Let me be real with you all, right at the jump-off: I’m not really a “productive developer,” per the conventional, acing-this-interview definition. I don’t really have anything going in the way of open source projects. I’d gnaw my leg off to escape a “hackathon.” It’s Friday as I write this; I’m leavin’ at 5:00pm sharp today, and I won’t touch a computer until Monday. I won’t even check my email.
As established as I am at this point in my career, the idea of publishing the previous paragraph still leaves me a little rattled. I can’t help feeling like I might be shooting myself in the foot just a tiny bit, admitting that I only spend half of my waking life in the pursuit of making websites. Somewhere deep down, it still feels like should be apologizing for not devoting my time—my own time, owed to nobody but myself—to unpaid work.
But no. No—come five o’clock today, I’m goin’ home. Maybe I’ll play a video game, maybe I’ll binge-watch an anime about handsome figure skaters, maybe I’ll fall asleep on the couch watching old kung fu movies with my dog. None of this—I promise you—will make me a better developer. In fact, I refuse to let them.
I started making websites back in… maybe 2007, 2008? I can’t remember. I was in my twenties; who can remember anything from that long ago? I’d just hurled myself off the rails of a career track made entirely of brightly-colored polo shirts and nametags, baseball caps with embroidered logos and slinging all-day breakfasts, frozen roofs and two pairs of thermal underwear under two pairs of jeans under a too-heavy toolbelt. My face was still wind-burned from three months of hitchhiking around the east coast.
I was furious, back then. Not least of all because—again—I was in my twenties, and that’s what twenties are for. The hitchhiking came about at peak frustration: working in a mall kiosk, shouting at passer-by about “free RAZR™ phones.” I had no degree, no prospects, no connections, no plans worth making—so I left. I started walking. The months that followed are a set of stories for another time; corner me over a beer someday.
Point is, I came back with half a plan: I’d made a website, and I was pretty sure I could make another. I borrowed enough money to buy an iBook and started sitting in cafés—because, I figured, that was how “creative” jobs worked—feeling as out-of-place physically as I felt swatting out twenty whole words per minute on my keyboard.
I was still furious; maybe moreso. I figured that I wasn’t “supposed to” have a job with a chair, an iBook, a seat in some fancy coffee shop. I was taking them, despite the path I was supposed to have.
A couple years of wild-eyed drive later, I was bursting with pride over having become so busy—busy as a way of life—existing only in a state of “working” or “should be working.” I was a blur of caffeine and twelve-hour workdays and “passion projects.” I was productive. I was on fire. I was exhausted, but that was layers deep, below the pride and below the determination, where I could only just barely feel it creeping in on me at the edges. The chip might’ve weighed real heavy on my shoulder, but who had time to focus on that? Not with so much to prove, not when my family name was at stake, not when “making something of myself” was so important. Friends stopped calling, but I was busy anyway. I got sick a lot, but I wasn’t gonna let that stop me. I barely slept, but “sleep is for the weak.” I was, to say the least, “passionate.” I would’ve nailed interviews, back then.
Predictably, I burned out in spectacular fashion—a white-hot streak, tumbling end-over-end through the skies of Somerville, shedding engine parts in my wake. I never fully recovered from it. To this day, you can ask me if I’ve “ever considered going independent” and watch my face twist itself into a haunted rictus.
I found reasons to care about the work again, and I do. But those reasons aren’t—they can’t be—just doing the work. I have a job because I have rent to pay. This is the job I’ve got. It doesn’t define me, it isn’t proving anything, it isn’t who I am. I make meaning of it where I can, but it doesn’t get to make meaning of me. I’m damn good at what I do, but it isn’t because I’m “passionate” about typing.
My confession isn’t that I’m closing my computer for the next 48 hours. That’s no admission of guilt. I’m here to own up to all the times I didn’t.
This has all been a story about me; a story about a single guy in his early twenties trying to break into the tech industry. I may not have had the requisite paperwork, but I didn’t exactly have the deck stacked against me. I had the time, I had the energy, and—Lord help me—I had all the confidence of a mediocre white man. I regret a lot about those days.
By reducing myself to my output—by thinking I could game the system by just being more productive than everyone else, above all else—I wasn’t just doing myself a disservice. Burning myself for fuel was a luxury afforded me by immense privilege. It was selfishness under the guise of selflessness. My actions were a tacit vote for an industry standard where people could be weeded out of an interview process for not sufficiently neglecting their responsibilities, their families, their lives, their time—by not having the requisite nights-and-weekends “passion projects.” Allowing “extra credit” to become the default, isn’t just helping to make burnout the norm: it means actively excluding those who don’t have that time to spend. Setting the standards for passion, commitment, and after-hours productivity from a place of privilege makes those standards unattainable for anyone without that privilege.
I regret that I helped to forge this broken industry, for my small part in it, in my own former image: a place where passion and productivity are exalted, even if they come at personal expense. I’d helped to make that first paragraph feel dangerous in a way that it shouldn’t—not just for me, but for everyone.