Nerds In Real Life Science & Tech

Nerd Profile: The Hacker

Jake Steve has been a hacker ever since he was a kid, he just didn’t realize it.

I think it took me a while to get comfortable with hacking. I’ve always worked with my hands, even since I was a little kid,” Jake says. “When I was younger, I helped my dad replace the whole rear end in the family Malibu wagon. While I wasn’t able to help with too much — those American car parts are heavy for a 7-year-old — I had an opportunity to learn after the fact. What were junk parts to my dad, became an opportunity for me to understand an assembly and how to take it apart.”

Now 26, Jake fills his passion for building, destroying, and rebuilding by looking at everyday things and figuring out how to make them different or better.

Raising Nerd sat down with this modern-day, hacking Nerd to understand what it really means to hack.

Hacking isn't just about computers. It's about making something work better or differently than intended.

Hacking isn’t just about computers. It’s about making something work better or differently than intended.

RN: We often see movies portray hackers as if they are computer geniuses breaking down firewalls and into secure networks. For you, what exactly is “hacking?”

JS: I see hacking largely as a mentality of how to do things. You can either follow the instructions, or hack it. Many people truly misunderstand what hacking is. It’s not what movies like Hackers and Swordfish would have you think. Hacking is often about looking for a weakness or a missing link that you can exploit for a desired result.

But this [affinity for hacking] doesn’t stop with just computers. I am a nerd of many hobbies and interests. I program, build computers, work on cars, solder stuff together to see what I can make happen, repair broken things … anything.

RN: So, where do you start?

JS: When the instructions tell me to do it one-way, I really enjoy finding a different way. Whether it’s better or not, I’ve learned something from that [experience]. It’s not limited to finding the best way to do something. I think hacking truly has no bounds, and everyone can do it. Just Google “Life Hacks” and you’ll see how old family tricks are just “hacking” the way you’re “supposed” to do something.

RN: What are some of your favorite everyday hacks?

JS: How do you separate your egg whites? In a big mess by waving egg shell halves everywhere? Most likely. Try using an empty soda bottle. Squeeze it, put the mouth piece over the yolk, and let go. Watch the bottle suck the yolk right out of the white. Like I said, it has less to do with DDoS-ing the FBI homepage, and waiting for the server to boot up, racing to attack it before security comes up, (I’m looking at you, Lulzsec!) and more about how you approach everyday problems.

RN: How did you get started in the world of hacking?

JS: My dad is an R&D Engineer and, one day, he essentially set me free in the electronics lab where he works. I had access to tools and technologies I had never used or understood before, and a basic electronics guide from Radio Shack that my dad had picked up the day before. I set out to make a basic device that blinked an LED every second and chimed an alarm every hour. About halfway through my first real electronics project I decided this was far less exciting, and ended up building a Taser, simply because I could. And a basic understanding of concepts allowed me to put two and two together.

RN: Can you tell us about one of your favorite projects?

JS: My car. I drive a 2005 Subaru Forester XT. It is a fairly mundane car with a small boxer motor that Subaru strapped with a small turbo so it wouldn’t fall on its face at high elevations for their hiking, skiing and snowboarding fans. I ended up blowing the motor, rebuilding it, strapping on a bigger turbo, while lowering the suspension and therefore its center of gravity. And after many, many, many modifications, I have a Forester that is now a locally competitive race car, not to mention my daily ride to work. I’ve poured my heart and soul into it for five years. I couldn’t be prouder of what I’ve done to it, and what I’ve learned from it — both the right way and wrong way to do things.

RN: Is there a project that you would consider your greatest goal?

Jake hacking his 2005 Subaru Forester.

Jake hacking his 2005 Subaru Forester.

JS: My interests are constantly bouncing and changing. Right now, I’m focusing on the ultimate cooling solutions for my computer. While water-cooling is fairly accessible and mundane these days, I’m trying to optimize my system to have little maintenance requirements, decibel ratings comparable to ambient room volume, and excellent performance. While that’s what I want to accomplish right now and it’s hard to focus on anything else at the moment, I’m currently house hunting, with a focus on being able to build an ultimate garage and workshop for my projects. It’s really difficult to have an interest that spans cars, computers, electronics, software, audio/quality, combustibles and pyrotechnics, chemical half-lives, projectile trajectory improvement, general efficiency — making literally anything more efficient — and more, without having the space to break a few eggs.

RN: Do you have advice for any parents of would be hackers?

JS: Hacking things can get expensive, messy, difficult, and wildly frustrating. When I was young, I had the benefit of an R&D engineer for a father. When I needed an oddball component, a second set of eyes, or a tool to accomplish something, I was very lucky as it was usually available to me, or my dad would help me find another way around it.

PLEASE support [your kids and their goals] as best you can. When you’re young, it’s difficult to understand that an extra $5 on wire strippers is very much worth it to your little engineer, and it can be hard to spot quality. Help make the means accessible, and support their failures as much as the successes. When a “hack” isn’t quite a white – or “good for all” — hack, support the learning experience and explain the negatives. Not every 10-year-old should have a Taser, but a 10-year-old that can make one needs lessons in responsibility with what they can build, and how those inventions should be used.

RN: And finally, what is your advice for the Nerds that want to pursue hacking?

JS: Simple. Don’t be afraid to fail. If you cook $30 in components, or blow the motor, or “accidentally” cut a hole through mom’s favorite tablecloth, rest assured, you’ve learned something. So pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start over again. However, instead of repeating the same mistakes, use your newfound knowledge and skills to fix the problem.

That feeling you have deep down? That’s not failure. It’s disappointment. And no matter how smart or talented you are, it’s going to happen. It simply means that you’re making progress. So, hang in there and you will learn to feel the excitement of trying again!

 

To learn more about hacking and how you can inspire your Nerd to hack, check out these great resources:

Tell us about your own hacking experience!

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