My Story (First Half) – The hacker hero

My parents were both teachers and most of my schoolmates’ parents were teachers too. My buddies were very smart and learned things very quickly. Yet, during pre-school, my parents were told I wasn’t a fast learner and in fact was having difficulties in learning how to read.

But I guess first things first.. Let me try and go back to remembering exactly how I got started.

When I was a kid, I don’t remember exactly what age, I saw a news report about computer hackers. On this report, I remember seeing a man with his face covered talking about what he did and how he enjoyed always finding “holes” in computer “defence” systems. What struck me the most was that he said hacking wasn’t about being smarter than everyone else and that anyone really, with the right knowledge and enough persistence, could find these holes and exploit such systems. This strongly appealed to me since I was convinced I wasn’t the brightest of kids, but I sure was stubborn which I could probably bend into persistence. 

But I guess the story goes even further back in time. When I was a kid my grandfather bought a ZX-Spectrum computer. It was the first computer my family had. He introduced me to the computer and encouraged me to learn programming to create programs for it. I wasn’t very interested in the programming part at all but the games were awesome. I would start the computer, load up a game and would play on it for hours in a row. I battled my sister on Chuckie Egg. 

In 1990 my father bought a PC. It was a bit more powerful and the games were much better. Then somewhere between 1990 and 1994 the Internet arrived at my house. It was the start of a new era for me and many of the kids of my generation. Suddenly, we could go online and speak with others on mIRC and consult webpages. IRC was the first online community I joined and the one that resonated with me the most. The fact that a bunch of people (many of them teenagers like me) were there whenever I wanted was great. It was like hanging out in a club where I could talk with friends and making new friends all the time. People on IRC were organised in channels based on interests or geography and any subject really. I joined my hometown channel and a few more. On my hometown channel someone started organising dinner parties in real life and these grew from a few to dozen people to eventually hundreds. It was a real blast. Each person had an avatar nickname and we would call each other by our nicknames. Mine was “Gotcha”, named after a branded hat I used to hear in real life when I was out.

I became very knowledge about computers and would surf the Web for hours on different subjects. I saw the Internet growing as well with new webshop, communities, technologies and games appearing every day. 

Together with that news report and the Internet I decided I would like to become a hacker. 

So I started studying it on my own and joining hacking communities. Playing hacking games, making acquaintances with other hacker wannabes and eventually some very knowledgeable hackers as well (mostly kids but they  had a surprising amount of experience already).

At one point I even joined a hacking group, which was great because was in a place where my skills were recognised and also where I could learn from others. We hacked into servers and defaced websites but most of the time we spent chatting and reading and trying out exploits and stuff. 

Some of those friends were in America so they wouldn’t come online until late in the evening so I would normally stay up until late in the morning. Boy, those were the days. Around midnight to 1am my parents would go to sleep and I had the house all to myself. The quietness to focus on the stuff I wanted to do and the comfort of a laid-back recliner chair where I would put up my feet and glaze at the perfectly level computer screen that was fitted perfectly, at eye level, in front of me. I began learning about Linux and Unix based systems, which are widely used for hosting websites. When I first installed Linux I erased all my computer’s hard drive by mistake. The first time I used Linux to get online a fellow hacker friend that hang around IRC was able to hack my PC and make a remote connection to it and log into it. I was hacked but it felt amazing people could do stuff like that. That’s what I wanted to do as well. 

I liked hacking and all but I didn’t know yet what I wanted to pursue in life professionally. After 9th grade we had to choose between pursuing General Sciences, Humanities and Liberal Arts, Technology or Economy. My father signed me up for Technology. He reckoned since I spent so much time at the computer I probably liked technology enough to pursue it as a career. 

During those years (between 1996-1998) I started learning about programming and technology in general and enjoying school more. Suddenly I found myself having better results than most. It seems spending the first few years of school in such a good class had finally paid off because now I could shine. And I’m a Leo; I need my shine. 

I still had the hacker thing in mind though and now I wanted to become the best and study hard so I could apply to the best technology college and learn all the skills that could lead me to become a really great hacker. I wasn’t very bright as a student though and had extra classes in Math, Physics and even Portuguese literature. In my extra time I was a swimmer and trained regularly and competed. 

I got in at Évora University. Évora is a world heritage historical center city that lives mostly off agriculture, farming and its University. Many of the teachers are also teachers in Lisbon and lectured there a few days a week. 

Since the bit that interested me the most was hacking (in the sense of knowing very well how systems worked so I could break them) I was different to many of my university mates who really enjoyed at least one main area of computer science – like programming, artificial intelligence, computer networks or game development. Still, I studied and learned as much as I could in all these areas, adding bits and pieces to my hacker toolkit as I went along. I learned more about Linux and the terminal along the way. 

Around my third year in college, I began thinking although I wanted to be a hacker I didn’t want to be a criminal for a living. The options then seemed to be working in computer security, setting up firewalls and configuring servers and stuff like that, more on the boring side of things rather than the attacking/breaking systems side. 

I also came across the more idealist version of what hacking means – through the open-source software movement – and became more involved in that through the Linux community. It seems working and contributing to Linux was the stuff real hackers were doing and developing the Linux kernel was the ultimate hacking activity. I participated in the Linux community and organized “Linux installation parties” where I would help others install Linux on their computers and become part of its community. I was still into computer security but it became more of a hobby where I would write a Linux kernel module or play around a particular exploit someone else had released and published online. 

As I progressed into my degree, I explored more subjects and became more prolific in programming in different languages and paradigms. 

I liked learning about computer networks, operating systems and the sorts but at some point we started learning how to create database-driven Web applications, I.e. software that would run on the browser. This was quite fascinating for me because it involved both playing with Web technologies (HTML, CSS and JavaScript) that I liked because I felt like I was building part of the Internet and also backend programming languages like Java, PHP, Perl, Python and later on Ruby that were full-featured programming languages that could be used to build pretty much anything really. They were also fun and easy to hack. 

I started learning about frameworks to create such applications and different possibilities of organising code and different technologies that could be joined together to build such things. 

This was also the time when blogging became big. People were journalling their thoughts and lives into blogs like crazy and it was quite fun to follow them and read about what everyone was up to. It was around 2003 when I first came across WordPress, and I used it to create a blog for myself and try this blogging thing – since everyone else was doing it too. 

I wasn’t much of a blogger and I struggled to write. Many times I wanted to write a great story rather than talk about what was going on with me. But I wasn’t a writer either so it never almost happened. 

At that time I also made acquaintance with a young freshman (Paulo André) that had entered computer science as well. He was a hacker at heart and wanted ferociously to learn everything there was about Linux, kernel hacking and pretty much every programming language he could get his hands on. 

Another two years passed and I was about to end my degree. By that time I was no longer into hacking as such and instead was focusing on working out what to do with my life.

My friend and I were both reading Paul Graham’s book “Hackers & Painters” and one day, while chatting online, he was the first to suggest I should think about “creating a job” rather than finding one. And that we could even think of starting a company together with more friends from Uni. That really sounded good! What attracted us was the possibility of working on stuff we liked and dictating our own terms, our own rules and systems, etc. 

We started working on assembling a team and trying to figure out what we would do. He invited a person to the team and I invited another. Then the person he invited asked another friend and suddenly there were 5 of us. It was a star team, except for the fact we didn’t know what we were going to do. We brainstormed ideas around but we never reached agreement. There were areas of research some wanted to pursue, others that were agnostic and I had no clue.

While we were in this process three things happened that I regret. First I tried to invite a 6th person to the team because he was a great guy and close friend and my roommate (that’s not the only reason I invited him but rather because he was very knowledgeable and a hacker at heart too). Some bad communication on my part led him to believe he would be accepted, but the group rejected him on the grounds that there were already too many of us. So I had to tell my buddy that he couldn’t join and that broke my heart because I felt I was betraying him and I liked him so much. 

The second thing was that an acquaintance of mine contacted me to build a website for another business and I told him “sure thing” convinced the rest of the guys would like the idea of having a first gig to work on. But I was wrong – they didn’t want to work on the project – they wanted to pursue their own goals and areas of interest and building websites just wasn’t on their list. So I had to tell this potential customer that after all we wouldn’t be taking his project. 

The third thing was that internal wars started to crop up. Some thought what I did to be inconsiderate of them and accused me of not being on the same page. I later came to realize they were right – but at the time I felt rejected and angry. I thought about quitting the team and doing something else. Meanwhile my friend that had started the idea with me sent everyone an email where he announced he would be leaving due to the current state of affairs. With him leaving there just wasn’t anyone else that wanted to step up so it all came to an end. My first startup had died even before we had really started any business! That was very upsetting to me (for all the reasons above and the emotional turmoil it involved) but the truth is that the experience left something in me – the idea of “creating a job” rather than finding one.

I like breaking things (to make them better)

o   My job working for the European space agency and the limitations/frustrations

I turned in my term paper that was on information processing and clustering. It was a topic suggested by my advisor but didn’t really interest me apart from the fact it involved programming and tweaking code to solve a meaningful problem (my hacking definition at that point).

My Masters was a bit like that as well. I didn’t know what subject to pursue so I instead chose the Professor I wanted to study with (the most hacker-like). I ended up studying distributed systems and logic programming and working on a computer cluster system that had multiple network connected machines. Again what I liked about this work was solving what appeared to be a meaningful problem (or hack a solution for it) by using programming and scripting, servers, networks, etc to achieve the end result. 

During my Masters, I got an interesting invitation from a colleague (Tiago Bilou) to work for a company he had recently joined. He was a hacker at heart too and he knew me well, so I was all in because he knew what kind of stuff I liked to do. We had met during the degree and we immediately became friends. He liked computer security as well, although he wasn’t obsessed about becoming a hacker or anything like that. He just wanted to have fun and learn stuff. Once we skipped Friday classes all together to go kite-buggy riding on the weekend. We also worked on developing a new website for the computer science alumni group and that was when we worked more closely together and tried to implement an unbreakable login system for it. Boy, those were the days. 

Anyway when he told me about the opportunity at the company he was working at I was very interested because it seemed fantastic. It was a tech company that was receiving a lot of PR at the time. The work culture seemed very informal and relaxed and they were looking for interns, so I applied.

After a year working there and my internship was over I got offered a contract. At that time I also updated my CV and started posting it online everywhere I could find. I started getting phone calls from headhunters and booked two job interviews in London. 

I went to the interviews and both came back with a job offer ( life felt so good back then). One was in central London and the other was for a job in a UK company but for a position in Darmstadt, Germany. 

The position was for a junior software engineer and to work as a contractor for the European Space Agency that has its operations center there. I took the job and moved to Germany the next month.  I chose this because I figured the European Space Agency must have a lot of resources and super technology and smart people would be there and it would be fun and exciting to work.

Going to Germany was a big step for me. Somehow it seems that while I was living in my own country, where all is familiar, I kind felt “safe” and was expecting a job and work my way from there. 

When you move into a new country there is an initial rush that lasts for a while. After all, everything is new and you have the desire to see, explore, visit and get acquainted.  But I soon missed my friends and family.

I was providing software support for the mission control system used by three satellite flying missions: Rosetta, Mars Express and Venus Express. The main part of the job was providing support, like a helpdesk, to issues reported by the scientists operating the spacecrafts through the software we supported. They would upload commands to the spacecraft and download telemetry data from them. In this process some things would not go as expected and so one person on my team would investigate and report back. Occasionally we would also implement new features and improvements to the software.

Because of the nature of our job, most days we would be on site along side scientists, management and staff (most of them experienced contractors that had made the jump). Making the jump (getting hired as staff) seemed like the biggest dream along the contractors. With a staff position you get better benefits, a higher pay and the thought around it said you were pretty much set for life. 

For me it wasn’t that much of a deal. I had just recently joined anyway and the prospect of becoming staff simply did not interesting me. Staff positions were mostly management positions and I was looking instead to get my hands dirty with exciting technologies and eating pizza with fellow hackers. 

After the initial rush of moving to Germany settled (probably after a year or so) it wasn’t long until I become quite bored with work as well and lost any sense of purpose/joy. I became angry, mostly at myself, and lashed out at people and at home after a day’s work. I started dreading going to work and complaining about it to friends and family. Those were tough days. I somehow stayed another few months before I turned in my resignation letter. In retrospect it was way longer than it should have been. I didn’t want to disappoint the people that had believed in me and I was afraid of what would be of my future career. 

Lucky enough my wife and I had met a couple of friends that were very supportive and encouraging. I clearly remember discussing the possibility of quitting and doing something on my own and one of them replied “Yes, I think you would be very good at that!” – oh that really sparked the flame inside. Someone believed I could do it. Maybe she was right, maybe I could. 

I discussed this possibility heavily with my wife and I clearly remember us talking about it in an outdoor cafe one day.  The rationale was something along the lines of “if we don’t do it now we’ll never do it” and also “we’re at a time where we can risk it, in a few years it won’t be so easy”. About us working together we were still afraid but we decided to make the plunge.

After I quit, some of my most enjoyable “work” days followed. I would sleep in, eat at the local University canteen and then work in the afternoon on stuff I liked and blog about it. I was in heaven! 

I started playing again with the idea of starting a business in my head. The idea had been there all along, even while working for ESA, I would drift off and think about what possible applications I could build and how to make money off of them. 

Falling in love with WordPress

o   Not reinventing the wheel / No problem should ever have to be solved twice

o   Like working off a live skeleton – being on the same boat as The Washington Post, The Rolling Stones, etc

o   Becoming a WordPress Code Poet

Setting up my business

o   Realising I could have a greater impact working with small/medium sized businesses.

o   Moving back to Portugal – getting funding and deciding to work with my wife

o   Deciding to do it without the backers

o   Trying new technology and innovating and adding value

o   Opportunity to take something to next level to show a business that’s done well/proven itself to achieve explosive growth and have a remarkable webshop

Becoming an award-winner

While I was still in Germany, I visited Portugal in December 2009 for an event called Sapo Codebits that featured both conference talks and also a programming marathon/contest for people to come up with new apps.

I came in without any expectations and in fact I knew very few people there but eventually I became friends with another guy and we started working on this crazy idea: what if you could go back one year and see exactly where you were, see pictures of it, see how you felt, what you saw, etc?

So we built this app that would navigate your social feeds in a time-machine like format that allowed you to navigate back and forth. It was pretty wild and, thanks to popular vote by the attendees, we ended up winning the first prize – an iPod, a Macbook Pro and other goodies! 

My wife was watching the event via livestream from Germany and almost fell off her chair when she saw me going up to the stage to collect that first prize. 

A few years later I became responsible for the digital launch of, an online Portuguese newspaper, where I had the opportunity to assemble my own team and managed to go to market with a winning product for both Web and mobile. The project ended up winning Meios & Publicidade’s magazine award “Launch of the Year”. Prior to this, Observador, where I integrated the development team led by Leo Xavier, also won the same award. This project became a reference for the news publishing market in Portugal, and a known case study for WordPress.

I also worked with startups to launch rapid solutions to test new concepts in the market, such as Uniplaces, for which I’ve developed the first prototype of the product that won Startup Weekend and allowed them to execute on their idea. Fortunately today, they are a case study and maintain a successful international presence.

Early successes

I also had some early successes in projects related to the industry, 

Not long before starting my company I found myself working with a client that had a “beauty box” business. The niche were women from teens to mid age and the business model was a service where they could buy every month a “surprise box” with beauty products, skin care, etc. 

I worked with the client to create his brand and his webshop/on-line store. After months of work, iteration & refinement and sorting logistics out we finally had a launch date. 

This kind of business works in the following way: 

1.You inform customers you will only have available X boxes;

2. You inform customers the box will be available to purchase on day X;

So the client did the announcement that sales would open at 9am on day X.

When the date arrived we were a bit anxious and excited at the same time. We had deployed an infrastructure so that the webshop could handle peaks of traffic but both us and the client were doubtful of how traffic would be generated and how much sales would happen. We were aiming for a few hundred and had planned to announce “sold out” by the end of the day even if only a few sales had occurred (a typical marketing play this kind of businesses sometimes pull off). 

I was at the office around one hour before the sales opened and had arranged for the client to join as well so that we could monitor and watch how things would go.

10 minutes to the “sales opening” I got a text from the client: “currently stuck in traffic, please proceed with the launch without me, I will be there as soon as possible. Thanks”. 

As the responsibility of “flipping the sales switch on” descended upon me, I felt my insecurities surface as a cold air breeze climbing my back. But the trust and the relationship with the client was so strong that I felt part of his team, I was more like as partner rather than just a supplier and I couldn’t let him down.

I could see hundreds of people were at the webshop and furiously clicking refresh to be the ones buying first. Finally, at 9am I opened sales. And then we saw the first order coming in. Then the second and the third. And so on. After a while the client arrived and couldn’t believe it. His vision had been realized, his dream had come to life: the orders were pouring in!

After the first hour the client had sold hundreds of units and by the evening he had run out of stock, surpassing his expectations massively! We were both amazed at the incredible results obtained and coined the day to be a tremendous success. 

What stayed with me that day was:

  1. The rapport we had established with the client was so important. We had connected to him from the start and he involved us as part of the team, listening carefully to our advice and recommendations around how to set up the business but never leaving the driving seat and compromising on what he believed was essential for the success of the business. 
  2. The client was well prepared from the start. He had prepared the business. He had studied the business model, the different parts he needed to get working together to reach clients, to sell and to fulfil orders. He had a checklist of things he needed us to ensure and did his due diligence to ensure we could deliver. On the other hand, we were proactive in telling him where we expected themain obstacles would to be.
  3. The power of niche marketing: the client had a clear target client and did a good job of reaching that target through both paid and free advertising for a few months before the first “flash sale” day. This allowed his clients to signal their interest and allowed him to create demand/supply tension later on when he announced limited availability.

Last but not least.. the feeling I got from seeing this client succeed was amazing. I was hooked and wanted more. 

Moving into eCommerce

o   Why this excited me, what a big impact I can have

o   Starting to have staff work “in house” – what my business does now

WidgiLabs came about from my aspiration to create a place where I would love to work, with a great team of people, and on projects that sparked my interest so I wouldn’t feel bored going to work on Monday mornings. I always dreamed about a workplace like that where I would have the means to create, explore and bring people’s dreams to life. I wanted to work with clients around the world and also be close to my family and to the amazing Portuguese food and weather.

Over the last years I have grown WidgiLabs and we currently work with a small team of people, and are bringing in a couple more in the next coming months. It is a strategically small team and for each project we bring in key people with specific expertise. This approach works to our advantage because we benefit from a strong core with solid knowledge-base and then we use resources that bring a different specialist perspectives. I have an extensive network of contacts, which directly contributes to the success of my clients.

The decision to focus on WordPress was made early on based on the fact that WordPress stands at the intersection of what we love to do and what the market needs. Due to my background in computer engineering, I could have adopted other technologies and platforms, but WordPress has been with me since I started blogging and so I was led to explore it more deeply and play around to see what I could do with it. It is an open-source, which is very important to me, and I’ve developed a good expertise and understanding of it from working with multiple clients over the years.

It is important to say I do not recommend WordPress/WooCommerce blindly for every project. There are very specific projects that will probably not gain much by using it, and, in that case, it is best to accept that. However, more important than the tool is the team that will help you leverage the tool.  

The market is increasingly competitive for my business but I see this in a positive light. I’ve now made it part of our mission to accelerate the growth of WooCommerce and its ecosystem. One of the main advantages of WooCommerce for clients is that it won’t make you hostage of a single company or supplier if things go wrong. You’re in control and you own your data. Your company isn’t off-the-shelf, why should your webshop be?