July 2, 2006

Bulk view

On programming as a career

Raj Shekhar reminded me that software development is a career too, and that there are software companies that use exciting things like LISP.

My background is in computer science, and I spent almost all my
summers in high school training for programming competitions. I was a
geek’s geek, with algorithms and code coming out of my ears. I still
enjoy writing code to make things work. =) I’m much more comfortable
reading other people’s code and making sense of it than other people I
know – apparently, a rare thing. ;) I also enjoy writing
documentation. These two factors cause most people to doubt my
existence. What, a programmer who likes reading other people’s code
_and_ writing documentation?! Right up there with unicorns and
dragons, mate. ;)

But that’s not all of who I am, and I get the sense that’s not what
I’m best suited for.

In yesterday’s conversation about the meaning of life and other
things, Simon Rowland pointed out
that I’m more relationship-driven than technology-driven. When I
argued that I’m still a technologist at heart, he laughed and pointed
out that even my Emacs Lisp coding is motivated by contact with
people. The reason why I enjoyed working on Planner so much was
because I could make people really happy by writing code to fit their
editor and personal information manager to their particular needs. And
it wasn’t people in abstract, people in general, but rather one person
at a time, with completely idiosyncratic code that I might never

I like working with technology on a human scale. I love personalizing
things. I love working one-on-one with people. I don’t like being
abstracted away from users. I want them to be able to yell at me when
something goes wrong, and I want them to be able to express their
appreciation when things go right. I don’t want to deal with market
studies and hypothetical users. I want names and faces and stories.

I guess that’s why software development or system administration don’t
really appeal to me as careers. I know a lot of developers and sysads
who enjoy their work and are doing cool things, but their work doesn’t
strike a chord in me. I love developing skills that aren’t part of the
traditional developer profile. I love writing and public speaking, and
I want to do that as part of my day job instead of just something I do
on the side.

Some people have advised me to take a code monkey job, just for the
heck of it. Just to gain experience and give myself more time here in
North America, you know. As tempting as it is, though, my instinct?
feeling? sense? tells me that there might be a better path. If it’s at
all possible for me to follow my passion at each step, I’d rather do
that and be exceptional rather than be a mediocre programmer.

When I ask myself what I’d do if I could work without thinking about
money, what I’d do even if no one paid me to, the answer that
consistently comes up is: spend the entire day reading, learning,
teaching, writing, speaking, meeting people. I don’t see myself
building robust, featureful systems or crafting beautiful code. I see
myself drawing attention to other people’s stories, connecting
different ideas, introducing people to people and things that could
change their lives. At the end of my life, I don’t want people to
remember me for some program I wrote, but rather for the changes that
I helped them make in their lives, what I inspired them to do, who I
inspired them to be.

So yes: although I can code, a job that involves only that aspect of
me will not be able to make the most of me.

This probably disappoints some of my college teachers who’d rather I
were in “hard” computer science – cryptography, graph theory, whatever
– but that’s the way it is, and I want to explore that aspect of

How does that translate into a career? It’s not exactly the kind of
thing you’ll find advertised on Monster.com. I’ll probably spend the
rest of my master’s thinking about enterprise social computing and how
people can make the most of blogs, wikis, social bookmarking,
podcasting, and related technologies. I would like to stay in North
America for at least a few more years because I’m learning so much
from the tech culture here, so I’ll need to offer enough value to a
company to sponsor my work permit. I’d like to think that I can create
enough value to justify the paperwork. ;)

In particular, I’d probably fit in well as someone who can support
consultants and other people whose job it is to know about technology
but who are too busy to learn about all these different things. I’m
good at reading about lots of different things and looking at the
connections. I’m also good at searching for supporting information and
recommending things that might be useful. I’ve been complimented on my
ability to get people enthused about something, and that extra boost
might help people close sales. If you know any company that would be a
good fit for me and that I would be a good fit for, I’d love to hear
about it!

I’m also interested in writing, but that might be more of a
medium-term thing. =)

If I can find a best-fit opportunity, all the better. If I’m not quite
qualified to do that yet and I can’t find a company that will take a
chance on me and train me up, I’ll consider other opportunities – but
I definitely want something that engages not only my technological
skills but also my social ones. =)

(Thanks for the comment, Raj! I love being prompted to reflect more
because that makes me clarify my thoughts.)

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Random Japanese sentence: 私は犬の方が猫より好きです。何故なら前者の方が後者より忠実ですから。 I like dogs better than cats, because the former are more faithful than the latter.


Going from pre-paid to post-paid

I want to keep in touch with enough people now that the limits on my
phone are Rather Annoying. I would like free incoming calls so that I
stop worrying about minutes and so that people feel free to call me
any time of day instead of saving it for evenings and weekends. I want
to be able to hear people’s stories and insights as they happen. I’d
also like unlimited text messaging, or at any rate more text messages
than most people here probably send all their lives. ;) I don’t really
need a lot of daytime or evening minutes.

Martin Cleaver suggested that I go for a 3-year plan without
hesitation. He said that I’d probably easily find a company here
that’s willing to sponsor me for a work permit. If I decide to work
elsewhere, the company that hires me might be persuaded to buy me out
of my plan. Even if I do end up going home after my master’s, I just
need to put aside enough money to cover the cancellation charge just
in case I don’t manage to sell my contract to someone else. It’s a
relatively small expense compared to the freedom of being able to

I don’t have a credit history, though, so that might take some more
persuading. I need to first establish a North American credit card.
I’ll try persuading President’s Choice Financial to grant me a credit
card, considering my bank account with them. If not, I’ll switch to
TD’s secured credit card, and I’ll probably switch my savings and
current account to them as well in order to facilitate payment.

Bell.ca is the only provider with an unlimited text messaging plan, I
think. It offers unlimited text messaging for $10 per month. That plus
the $25 unlimited incoming plan works out quite well. Additional
minutes are 30c (ouch!), but I have unlimited nights (9 PM onwards,
what the heck?!) and weekend minutes. Additional fees include the 6.95
system access fee and a 75c 911 fee. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to
offer the Treo as an option, and Bell phones tend to be, well,
Bell-specific… WAAH!

Rogers seems to be the only one offering Treo, but their plans suck.

Ooh, Fido. I can do Fido. $25 for unlimited incoming (sign up before
Aug 8), and then $5 for 100 messages or $10 for 1000 messages. 1000 is
close enough to unlimited, I think. <laugh>

Fido is GSM, so if I can find a second-hand Treo that I’d be happy
with, that would work too. I want a Treo or some other Palm-based
device because I want to be able to sync my data over from Emacs and
BBDB. The Treo’s picture-taking capabilities also sound really
tempting. It’s a rather expensive device, but if I can make it worth
it by writing – must look for more things to write for! – that would
be totally awesome. I’d love to be able to use it the way Martin

The Hiptop looks tempting, but I’ll get it only if I know it works
with Linux. I want to be able to refer to all of my notes. Otherwise,
my current phone works fine. Rumor has it that I can run Linux on the
hiptop, but I’ll only do that if I keep access to all the interesting
functionality. I want to be able to take pictures.

… Maybe I should just look for a Linux-based smartphone.

Okay. Breathe. Priorities. First things first.

The very next thing I need to do in order to make this happen is to
get myself a Canada-based credit card so that I can sign up for plans
without getting it charged back to the Philippines.

The next thing I need to do is sign up for unlimited incoming and text
messaging plans. Wireless providers usually give a substantial
discount if you choose a phone together with a plan, and there’s a
$300 discount (reducing the cost to $200) if I get the Hiptop together
with a contract. However, I might be able to get a monthly plan
without a contract, then sign a contract if I’m firmly convinced that
it’s a good phone and that I can make it work.

But the very first thing I need to do is establish credit. I can do
that on Thursday.

Random Japanese sentence: 妖精は王子を猫に変えた。 The fairy changed the prince into a cat.


I want to be able to spend my days reading, learning, and trying
things out. I want to be able to share what I’ve learned with other
people through writing and speaking. I want to be a generalist,
learning about lots of different ideas and connecting them together. I
want to be able to introduce people to each other when I find synergy,
and I want to be able to pass ideas on to people who can make the most
of them.

The careers that resonate with me the most are technology journalist,
author, and speaker.

The best things I can do today in order to advance those goals are:

Physical Swap bicycles or get a skateboard
Social Keep in touch with family and friends
Mental Read a good book
Spiritual Share the results of my reflection on happiness

Random Japanese sentence: 強盗は屋根からあの邸宅に入ったに違いない。 The cat burglar must have entered the mansion from the roof.