I’m a Christian, Hacker, Author, Pirate and Ninja.
As a kid, I used to stalk the neighborhood after dark (well, after dusk anyway) like some half-height cyborg ninja version of James Bond.
I would hop my fence, slip silently past my neighbor’s snoozing dog and hop onto the roof of their wooden shed, armed only with a pocket full of custom (Lego) spy gear and my electrical-tape-and-dowel-rod “sword”.
I would wait on that roof for hours (minutes), pressed flat and listening, tuning my ears to the sound of the night, knowing that my equally silent and skilled enemy was out there somewhere doing the same thing. I imagined we were both competing for the same prize: access to a highly secured and super-secret computer system.
Flashing forward fifteen years, very little had changed. I was lying in the dark listening to the night sounds, but I wasn’t on my neighbor’s shed. I was lying under an oil tanker inside an undisclosed military testing facility. The pack on my back held a dizzying array of high-tech gear, designed to slice through the toughest military computer security systems. Squinting against the rain, I could see the “enemy” patrolling in a white Jeep, but he was far from imaginary. His military training and weapons were very real and very deadly. As he passed by, a bright red dot illuminated the ground three inches in front of me. Chris and Jim, the other two members of my Strike Force team were ready.
As they emerge from the shadows, I make my move as well. The facility would fall that night. We got in, got access to the network, pilfered their data, and got out undiscovered.
The job of a professional hacker is simply amazing. I’ve spent the bulk of my career breaking into networks, bypassing firewalls, slipping past guards, and talking my way into places I didn’t belong. It was a great job, but it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted recognition. In 2003, one of the best ways to gain that was by landing a speaking slot at DEFCON, the world’s largest and most infamous hacking conference.
Christian? Author? Pirate? Ninja?
I landed that slot at DEFCON 11, and for me, it was the height of my career. I was excited at the possibilities, convinced that somehow this talk would open a new door to the next level, something that would even trump my already-stellar career. The talk was mediocre. I didn’t get invited to any parties, and the press hardly noticed. I did meet Jeff Moss (founder of DEFCON and BlackHat), and that was a highlight, but during our brief encounter he chuckled at the irony of the “Hackers for Jesus” booth being placed next to the “Hacker Porn” booth, and that unsettled me.
See, I inherited Christianity from my parents. They raised me properly, but for whatever reason, it never clicked for me. But something about those guys in that “Hackers For Jesus” booth really bugged me. I just couldn’t bring myself to laugh at them, because deep inside, I was one of them. DEFCON 11 was seriously depressing for me. I mean really depressing. So much so that despite everything I had going for me (a great job, an amazing wife and three amazing kids at that time) I committed an odd form of suicide. Sometime shortly after that DEFCON, I really lost it. I had gotten to the top of the mountain and didn’t like what I saw. I decided I wanted nothing to do with hacking or technology or anything. I said a simple prayer and turned over everything to God. I remember saying “God, if you want to do something with my job, my website, my skills, whatever, do it. I’m done.” I posted on my website that I was “a hacker and a follower of Jesus“.
God did something, alright. Syngress Publishing contacted me (not the other way around!) and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on Google Hacking. Within a year, I had written my first book. My website climbed from 500 users to over 80,000. The media frenzy was unprecedented. One CNN gig turned into several. Then came CNBC, CBS, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, PC World, Wired, The Register, Slashdot and too many others to count. The Google book turned into twelve more book projects (including two best-sellers), and that dinky DEFCON talk turned into a speaking career that took me around the world, blossoming into a string of talks (“Hollywood Hacking”, “Death by 100 cuts”, “No Tech Hacking”) that simply crushed. Achieving super-stardom, I began to truly relish my “Rock Star” status, and even sought to add on a few more titles. Hence the pirate and ninja bit.
I learned that I was a descendant of Captain Sir Henry Morgan, “one of the most notorious and successful privateers […] and one of the most dangerous pirates that lurked in the Spanish Main.” (Wikipedia) That secured the pirate lineage. Then my wife and kids and I began studying Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, the unarmed combat method of the ninja in 2005, which landed me the title of ninja. There were lots of reasons why I started (and continued) training but I have to admit, the title was appealing as it added to my already burgeoning image.
None of this was the result of my efforts. It came about because God answered my simple prayer. It was “Sure, OK. You want me to do something with you? I will.” The best I had been able to accomplish on my own was a lousy talk at DEFCON. But when I took the back seat to God’s plans, he made me a superstar.
But I took my eyes off of him, and began to focus on myself and my fame. It was a great ride, but looking back I should have known I was setting myself up. But things didn’t fall apart in the United States. They would start to unravel in Africa.
When my wife Jen went on a mission trip to Uganda, Africa in 2006, she brought back pictures like this one:
I had seen poverty in magazines, but this was different. These kids were dirt-poor. They had one set of tattered clothes (if they had clothes at all), many of them didn’t get a single meal in a day, and most of them had lost one or both of their parents to HIV/AIDS. Despite all this, they were happy. I don’t mean like clueless happy, I mean really deep-down happy. They had Joy. That bugged me. I had so much, but I was miserable. So when Jen went back to Uganda in 2007, I went with her. I did computer work in Uganda. I didn’t even know Uganda had computers. That work affected me. I repaired old computers so that children and adults could learn computer skills since a single computer job can support four or five families. I cleaned viruses off of machines that were eating spreadsheets that held sponsor information. When a sponsor database gets clobbered by a virus, kids don’t eat. It may sound extreme, but that’s how it was. Through my work in Uganda, I was saving lives. Never in my life, in any of the roles I had played (Christian, Pirate, Ninja, Hacker, Author, etc) had I ever saved a life.
That trip was the start of a change for me. I still loved technology and hacking, but I had discovered a Godly direction and a new passion and use for my talents and skills. (James 1:27) I felt it was time to be about something bigger than me. I founded Hackers For Charity (HFC) because deep down I felt that there were others like me in the hacking community that anted to connect with positive, life-altering change.
But my “real” life was starting to fall apart around me. As I sat in my office (remember, I had a dream job?) all I could think about was Uganda. I tried desperately to get people interested in the “new” me, but most people still wanted to talk about the “old me” (I guess because hacking is so much sexier than relief work). I tried an office “flea market” to raise money for Uganda. I sold autographed books, trophies and logo items from government agencies we had worked with or knocked over, and all sorts of cool hacker swag. In exchange for a pile of treasure I never thought I’d part with, I raised like fifty bucks. But instead of making me bitter, it made me more determined. I would find a way to reconnect with that feeling I had in Uganda.
As I talked to my wife about things, she told me she was experiencing many of the same feelings. Uganda was all she could think about. We talked about the possibility of a long-term trip to Uganda. We knew we couldn’t drag our kids along kicking and screaming–they needed to be on board or it wasn’t going to fly. So I cashed in all my vacation time, took a week without pay, and we took the kids on a three-week trip to Uganda. In the end, they loved it. That sealed the deal. We were going to take a leap of faith and try a one-year stint in Uganda. We would leave June 15th. 2009.
The leap of faith…
I tried lots of angles to hold onto my 12-year position with CSC, but none of them panned out.An old StrikeForce buddy offered me a position with his new company in October of 2008. He promised me the world: help with HFC’s web site, help with our charity work, flexibility to work from Uganda, part-time work when HFC picked up, etc. Within two months, I realized I had made a colossal mistake. It was obvious he had no intention on helping HFC at all, and his only interest was in plastering my name all over the place to improve his company’s image. I took that news poorly, and became a rather poor employee, something I regret to this day. (I should have taken the high ground and done my best, regardless of the circumstances. Sorry, James.) In April, 2009, he fired me, two months before we were due to leave for Uganda.
Unemployed for the first time in 20+ years, I felt an amazing sense of relief, and of freedom. Initially, I was worried about failing as a provider for my family, but my wife’s support was unflinching. After all, I wasn’t really the provider, God was. And it was Him, I believe, that was plaguing our minds with “Just go”.
We packed up our house, donated just about everything we owned, and on June 15th, 2009 we got on the plane for Uganda. I had no income to speak of, and no savings. We had no clear picture of what we were going to do in Uganda. We didn’t have a renter for our house in Maryland and in two months, when the mortgage payment came due, we would be in real trouble. We had enough money to survive for less than a month in Uganda, but we went anyway. And we were provided for. Donors (friends, supporters and a lot of hackers) stepped in and started making donations to the “Long Journey to Africa“, a fund set up through the HFC website to directly support our family. Eventually, a renter came forward and agreed to take our place in MD for a year. And a little bit at a time, we began to settle into our “Long Journey to Africa”.
The first year was not without its challenges. Life in Africa is hard. Forget that. Life in Africa can be nearly impossible. We’ve seen death firsthand. We’ve felt how small we are and how unlikely it is that we’ll make a difference. We’re still plagued with financial challenges both personally and organizationally. (Don’t get me started about our bills in the USA. How in the world we’ll manage them, I don’t know.) But even though we miss family and friends and are quite lonely at times in Uganda, we very rarely feel like we made a step in the wrong direction. In fact, as we hit the nine month mark in Uganda, we started to get some real direction.
Longer Journey to Africa
We realized that computer education was an incredibly powerful thing that many living in poverty could not afford. We realized that with the fiber-optic cable run recently to East Africa Information and Communication Technology (ICT) would become the next empowerment opportunity for the world’s poor. So we built several classrooms to help students get access to ICT training. But the schools were not prepared for the equipment and the impact of the classrooms was limited to students that attended that school. We struck on the idea of a community training center that would allow both students and the community to benefit from free and low-cost ICT training, and opened our first center in Jinja, Uganda. Our food program to help the vulnerable in Kenya was growing and succeeding, serving hundreds of families with food and farming supplies. And to top it all off, we started working on an Internet cafe / restaurant / coffee shop to help fund our work and reallocate tourist money towards community programs. But it took nine months to see this all start to progress, but the pieces were definitely falling into place.
That’s why in May, 2010, we traveled back to Maryland to visit friends and family and say “hello and goodbye”. This was a hard trip, because unlike the departure in June, 2009, we had no idea how long we would be staying in Uganda. All we know is that despite the fact that we’re just scraping by financially, the pieces keep falling into place, and our work in Uganda keeps producing amazing results.
We’re encouraged by the support of the hacker community, who has embraced us as their “charity of choice” and despite advice to the contrary, we refuse to lose the name “Hackers for Charity” because at every turn, hackers are stepping forward and standing to be counted as agents of positive change in our broken world. And while I’m excited to see what’s next in Uganda, I’m even more excited to see what the next chapter in this hacker movement will look like. Who would have thought a bunch of “scruffy hackers” could do so much good?
So I hope you’ll support us in our work and continue to follow along in our adventure. We’re glad you stopped by.
You can find a better-written and earlier rendition of this story here, as presented by Tricia Bishop.
||Book Johnny for Speaking Engagement