The Un-Scary Screwdriver

Cathy Malmrose gives a glimpse into a project where seven year old girls build desktops with Ubuntu for their grandparents.

One early spring day as we were walking home from the bakery on the corner, we passed by a neighbor and struck up a conversation. He complained about his desktop being constantly attacked by viruses. We suggested Ubuntu. A professional man in his 50s, he said he wanted to try installing a Linux distribution on his desktop but that, “it looks too complicated. I probably couldn’t install Ubuntu. I don’t want the hassle.”

My little five year old daughter had been snuggled in my arms while I was talking to this neighbor. She had been listening closely. When we got home, she said, “Mom, I can install Ubuntu. I bet I can. Can I try? Can I try?”

As a mother who wants to foster her children’s interests in all things technical and scientific, I dropped the loaf of french bread and turned on a nearby desktop. I did a quick back-up and wiped the system. I handed my daughter Anna an install CD and said, “Here you go.”

Then I walked away.

From the kitchen, I watched the install unfold. She insert the CD. She read what she could on-screen and pressed Enter a lot. When she couldn’t read something, she called her brother who was only one year older, but who could read a few more words than she could. She yelled, “Jake! Come here and tell me what this says!” Together they figured out, “Hey, if you just press Enter, it usually works out fine.”

With a little bit of help from her six year old brother, Anna successfully installed Ubuntu on a desktop. When she was done, I came in and asked, while trying to squelch my pride, “So, sweetie, how did it go?”

Anna’s reply, “Easy baceasy! That old foggy is just being silly. I can install Ubuntu, so he can install it too.”

We have had many similar experiences of successful interaction between little kids and software that is well built. The most recent experience was sparked when we noticed far too many small form factor desktops accumulating in our aptly named “We don’t want it; you want it?” pile at our computer shop, ZaReason. We called a few friends to clear out some hardware and we set up two projects to clean out a few of the nicest desktops.

Recently, my dad has been putting in the hours to preserve family home videos, and called me one day asking for advice for which new desktop he could buy. Since I had been staring down a pile of excess, but still quite usable hardware, I asked my dad, “Hey, can you wait a few weeks and your granddaughter will build you a desktop that will be ideal for video editing?” The reply was a supportive, loving, “Sure!” It was such a pleasing thought to me that my parents would be the only ones on their block with a desktop built by their little granddaughter. I hoped they would have many good laughs about it with their friends.

A little background: My parents are in the generation where we hear questions such as “Where’s the On button?” and, “Oh, those newfangled computers are just too complicated.” Still, my parents are gutsy enough and smart enough to try new things. They also have endurance and persistence. They have had a few brief introductions to Linux, but none of them stellar.

Since there were plenty of small form factor desktop cases and plenty of components, I asked Anna if she wanted to have a building party with a friend. One Saturday, her friend Tora came to our little shop and the dads worked alongside their daughters with each father-daughter team assembling their own desktop. The girls had an interesting way of building. It went like this:

Anna finds two screwdrivers, hands one to Tora.

They both look for something to unscrew. They get the screws off, then wiggle the case off. The dads have to help with sliding the case off.

The girls run around for a few minutes talking about how, “I opened it up and we can see its guts!” After they calmed down again, they came back to the table and asked, “What’s next?”

The dads, being the awesome teachers they are, said, “I don’t know. What do you think is next?”

The girls put in the memory sticks, then did somersaults.

They did the goo on their CPUs, seated them, then spun around on the office chairs until they were sickeningly dizzy.

They put their fans in place, then ran around for a bit.

Tora had question after question. “What’s this? What does it do? Why do we need this? Why is that metal thingy there? Is it ok if I touch these spikies?”

The most interesting aspect of the build was that the girls seemed to have an innate understanding of the hardware that was a level higher than what I had anticipated. They had so much fun building these desktops that they decided to keep them for themselves.

We invited over another friend, Lizzie, for another build session, hoping that this time the desktop would go to Grandma and Grandpa. The build session was similar except that Lizzie was focused and did not take breaks between components. She talked the entire time. The girls also focused on only one computer at a time. Lizzie built hers first with Anna helping and watching, then Anna built hers with Lizzie helping and watching.

These two girls’ determined focus was balanced by a sweet team-building camaraderie. They did each build on a child-height blue IKEA table in the middle of our shop with a massive overhead skylight providing sunlight on their work station. One parent was sitting nearby and another was working over on a different table. The girls worked with a minimal amount of adult direction.

I was in the upper level loft helping my eldest son with his college application, so I had a bird’s eye view of the experience. I could hear them saying, “Here Lizzie… yeah… you got it!” and “Anna, do you have an extra screw for this? The case was missing one.” Every time I peeked over the loft ledge, I could see them sitting beside each other, working as partners. It wasn’t like they were drawing together or doing other types of work together. They were interacting as if they were co-painting a canvas together.

For both builds, the girls lost interest during the software install. It was too easy. They went on to playing and running around the shop. For each of the builds, a fully functional desktop was “born” to live another full life in a new home. For all three girls, they now understand that if there is a problem with their desktop, they can open it up and replace a part. They are empowered to fix it themselves.

We have enjoyed the delightful payoff of providing this type of opportunity for people of all ages. When you open a desktop, you realize that the internals are not scary. You have a greater appreciation for keeping the components healthy. Try opening a system that has been working without being cleaned for three or four years and you’ll find enough dust to make you shudder. Once you see that the insides need care, just like the insides of a human body, an automobile, even the inside of a house, you have a greater appreciation for the functionality of the desktop.

As I write this article, my daughter is home sick. She is watching Pink Panther on Hulu, using a desktop that has a failing hard drive. Several times, she started up the system only to see “Disk Boot Failure”. Soon, she will probably ask, “Mom, what does this mean?” and rather than rebooting until it starts properly, she will think, “Hey, I can replace the hard drive. Myself.” I am curious to see how long it takes before she seeks out a screwdriver and asks, “Hey, mom, do you have an extra hard drive I can use?”

There are many natural ways to take the scary factor out of computing. The more we can present various Linux distributions as being “easy” and “workable”, the more we can reduce stress in computing with those we love.

About the Author

Cathy Malmrose is CEO of, a Linux-only hardware company based in Berkeley, CA, USA. With vibrant local Linux User Groups, Cathy is often involved in charitable projects through a non-profit, In her spare time, Cathy enjoys traveling, seeing how free software is developing internationally. Her dream is to have little shops all over the world.

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Posted on November 13, 2009, in November 2009. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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