about potential new products and new product categories. My advice if you stop by the Aurora booth at a trade show? Make sure you have plenty of time, because Harris can talk about his products, the challenges in creating them, and their potential with the enthusiasm of a true fanatic. So... does he and his ilk get all the nerd points, or do we want to shrug and point out that they're just implenting FPGAs which do the heavy lifting of video encoding and packetization. Or point out that the FPGA makers are using already-invented video codecs and network topologies?

A bit of personal history: my most fondly remembered High School tech project was a digital voice recorder. It lived in a home-made plexiglass box about a foot and a half wide by three feet long, contained a mess of hand-soldered circuit boards including a timing circuit (which I had some help designing) and a whole mess of hard-wired logic gates to control start/stop functions, to set variable sample rates, and to handle the refresh cycle on the dynamic RAM chips I used. It helped, of course, that as the son of an electrical engineer I had access to not only a mentor but a basement full of tools, supplies, and test equipment. Today, of course, none of the nuts-and-bolts lessons make all that much sense; logic which was hard-wired in 1988 would live on a microprocessor now. It's the experience - taking a thing and turning into another thing, seeing and feeling a creation come to life - which shines the brightest in my memory. That's the experience for which Ahmed and so many others are reaching.

Hipster-nerd gatekeeping, at its worst.
This is why I'm upset to see fellow tech geeks shrug him off as not really one of us, his clock as a "mere" case-mod not worthy of respect. The worst comment I was was from Chris Putnam, a  former Facebook engineer who should know better. From his social media post and general bitch-fest about the topic:

For those who don't know, Putnam famously hacked Facebook to make people's profiles take on the appearance of MySpace pages. Perhaps because he was a young, white male college student the college-educated young, white, males running the place ended up offering him a job where he was instrumental in some major improvements to the platform. He didn't, of course, invent his own facebook from the ground up. I'm angry at his sad, cruel, belittling commentary because it does the same thing Ahmed's teachers are doing: discourage a young man from further participation by sending the message that he doesn't belong. It's gatekeeping, it's exclusionary, and it's counterproductive. In some ways it's worse than the teachers because, coming from inside the tech community  it could carry extra weight with not only Ahmed but with any other kids just starting to tinker.

Watch below as Putnam goes from nasty attacks to mean-spirited mockery on his Facebook page. It's not pretty watching a successful adult bullying a 14 year old just starting out in his field.

I don't know what Ahmed will grow up to be; if he'll create new generations of hardware, find new ways to implement existing tech, or even if his passions turn a different route and he becomes an artist or a poet or something. I'd like to think that, professionally or not, he'll carry his love for things tech throughout his life, even if only as a hobby. Whether he does or not, he'll always remember the joy of taking apart and rebuilding, and he'll always have this moment in which the larger community told him that we see his passion and in it recognize a reflection of our own. That we love him, that we honor him, that he belongs with us.

So Ahmed and all of you other Ahemd's out there, keep doing what you're doing. Don't ever let anyone tell you that it isn't enough. If you have the chance and want to, learn more and go farther. In any event, find your niche.

And you gatekeepers out there, the Chris Putnam's of the world, remember your roots. Learn empathy, learn humility. Welcome the next generation with open arms and open minds, even if their path does not match your.s


  1. I enjoyed this, Leonard-thanks for writing it!

  2. Great article Leonard - should find more of those talented tech nerds and geeks and get them involved in the industry.

  3. Great article! I totally agree with you. The kid is *fourteen.* At that age, just being able to disassemble something and then put it back together again probably feels like an accomplishment. For most adults, being able to disassemble something and then put it back together again *would* be an accomplishment. To read about the whole kerfuffle and to have your takeaway be that he doesn't have enough nerd red just strikes me as silly. And maybe like there's something else going on that the people throwing shade on him maybe wouldn't want to admit to.