It was pretty much a normal day. I was setting up for a concert at the Keep. Then, things went sideways. Some Peace Corps volunteers saw my “i hack charities” shirt and fired off the question, “Do you work with Hackers Without Borders?”

I was stunned. 

A million thoughts ran through my head. Did he mean “Infosec Without Borders”, our corproate-friendly site? Did he mean “Random Hacks of Kindness”? Did he mean “Hackers Without Borders”, which doesn’t really even exist? Or did he mean Hackers For Charity? 

Through the cloud of shock I managed, “No, never heard of that one. What do they do?”

His answer was, “The write code for people who don’t have access to algoritms.”

It was clear he was talking about one of the “other” “Hacker Charity” .. “things”. My mind was sent reeling again. 

“Nope,” I managed, “I’m with Hackers for Charity. It’s a different thing.”

I went back to my work, making it clear that the conversation was over. This isn’t like me. Normally, I’m quite gaby when it comes to HFC. I’ve rarely missed an opportunity to explain what we do, and more importantly, create connections and paths to figure out how to help people. But this conversation bothered me, and frankly, I was quite rude to the guy. Sorry, guy, wherever you are.

The conversation put me in a bad mood. As I worked on the music setup, I justified my rudeness. 

We existed long before the other “hacker charity things”. The only exception might be the Hacker Foundation, started by our good friends who provided a 501(c)3 cover to us and other hacker startups. But really the first “hacker charity thing” was HFC, because before us there wasn’t a charity just for hackers. So the others came later. That made us “the original”. As I pondered that line of reasoning I realized it didn’t hold up. After all, who cares? If other “hacker charity things” do good work, what’s the big deal?

Perhaps I was being all high and mighty (snobbish) about the term “hacker”. I’ll admit I’m jaded by decades of the media’s misuse of the term and I’ll further admit that one of my less public mission statements was to change the improper perception of the hacker community. After all, hackers have done meaningful work for a long time. 

I knew that some of the “hacker charity things” don’t involve hackers AT ALL. The employ voluntary programmers, or create “hacks” like the “hacks books”. You know the ones. Google Hacks and Yahoo Hacks and Perl Hacks and .. Fishstick Hacks, or whatever, but they weren’t “hackers” per se.

But that wasn’t it either. I realized that a group that does “hacks” isn’t really stealing the term hacker necessarily, and besides, even if they borrowed the term (whether or not it fit) to do good work, wouldn’t that further my goal of changing negative perceptions?

As I strung cabes across the floor to the stage, I tried to dig deep. What was it, exactly, that was bugging me. Was it simple jealousy? I knew that one of the “hacks” organizations was backed by big corporations like Microsoft, NASA and Google. I assumed that meant the organization was swimming in cash. Was it simple jealousy because we alway seem to exist hand-to-mouth? That couldn’t be it either because frankly, we’ve always had just enough to fund what we’re doing. No, we can’t grow much beyond where we are, but we’ve got several major projects funded and we’re fully supporting fifty Ugandans. I can’t complain about that 

Then a word struck me: validation. Big corporate backing validated the “hacks” group’s work. Was my life’s work a failure because we didn’t have megacorp backers? 

Was I a failure because some random guy knew about this “Hackers Without Borders” but didn’t know about HFC?

I realized I was standing frozen in the middle of The Keep, cables in hand. I felt completely derailed. One little interaction with a well-meaning stranger had completely derailed me. Suddenly, I found myself jealous, my life’s work meaningless. I was a failure.


I’ve been back from Shmoocon a week. When I came back, I was high as a kite. Shmoocon was AWESOME. I was inspired by a 14-year old and her dad who, inspired by HFC had gone to Kenya to deploy a computer classroom in the middle of nowhere. I was encouraged by countless supporters who gave of their time, energy, money and knowledge to help us along. I was jazzed about lots of new potential opportunities. I was happy to have met many old friends and glad to have met many new people. I had geeked out with my buddies Sam and Glenn as we stayed up until 6:30am building Pelican Pi’s, only to (cheerfully) get up an hour and a half later to open the booth. I had returned with loads of gear and gifts that would hold us over for the long stretch until Defcon. And through it all, we had more than enough time, energy and resources to make yet another pilgrimmage to Shmoocon, an amazing conference that always feels like home. 

I had to laugh at myself. My fragile ego gets me in bad places far too often. Here I am living the dream. Every day, I have the opportunity to help someone in need. I never imagined that this “hacker charity” thing would come this far, that we’d accomplish nearly this much. Looking back, this whole thing was insanity. It shouldn’t have worked. We didnt have a business plan, or any kind of strategy, but because of this community, we’ve done so much. Who cares if we don’t have corporate backers? You have come through time and time again and we haven’t had to give up for lack of resources. Who cares if we aren’t well-known? You, as a member of the community know about us and care enough to support us in dozens of different ways and honestly, that’s more than enough.

So thank you to everyone who made this year’s Shmoocon an unprecedented success, and to those that have helped us out through the years – we are more than grateful. You’ve inspired us to keep going. 

Now, I need to find that Peace corps guy and apologize. Clearly the problem was mine, not his. :-)