Why “nerd” doesn’t mean what it used to, in the Silicon Forest

infographic comparing Michael Jordan and Bill Gates's income

This is what happens to nerds: they always win.

Maybe you remember in middle school, that term being thrown around as an insult. It was kind of degrading and may have made a lot of people feel bad.

High school is a little different, is it not? Some people still use it in a mean way, but for the most part people avoid it. Or, the opposite extreme happens, and the nerds themselves wear the label with pride.

College is even better. Since universities are so big you can pretty much ignore anyone you want–and because you’re in a place where you are paying to learn, the term “nerd” is kind of a compliment. Especially in CS and engineering colleges, the “nerdier” you are, the more popular you’ll be. With the other students as well as the professors–the latter of whom can help you get jobs.

In the real world, it’s even better-er. Google “nerds wanted” and you’ll find, besides a bunch of Star Trek and Youtube references, headlines like “US Government: *NERDS WANTED*” from websites like city-data.com.

Especially around these parts. The Portland metro (and all of Oregon, really: read about Facebook’s new data center in Prineville) is quickly becoming a dynamo of programming and tech innovation.  We’ve got indie programmers making unique games, and even our own chapter in the yearly Global Game Jam, at the Art Institute of Portland.

That’s why it’s been dubbed “The Silicon Forest.” Just north of the desert-like Silicon Valley in California, with a few more trees and a different mindset. People are actually moving away from the Silicon Valley, and coming up here to ride the wave. To be on the front lines.

People like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg, who is rumored to now have a house in the area.

But it’s not just big names in the nerd world. There are the people like you, only a bit older, who really earned Portland its nerdy nickname. There’s a cool article from a local newspaper, which profiles five cool nerds if you scroll down a bit. That’s just to give you an idea.

But even the folks profiled in that article are a generation apart from you, the next wave of nerds who are going to shine of the silicon forest into some beautiful and terrifying shiny techy nerdy forest thing.

College is waiting, but why not get the drop on everyone else and get to it right now? You could make it a project to learn to program over the summer. Give it two hours a day. That’s enough time to really get into it, but also so you have most of the day to do your thing. Program a game with GameMaker. Download Rainmeter (a program to decorate your desktop with functional things, like a CPU usage gauge, an email checker, or a fancy clock) and program your own skins–I made my own in a couple hours using their free manual.

The more stuff you’ve done, the more experience you have, and the more you’ve got to brag about to people who might hire you. So get to it.

Read what I read:

  • Willamette Week – “Tech Wizards of the Silicon Forest“; has some impressive numbers, and profiles of five interesting folks.
  • CNN – “Why I’m raising my son to be a nerd“; the writer goes on to rant about how the upcoming jobs in America will be nerdy ones.
  • (bonus) The nerd Venn diagram; know your label, so when you’re raking in the dough designing semiconductors, and they ask how you started, you can say “I was but a lowly dweeb in my youth!”
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