It was 2003, it was Vegas, and Johnny Long was a rock star.
He slung the blue speaker badge around his neck - careful to make sure everyone could see it - and strutted through the DEF CON hacker convention with his nose in the air and his ears set to whisper mode, listening for the buzz.
Too cool to make eye contact, the 32-year-old cut a path through the crowd, which was mostly made up of men wearing some variation of a black T-shirt, the unofficial uniform for the three-day conference.
Johnny, the Maryland kid who once networked computers in his backyard for fun, had grown up to become a professional hacker, joining an elite team of cyber superheroes - called "StrikeForce" - that was paid to break into computer systems.
And that, along with his knack for using Google to help break into cyber security systems, had just won him a coveted speaking slot at the world's biggest underground hacker convention.
The platform at the conference was easily the highlight of his career, the big payoff for all those late nights staring into a computer screen, the missed time with his wife and kids, and even the high school years when the popular kids ignored him.
Johnny (or j0hnny, as he was known online) had arrived.
And yet, in the wake of this much-anticipated triumph, he was surprised to realize that the only thing he felt was emptiness.
It wasn't that he didn't kill during his talk (he did), and it wasn't that the August conference was a dud (it wasn't). It was just that after it was all over, Johnny felt nothing. He was hollow.
How could that be?
He had fantasized about reaching this point for years, sacrificed most everything for it. Now that it was here, where was the euphoria? Where was the high? After all this time, all this effort, he couldn't help feeling - there was no other way of putting it - cheated.
And just like that, Johnny Long - to all the world, a man on a rocket ship bound for the top of his field - found himself smack in the middle of a midlife crisis, years before midlife.
He returned to his home outside Baltimore where he stewed for a couple of months, envying all those others who had what he didn't: a purpose in life, a meaning to day-to-day existence and pursuits.
He decided he had to shake things up.
And so, as the summer gave way to the fall, he sat before his computer one day, and let his fingers tap out the most explosive thing he could think of to say about himself on his Web site. Under the heading, "Who is this johnny guy?" he typed out this description: "a hacker and a follower of Jesus."
And with that, Johnny was sure he'd officially stuck his neck out, and all but asked for someone to hack away at it.
Little did he suspect that the months of uncertainty and doubt would soon lead him to a dusty and desperate Ugandan village and a spiritual renewal unlike anything he'd ever experienced.
On the outside
Hackers are a mixed lot.
There are good guys (a k a "white hats") who use their tech talents to expose security flaws so that they can be fixed. There are bad guys ("black hats") who expose security flaws so they can be exploited. And there are the other guys, who just like showing off.
But there's one thing that's true of most of them: They're all pretty much outsiders. Outside establishment, outside mainstream, outside average. Oh, and their egos are overactive.
"The overwhelming tendency is to have a very idealistic and libertarian outlook and to be anti-government," said Avi Rubin, the technical director of the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute. He's never met Johnny, though he's heard of him and bets Long fits the mold.
"Sounds right," Johnny later agrees, "except for the idealistic part."
He can talk for days about himself and isn't at all shy about recounting his fame. He likes to dye his hair to stand out at conferences, and he wears a thumb ring because he thinks it's cool (something he picked up from a former colleague).
For the record, he's also funny, self-effacing and a hands-on dad to his three kids. He takes in stray cats, houses a Korean exchange student, mentors dozens and wants to be a ninja (he has a brown belt in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu).
His mother, Sharon Long, fills out the profile of the hacker as a youth. "He was a terrible student; he was bored in school," she recalls. "But he would test through the ceiling."
When Johnny was about 10, he got his first computer, a Texas Instruments 99/4A that Bill Cosby was hawking on television.
Initially, it was tough to see the hacker in the boy, whose first interactions with the machine included cutting out construction paper shapes and taping them to its television-screen monitor in an unsuccessful attempt to create a video game.