A Matter of Identity


Over the years, a few people asked me what it’s like to be Portuguese – to which my invariable reply consisted of stating I was (still am, in fact) almost anything but, except statistically.

Still, it makes sense to have a bout of introspection here and there. In this case, about who I am today and why.

I have an unusual background. Besides reading pretty much nothing but English literature for most of my life, my father worked as a diamond cutter (seriously) and tinkered with electronics in his spare time, leading to my spending many an afternoon reading Elektor as a kid, getting into computing at an early age and, almost twenty-five years ago, walking into a college campus (which, by serendipitous reasons, will be re-visiting tomorrow).

So most people think of me as a computer nerd – except the ones with whom I spent over a decade with at Vodafone doing a bunch of things ranging from network planning to Marketing, which (most of the time) was related to product management – i.e., putting the pieces together to tackle new market segments (mobile broadband, smartphones, etc.) or entirely new markets (like M2M or fixed broadband, which in those days was anathema for a mobile company). Many of them usually lauded my PowerPoint pitches and salesmanship, which makes for a rather amusing contrast.

But it was fun in the sense of having helped build the Internet in Portugal, from dial-up onwards up to the broadband service that brought these words to your eyes, all of that (infrastructure, services, tariffs, marketing, the works) poured forth from the seething industry cauldron I and my colleagues stirred (or, sometimes, were being stirred in).

It was also the proverbial school of hard knocks. I left after the Vodafone 360 débacle, partly due to burning out from leading something I didn’t believe in and partly due to a yearning to learn new stuff. In essence, I wanted to get back into technology and catch up on all the stuff twinkling off the bow, out in the wild horizons of the Internet sea.

Oh, I learned a lot, indeed. In the past four years my output peaked, with contributions to a fair amount of projects (even if most are rather niche), a few dips in the thundering waterfalls of Big Data, and a long while spent wrapping my head around “devops” and cloud infrastructure stuff.

I got lucky, intellectually if not otherwise. I managed to sustain my edge in order to cut most of the fluff in the industry and dive down to the source code without batting an eye. And that’s liberating, especially in these days of cloud infrastructure when you really need to understand how AWS and Azure work and are best leveraged. It’s not just about “scaling” system architecture now – it’s about orchestrating that architecture efficiently, and understanding the driving factors behind all of it.

But there’s no ready outlet for a lot of what I can do, and (regretfully) Portugal is a tough place to do it in. As the exodus progressed, my answer1 to folk who asked me what it was like to be in the Portuguese tech industry was quoted in a few places:

It mostly amounts to keeping the faith until you’re the only one left in the church. Oh, and the minister ran away with the alms box.

These days, things are less dramatic (up to a point), and despite my will to remain in Portugal constantly being eroded by the lack of vision (and basic governance skills) of the Powers That Be, I’m far less concerned with technology than how to use it to kickstart the economy somehow.

And as it turns out, most people are wrong – I’m not really a computer nerd. I’m just someone with a knack for technology (and math) who wants to do something rewarding with their life.

So even saddled with the triple handicap of being seen as a computer nerd, actually being moderately good at it and making do through the day as a tight knot of English-based thought patterns, my mind is pretty much set on doing it here in this downtrodden, backwards, and disorganized stretch of land, which at least has the redeeming qualities of balmy (verging on the tropical), moderately peaceful and an anthropological reserve of sorts.

That’s what it’s like being Portuguese, as far as I’m concerned at this moment in time.

And now that I’ve bared my soul to you, the next step is putting the kettle on and make sure I have enough mint tea to while away what promises to be a scorching afternoon.


  1. This was via Twitter, and it’s a measure of how immature the natives can be that I ended up removing it lest it be mis-used against me, especially given the double entendre with the word “minister”… ↩︎