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.

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Travelling

Welp. I guess this won’t be much of a dev weekend like I was thinking it’d be. My folks and I are running across a couple different states to get a puppy, and the plans changed at kind of the last minute and we’re spending the entire weekend out of town.

It’s beautiful here in Wisconsin. The country around here looks like the kind of wallpaper that comes pre-loaded on computers: misty green forests, sunsets over rivers dotted with tiny islands, big limestone cliffs with little caves in them. There are giant rolling hills, outcroppings of land covered in trees, and big swaths of farmland and pasture with corn and cows. From a picture you’d think it was Sweden or Germany or something.

Fortunately, it isn’t Sweden, so we aren’t freezing to death. But there are a ton of bugs. During the latter part of the drive up to where we’re staying for the night, there was an ongoing discussion: is it raining, or is that pattering noise just all the bugs that are hitting the car? It was the bugs. “A lot of fish flies” just doesn’t cut the descriptive mustard. On top of that, my dad had forgotten to put windshield washer fluid in the wipers. Attempting to wipe the windshield… wasn’t pretty. I was glad I wasn’t driving just then.

I still feel disappointed about missing my tinypapers deadline, though. Because that’s almost certainly going to happen. I don’t have much of an opportunity right now to do the dev work that would push it over the boundary into giving it a quantum of utility. Ultimately I shouldn’t have left it so long. I’m not sure it was entirely my choice, though.

This new job is frustrating on a few different levels. I’m not going to go into much detail except that lots of things are obsolete, nothing is well documented, and they didn’t actually need a programmer because the entire job seems to be data entry. For various reasons, it’s an emotionally exhausting job.

I don’t mean it’s exhausting because it’s hard. I mean because it’s easy. I can hack and hack and hack for hours on end; working eight hours straight on a program and only stopping to eat at my desk is fine, even if things don’t want to behave. But I have a hard time sitting around and doing simple, brainless, repetitive stuff. It’s like being back in high school, except the people here are way nicer. I keep expecting them to be nasty or gossipy towards me, but they’re awesome. If I have a question or even just look confused, they’ll drop what they’re doing to help. I brought in three dozen donuts earlier today, enough for the whole workplace, and I think every one of them dropped into the office end of the building or stopped me in the break room to say thank you.

So, it’s definitely not the worst job I could have, by any means. And it only lasts a few months. But it’s killing my brain! It drains my energy and then I go home and consider: tinypapers? And then: ugh, no, sleep. Or: nope, nope, need to clean my room or something. But while I’m at work, I have two desires: 1) Whitey’s ice cream, and 2) to be working on tinypapers.

(3, to have the program I’m working with actually function, doesn’t come into play; I know it’s not going to happen without either my fussing and fiddling and being frustrated for thirty minutes before finally fixing it, or failing that, my supervisor coming in and clicking on things until it somehow ends up working. I don’t know how he knows what to do because there isn’t much for documentation on the program and it’s pretty useless–and I’m a wizard at making weird programs do what I want, so it’s not that I have low standards for this sort of thing. But, well… given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.)

Yet when I get home, the desire to work on tinypapers vanishes. (For whatever reason, so does the craving for Whitey’s. No, I have no idea.) And then I just want to do some dumb Internet things and then go to bed. It’s not an effect of home, because I was perfectly productive on tinypapers before.

I was aware this job would take up time. I was also aware it would take up energy; however, I didn’t think it was going to take up this much energy. I think it’s getting better on that front, so maybe I’m adjusting and my dev speed will go back to being about proportional to the the time I’m spending on tinypapers.

I have no idea how school is going to work on top of this. It’s gonna be crazy.

I don’t want to set tinypapers aside in order to “adjust” to school and work. I want to see progress. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet transcended human limitations like energy level, stress level, and the effects of motivation.

I’m inclined to be harsh on myself regarding this sort of thing. I don’t like to make excuses as to why I’m not making progress, because I’ve been thinking of tinypapers as a startup, and startups won’t take excuses later so I shouldn’t start now. However, if you quit your day job and leave college to work on your startup, those are two big time- and energy-sinks out of your life. And humans have physical and biological/psychological limits on their time and energy (respectively). So where do you draw the line? Where is an excuse for not producing (to a self-set standard) valid, and where is it BS?

I would work on tinypapers even if it had no chance of becoming what I think of as a “real” startup: defined as one where you work on it (and its related chores) full-time, and where it probably has funding. I would work on it even if the only option were for me to distribute it freely as open-source. It’s working on solving a problem I personally face and want solved. But I wonder if I’d pressure myself to work on it as much if I only thought of it as a project and not a startup. Would it lag? Would it become stagnant?

Hmm. I don’t think so. I’ve spent about a quarter of my life so far with a novel constantly under construction, and they didn’t lag much unless I was totally out of ideas or was into something else (like when I switched to programming). But they weren’t always fast. I didn’t always prioritize them. And I was quite certain no one was writing the same stories I was (at least not in the same way), so it wasn’t like I was developing quickly in order to be the first to market or anything.

I don’t think it can be applied to programming projects you want to make into startups. I’m going to just have to keep reminding myself not to be so hard on me, and keep prioritizing my time hacking away when I can. I guess that’s all I can do.