At age four, my family moved to Johannesburg, to the neighbourhood of Witfield, Boksburg. This is where I grew up, where I completed my primary and secondary education. We had a house with a garden and a swimming pool, down the road there was a park with a lake, and there was a main street with shops.
At the time, South Africa was ruled by the apartheid regime. As a child I accepted the ideology that was presented to me, one of institutionalized racism, censorship and conformity.
I had a dim view of my schooling. I felt that much time was wasted, and though I did learn useful facts, the time is invested was far too great. I felt that school was a form of prison for children. I had no choice, I was forced to go. I resented this fact, and still do. Discipline was quite strict in school, it seemed that more effort was put into making children conform that helping them learn. The environment was stressful for children as much as for the teachers. There was a lot of violence in school, and notably on the bus.
From a young age I dreamt of travelling. Often I studied maps, atlases, globes, learning the names of foreign places, imagining what people there were like. When I wasn’t dreaming of travelling I was playing video games, most often strategy and construction types, although I did dabble in adventure and first-person genres. No matter how often I upgraded my computer, it always seemed too slow to run the latest games, a source of continual frustration.
My parents always lived beyond their means, they were continuously in debt. My father was particularly good at spending money. Money shortages were frequent, and the source of many arguments. My parents were stressed by their jobs, and this stress flowed over into the home life. I didn’t really want to be around my family, but there was no real means of escape. I did try to run away once, but there was no where really to run to, so I gave up.
During my teens I witnessed the fall of apartheid. The transition was radical and shocking. Post-apartheid, though everyone finally had freedom of speech and movement, Johannesburg became a particularly criminal, corrupt, and otherwise dangerous city.
My first serious girlfriend was a girl named Kristen. We had a lot of ups and downs together, but more downs than ups. I stuck with her for six years, far too long really. I felt a certain responsability towards her. We had at moments talked about marriage, she often fantasized about changing her last name to mine. I think she really wanted to found a family and be a housewife. She was neither adveturous nor curious. She was content to watch television and let life slide by.
My family left for Dublin, starting with my sister when I was 17, followed by my father when I was 18 and the finally by my mother when I was 19. I wasn’t ready to leave Johannesburg yet however so I stayed behind. Living without family for a few years helped me to become more independent.
I went out a lot, contacted my friends to go have drinks in bars, to eat at restaurants. I got into karate to get stronger and loose weight, which worked quite well.
My first employer at age 17 was Smarttrack Systems. They shipped me off to Medscheme where I did software maintenance on a broker commission system. Looking back, the system was no more or less complicated than any other I have worked on since. All the basic elements were there : a database, a set of data entry forms, a bunch of validation rules and calculations in code, some import/export routines, and a bunch of faceless users.
I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever really loved programming. It can be fun at times to design, but deadlines always get in the way. Programming is slow, methodical work, something that seems to be poorly understood by non-programmers.
I bought my first car, a little Mazda 323 in which I drove 150,000km over 5 years. Traffic was quite bad in Johannesburg, so I would often get up very early, or alternatively very late, in order to beat rush hour. That said, I did spend my fair share of time being blocked in traffic.
From Smarttrack I moved onto Debtpack, where I did a bit of work on a Windows version of their flagship product. The system was a complete mess, it was impossible to shore it up. I used to go in on weekends to download porn on the company internet connection.
I left Debtpack for Siemens Business Systems, where I did very little for about a year. They were quite disorganized, some people were working overtime and others had little or nothing to do. Out of embarressment I decided to move on.
I joined nVisionIT, which had a fine selection of programming consultants. I was subcontracted to Investec for a while, which was fun, and then shipped off to Alex Forbes in the city centre, which was less fun. I helped Alex Forbes with the rewrite of their insurance management system. It was a wildly over-ambitious project, doomed to failure from the start due to uncontrolled scope-creep. After a year I resigned from nVision and continued as a free-lance consultant working for Forbes.
Having broken up with Kristen, I felt like I didn’t really have any good reason to stay in Joburg. I started shopping around for a new place to call home. I considered Cape Town, a rather nice spot, surrounded as it is by sea, beaches, mountains, vineyards, with a vibrant culture and a laid-back vibe. But I had an European passport in my hand and a desire to learn a new language, so I started looking at the Mediterranean, finally settling on France.
I didn’t really want to stay on at Forbes, but they offered me a very good salary. The money was too tempting. I moved to Sandton, a wealthy neighbourhood with loads of young professionals. I had an incident with Donna that still haunts me. I had an affair with Deborah, my neighbour, who to this day was probably the best sex I have had. She ran off to Sun City and I hooked up with Toni. Toni and I had a whirlwind romance, and she opened my eyes to the diversity of the world. She was probably a bit too self-obessed for my tastes, but we had a lot of fun together nonetheless. Notably, a very memorable trip to Mozambique, my first trip outside the country. She dropped me off at the airport, tears in her eyes, and spun her wheels as she tore away.