On Luck

This isn’t a well structured essay, but I haven’t written in a while and I had promised I would, so I’ll put it in words anyway.

Some people claim they have been successful because of hard work, or because they always had a polar star, a dream to follow and did their best to get there.

I believe this is true, at least for some. But I am not one of those.

I am, in some sense, a successful person. I own the place where I live, have a family, and a job that pays well. I can and do travel (worldwide pandemics aside), I have had an education, and as Pearl Jam say,  “I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands the ones I love§.

But I got here by luck, and I didn’t aim, nor worked hard to get here.

You see, I was good in school, mostly because I liked to read, so most of what I was told to study, I already knew. And I was naturally good at math, which meant I basically got through 13 years of school making no efforts to get good grades§.

When I finished high school, I hadn’t decided what to do next, but a friend of mine was going to sign up for the engineering exam (you need to take a small mandatory exam, tho the grades don’t matter) and I went with him.

So, I got in Ingegneria Informatica (Software Engineering, more or less) by chance.

I didn’t really know computers. I had owned a C64 when I was a kid, but it broke before I could learn anything useful, and we had gotten a PC at home only when I was 18 or so, which I used to write some stuff for school, play games, and download pixelated pictures of naked ladies.

I just thought it was a potentially good education for a future job, and I thought AI was cool, so I may have fun studying that§.

But see, at the university I was a terrible student, but I was lucky to become friend with people who loved computers, got me into using IRC, and opened up various avenues of being a script kiddie. I started writing scripts and C, learned linux/*nix stuff, read the stuff from the hacker/FLOSS subculture. It was a lot of fun!

These were the days of 56k internet where you had to pay by minute, and one of my greatest achievements was coming up with a way to steal credentials to connect to the internet to ISP which where unmetered§: scan the ISP subnet for Windows 98 machines with an open SMB share, and copy their credentials§.

Anyway, you know what’s better than a 56k modem? Access to the GARR network, thick fiber cables with speeds you could only dream of.

So me and my friends were spending a lot of time at the department’s computer lab, chatting, playing Worms, and downloading MP3s. We thought to ask the department to set up an IRC server for the university.

They told us we couldn’t do it for the university, but we could do it for the department. They gave us a domain, an old pentium box, an ethernet cable and we were online. Apparently people in dusty university departments are much better at cultivating enterprising people than we give them credit for. And we were lucky, of course.

This was one of the most educational times in my life: we learned how to use Linux and FreeBSD, learned something about security, some more coding. Once, I caught a guy using ettercap in our lab, I wanted to be angry at him because he might be trying to hack into our box, but actually we just became friends, because we found someone else§ had hacked one of the other servers in the network 🙂

So we told the network admins, who were always thankful to us, and then they let us do even more crazy stuff.

Anyway, I met more smart people on the internet and I learned Ruby. I also learned english better by chatting with people on Freenode and reading newsgroups. At some point, I blogged a bit about Ruby, which got me a few odd jobs, because I had been lucky, and I had picked a tech that was growing fast.

Then, in my last year of studies, an internet friend wrote me about the chance to do my master thesis in Ireland, cause I knew Ruby and they used it for some project there. So I got to do my thesis there, in something semantic web adjacent.

At the end of the semester, when I was flying back to Italy, I stopped by in Milan to meet some more internet friends who had a company there, and during some late night chat a guy I just met told me about this startup which had something to do with semantic stuff. And he told the founder of the company, who offered me a job, and I ended up working on cool stuff for a few years. Luck again!

Then, at some point, I was wasting time on the internet, and I think I replied to some guy on HackerNews, and I think he mentioned me to their HR department, and I got another, even better job.

I am intentionally omitting a few of the most fortuitous things that happened between these steps, such as how I got better salaries than I expected, how I met my wife, how I managed to buy an apartment before prices spiked, how we got lucky having two kid etc etc. Unlucky ones too, but those don’t matter.

Still, my point: I got where I am through an incredible list of lucky events, and not aiming to be here at all.

But I don’t mean say one just has to be lucky. One should strive to be ready when luck strikes. Had I not been a good student, I would not have embarked in Engineering studies. Had I not been sociable, I’d not have had such good friends who offered me opportunities. Had I not put in effort to learn Ruby and blog about it I’d not have gotten my first chances, and so on.

As the quote goes

“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”

 Thomas Jefferson

But still, Lady Luck lurks behind that too: I would not have had chances to study and own a computer, had I not been born in a family with loving parents, with enough wealth to get me a PC and an education, in a wealthy country, in a time of peace, in a time of economic prosperity, in a region that allows me to travel abroad with ease.

And you know, I just got myself tested for melanoma, and they found me some basal-cell cancer, which is generally not very bad, but can be, and it’s better to treat it sooner rather than later.

I was lucky, I caught it early, cause I went looking for it.

PS: I won’t mention all your names, but all of you folks who have helped me along the journey know who you are, and I will be forever grateful.