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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