Podcast 264: Teaching yourself to code in prison
Today’s guest is Garry Becks, a programmer and entrepreneur who taught himself to code while serving time in prison. Recently, he has spoken out against a trend in which prison systems in states across the US have been banning books that teach software development, citing them as a “material that threatens.” When Becks was incarcerated, his wife would hide programming material inside the cover of fiction novels in order to get them through security screenings.
Here is the Reddit comment that inspired us to reach out to Garry.
This is the Vice news article that started the thread. As you can see, the ban has affected a lot of books that would seem to have little bearing on cybersecurity. “Rejected books that are geared towards hacking, such as Justin Seitz’s Black Hat Python, may represent a clearer threat to the Department of Corrections, which fears that prisoners could use those tools to compromise their systems. But how did books such as Windows 10 for Dummies, Microsoft Excel 2016 for Dummies, and Google Adsense for Dummies (marked as posing “clear and present danger”), fail the prison’s security test?”
If you want to read about programs helping prisoners learn to code, check out this story on the Bard Prison Initiative.
We also did a podcast episode back in January of this year that focused on The Code Cooperative, an organization dedicated to teaching software skills to formerly incarcerated individuals.
Gary Becks I had problems getting books the entire time I was there and I started off at a level five maximum security prison. What I used to have to do to get around this issue, was my wife would order a different book of fiction novels or something like that. She would order a programming book and I would put all of the pages to the programming book inside of the cover of the fiction novel book. That’s how I ended up getting a lot of my books.
Ben Popper Quantic’s Online MBA and Executive MBA degree programs are designed mobile first, with interactive micro lessons and individualized feedback every eight seconds. With selective admission, you’ll learn alongside the best and brightest in business and tech. Learn more at quantic.edu/stack.
BP Hello everybody and welcome The Stack Overflow podcast. I’m Ben Popper, director of content here with my wonderful cohosts. Say good morning, y’all.
Sara Chipps Good morning, y’all.
Paul Ford Good morning. Hello.
SC How’s it going?
BP Hi Paul. Hi Sara. Pretty good. I got this new house in upstate New York and they said they were going to take everything but they failed in their first moving trip to take the four by four. So now I’m driving around in the woods in a four by four. I guess I’m officially a country person now.
SC What’s a four by four? Isn’t that like a piece of wood?
BP [Ben chuckles] Also a piece of wood. It’s like, you know, those little like dune buggy type things like it’s got four tires instead of two, but it’s basically a motorcycle.
SC Oh, why did you want them to take that away?
BP I didn’t want them to but they said they would and I was like, ”Okay….”
SC Oh, they were gonna take it because they’re moving out, but they left it.
BP Yeah, yeah.
SC Oh, nice.
BP The person who sold me the house left me a four by four. So, I really appreciate it.
SC That’s great. What a bonus!
BP I know.
PF Yeah, that’s all good until they have an extremely high accident rate.
BP That’s true.
SC Yeah, you maybe should, yeah.
PF Yeah, this is all fine until like your spine is destroyed while you jump a gully. Anyway, like talking about how Ben is going to be severely injured for the rest of his life is not why we’re here today.
BP That’s a good cold open, I like it. We are here today to chat with our guest, Gary Becks. I met Gary through Reddit, he answered or responded to a link in our programming discussion about the fact that the Oregon Prison System was going to be removing books that helps people learn how to code and the prison system, I guess that it was a security issue. And guy wrote a very thoughtful comment about his own experience, which got upvoted to the top and seen by a lot of people. So hello, Gary, welcome to the Stack Overflow Podcast.
GB Hey guys, how you doing?
PF Good. Thanks for coming on.
BP Very good. So Gary, yeah, in your own words, tell us a little bit about you know, where you come from, how you found yourself in that situation and what it was that sort of drove you to start on that path of learning software.
GB I’m based in Atlanta, Georgia. I was born in Queens, New York. I moved here, but I really doesn’t count because I’ve been here since I’ve been like four years old.
SC It counts!
GB Okay, okay. Yeah. I kinda, you know, I, when I started down the wrong path fairly early in life, to be honest. I dropped out of high school when I was in the 10th grade and just, you know, made a lot of bad decisions. Some good, but a lot of bad. I was aspiring to be a hip-hop artist, and just started doing a lot of bad things for income early. And I got into some trouble around the age of 24 years old, when I had my first son. And after that, I kind of started trying to do the right thing. And I got into internet marketing.
SC How did you get into internet marketing? Did you meet someone that was doing it or?
GB No, honestly, I just didn’t want to…I had an entrepreneurial spirit since an early age and I just didn’t want to have a job and I heard a lot about people making money online and I really got, it was the Warrior Forum, I don’t know if you guys…
PF No, what is that? Tell us about that.
SC Yeah, we love this kind of thing.
GB The Warrior Forum is a really, well I don’t know about these days it got bought by freelancer.com, but back in those days around 2008 it was like the number one internet marketing forum online. It was really popular and I got to know a lot of people in the internet marketing world, I got into affiliate marketing and that’s where I got my start online, I really, the first thing I started off as just affiliate marketing and building little niche, adsense websites, and from there I kinda had a fair amount of success, but what I realized was all the real money was in selling software to internet marketers. [Gary laughs]
PF It’s always good to go meta, like going one level up.
GB Yeah, that’s what I, my interest in programming came from because my first initial real success came from hiring somebody that did some software for me that I would sell it to internet marketers. And I had got to the point where I was making about 10 to 15 thousand dollars a month. And then when that fell under, that’s when everything kind of went left and the story of where what we’re talking about today began. I kind of made some really poor decisions and started getting into the world of dealing drugs and things like that. I ended up getting a fairly hefty sentence and went away, I got a 10 year sentence, and I ended up doing almost five years of it. So yeah.
BP And so Gary, when you were serving that sentence, you had already had the experience of somebody building software for you, and that being a success. And so that was part of the motivation to say like, you know, now that I’m inside with all this time, maybe I’d like to try to learn that myself.
GB It was a success for a short period. But what motivated me to want to learn how to build software was the reason that it failed was because of poor outsourcing. And the people I was outsourcing to just had, they just did a poor job of the code that they wrote. And…
SC Yeah, that could be tough.
GB Yeah, it just made me want to have full control of it. So even before I ended up getting in trouble, it was always my plan to learn how to code but I just really, to be honest, never because of the life I was living, I never sat down and was disciplined enough to actually put in the time to actually learn it properly.
PF What goals did you set for yourself when you decided to to learn to program?
GB Well, to be honest, before I really decided that I wanted to learn how to program, I didn’t know how deep the rabbit hole when it came to programming.
SC Yeah! It’s a big one.
SC That’s great. We’re all trying to do that all the time. It’s a tough one.
PF Yeah. That’s a life long goal. [Gary laughs]
BP It’s the journey, not the destination. It’s the journey.
SC So you found yourself in internet marketing, you looked around, you’re like, the real people making money here are the people making the software and the people selling the software, not the people marketing. So you took a step back, you’re like, I’m gonna find some contractors to help me build this software. And then you got busted. Was that were you working to make money to fund your software?
GB Initially, that was the plan, but that lifestyle has a way of… [Gary chuckles] changing your plans. Like at some point, I just got side-tracked. ‘Cause to be honest, and I’m not trying to promote the fact that anybody should think this is a good idea, because obviously it’s not. But had I been disciplined enough to stop exactly when I needed, had what I needed, I might have been okay, but that’s just not how that lifestyle works. It’s really addictive.
SC That makes sense. Yeah, that makes sense.
GB Yeah, but that was the plan, but it all worked out, so.
SC So when you were going to learn, what kind of resources did you have? How’d you get started?
GB Well I had, like I said, when I was free I had always had this plan. So I had continuously made like my own little courses. I had a list of books, I had a list of everything that I want to sit down and study but I just never did it. So when I got in trouble, I was like, Okay, fine. This is what I’m gonna do. This is gonna be like a mini college for me. So I pretty much knew all of the books that I wanted. I knew everything I want to study. I had that going for myself. At least. You know, my family, I have my dad and my sister and I just had a good support system that was willing to help me and make a positive out of a negative situation.
SC They helped you by getting you the books?
GB Yeah, exactly.
BP Tell us a little bit about what it’s like learning, this is one of the things that really stood out to me from the comments. You know, learning trying to learn software without really always necessarily having access to a computer. I remember you said that you would like hand write out a lot of your programs in notebooks and then go back later and try to sort of read through them and debug them or see if you’d made mistakes. To me that was really fascinating. Because, you know, in some ways, to me programming has always been like, humans trying to, you know, learn to speak to computers and computers telling them, I do or don’t understand you, I can or cannot, you know, do what you’re asking me to do well. When you don’t have a machine and you’re trying to learn to program, how do you how do you go through that like, you know, feedback loop of figuring out what’s working and what’s not?
GB Well, there’s many different layers to programming. And I think that was the part that I’d never really mastered it while I was away. Like I had to wait till I got home. I read a lot about a lot of data structures and algorithms and things of that sort. But the thing that kind of stuck with me the most from my studies, while I was away, was all of the things that are probably a couple levels higher than just the source code, like the architecture of a program. I studied a lot of things regarding, you know, domain driven design, test driven development, agile, just different things about the process of creating software and maintaining a project. Those are the things that I probably studied that stuck with me the most that I realized, I think, gave me a leg up on people who are just more zeros and ones about it.
SC Yeah, I can imagine, when you got out was there, and you started to use some of the things that you’ve learned, did things work the way you thought they would? I feel like It’s really hard enough learning when you have a compiler, but kind of like learning and testing and just kind of memorizing, I wonder what’s different about that experience when you walk up to your machine? Did you feel like you could just get right in there?
GB No, but I knew where to look for everything. Anything I didn’t have the answer to because I had read and studied so much, I knew exactly where the answer was. It still took me in it still today, you know, when it comes to programming, you’re gonna always be banging your head up against the wall, trying to figure out problems. And you know, getting used to just your development environment, there’s so many different things to learn. But the things that I did learn definitely made it a lot easier for me and I see people who might have went a different route to learn and still struggling with things that I understand very well. So I don’t know. It’s complicated. [Gary laughs]
SC Yeah, what are you doing now with your time? When do you code?
GB I code as much as I possibly can. It’s like, I never as a kid thought I’d be interested in something like this. And it kind of now is really all I like to do. So I really like and enjoy coding a lot.
SC That’s so great. Do you get to do it for work? Are you do you do it on the side? What do you find yourself building?
GB I love open source. So I work on a lot of different open source things for my job, I went back and actually fixed the system that I had issues with. So I run my own little software as a service and provides me enough income to live a decent life and in my free time I work on open source projects.
SC That’s amazing. That’s really the dream.
PF Tell us about the software as a service product first, and then let’s talk, what which open source products?
GB Well, long story short, is my service is not about the link building, but most people, like there’s a lot of software’s that takes care of that already. But when you build links, it’s hard to get Google to discover the links that you actually built. So that’s where my software comes in is in like, helping the discovery of that.
SC That makes a lot of sense. So you help the Google crawlers find links that people have as part of their pitches.
GB Yeah, exactly. Help them get it indexed. So that’s about it.
SC That’s great.
PF What are your, what are your favorite open source projects?
GB Oh, right now, what I’m working on personally is an RPC framework. And it’s kind of a alternative to GRPC. And it’s about making it simpler to create a language agnostic stack where you know, with GRPC, I was running into trouble using protocol buffers. So I wanted something that just spoke JSON across the wire. And that’s what I’m working on now, it’s written in TypeScript. It’s not actually public yet, but it’s what I’ve been working on in my free time.
PF That is exciting. TypeScript is taking over the world. We should go back a little bit to that originally, original Reddit post because it, what if I remember what got us started, and Ben, you were the person who found this right, but like, there are fewer and fewer resources available to incarcerated people. Like books or getting locked down things like that. Am I remembering that correctly? What was, what was the situation?
BP The Reddit post is I remember, the title was prisons are banning books that teach prisoners how to code. And that was like a, you know, a link to an article from Vice. And they were saying that the state of Oregon was banning certain books saying that they might be a security threat. You know, the books were like, Windows 10 for dummies, you know, Microsoft Excel 2016 for dummies, Google AdSense for Dummies. So those being marked as posing clear and present danger…
PF Is the argument that people could hack, like is that the idea that they’re going like people could hack with these and can’t let them have access, or is there just no, no reason?
SC What would people be doing?
BP It’s like the most generic, you know, bureaucratic language. It says they have to look at each book and individually evaluate to assess potential threats. Many programming related books are cited as material that threatens, and then they just include the subject matter computer programming as justification. So that’s it, just like, it’s threatening because it has programming and maybe they’ll be breaking, you know, they’re not really going into any detail here.
SC How do you react to that when you read that, you know, moving forward, people won’t have access to the same books that you had?
GB That was what my post was about was because the fact that I experienced that myself. The thing is a lot of people, it’s really sad, like prison is a really sad place because there’s so many, I mean, there’s so much potential locked away in there, and ,they have, you know, programs inside of the prison system that are designed to rehabilitate you and everything. But the truth of the matter is a large percentage of the people who are incarcerated are there for things that revolve around not having proper education and still trying to find a way to make a living and turning to illegal means to do that. And to me, because, you know, I had experienced a fair amount of success and live in a pretty free life, as far as finances went and the things the programs that they had, I was not interested in any of them because you know, I have kids, you’re not gonna live a really good life with any of the skills that they’re trying to give you sending you it’s a new world, you know, you’re not gonna really live a really quality life working a job within the the skill that they gave you. They have things like, different things, and some of them I can just say, I just wasn’t interested in myself. But yeah, I had problems getting books the entire time I was there and I started off at a level five maximum security prison, Ware State Prison, they recently had a really bad riot. Yeah, I started off there. So what I used to have to do to get around this issue, was my wife would order a different book, like a fiction novel or something like that. She would order the programming book and I would put all of the pages to the programming book inside of the cover of the fiction novel book. That’s how I ended up getting a lot of my books.
PF The fundamental situation here is that you’re trying to get access to resources and tools that will let you be productive when you get out. And the system there is just saying absolutely no way.
GB They never, and, the thing is, they never, when, you know, when these books get tired away, they never give you a real reason why. They never really said that they thought, and you know, the thing is nowadays, maybe years ago, this wouldn’t have been a problem. But nowadays, they have so many things inside of the prison system that are connected to the network, like they have like tablets and things like that, that you can rent and so many things that I guess they have to consider. So I don’t really know if it’s with malice intent that they are doing this. I don’t know. But it’s really unfortunate, either way.
PF Ignorance is probably a sufficient excuse here. They probably just have no idea and they’re like, wow, that’s looks like computers. We can’t have them hack the tablets because which we charge $5 an email.
BP Yeah, I mean, good cybersecurity is hard, takes time and you have to keep it up. And so like just trying to eliminate that by saying, we’re not gonna let anybody get too smart is such a nasty approach. You know.
GB That’s what someone said on one of the comments or on a Reddit thread. He said that prison systems have some of the worst security, ever. So.
SC Yeah, yeah, it’s funny. I don’t know, any hackers that were educated via NodeJS books, but maybe I’m reading the wrong books. [Gary laughs]
GB Yeah, I don’t think they understand that that’s a totally different programming and hacking isn’t like the same thing. So I don’t think they really get that.
GB They just thinking we’ll ban everything.
PF No. And by doing that, they’re cutting a lot of talented people off from learning the skills that could give them a leg up when they get out.
BP Gary, did you have a routine like I know, you know, there’s a lot of monotony in prison, did you have a certain routine that you use to break up, you know, between meal, study, exercise, I don’t know what like the different options were for you to break up the day. How did you regiment things when you’re trying to you know like you said kind of put yourself through college?
GB Well the first thing I had to do was get away from that prison I was at. I was at like I said a really bad prison and they really, one of their requirements is that you work eight hours a day. Like that it didn’t fit into what I wanted to do. So I had to go through a lot of different hoops and hurdles to not have to work. Then I ended up getting sent to a minimum security prison where things really became, as far as my routine, that became easy, I had a I still had to work but it was only three hours a day, so.
BP And when you say work that eight hours or that three hours, what kind of work are they making you do? Like like making license plates and stuff?
GB Everybody has a different detail. Some people have to go out and clean up trash off the side of the road. Some people work inside the prison in the kitchen or in the laundry system or you got people who do maintenance around the prison. There’s a lot of different details or whatever but they had me trying to work in the kitchen which was like a total waste of time. So.
BP Yeah, is that work you’re getting paid for or not really?
GB No, this is considered I guess a party of punishment. I guess.
PF You’ve got these skills now you’ve done your reading you’ve done work for a couple years, you get out, how did you keep that going? Right, because it’s suddenly you’re you’re back in the world. And you’ve got, there’s a lot of things competing for your attention. Your family…
BP Right, kids!
PF Yeah, how did you keep it up? How do you keep it moving?
GB I honestly, I’ve been fairly disciplined in everything I’ve wanted to do in my life. I’ve never really had a lot of help. You know, I come from a pretty poor background. So I’ve been motivated to succeed from an early age. So I didn’t have a problem staying disciplined. The problem for me was more so around like you said, family things and still is to this day is finding a balance of trying to take care of your kids, workout and all the things that you have to do in a day. So I pretty much when I’m not doing something else, I don’t have a social life at all. [Gary chuckles] When I’m not doing something as far as working out or spending time with my kids, I’m sitting in front of a computer screen. When you when you enjoy your work, it’s really not that hard. I really enjoy what I do. So it’s not like I’m bitter about it or forced. I’m excited to get up every morning and start working on whatever project I’m working on. And I hear a lot of people talk about burnout in the software industry and things like that. And I think that has a lot more to do with the fact that you’re going to an office working on a project that you might not be excited about or things of that nature. I actually am working on things that I am motivated to work on on my own. So it’s kind of different I guess.
SC So first of all, there aren’t many software engineers with a social life. [Gary laughs] So I think you’re on the right…it sounds like you’re one of us. But the question I had was, have you been able to find community yet? So one thing that in my career, it took me about seven years to figure out that there’s a lot of people doing what I’m doing and finding other coders is really helpful. Have you been able to, do kind of work on your own? Have you found that community of software developers? It sounds like you’re on Reddit, so maybe you found them through Reddit?
GB I love being on Reddit, Hacker News and pre-COVID I was, and still now we do it online a lot, there’s a lot of meetups that happen. I go to meetups and there’s a there’s a nice co-working space here in Atlanta, where a lot of coders tend to be at. But that got closed down due to COVID. But that was a place that I liked to go to also. I like to try and stay in the loop as much as possible. But these days is mainly I socialize mainly on Reddit and Twitter or Hacker News. And that’s pretty much it.
SC That’s great.
PF That’s all of us right now.
SC Yeah. Yeah. That’s everybody.
PF And this podcast, that’s the other thing.
BP Yeah. Yeah. This is my Discord chat right here.
BP Alright, that time of the week, I’m gonna read us a lifeboat. What do you think Paul?
PF Do it! Do it!
BP Alright, we’ve got a few here. Add new line to VBA or Visual Basic 6, awarded August 11. To Gajanan Chitare. Apparently this user prefers to keep an air of mystery about them.
PF Good lifeboatin’.
SC Great lifeboatin’.
BP Good lifeboatin’. Helping people put their strings together.
PF Finding those old questions. Make them new again.
SC Yeah, VBA.
BP Exactly. Five years, nine months, making it new. Viewed 150,000 times. Dang. Useful information. Alright. I’m Ben popper, director of content here at Stack Overflow. You can find me @BenPopper on Twitter. And yeah, that’s me.
SC Awesome. I’m Sara J. Chipps. You can find me @SaraJo on GitHub.
PF Woah! GitHub! Okay, alright if we’re doing that, I’m I’m Paul Ford. I’m a friend of Stack Overflow. I’m a cofounder of a software firm called Postlight. Check us out at Postlight.com, @ftrain on GitHub.
GB You can follow me on twitter @G5Becks, B-E-C-K-S. And that’s about it. I’m working on my startup right now. It’s kind of a spin off of a popular hip-hop base Reddit. So that’s, it’s not finished yet.
PF Tell us about it when it’s live. We’ll, we’ll put it on the blog.
GB Yes, sir. I definitely will do that. I appreciate that.
BP Well, Gary, thanks again for coming on and sharing your story. We’re gonna keep track of this trend and see what’s happening. Hopefully there can be some, you know, maybe legislation or some pushback to prevent this from happening so other people can experience what you did and come out with some skills they can really put to work. And yeah, keep us up to date on your project. Circle back when it’s done, and maybe we’ll have you on again or we’ll put something on the blog.
GB Thanks a lot for having me guys.
SC It’s great to meet you Gary!
PF Great to talk.
GB Alright, you guys have a great day.
[OUTRO MUSIC]Tags: coders, education, programming, self-taught
OK, so I understand how prisons can be , shall we say, unenlightened when it comes to things like computer books.
But how is it that someone who did hard time for a felony get this kind of platform to voice his opinions? It’s almost eye-wateringly brash.
Here’s a thought. If you want access to computer books, stay out of prison.
It would be nice if our prisons were places of rehabilitation and redemption, but that’s not what they are. They are places to keep dangerous people away from the general populace; that’s all they’ve ever been. Anything a prison can do within its means to help people reform is obviously a good thing, but that’s not really their main purpose.
Ergo, the fine distinction that is lost on the prison system between hacking books and ordinary computer books.
We don’t even make that distinction here on Stack Overflow. If it’s about programming, we answer questions about it, even if it might be used for evil. So why should we expect prisons to know the difference?
Your comment comes of as extremely ignorant. The person in the podcast was not serving a life sentence. Most people in prison and jails do not serve life sentences. What do you expect will happen when they leave? They will go back in society and will try to reintegrate. However most prisoners don’t have life skills necessary to obtain a job- especially if they finished serving a long sentence.
Learning about programming, and modern skills in general, can help keep society safer by allowing ex-prisoners to actually get jobs when they get released. Otherwise they are more likely to re offend because there is no support system in place to allow them to live a normal life. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence in the sense that you’re stripped of anything that will ever help you to live a normal life in the future.
You’re also ignoring the fact that our justice system is extremely racist and punishes minorities far worse and sentences them at higher rates for the same crimes that non-minorities get charged with. Minorities are also arrested at much higher rates- even for non-violent crimes like drug possession. Poor people are also targeted by the justice system- since they cannot afford good representation in court which leads to higher sentences. Your attitude suggests we should make our already bad justice system even worse by denying prisoners any kind of meaningful learning while in prison.
Its easy to lack empathy in situations you can’t see yourself being in. But I can assure you anyone can find themselves in prison- I hope that never happens to you 🙂
Regarding the heart bleed bug. The guy who developed the exploitable function came from my university in Essen, Germany. He was a PhD in business informatics and developed the handshake as part of his dissertation about the SCTP protocol. It’s definitiv one of those great examples regarding the xkcd comic.
In hindsight the attack is such a no-brainer and was since added as part of our curriculum in the internet technology lecture with a demo server ready to attack and so on.