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Don't try this at home

tl;dr: By sheer coincidence, I turned my technical passion into a career. Follow me at your peril.

How I found my place in tech

This is probably not the standard lead-in, but here it is: Don't assume that finding your ultimate tech niche is something you have to do. There are even people who advocate that following your passion is a bad idea. It certainly isn't self-evident as a life goal, if you're really honest with yourself. More like, "How do I do all that grown-up stuff like food, water, shelter, and so on?

Obstinately pursuing something that peaks your interest can be a bad idea, especially if you never really find it and can't really figure out how to live with it. And by "live", I think I mean, "not be so distracted by survival that you can't practice your passion and turn it into something rare and valuable." But, then again, I operate by the idea that we should distrust all claims for the one true way.

In other words, follow your passion if you find it, but don't feel bad if you're not really passionate about anything. To misquote Milton, "They also excel who live a normal life." In fact, I might argue that living a normal life, without knowing exactly what one wants to do -- without having a passion or feeling a "calling" -- is a more difficult (and thus more praiseworthy) feat. We can be happily successful without ever having a ten-word life purpose. But that's an argument for another day.

Why did I even start looking?

Around seventh grade, I think, I visited MIT as an award for winning a science fair. My family couldn't possibly afford for me to attend -- that was out of the question from the start. I took the visit because I knew I wanted to do something tech-y and geeky, but I didn't know what that something was. You could probably say I was already looking for my unique contribution; I just didn't know that's what I was doing.

Visiting MIT, I heard about the Tech Model Railroad Club, and how the computer revolution really began with that group of students. More accurately, it started with a subset of the Club: the guys who worked on the switch-gear underneath the layout, the ones who program what goes on up top. In the late 1950s, a mainframe known as "The Hulking Giant" came to campus, and these guys covered up the overnight access slots. They competed to see who could solve various computer-friendly problems in the smallest number of instructions.

As I listened to the stories -- and as I got to know my hosts there -- I realised that a lot of these people were far more "happily successful" than anyone else I knew. They weren't all rich at that time (though most of them got that way later), but they were very happy with things as they were. While I was there, I decided that I wanted to be that kind of "happy", too.

Groceries and a Volkswagen, or where I stumbled into the treasure

One of the local legends involved a couple named Bob and Margaret. Bob was a TMRC member and one of the more prolific programmers. While pursuing his degree, he was also constantly steeped in computer language.

On Saturdays, Margaret would head out to the local Safeway to get groceries. After packing thirty cubic feet of supplies in their 28-cubic-foot Volkswagen beetle, she would head home and ask for help bringing things in.

"Would you like to help me bring in the groceries?"

"No," he would reply. And so it went for a few weeks. Finally, out of desperation, Margaret blew up.

"Why won't you help me bring in the stuff?"

"You asked me if I wanted to; you didn't ask me if I would."

Something in that story resonated deeply with me. Over time, I found myself realising that imprecise human language has a precise meaning, which is well-understood by almost everybody. At West Point, the cadets call it "quibbling" when you understand the intent of the request, but quibble with the imprecise language. Cadets don't bear quibbling well, and neither do most normal humans.

Still, that juxtaposition of computer language (precise and unforgiving) and human language (imprecise, but much less forgiving) made a significant impression on me. I had found my passion, though I didn't know it. At that point in my life, I couldn't have explained it in those terms.

How my monster pursued me

Around that same time, I gained (essentially) full-time access to a working UNIX system. Bell Labs had started licensing UNIX to educational institutions as part of a response to a monopoly lawsuit, and my dad taught programming at one of those institutions. In exchange for me agreeing to go to the local college, he got me into his programming classes, and his instructor status got me random access to the system.

UNIX used plain text files. All of the tools did "precise but fuzzy" things to process text streams into other text that revealed new information. I began to compare the way humans and computers process language, and realised that my experience of UNIX was actually not a "precise but fuzzy" tool. Instead, it's a simple and powerful tool-set that can help humans whittle away at the fuzziness of text data until it made enough sense to use.

You can't outrun a dragon

It wasn't hard to pursue and tune my passionate interest. For one thing, there was a natural progression in the open-source world. It started with UNIX, of course, but then there was Linux, and emacs, and finally org-mode. Along with a basket of other languages geared toward text processing, I might add.

As the rules for text processing expanded -- many different command line tools, languages, and regular expression sets -- so too did the way humans interacted with plain text. No linguistic complexity seemed too hard to be encoded in a text pattern, which could then be searched, sliced, diced, rearranged, reformatted, and presented in a new way, with new insight.

Clarity set in: the UNIX philosophy, which was not so much codified as tacitly understood, looked like a useful human philosophy. I began to explore this idea when I was only 30. At first, I thought I might be reconstituting the freeze-dried personal philosophy of one of the early UNIX creators, or someone who had substantially imprinted on UNIX as it developed.

Eventually, of course, I discovered that the UNIX philosophy encoded a lot of little pieces from a lot of different contributors. It wasn't the coherent philosophy of one person so much as a rendering of group-think that carried no hidden agenda. What I was un-bundling was unique to the zeitgeist of UNIX, but also uniquely human; it just wasn't unique to any one human in particular.

It became my quest to understand these cultural engrams and write them down. I wanted to codify them because I was curious, but the original written list also resonated with me:

  • Keep it simple
  • Network
  • Do one thing well
  • Use what you have
  • Say what you mean
  • Be who you are
  • Use leverage
  • Think ahead
  • Never say never (or "have faith", your choice)
  • Hack

Over many years, I tried to make sure that I wasn't just impressing myself on this list. In some cases, it was easy to prove (network, say what you mean, be who you are); in others, more difficult. Eventually, though, I discovered that these were not my core values (at least, not initially), but they were core values that I admired and wanted to internalise.

How I codified my passion

The current principles that define me sound like this:

  • Simplicity: Keep it simple; it's cheaper and easier to carry around.
  • Focus: Do one thing well (at a time); multitasking is a lie.
  • Connection: Network; we are all born to connect with others.
  • Truth: Say what you mean; nothing is truer than the truth.
  • Self-education: Hack; trial and error is the only way we learn; but keep a voltmeter handy, so you don't become a memorable lesson in failure.
  • Authenticity: Be who you are; even a bent wire can carry a great light.
  • Leverage: Use or build the right tool for the job; a bigger hammer is rarely the right answer.
  • Recycle: Use what you have; always buying another one is an expensive dead-end not only for yourself, but for the species as a whole.
  • Justified faith: Never say never; all things are possible, except maybe skiing through a revolving door.
  • Scepticism: Don't choke on the enlightenment kool-aid; distrust all claims for the one true way.
  • Initiative: Patch it now; the Next Big Thing is rarely next or big, and often it doesn't even become a thing.
  • Planning: Think ahead, but don't worship your plans; today is the first day of the rest of your learning experience.
  • Curiosity: Asking "why" is The One Thing that is uniquely human; "always the more beautiful answer who asks the more beautiful question" [Cummings].
  • Self-reliance: Don't let anyone tell you who you ought to be; "nothing can bring you [real] peace but the triumph of [your own] principles" [Emerson].

These are becoming my unique values; I seem to apply them more and more often, and worry less and less about what other people think of them. I find myself happily pursuing things without worrying about what I'm going to get out of it. As an ambassador for them, I am still a conspicuous hypocrite a lot of the time, but I keep trying anyway.

My passion has become my career

At this writing, I work as a technical author and developer advocate for an open-source, bare-metal provisioning tool. When I applied for the job, I didn't submit the traditional resume; instead, I answered the job description as an emacs org-mode file. It seemed like a reasonable risk, and it worked.

Every day, I remind myself that someone is paying me to work on open source. But if I didn't work for this company, I'm quite sure I'd be earning a good living doing the same type of work somewhere. Following my nose and seeking my passion seems to have given me rare and valuable skills for certain types of work.

Let me reiterate a point: my life journey doesn't refute Cal Newport's premise, that "follow your passion is a bad idea". It took the better part of my life so far to find this place. The road has been rocky and difficult. Random chance and accidental, just-in-time happenstance brought me here, and this was definitely not overnight success. Those are not great odds; this path is not for the faint of heart.

Still, if you aren't faint of heart, and something gets hold of you so deeply that you can't put it aside, sometimes your only choice is to go with it. And it's entirely possible that these kind of meta-principles can help you in any career you choose. My own path has been a little more self-contained, if difficult at times. Maybe you can figure out how to avoid the land-mines, potholes, and pits in the road.

From my perspective, it's definitely worth a try.

Updated 2022-06-19 Sun 19:45.
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