Category: Real Jobs

The past is a foreign country: I miss my friends who live there

In April my friend Russ Gilman-Hunt died. He was one of the first four people who worked at my job with me. He was funny, kind and clever. He was not very much older than me, but he had a deadpan world-weary affect and a quiet warmth that made him seem like everyone’s dad. I wish I had known him better, but most of his life was outside work, with his wife and two children and his community in the SCA. I wish they still had him.

In May I lost the job where I had worked with Russ, as did a number of my colleagues. I have a lot of support from people who care for me, and I am lucky in my socioeconomic class; that has allowed me to inform myself that this is an opportunity, more than a setback. (I have done so often and stridently.) I will probably have a new job soon. I like working, if not always working terribly hard. I hope I can make that work amount to something good.

It sometimes feels like the only things I write here are podcast show notes and epitaphs. I haven’t allowed myself much time to work on podcasts in the last month; hunting for what I perceive as a replacement means of survival has meant little available concentration for creative work. So this goes in the epitaph category. Sure wish there were fewer of those.

I didn’t always love my old job but I always liked it, and I took comfort in the idea that I was cultivating a good place to bring in new people and help them excel. I wanted to contribute patches to the leaky pipeline. I think Russ did too. I don’t know how much of that we managed. Some of the people I patched in got laid off with me. I’d say we did what good we could while seeing to our own survival, but. Well.

A job that you treat like just a job is, eventually, just a job. I want the work of my life to be more than that. Maybe in seven more years—if, God forbid, this WordPress install is still operating—I’ll tell you how that’s going.

In February I got an email from my old laptop, and then another, both suggesting that it was in Germany. I had not seen that laptop since it left the back of my car through a shattered window in 2010. The home page of its default browser, at the time, happened to be one I controlled and that was not linked anywhere else, so I told that page to blare alarms and notify me when and whence it was requested. It took seven years for that to (probably?) happen. I wonder if someone actually has that laptop, in more or less the same crumbling shape it was when it vanished. I wonder how well they read English, and what they can find out about me if they dig around on it. Surely nothing worse than the things I’ve written here myself.

I guess what I am doing here is reflecting, which is to say, looking for myself in a flawed surface. I started writing online in part because I wanted attention and in part because I already knew that my built-in memory could not be trusted to retain my life. My pipe is too leaky. All pipes are too leaky. Among my driving fears is the idea that anything I lose is lost forever, and that history unminded is a black hole, a /dev/null, a point of no return.

But to really believe that is to assert that I know the future, which is presumptive: the future and I have never met. Sometimes a setback is an opportunity. Sometimes the past writes you an email. Sometimes a kid whose dad dies grows up a whole person anyway. Even black holes leak back.

I realized later I should have made them say “BAD” and “ASSSSSS”


This is my current setup at work–since starting there last October, I’ve gradually advanced from working solely on my battered white Macbook to a laptop-and-monitor setup, then to a Mac Mini-and-monitor when my laptop got stolen, and now at last to the glorious panopticon you see above. I’m trying the portrait screen for my email client, SQL client, terminal and (mostly) IDE, and so far I really like it. I got the idea from some interview about a high-ranking Google engineer’s setup that I can’t be bothered to find now. Ben (the boss) said he thinks it originated with Flight Simulator junkies.

You can just barely see my tiny, mighty computer and a box of rejected business cards peeking out from under the right monitor stand; on the left are various plastic utensils, half a bag of snack chips, and a ceramic dish Kara gave me for reheating leftovers in the work microwave. The latter contains the Magical Neverending Napkin Supply. I never request or grab napkins from lunch places anymore, I just take whatever they throw in the carryout bag and put the unused ones in there. At this rate, I will never exhaust it.

The headphones are the stupidly expensive ones I bought from a DJ supply shop down the street, where the DJ supplier looked at me askance when I explained that I would be using them for web development. Like all headphones, they still annoy me with trapped ear-heat and weight, but they provide good isolation and I can stand them a lot longer than anything I’d tried before. I would have paid the whole price just to have the padded cups that go around (as opposed to pressing directly on) my ears.

Uh, what else can you see in there? Venerable iPod sitting on the Mini waiting to be plugged in, sexy aluminum keyboard that likes to shock me if I scuff my feet too much, expensive Logitech mouse with the click-and-lock free-scrolling mouse wheel that is fun but not actually that much of a productivity enhancer. Don’t tell Ben, he paid for that too. The little gray wrist cushion doubles as a stress ball / fidget toy. The books in the right corner are copies of the Ruby Cookbook and Mastering Regular Expressions, both of which I will go to great lengths to avoid cracking open. The shadow on the left is my hat.

That’s no battle station

A few weeks ago, Kara and I went out to dinner at a fancy restaurant for her stepdad’s birthday, and I got to meet several members of her extended family for the first time. It was a really nice dinner and we all enjoyed ourselves. Then we walked out to the car, got in, started the engine, glanced backwards and realized that someone had smashed in the rear passenger window and stolen my bag, containing books and my laptop, and a couple hundred dollars’ worth of new clothes Kara had just had delivered by UPS. Have I mentioned that it was raining?

The waitstaff at the restaurant informed us that this was the fourth such smash-and-grab from their parking lot in three weeks. There is no camera or floodlight there. I still need to call up the building owners for a polite discussion about that.

The whole situation sucked a lot, but we got the window replaced and Kara got some of the clothes replaced by a kind friend for her birthday. My car insurance covered the window but not the contents; Kara’s home insurance would have covered them, but in neither instance did the damage meet the deductible. (I had to buy a new windshield after a rock chip incident last summer, too, so I have now replaced about 40% of the glass on my car out of pocket.) The fact is that we are very fortunate to have afforded such luxuries to begin with, and remain both fortunate and luxurious.

I replaced the laptop with a much newer, shinier, more expensive version, but then my boss took the opportunity to buy a nice new Mac Mini for my desk at work (I had been using the aforementioned four-year-old Macbook) and I returned it. The laptopless life is one plagued with tiny inconveniences, so I’ll probably buy it again in a few months when they update the hardware.

The point of this post is to eulogize my old dingy white Macbook, which, for a refurbished computer at the very low end of Apple’s lineup, did me proud for three and a half years. I used it as my only work machine for much of that time; it accompanied me to London, Innsbruck, Winston-Salem, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, London again, Paris, and Taastrup, where I dumped a glass of water into it and actually managed to grow mold on its hard drive. And then I replaced said drive and used it at the new job for another six months! No one could have asked more.

Thanks, Macbook. You were a good computer.

Geek Note: For reasons I can’t remember now, I named the laptop DEATHSTAR on our home network when I first bought it; after the hard drive resurrection (and, for the first time, the switch out of Boot Camp to native OS X), I rechristened it Fully Operational. Apparently every Death Star gets destroyed, though, so I have moved on to a new naming convention. Kara’s and my iMac is now the Batcave, the Mac Mini is the Batpod, and whenever I get the laptop again, it will be the Tumbler.

Update 2255 hrs: Kara has informed me that the iMac is named Hodge, after John Hodgman, and always will be, and HOW COULD I THINK THAT, and WHAT AM I GOING TO DO TO OUR CHILDREN, RENAME THEM EVERY TIME I READ A BOOK. (I say he’s only Hodge as long as Windows is running. He is a PC.)

New job is new

Areas in which I have attained some level of competence in the last three weeks, after putting off or avoiding learning about them for three to ten years:

  • OS X and Unix environments in general
  • Debugging tools and IDE development
  • Regular expressions
  • Public-key authentication
  • Bash scripting
  • WordPress hooks
  • How to page down in Emacs

It’s… it’s almost as if being challenged can cause you to grow!

I went on a shopping spree for this occasion because it turns out I was down to one pair of pants

I start a new job today! A real job in an office, where I have to commute, in pants! Well, actually I’m still contracting until the end of the year, but if all goes well I’ll be an employee after that. I understand the pants part stays the same.

I’ll be working in a little development shop with four guys, two blocks from Kara, making web sites work on your cell phone. (Not on my cell phone! My cell phone barely gets texts.) I have ranklements about the necessity of the change that I will not air here, in the interest of respect for metaphorical bridges, but it will be good to stop sitting around clicking the Twitbook and stuffing handfuls of trail mix into my mouth all day.

It’s going to be fun! I’m excited. Remind me that I said this in a month.

Helpful Tips on Being a Man in Professional Software Development

  • First of all: relax. There are more men in engineering professions than ever before; you’re not alone. What’s more, some very well-known and talented programmers are men!
  • In preparing for a career in software, learn everything you can. If you went to a school like mine, you probably found the computer science program scanty and unable to address your needs. Apply yourself hard and do plenty of independent work to overcome this deficit.
  • Studies have shown time and again that the myth of men lacking mathematical or computational ability is a complete falsehood. Make sure to have the details of these studies memorized, or naysayers are unlikely to believe you.
  • When interviewing for a software job, appear confident but not brash. Look your interviewer(s) directly in the eye and use a firm handshake; study up and be ready to reel off technical jargon when your skills are questioned. If at all possible, resist the urge to giggle.
  • Your first few days on the job may be uncomfortable. Try not to bridle when a colleague mistakes you for an intern or an administrative assistant (but make the copies anyway–it may help ingratiate you later). Correct each mistake politely, and if you hear some muttering about how you only got the job because of a gender quota, just ignore it and keep your head high.
  • Keep in mind that your mistakes will receive extra scrutiny. If you run into a problem outside your area of knowledge, you can demonstrate independence by searching for a solution first before going to a female coworker for help.
  • Everyone gets caught in a mass-forward chain from time to time. Should you open up an email titled “hot pic of the day!!! =O” and find yourself once again staring at a coquettish Randall Munroe or a wet-shirted Idris Elba, just roll your eyes and hit delete. (Of course, you may have your own admiring comment to contribute–so much the better for you!)
  • When writing out use-case diagrams, resist the urge to refer to hypothetical agents with male pronouns. Chances are you’ll just be seen as “trying to make a statement,” and may gain a reputation for being outspoken. Stick with third-person plural, or, if you must, “she or he.”
  • Similarly, when the leader of a meeting addresses you collectively as “ladies,” let it slide. No one likes a nitpicker.
  • Should you decide to pursue a romantic relationship in the workplace, use extreme caution! Dating a superior will lead to suspicion that you are doling out “favors” in exchange for having your patches accepted or your issues escalated first.
  • Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Yes, we know you have some hilarious slogan t-shirts in your closet that can help you attract attention (and maybe even feel a little saucy). But that’s not the way to climb the ladder! A button-down, some pressed slacks and a hint of eyeliner will help ensure that your coworkers take you seriously.
  • The most significant challenge facing men of our generation is how to balance a career with one’s family and children. No one’s pretending it’s easy! But if you manage your responsibilities, take a hard look at your workload, and make out a detailed ten-year plan, you can almost certainly persuade your wife to abandon her dreams and do all the real work.
  • We all know that the pressure of being male in today’s workplace can be overwhelming. Many men have a tendency to lash out in frustration before considering the consequences of their words, especially when their testosterone levels are a little off-balance, and that does nothing to help our cause. No matter what kind of sarcastic, demeaning commentary comes your way, try to hold onto your sense of humor and your dignity. With a little luck, as long as you never lose your cool, your colleagues will eventually come to see you as just one of the girls.

Project Management Software Survey

Hi. Do you work in an information-based company? Do you use some form of project management software? I would like your input.

At my job, we use a motley collection of software–a hosted timesheet solution with integrated project tracking, Outlook, and most recently Bugzilla. Because I work remotely, my exposure to these is actually pretty minimal, which can cause problems.

I’m curious about what features of project management software you or your colleagues actually use. Do you just create projects and subprojects and assign them to people? Do you track hours or just tasks completed? Do you use Gantt charts or critical paths? Automated risk highlighting? What features do you personally depend on, and which parts just seem like annoying busywork?

Comments are turned on for this post (for real this time), or you can email me.

I don’t even LIKE jeans

Yesterday, for my job, I implemented some web-marketing stuff that included me actually typing out the following text, which... well, I don't want to reproduce it for fear of google, but I've rot13ed it below; click the button to read it.

Where was I entering this marketing text, you ask?

A MySpace page.

It's not like I was pretending I hadn't sold my soul long ago. I just hadn't realized it was going so cheap.