Career planning (and other totally inconsequential things)

Last weekend I was in Chicago, visiting my older brother Tim and his wife, because it was my younger brother Ben’s birthday. We had plenty of fun gaming together into the unholy hours of the morning, especially Ben, who stayed up all night playing Skyrim. He got a new (well, refurbished) laptop–a fairly recent model Latitude, very nice–and I got him seven cheapish games to put on it, plus RPG Maker VX Ace (normally $70, only $24 when I got it from Humble Bundle’s end of summer sale). The latter is my way of making sure he gets an introduction to programming for his 13th birthday, as I did for mine, although I noted that Ben would probably appreciate an introduction that wasn’t a textbook. He doesn’t have quite so much patience for them as I did, I think.

This is in between my trying to deal with a headhunter who, it has to be said, kind of made me feel like I was talking to a used car salesman.

He was very excited about me. He had a job opening for me and “badly want[ed] to talk to me” because I was a “strong candidate.” He sent me business-speak job descriptions that didn’t actually tell me what the job did, but he was very insistent that I should interview as soon as possible because this “opportunity” might go away soon.

It wasn’t that the job was bogus–it was a John Deere job, and I actually am about as qualified as you can find for this job in this area–but that I think he was foreign (because of his name and slightly stilted grammar), not very good at persuading Americans yet, and hadn’t found enough candidates to meet his quota or something.

He called first on Thursday, while I was at work, and I ignored him; I was booked for the rest of the afternoon/evening working on Raspberry Signage at school, but when I looked through my email, I’d found multiple (duplicate) emails from his company.

The next day at work, they called me again… at the same time. (If that was a bad time of day the day before, why try the same thing again?!) Then they emailed me again. I emailed back, and then emailed my resume when I got home, offering to interview on Monday. This guy said he wanted me to interview later that day (Friday; bear in mind it was already 1pm), except I’d left for Chicago by then. I emailed over the weekend and said he’d have to take Monday, so where should I be and at what time.

Monday rolled around and he hadn’t emailed back, so I sent another message asking about it. Instead of telling me time and place, he’s suddenly not urgent and wants me to review the details of the job again. I say I don’t want to work a three year contract. He says the job is for three years, and could I do that. I say no, I don’t want to work a three year contract, but offer to interview anyway and negotiate. I say I could be talked into a one year contract. I say that if the deal is particularly good I might consider the longer contract. I say that even if it doesn’t work out, it’ll look good for him because he sent along a qualified candidate.

What does he do then? He drops me. He gives me a generic “we’ll keep you in our records” message and then leaves. I’ve been thinking about going straight to John Deere and asking about the job without going through their headhunters… I’m not totally sure how to do that, though, and I don’t want to work a three year contract. I don’t want to be pinned down to any one city, especially not my hometown, which is not rich in hackers, and I don’t want to commit that much time to a job I’m not sure I’ll like. Maybe I should just go in person and talk to their hiring/HR/whatever department.

Anyway, that’s my gripe out of the way. Don’t get me wrong, I like being contacted by headhunters, I just thought this one was not very considerate.

I’m trying to decide which city to land in. I’m very fond of KC, but my mom isn’t. It’s a 6.5 hour drive from home at best, for one. (That’s in September. It’d be worse in January.) Also, the driving in KC is pretty awful–much as I like how friendly and creative the people are, they’re also terrible drivers. My mom is used to Chicago driving and manages easily there, but KC was an anxiety attack for her–that’s how crazy it is. I like the culture and the people there, and the weather, and the low living expenses. It has a vibe of creativity, like everyone there likes to make new things.

Mom’s trying to sell me on the idea of Chicago, which is three or four hours away. I don’t really need to be sold on the idea of Chicago as an awesome place, I’m just working on reconciling it as a place I want to live. It has a bunch of stuff KC lacks–sane(r) driving, a larger and denser metropolitan area, more diversity, and better colleges–but it also includes qualities that are the opposite of what I like about KC: the people aren’t too friendly (by the standards of a small-city Iowa girl), the weather is weird because of the lake and not very warm, and it’s expensive to live there. I haven’t spent a long enough stretch of time in Chicago proper to understand quite what the city’s “message” is–I would say it’s somewhere between independence, wealth, and a desire to be urban chic.

Then there are the vague pulls of the famous hacker universities in California and Cambridge. It’s like–I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. I want to land somewhere with a serious culture of the kind of people who, if you approached them with a startup idea, would get fired up about it and start building it with you. People who aren’t content to just go to school and then settle down into a Dilbert career doing something they don’t really understand. People who understand that molds and roles they’re expected to fit into are completely ephemeral in technology, and that if they’re good hackers who like to work and make things, they can beat out their own way. People who want to make something big and important.

In short, I’m looking for a community of ambitious hackers. Ambition gets lonely without company; that’s why startup hubs work. I want other people around to inspire me to create more, and to partner with me in making it great. Berkeley, Stanford, MIT and Harvard are all kind of… brand names for that culture. More expensive, but a good, known reputation.

Of course, I don’t really have the formal credentials traditionally required to get into those schools anyway. My GPA bobs pretty much constantly around 3.5. I have a GED instead of a finished HS transcript, and my AAS degree doesn’t necessarily transfer enough credits for me to be considered a full-on transfer student. I don’t look very impressive on paper. On the other hand, a college-degreed 19-year-old with an internship and a big project under her belt does look impressive–just not in the ways colleges are looking for.

It’s funny how the colleges most known for being hacker-land might look down on me for hacking my education. But they’re honestly not my top choice anyway, because they’re expensive and really far from home.

Tim thinks I should look into University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which I was thinking about earlier anyway. They’re supposed to have a good CS program. I don’t know, though. I’d have to have a good look at the city and the vibe around the campus. Tours are great and I’m sure my parents would like to discuss with the advisors and so on, but I think I’d learn more about the place by sitting on a bench in the middle of the quad with a sandwich and watching people, and maybe having a chat with a few students who aren’t being paid to sell me the place. I’ve never been in the city, so I don’t have much to say about it.

I forget whether I’ve mentioned on the blog, but I don’t plan to finish my four-year degree. I intend to go for a year or two, maybe three if it’s part-time while I work–basically until my college savings account runs out of money–and then I’ll find my own stuff to do. I’m only going to get better at programming as I continue, and I don’t think I’ll have an issue finding a job, ad hoc schooling or not.

I’ve been thinking about bouncing around from city to city. If I don’t plan to finish a degree anyway, I don’t need to worry about credits transferring, so there’s nothing to worry about if I go to Chicago for a year, make friends and contacts, take classes, and work for that year, and then go to Kansas City the next year and do the same thing, and then I’d know which one I really liked better–in fact, if I wanted, I could go to Silicon Valley or Cambridge for a year after that. The one anchor I have is my hometown, and it’s not as strong an anchor as, for example, a mortgage or a dependent family.

The appeal of that idea is really strong to me. I think one could learn a lot about the world with that method. You can see what’s out there without committing to anything until you know you like it really well. It seems like a good way to put yourself in a position that keeps your options open and allows some of those options to be the big, adventurous kind I’m especially attracted to. It’s a way to balance the ambitious/crazy with some practical.

If I found a good job offer in my hometown for the year, though, I’d seriously consider it. My city’s a nice place to live. My problem with my hometown is twofold: there aren’t enough programmers, and that it’s my hometown. I feel like a coiled spring here. I’ll be awfully homesick when I do leave, but I need to get out and adapt to, you know, being an adult. That’s not going to happen as long as I’m living in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house.

Aside from that option, the first city I tackle will be one of the three I mentioned: KC, Chicago, or Urbana-Champaign. Namely, the one that has the best job offer for me after I go looking this spring. It’s an anti-decision, really–a way for me not to have to choose–but my mom seems to be happy with the compromise. My dad is still coming around to the idea that I won’t finish my four-year degree, but it helps that Tim never got a computer related degree and is now working as a well-paid developer based on his personal merit.

Wow, this got long. I had a lot on my mind.


Doing Science, Still Alive

I’m swamped! This post can’t be long as I have to get back to doing stuff.

The KC visit was scheduled in late June–I couldn’t have predicted at the time how booked I’d be on classwork now–and the money was spent back then so it was already a done deal and not something I had a real option of canceling. But I still feel kind of irresponsible about going.

It’s just as well I couldn’t cancel, though. The trip provided some necessary information:

Kansas City is where I want to be.

The maker culture is really strong there. Techies and artists especially, but the general culture of people doing things and creating valuable stuff is flourishing down there. It’s full of the kind of people hackers would deem honorary colleagues, whether or not they’re in technology.

There are some really neat startups there. The “entrepreneurial scene,” as several people described it, is not just present but seems to be growing along with the city.

UMKC is a nice university. I have a few gripes with it, but the main thing I’m looking for there is the other students, and on that measure I think it’ll do well. We were there on a Monday afternoon and everyone looked like they wanted to be there. And like they turned on the lights before they got dressed, which isn’t really something you get at community college. They all looked awake, sober, and friendly. That’s not to say a handful of people weren’t nursing hangovers in unsettling tie-dye sweatpants in their dorms, but I think we saw a good slice of the school and they generally seemed happy. Sizeable nerd population, too.

I spent almost a full week in KC, and, because I was listening for it, I picked up on the city’s message (a la Paul Graham). The same way New York values money, Cambridge values intelligence, Silicon Valley values power, and LA values fame, Kansas City seems to value creativity. Originality. Uniqueness, but not in the stilted, manufactured way found among the “art kids” in a high school. They prize the ability to have new and interesting ideas, and then make something neat with them.

It’s as though I built the place.

That “message,” really, is why I believe the city could grow to be a startup hub. Maybe not one to rival Silicon Valley, but it could probably surpass Boston. Especially since the people are super-friendly, which is not something that happens in Boston.

That was valuable information, and I’m glad I went to get it. But it came with a hefty price tag: my sanity now.

Three out of four of my classes are having technical difficulties. Including Cisco’s networking academy site. (Yeah…) The one that isn’t having issues is Raspberry Signage, my Honors project, because I control the tech involved with that.

One of my classes, which is vaguely named “Innovations in Technology,” is a research class. It’s required. In other words, it’s the school forcing people to do what I do in my free time anyway: research techie things and then write about them. I’ve asked if I can push my papers to this blog as well; they’re basically more formal versions of stuff I frequently talk about anyway.

I was late to form my list of topics, as it was the assignment going on while I was at KC, so someone had already taken Linux (which would have been an easy topic), but that’s probably for the best as I’d have a hard time sifting out my own knowledge and citing everything. I don’t know where all my knowledge came from. Some of it is trial and error (“original research”). Besides, this may mean that a non-Linux-aficionado will work his way into the culture.

I did take open source as a topic, though, even though it’s not a recent innovation; I just want the chance to write about CatB. And startups; nobody claimed tech startups as a topic. Plus I picked a bunch of stuff I saw or worked with at TechWeek: agricultural drones, biotech, IBM Watson/Bluemix. I wanted to research Drupal and Lisp, and I wanted to write about privacy and technology, and a quick Google search unearthed Firefox OS and graphene as two more potentially interesting topics. I hope I can share my writing here; it sounds like maybe something you’d be interested in reading about.

Anyway, I have about eight networking labs to go through, a (mercifully short) research paper to write and then submit on a site that’s being flaky, a 200-page e-book to read on a piece of software I can’t get working, a bunch of little exams to take that aren’t working either, and a long and technical email to put together and send before I’m caught up.

Oh, well. I guess it’s been worse before, and I pulled through. Wasn’t fun though. Here, have a weird song sung by robots about it. I’m gonna have this thing stuck in my head all week, aren’t I? Sigh.

Techweek in Kansas City

Really thinking about going!

Kansas City’s Techweek runs from September 14-20. Even if I have to take a week off of classes or a job I might have by that point, I think it’ll be worth it. Techweek includes a hiring fair, a 24-hour hackathon, and a lot of opportunities to meet all kinds of people, from hackers to startup founders to business execs to tech investors. It is an opportunity to schmooze, hack, and talk shop for a week straight, and it sounds like a lot of fun.

I shouldn’t stick out too badly. I regularly get mistaken for being in my mid-twenties, even though as of this writing I’m still 48 hours away from even being 18. (It’s probably how I talk, which is very similar to how I write, possibly because I spend more time writing than talking.) Besides, according to the Techweek attendance stats, a tenth of the attenders are under 24 anyway–probably because basic attendee passes for students are $20 and the cities that feature Techweek are also university towns. So they probably get a lot of curious college students splurging $20 to check things out, or maybe because they want in on the hiring fair.

My folks would not be too keen on my traveling to a strange city for a week by myself, so my mom would be coming with me. She’s not interested in the conference, but she’ll enjoy just wandering around KC and visiting art museums and antique stores and stuff. I have to admit: by the end of such an event, I’d be way too exhausted to drive all the way back to eastern Iowa!

Funny coincidence that I ran into Techweek and the tech startup culture surrounding it, because I’ve just started working on a startup idea of my own. It’s kind of nebulous right now and I’m too tired to describe it here right now, but it is an idea for a mobile app and it’s something I think a lot of people would really normalize into their everyday life. I think it would be cool to finish a working prototype before Techweek so I’d have something to show off. But I can’t make myself any promises, because I’m still learning to really work with OO languages–let alone programming for a mobile platform, which is totally new to me. Still! I’m a teenager, in the summer, with comparatively few commitments, and I learn fast. Let’s see what I can do. >:]

Yes, I’m aware there’s been some sexism controversy because Techweek sent out an email with a certain picture in it last year. Before anyone asks… yes, it was inappropriate and deserved to be called out, but no, that doesn’t mean I think the people refusing to attend were reacting reasonably. Similarly, I think that NASA guy’s shirt looked desperate and needed to be burned because come on, it was pretty awful, but seriously guys. It’s a shirt. And yeah, Tim Hunt obviously has some personal issues, and #distractinglysexy is hilarious, but he didn’t need to be sacked. No, it isn’t appropriate for someone with such fame and weight to say stuff like that, but one guy making a dumb remark is not going to topple techie women’s rights. Basically, every time someone says something against techie girls in a major setting, it gets blown out of proportion.

This actually hurts more than it helps, because when I or any other techie lady goes to superiors to report that we’re actually being stigmatized, being condescended towards every day by some jackal who thinks it’s funny and they can get away with belittling us, the people we’re relying on to fix things assume we’re blowing the situation out of proportion just like on TV. Those in the media think they’re pulling the situation up by its roots by getting rid of the most public sources of discrimination, but they’ve never had a personal issue they needed to report and not been taken seriously.

*climbs off soapbox*