Computer programmers aren’t always known for their badassery. Assuming of course that “badass” still means something akin to “capable of death-defying derring do with a devil-may-care attitude,” and “frequently flouts the law and basic moral decency”. Most would agree that your typical computer engineer won’t fit that bill. There are always exceptions to the rule, though, and here are five of those exceptions.
5. Avishai Abrahami
The fact that he’s been building and selling software companies most of his adult life, with many millions of shekels to show for it, isn’t what makes Israeli entrepreneur and tech wiz Avishai Abrahami a badass. It isn’t even the fact that this Wix founder took his company public the same day he closed the sale on another company in which he owned a major stake, Soluto, netting him well north of $10 million cash in a single day.
What really clinches it is that he spent three years in the early 1990s doing things with computer networks that computer networks weren’t supposed to do back then – many of which the Israeli government (and Abrahami himself) still won’t tell you about. We do know that, without anyone noticing at the time, he managed to drain processing power from government networks in two enemy states in order to siphon information from a third antagonistic neighbor. He probably has a price on his head in some countries, and that’s pretty badass.
4. James Kosta
Yes, you read about James in last week’s child hacker roundup; earning 45 felony charges by the age of 14 for hacking into multiple Fortune 500 companies, defense computers, and financial systems is part of what makes him a badass. He also reportedly had an 18-year-old girlfriend when he was only 13, which is technically statutory rape today but was definitely badass in the 80s – not to mention that he successfully sued for emancipation that year, which made the relationship legal and allowed the government to try him as an adult a year later. But Kosta only got more badass when he went legit.
After being caught and convicted, instead of making him spend the next 40 years in prison, a judge let him join the military when he turned 18, so he went into Navy intelligence. He tracked money movements between warlords and religious fanatics, and helped develop some of the first successful methods of technological warfare. He moved to the CIA, where he did even more badass stuff you probably don’t want to know about (at least, I assume…I don’t know about it either. No one but Kosta and his handlers do….mwhahahaha). After 9/11, he used the engine behind Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon to create a simulation for a dirty bomb attack on Vegas, which was used by the military to develop scenario responses. Oh yeah, and in between the CIA and the 9/11 gig he and his brother sold a financial website for eight figures.
Now Kosta is focused on making video games (and a lot of money) with 3G Studios, Inc. Only a badass could build a whole new career out of a dirty bomb simulation.
3. Carl Force
His name is pure badassery, and having a job as a DEA agent was just perfect. Can you imagine? “Carl Force, DEA!” I’m ready to confess to something I didn’t do just imagining him kicking down my door.
It wasn’t his in-person intimidation capabilities that made Force so valuable to the DEA, though. As a computer whiz and navigator of the Dark Web, he was the perfect guy to infiltrate that notorious and now-defunct marketplace for drugs, stolen credit cards, and (allegedly) murder, Silk Road. And infiltrate he did, earning the trust of site administrator and convicted mastermind Ross Ulbricht and collecting evidence in the mounting case against Ulbricht and other principals. Then he created a few new online personas and started feeding Ulbricht misinformation about law enforcement activities—all with the knowledge and approval of his DEA bosses…
Eventually, he got greedy. He demanded payment for his information, and the bitcoin deposits wound up in accounts of which the DEA had no knowledge and couldn’t touch. He used another persona to threaten Ulbricht with exposure and extorted even more money out of him, and even started sending messages from his law enforcement persona that his bosses couldn’t read—likely actually feeding Ulbricht warnings that the DEA was getting close. In the end, everything came tumbling down and Force found his way to the inside of a cell. You’d better believe the movie (there has to be a movie) will make him out to be a total badass.
2. Kim Dotcom
Famously flamboyant in his eschewing of legalities and basic good taste, Kim Dotcom is, one has to admit, a badass. He’s basically guilty of more felonies than the NFL’s full roster combined, and everyone knows it. Yet he’s still living it up like a king in his adopted home country of New Zealand while the US is forced to wait out his lengthy appeals process in hopes of an eventual extradition. Update: Dotcom just lost one appeal but immediately appealed the loss of that appeal to New Zealand’s Supreme Court. They likely won’t hear the case for several years.
But what badassery did Dotcom do to attract so much attention, other than changing his last name to Dotcom?
Well, he claims to have hacked into NASA, the Pentagon, Citibank, and a variety of other high-security organizations as a teenager in Germany. He definitely traded in stolen calling card numbers, got arrested, then got arrested again for computer hacking, eventually being convicted of 11 counts of computer fraud, ten counts of data espionage, and more. His sentence was two years, suspended if he didn’t commit any more crimes, because he was still a teenager.
Then there was the insider trading that saw him flee to Thailand and fake his own death—streamed online—in an attempt to evade prosecution, but he was eventually caught, deported back to Germany, pled guilty, aaaaaaaaand got another suspended sentence.
All of this was before moving to New Zealand and starting Megaupload, which is arguably still the most successful (or most heinous) file sharing site ever built. It made him hundreds of millions of dollars, brought free media (or stolen, depending on your definition) to millions of users, and is the cause of all of Dotcom’s latest legal woes. Or most of them, anyway. His stay in New Zealand has included bribing local officials, living in the most expensive estate in the country, snitching on officials he’s bribed, bragging about bribing and snitching on officials in rap songs, and other elements of badass swag.
1. John McAfee
John McAfee is my #1 badass for a reason: he at the intersection of “genius”, “badass” and “Gary Busey.” And I don’t mean pre-motorcycle-accident Gary Busey. I mean full-on 2010 Oscar’s Red Carpet Busey. He is a 2016 Libertarian Party presidential candidate and developer of the first commercial anti-virus program—the one still sold under his name long after he started calling it a piece of shit. Before that he did loads of other impressive programming and software design work at places like NASA, Univac, Xerox, Booz Allen Hamilton and Lockheed.
But it’s the fact that he’s gone off the deep-end since then that makes him eligible for true badass territory. In addition to other investments and technologically related pursuits, McAfee grew very interested in the idea of all-natural antibiotics. He moved to Belize, where, surrounded by the exotic country of the rainforest, he could test all sorts of natural substances. The Belize authorities have called these tests “drug manufacturing,” and think there’s very little McAfee is trying to discover other than whether or not his tolerance for intoxicants is higher than Ozzy Osbourne’s. Tales from his now-abandoned Belizean compound, and his possible connection to the murder of another American expat living in Belize contain little proven fact, but there’s no doubt McAfee has seen and done a whole lot of shit in his day.
If you can catch an interview with him, it’s definitely worth a watch. Dude brings a whole new kind of incoherence to the concept of the badass.
Daniel A. Guttenberg is an Atlanta-based writer who fell into the startup world by accident and has been gleefully treading water ever since. He will be survived by his beard and his legacy of procrastination.