My Nerd Story: From record store clerk, to tech journalist and community manager

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, which is why I was thrilled to receive an electric typewriter as a high school graduation gift in 1988. Asking for a computer was never something I considered. I don’t remember ever being exposed to computers while I was growing up. After high school, I didn’t even use my new electric typewriter for a while. Instead, I took a year off, continued working my record store job, and saw dozens of great bands.

My nerd story starts at a record store, with a cash register and a Schwann catalog.

Lesson 1: Not everyone has access to technology or education.

rikki-2013rikki-2013I wasn’t exposed to technology as a child, and going to college really wasn’t on my radar, either. I’m first-generation college, and the first woman in my family to get a degree.

Frankly, going to college wasn’t something I’d really considered until I’d worked at the record store for a while. The store manager, Peter, had a master’s degree in biology and had studied tree frogs in South America. He has a PhD now and travels the world, last I heard. Peter said he hired me when I was 16 because I “didn’t have a leather jacket.” I suspect he hired me because everyone else at the record store was bugging him to hire one of their friends, so he disappointed them all equally by hiring me instead. And then I got a leather jacket.

When I started at the record store, I didn’t know anything about music and had never seen a CD before my first day on the job. My car had an 8-track player and couldn’t even play cassettes. In my defense, CD technology was new, and all the CDs at the record store fit onto a single shelf back then. My boss was patient, and he corrected me when I filed the Butthole Surfers under “L” for Locust Abortion Technician. (And really, who could blame me for being confused about that name?)

My life would have gone in a much different direction had I not landed that minimum-wage record store gig in a college town in Kansas.

Each day in the record store was fun and often a mini-adventure. One day Jill and Cody caught a shoplifter and he took them both crashing through the front window. Another day I handed Matt Dillon a Kleenex after he sneezed into his hand. (He was in town filming perhaps his worst movie ever, Kansas.) Guy Clark winked at me when he did an in-store appearance once, which inspired me to call my dad to tell him that the guy who sang “Homegrown Tomatoes” was a little creepy. Another time, when I asked my older co-worker John a question and followed up his answer with an “are you sure?,” he sighed and offered the pessimistic words of wisdom, “Rikki, life is too uncertain to be sure of anything.” Isn’t that the truth.

In hindsight, working in a record store is much like working in the world of open source. I’m surrounded by intelligent people with a range of experience, education, tastes, strong opinions, and expertise, who share my enthusiasm for hearing new voices, being inspired, innovative thinking, and connecting with other humans. Many of us cling to the classics while eagerly embracing the new releases.

Back at the record store, we connected through music. We connected to our co-workers through music other people created. We connected with customers through our shared musical interests. We connected to the individuals and bands — many whom we’d never meet — creating the music. And often we worked around the system, sometimes paying into it, other times making and sharing mix tapes that created something new or helped us hear an old song in a fresh way. There were faster ways to earn a bigger buck, but that wasn’t what motivated us.

My stint at Pennylane Records — especially the bright people around me — inspired me go to college, and I briefly attended the local university, KU. Then a 1990 spring break trip to Austin, Texas, motivated me to venture beyond the little midwestern towns I’d grown up in. I dropped out of college and the first week of 1991 I packed up a tiny U-Haul and headed south. After waitressing for a while, I also started taking classes at the Austin Community College, and eventually I took a computing class.

Lesson 2: Computer programming classes don’t always translate into computing careers.

Here’s the part where I say that my first computing class changed my life and inspired me to become a programmer. Only, that’s not what happened.

Eventually I transferred to the University of Texas and got an English degree with a minor in Spanish. I wrote every single paper on my handy dandy typewriter, except for the one I had to submit on a computer disk my final semester. I wrote that paper on an old UNIX computer my dad had given me the previous summer, which I’d only used for playing solitaire up until that point. Dad hadn’t shown me what to do with the computer, and I didn’t really need it for anything. I didn’t have the Internet, and honestly hadn’t even heard of it.

I graduated from UT in May 1996 and I got my first new computer as a graduation gift.

With the help of an AOL CD, I connected to the Internet via dial-up from a farm outside Austin, Texas. I used that computer to surf a young World Wide Web, email the few people I knew with email addresses, and play solitaire during the early morning hours of October 7, 1996, as I started going into labor with my daughter. The last week of 1996, I packed the computer and family into a U-Haul, and we headed north.

Lesson 3: Sometimes you have to step down to move ahead.

In February 1997, I started working at Miller Freeman (formerly R & D Publishing, and later CMP Media), in Lawrence, Kansas. I worked as the manager of the customer service team, but I wanted to be an editor. A year or so later, I took a slight pay cut and transferred to a different department as an editorial assistant on Sys Admin magazine. This step down the corporate ladder was ultimately a step forward in my career.

My life would have gone in a much different direction had I not landed that entry-level editing gig at Sys Admin magazine.

Lesson 4: Skills and experience can be leveraged and transferred.
Lesson 5: Your network is (almost) everything.

rikki-2013rikki-2013rikki_cropped_smLucky for me, the publisher, editor, and production editor of Sys Admin magazine hired me despite my lack of experience in print publishing or computing. They knew me because we’d worked in the same building together and socialized, and I had solid work references, people skills, and management experience. My English background fit well with the editing duties I’d take over. Still, I’ll never forget the first time I walked into my supervisor’s office and asked, “Fork a child process? Is this for real?!”

Around the same time my journalism career was starting to take off at Sys Admin, Linux was taking off, too. The Sys Admin magazine tagline soon changed from “The Journal for UNIX Systems Administrators” to “The Journal for UNIX and Linux Systems Administrators.”

Lesson 6: Passion is everything else.

I loved editing Sys Admin magazine, and later, after the bubble burst and budgets were slashed,, too. I loved my colleagues, working with authors online, and occasionally meeting authors, readers, and advertisers in person at conferences, including USENIX LISA. The intelligent, quirky tech personalities often remind me of the people from my record store days.

Side note: If you work in journalism or technology and you are bored, you are doing something horribly wrong. Play a new record. Listen to a different genre. Quit the band. Create a mix tape.

Eventually I returned to KU to get an MS in Journalism, and in the process, I left Sys Admin and got hired as the managing editor (and eventually associate publisher) at Linux New Media US. I was also a single mother of a daughter in elementary school, so I thought a lot about her future and the role technology would play in it.

Not long after I joined the team, my colleagues at Linux New Media encouraged me to launch a blog on the Linux Pro Magazine site, and together we came up with the idea for a blog to highlight what women in open source were doing. (This is a topic I still cover today.) Launching the blog tied in well with my thesis project because I researched and documented why the area of open source needs to draw attention to what women in the field are doing, and how a web publication can supplement and support a print product.

I wrote my first women in open source blog post six years ago, on January 23, 2008.

“There are quite a few blogs and articles debating the reasons why there aren’t more women in open source,” I wrote at the time. I referenced Valerie Aurora’s article, HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux. “Val suggests that one way to encourage women in Linux is to discuss broader topics, which we plan to do with this blog,” I wrote. “In addition to developers, there are a variety of women in open source who help document, market, promote, teach, and contribute in a range of other areas that serve the open source community while balancing life and work.” I wanted to draw attention to the diverse pool of women already working in open source, and the variety of important roles they play.

In addition to covering news and topics related to women in open source, I interviewed a series of 29 women working in a range of roles. I interviewed event organizers, foundation directors, CEOs, developers, writers, activists, students, sys admins, consultants, and more. Occasionally I fielded complaints, like the one from the commenter, presumably a woman, who posted, “This interview is quite disappointing, while it shows a woman can be CEO of a IT (successful?) company, which is nice, I do not see how she contributes to OpenSource.”

By this exclusive criteria, I do not contribute to open source. Nor does a woman who helps organize a tech conference or who markets a cloud service. Because we do not program, we do not count as women in open source? Not so fast.

Lesson 7: Every contribution matters.

Let me be clear: I would be a developer, if I wanted to be a developer.

I understand what is enjoyable about writing a computer program. I even encouraged my offspring to explore programming [see To my daughter’s high school programming teacher]. Programming is not so different from journalism or the publishing business or community management. You gather valid bits of information, organize them, separate facts from bugs, review, tweak, revise, launch, fix errors, launch again, process feedback, and continue learning. A master’s in Journalism is an MS because of the science involved. Yes, anyone can write a blog post. But not just anyone can write an article that is well researched and backed by documentation and communicates a coherent message to the intended audience. Sure, maybe you can launch a print magazine, but let’s see how long you can keep it in print, and good luck making a profit. You don’t need a degree to be a great writer or publisher or developer, but you do need knowledge and experience and practice.

Publishing and programming both include a mix of science and art, a balance of formula and creativity.

WiAC panel at USENIX LISA '13 I know many developers, but few of them would be the right choice to organize a tech conference or edit a tech magazine. I have immense respect for any person who successfully runs a tech company or event, or who takes a developer’s scribbles and turns them into organized documentation, or who takes a technical cloud service and translates it into an intelligible marketing piece and articulate elevator pitch. I’m not easily offended, but boy am I easily irritated if you tell me that a woman who works as a recruiter for a tech company cannot be a woman in open source.

No, I do not contribute to the Linux kernel. But I have written and edited thousands of tech articles over the years to help sys admins, developers, community members, and novice writers or non-native English speakers share their expertise and experiences.

I’ve attended and participated in dozens of tech events to recruit new writers or promote tech organizations or products. I’ve spoken at tech events about how to get an article published, how to deal with imposter syndrome, how to promote yourself to advance your career or draw attention to your project, and how to recruit and hire a diverse tech team. I get satisfaction out of helping a woman write her first tech article or conference talk proposal, and I share her enthusiasm when she sees the results. I take great pride in sharing the variety of compelling stories in open source. Developers are an important part of the tech community, but they are not the only important piece.

Lesson 8: Mentors are not always rock stars.

In all my years working in open source publishing, I’ve never heard a man say, “I’d rather work with men.” I’d be pissed if I did. I have, however, heard more than one well-respected woman in tech publicly announce that she prefers working with men, and every time I cringe and I feel my blood pressure go up.

Perhaps some women have adapted to a male-dominated field by aligning themselves with men, but that’s not my approach. I like working with some men, and some women, but not because they are men or women. I like working with interesting individuals. I like working with people who have more experience than me and who are better writers. I like helping new writers improve and grow their networks. I like welcoming new individuals into the growing world of open source.

I’ve had women mentors, and I’ve had men mentors. Like back in my record store days, I’ve found mentors in unexpected places, and I’ve gleaned wisdom from unlikely sources. A 12-year-old girl at my first LinuxFest NorthWest event told me that Linux Pro Magazine should give away free stickers, which we promptly ordered when we got back in the office. Two male colleagues encouraged me to launch a blog that highlighted women in open source. A male employer encouraged me to speak up on conference calls. A female supervisor gave me my first editing job. Several years ago, male organizers and female speakers at the Southern California Linux Expo encouraged me to give my first conference talk. Writers have made me a better editor, and editors make me a better writer.

Lesson 9: Competition can be fun, friendly, and mutually beneficial.

My nerd story isn’t about US vs. THEM. A former employer at a tech magazine once told me that competition is good because if you don’t have competition, you don’t have a market. We admired what a few of of our competitors were doing, and the competition pushed us to innovate and explore our boundaries. In many cases, we found ways to work with competitors on mutually beneficial projects or partnerships.

Back when I was at Sys Admin magazine, we worked closely with USENIX, which also had a publication for sys admins, ;login: magazine. Rather than seeing the magazines as US vs. THEM, both organizations took an US approach. We worked together. At Sys Admin, we promoted the USENIX LISA conferences, attended the events, and gave magazines to LISA members. We had a friendly relationship with USENIX employees and editors, and many of the friendships we made back then continue today. Many of the relationships I developed at Sys Admin and through USENIX continued when I joined Linux New Media. I’ve worked with authors who wrote for USENIX publications and also Sys Admin magazine and then Linux Pro.

In 2011, a few months after I left Linux New Media and started working as a freelance writer, I joined USENIX as the organization’s community manager, and eventually I also worked with Rik Farrow on ;login:, a magazine I’d long admired.

Lesson 10: I’m still a clerk, working at a record store.

One of my favorite bands is Redd Kross, a band I’ve been listening to since my record store days in the 1980s. Look at their Facebook page and you’ll see why they are still around decades later. Yes, the music holds up, but the band recognizes the parts individuals play in their ongoing success. On their Facebook page, the band thanks the journalists who interview and review them, record stores that promote and sell their music, the photographers and fans, the artists who design and produce the merchandise, the venues the band plays in, the promoters and ticket sellers, and the other bands Redd Kross plays with.

The developers I work with now aren’t so different from the bands I listened to back in my record store days. Linus Torvalds created and shared something catchy, which, with the help of countless other individuals, has grown into a philosophy with ripple effects well beyond the borders of Linux and open source technologies. If Linux is a song, a vast network of musicians, backup singers, producers, promoters, disc jockeys, graphic artists, record store clerks, and listeners help make it a hit.

Yes, a tech company CEO, event organizer, writer, and volunteer all contribute to open source, like the person who rings up a record purchase or passes on a mix tape contributes to music.

After all, who cares about the song if nobody ever hears it?

Check out My Nerd Story on Facebook:

USENIX Women in Advanced Computing Blog Series:

Part 1: How to Write a Talk Proposal
Part 2: Imposter Syndrome-Proof Yourself and Your Community
Part 3: Handling Community Conflict (Like a Boss)
Part 4: Intro to the Art of Balancing Professional and Personal

Videos from USENIX Women in Advanced Computing Summit (WiAC ’13):