How many lawyers does it take to be a geek?

From time to time people discover that actually I am a lawyer and start wondering how is it so and how I found myself doing Open Source and tech stuff instead.

I got tired of telling the story every time, so now that I have this mini-site I can finally tell people “this information is on my weblog”. :-) Beware: it’s quite a long read.

When I finished high school I had to choose a university. My high school was the “Liceo classico”, geared towards an humanistic approach: no science, almost no math, but tons of Latin, Greek and Philosophy. Actually I still think this is the best education ever: some more science teaching wouldn’t hurt of course, but the alternative, what we call “Liceo Scientifico” is more a joke than a high school (OK, I’m kidding: there is a long time rivality in Italy between “classico” and “scientifico”, not to mention that my wife’s high school was the latter … since she’s watching over my shoulders I guess I’ll be sleeping on the sofa tonight :-) ).

Anyway, the poor math education I received, together with my sincere belief of being totally unable to handle math, ruled out every faculty that had to deal with science, so I was left with the more scientific faculty in the humanistic branch, law. Actually I really enjoyed it: I was even thrilled by the fact that law (somehow like CS) was a pure human science, with little or no nature involved: it was built from scratch by humans so it wasn’t based on observing natural phenomena and trying to understand how they worked.

I did pretty well: I was able, on a 4-years course, to pass 22 exams out of 26 in two years and a half, so I was ready to get my degree and start working in the law field. I had three career opportunities: public notary, judge or lawyer. Too bad that public notaries in Italy are a close clan almost impossible to join. I also realized that I wasn’t given the firness that you need when you’re a judge since I tended to be driven by feelings, so the only option left was to work as an attorney.

I tried it for a couple of months in the summer, and I found out that while I liked the theory behind law as a science, the profession sucked big time: it wasn’t just my cup of tea, and I felt so uncomfortable that I decided that I needed a change and almost stopped my university efforts. That was back in 1992.

Meanwhile I was into computers since I was 14, playing with C64s, then PCs. I was playing with BASIC, having fun and writing some small accounting software for my parent’s company. On 1992 my parents bought me a modem card on their way back from a trip to China and Taiwan. It made little or no sense at that time, where almost no one had a modem: i didn’t ask for it, but my father wanted to buy me a gift and he picked up a random card from the shelf.

I was doomed. That lousy 2400bps modem, who was able to dial only a couple of numbers and only on long-distance calls, connected me with the world of BBS, and my interest in computers and telematics climbed as steeply as my parents phone bill. In less than one year I was a happy Fidonet point, thinking about setting up my own BBS.

I didn’t have enough money anyway to afford a dedicated computer, so I started looking for a solution. I tried OS/2, of which I’ve been a great fan back to 2.0 then I found out Linux and fell in love with it so much than in less than one month I had a public BBS giving away free shell accounts for people dialing up and willing to try Unix (and for the curious in you, I was DOS’es in a week time by the most classic int main(void) { main(); }).

I used to monitor on my spare time the users logged in, sending sometimes a talk request to gather feedback and find new friends. One night a guy accepted my talk request, presented himself as the newly appointed system administrator of the local branch of my university that was about to open and asked me if I had some free time to help him out. The week after this I had my first SLIP connection to the Internet, of which I knew little or nothing, and I was doomed again. I remember me staring at my screen with a gopher client and asking my friend that was helping me in setting up the connection “what?? You mean that we have just reached a machine over the ocean?”. I was doomed again.

I started working in my free time in the university labs, getting more knowleadgeble with Sun’s and Linux. I spent all my free time on the Net, excited at finding new friends (…good old times where you could actually *use* IRC) and curious about those guys that were programming all that neat stuff for free. I co-founded the Italian Linux Society in 1994, the first official Linux association in Italy, and I was enjoying my time in helping CS students while studying civil law for an exam that was rescheduled so many times that I can’t remember how long it took to handle it.

In the end of 1994 a few Internet cafe started to appear in Italy. One night I was attending a concert in a local pub when I heard the owner talking to some guy about starting an Internet point, but whining about not having any technical clue about it. I offered myself for a consultancy, and my life changed.

After a while some friends of mine started a couple of Internet companies which I couldn’t join since I was forced to join the Army instead. After one more year lost trying to learn how to fight a war (well… looks like it might even turn out useful these times :-/). Back from the Army I was finally able to start working seriously on the Internet, so I worked with my friends for some time, until I decided that with no more exams left it would have been a shame not to get my degree, so I took a six months “sabbatical” and finally made it, so I’m officially a lawyer now (well, not really: it would take me a couple of years of practice and a state exam before being entitled to work as a real lawyer). Since then, I haven’t opened a law book anymore, but I learnt quite a bit of “practical” CS.