I’m Rob Flickenger.
I’ve been a hacker as long as I can remember. I wouldn’t have used that word as a kid; hacking was just what you did when you couldn’t afford the parts you wanted. Do the best that you can with whatever you’ve got. Probably in unexpected and clever ways. Don’t be afraid to take it apart if you have to. With a butter knife. That’s hacking.
As a teenager I thought that using computers to connect people was about the cleverest thing you could do with them, so I learned everything I could about modems and networking. Using a DOS terminal to call local BBSs gave way to using Linux to SLIP into the capital-I Internet.
Then the Web happened. So in the mid-1990s I started hacking for money.
By Y2K, I found myself in Silicon Valley working as a consultant hacking on all kinds of crazy systems. I learned much more about the various flavors of Unix, wide area networking, TCP/IP, and corporate networked systems. I picked up the inevitable bit of scripting. I eventually got a job as a sysadmin for O’Reilly Media.
Then 802.11b happened. It seemed like a big and important development, and I started writing about it. Blogging had just been invented, so I wrote an article about how to make a WiFi antenna out of a Pringles can and hook it up to your cutting edge Lucent WaveLAN PCMCIA card. The idea got really popular.
My first book, Building Wireless Community Networks, came out in 2001. They hadn’t even started calling it Wi-Fi yet. I got involved with various community wireless network projects (NoCat, SeattleWireless, FreeNetworks.org, and many others). We wanted to get everybody connected to each other (faster than DSL!) using “free” wireless connections. Hackers were pushing Wi-Fi links further and further using cheap homebrew antennas. The possibilities seemed limitless. Those were fun times.
I wrote Linux Server Hacks and Wireless Hacks, and edited Network Security Hacks. I was delighted to contribute an article to the first issue of the brand new Make Magazine. I continued to sysadmin. Invented a load balancing scheme for Apache. Learned Perl. Mocked Python. Dusted off my C skills.
One day I received an email from a researcher from the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. That email began a seven year project to help bring Internet access to the developing world.
I spent a lot of time in Trieste teaching workshops on long distance wireless networking and embedded Linux to students from all over the world. That work culminated in a successful free book on the subject and several trips to Africa, including a stint in Malawi building a 200+km Wi-Fi network. On the side we built a wireless tidal monitoring network in the Venice lagoon.
Whenever I had time at home, I hung out with local hackers and started playing with high voltage. We made a 10kV coin shrinker and took some high speed photos of a shrink-in-progress. I made Tesla coils, then singing Tesla coils, and eventually the Tesla Gun. Some friends and I started a new hacker space, and nine years later we moved it to a bigger facility. I restored a vintage SEM and learned a bit about nanofabrication.
Somewhere in there Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter happened.
While hacking Wi-Fi in Africa was spiritually satisfying, it wasn’t enough to keep up with my hacking (and eating) budget. So I hacked for money again for a while, got paid, got married, got caught up.
But you can’t hack only for the money forever. That way lies madness. I had to find a way to hack both meaningfully and profitably.
And with the rise of social networks and global commercial networking capacity, connecting more people to the Internet seemed like an inevitability of neutral-to-possibly-dubious moral standing.
The next step in my journey completely surprised me. I went into the life sciences.
It turned out a random hacker I knew had helped start a bioinformatics company. They needed more hands. Unfortunately I had hated biology in school. It always struck me as the squishy science for taxonomy nerds. But that was before humans had sequenced the human genome and invented computational biology, and before they built the computing infrastructure capable of processing every whole human genome on the planet.
The same infrastructure I had spent decades learning how to hack.
So I dusted off my C++, learned to
love like Python, and dug in hard on catching up on my bio.
In eight years I went from an engineer in test to director of engineering. We raised money, got acquired. Spun out, went through YC in 2019. Made a fantastic (now open source) structural variant caller called BioGraph. Then COVID shut everything down, and we folded in 2021.
That summer I got some volunteers together to see if we could reproduce some research from UC Berkeley about what happens to human protein expression when blood plasma is diluted. Turns out we could, and we published a short paper about it.
That summer I also found an amazing bunch of folks working on equity in genomics research and drug R&D. I joined up as director of research infrastructure and now I’m working on accelerating research pipelines.
Matrix multiplications seem to be all the rage, so I’m working on a python script that thinks it’s alive. The bird site died, so I’m on Mastodon again. And I still have a lot to learn about systems, biology, and everything else.
But the future is not yet written, and cannot be adequately predicted. I believe 2020 made that point decisively. Whatever comes next, I will continue to work to make the world more Hacker Friendly.
Because the world needs us to do the best we can with whatever we’ve got.