Category Archives: reflection

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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
reuse.

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
myself.

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.

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Imagining the future

Wow. Don Marti has career advice for me. Wow.

Sacha, saying that you don’t want to be a programmer in
the 21st century because you don’t want Marketing between you and the
user is like saying you didn’t want to be a programmer in the 20th
century because you didn’t like waiting for the operator who carries
your stack of punch cards to the computer. The way software
development gets organized is always changing. It’s getting lighter
weight all the time.

And he’s right, you know. I enjoy stitching systems together and
thinking of just the right tool(s) to fit people’s needs. I love
working with people to figure out how they can make those tools a part
of their lives. I need more actual practice doing this, I think – the
technology evangelism I’m doing at IBM is barely a taste – but it
seems like a lot of fun.

I want to be a technosocial architect. From Thomas Vander Wal’s description:

Looking at the digital tools we have around us: websites, social computing services and tools (social networking sites, wikis, blogs, mobile interaction, etc.), portals, intranets, mobile information access, search, recommendation services, personals, shopping, commerce, etc. and each of these is a social communication tool that is based on technology. Each of these has uses for the information beyond the digital walls of their service. Each of these has people who are interacting with other people through digital technology mediation. This goes beyond information architecture, user experience design, interaction design, application development, engineering, etc. It has needs that are more holistic (man I have been trying to avoid that word) and broad as well as deep. It is a need for understanding what is central to human social interactions. It is a need for understanding the technical and digital impact our tools and services have in mediating the social interaction between people. It is a need for understanding how to tie all of this together to best serve people and their need for information that matters to them when they want it and need it.

Maybe I can hack code _and_ people. =)

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Random Japanese sentence: 彼女がドアを開けるやいなや猫が走り出た。 No sooner had she opened the door than a cat ran out.

Ten years hence

Didith Rodrigo handled some of the classes of the Introduction to Ateneo Culture and Tradition – a frosh orientation thing in my undergrad university. Here’s what she blogged:

One of the activities we ask them to undertake is to envision themselves ten years hence and then plot a course to reach that vision. I read through the assignments. While many students sounded pretty grounded, others, well, let’s just say they need a reality check. Many were aspiring for large houses in exclusive subdivisions, luxury cars, and trips abroad. While there is nothing wrong with these dreams, I wonder whether they seriously contemplated the sort of professions they have to have in order to afford all of these. I also wonder if they asked themselves whether they will be qualified for this profession by the time they are 28.

How do I see myself ten years from now? Who do I want to be at 32 or 33?

Here’s how I want to see myself at 32:

My work engages both my technical and social sides and
helps me grow as a person. I write and speak about technology and how
people can make the most of it. I am just starting out then,
establishing myself in my field, but I show promise.

I set aside at least 20% of my work time for exploring new things and
ideas, like the way Think!Friday is encouraged within IBM and the way
Google has 20% time.

I am in an environment where I meet lots of interesting people and
where I feel safe and energized. If this is not in the Philippines, I
still maintain ties with the Philippines.

I am prepared for the next stage in my life because I have invested
time in finding some things I can do really well and through which I
can create a lot of value for others. I am beginning to prepare for
the other stages in my life by regularly investing money.

I am in a solid, committed relationship which is for mutual joy and
growth. Having met many people both in and out of relationships, I
feel that I might do well in one. (I don’t know exactly how that will
work out just yet.)

Step by step, step by step. Someday I’ll be all that, maybe even by 32.

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Random Japanese sentence: あいつ追いつめられたら何するか分からないぞ。窮鼠猫を噛むってこともあるからな。気を付けるに越したことはない。 I wouldn’t push him too far. You don’t know what he might do. I’d say you can’t be too careful. They say even a doomed mouse will bite a cat if he has no choice. [M]

Remembering my purpose; hooray for writing!

I tried to go to sleep earlier than usual last night, and I was hit by
a bout of existential angst. (I’m 22. I’m allowed to have existential
angst. ;) ) I started wondering what on earth I was doing here, etc.

I think I came to those thoughts because of various heavy things Simon
and I had been talking about over the weekend, like the senseless
tragedy of the war in Lebanon.

Looking around at my room, I poked fun at my inability to keep things
as neatly organized as people here have. I said even after a year in
Canada, I still hadn’t gotten used to it, and I’d probably make room
in my professional budget for managed housing or a housekeeping
service.

Reflecting on that further, though, I realized that that weakness of
mine wasn’t a core part of my identity and that it should never be. I
_can_ keep things neat if I take the time to, and if I can’t make the
time for that, then I should scale back my life until I can.

This led me to think about the difficulties people had around me, and
thus the existential angst. With all these problems in the world, what
am _I_ doing to help? Is what I’m doing with my research really worth
it?

Instead of ignoring it or lying awake thinking about it, I pulled out
a flashlight and one of my reflection books. There in brightly-colored
markers were all these diagrams showing how I felt about life and what
I wanted to do. (Thanks, Diane Lazaro, for giving me a creativity
kit!)

In large blue letters, one page read: “I WANT TO TELL STORIES!” With
that reminder, everything clicked into place again. I’m doing my
master’s research in social computing because I want to learn how to
effectively tell stories about technology, not just because I want an
excuse to stick around in Canada for a while. I’m part of Toastmasters
and I’m exploring writing because I want to tell stories.

I want to tell stories because so many people have such interesting
stories that can touch the lives of thousands and thousands of other
people. I want to draw people’s stories out and help them understand
themselves more. I want to tell stories that will help people imagine
what they can do with technology or how they can improve their
relationships with other people.

Maybe that’s how I can change the world. =)

I’m glad I drew those diagrams before. I love writing and drawing and
talking and thinking. I know I’m going to run into similar questions
again and again—I’m human, I forget myself—and having something to
go back to gives me great joy.

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Random Japanese sentence: 虎を大きな猫というなら、同じように猫を小さな虎といってもよい。 You may as well call a cat a small tiger as call a tiger a big cat.

Social Tech Brewing: It’s all about choices

(I think about this a fair bit even as a 22-year-old because I want to
know my values, and reflecting on my values helps me see opportunities
in which to practice them. I don’t obsess about it. It’s just that I’m
used to thinking out loud, so I find it easy to write about things
like this. =) )

One of the thoughts I took away from last night’s Social Tech Brewing
session is both discouraging and reassuring: we really can’t have it
all.

Reassuring because I am not expected to even try to have it all—but
discouraging because I am multi-dimensional and stubborn and want
it all anyway!

Many people address this problem by dividing their lives into stages:
single-mindedly focusing on business, then developing their personal
lives and finding their meaning when they’ve established themselves,
when they have enough. Or the other way around: building their family
and deepening their ties to the community, then returning to the
workforce when the children have left the nest or when they’ve
accomplished something meaningful enough.

But what is enough, and what happens to the rest of their selves?

I believe I can have the strength to walk away from opportunities.
I’ve done so before, and it gives me great pleasure to pass those
opportunities to other people. (It often works out much better, too!)

Still, I see how it’s difficult for my mom to disentangle herself from
the business and pursue other things that would enrich her life. I
also see how it’s almost impossible for one of my friends to abandon
her family and pursue a career.

I am more than a technologist. Social conditioning or not, it makes me
happy to lift someone’s mood with a smile or a hug, just as it makes
me happy to make someone’s day with a snippet of custom Emacs Lisp
code. Sometimes, the best thing I can do with my time is to write
about my research. Other times, it is to take a friend out for a
massage and listen to her intently. I hack, I geek, but I also mediate
and nurture, whether I do so by teaching or encouraging or listening.

If I choose to focus on one aspect of myself, how will I nurture all
the other aspects of me? I will not have a life that addresses only
one side.

I want to be myself every inch of the way, even if it means walking
slowly as I figure out each step.

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More thoughts on what I want to do with my life

The Labour Day weekend gave me an excellent opportunity to reflect on
what I can do with my life, and I really appreciated being able to
bounce ideas off Simon.

I have a lot of options ahead of me, and I want to think about this
carefully. My first job doesn’t have to be perfect, but it would be
good to understand what my values and priorities are. I want to be
extraordinary. I know, I’m 23 and my direction in life will change as
I discover more about myself and about others. =) But it’s good to
think about it every now and then…

So here’s where I stand, so far:

Technical: Social systems: Improving a social system such as
LinkedIn or
OpenBC would probably be the best fit for
me in terms of technical work. I would enjoy listening to users and
figuring out things that can make the tools easier to use or more
powerful. I’m more interested in systems that help people connect in
real life or in one-to-one relationships than in things like social
bookmarking, where the social aspect is often secondary. I’m also more
interested in facilitating introductions than I am in supporting
groupware, although I can do that as well. I would love to help build
systems that make it easier for people to keep in touch with lots and
lots of people (attention-based aggregators, etc?), introduce people
to others, move online connections into the real world and vice versa,
and so on.

Management: Outsourcing: The Philippines has a lot of talent,
and there are plenty of opportunities to outsource. I want to learn
how to help people set up outsourcing relationships, specify and
manage projects, and manage and train people.

These are the two prospects I feel most passionate about, and I may be
able to pursue them both. I don’t want to be so heads-down in tech
that I serve a narrow audience—only the users of my system—nor do I
want to be so heads-down in management that I lose touch with my
technical side. I think I can make this happen, though.

So, how can I go about doing that?

For social systems, there are all sorts of little things that I would
like to build for myself or suggest to other people. I can learn good
design through exposure and experience. I can write about features and
systems I would like to see. I can even prototype them. I should spend
some time learning how to make better user interfaces (a proper mouse
may help!) and prototyping things on Rails or some other quick
platform. Easy enough for me to get into.

For outsourcing, there might be a good opportunity to help set up a
relationship between Direct Leap and either QSR or Exist. I know a few
people who want to help me learn how to do this. I’m all for it!

My master’s degree can help me with both. My research is related to
the former, and my coursework is related to the latter.

Hmm. Sounds like a good plan. I’ve got other plans, just in case, but
these are the two best plans at the moment.

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