You Can’t Go Home Again

I am two months and two days post table flip. A few days (today was one) have felt like mourning, with some sadness, aimlessness, anger and bitterness. I can’t put my finger on why, but I’m trying.

Something beautiful has been lost. This may be common and inevitable, but inevitability and sadness can co-exist. That’s OK.

You can dismiss this as nostalgia or aversion to change, but both of those are OK, too. There is much to be nostalgic for, and I’m not sure an aversion to change is inherently bad when that change has meant an influx of assholes, to put it plainly. (That one’s for the commenter who told me I should swear more because I earned it. I’m trying!)

Love at First Sight
For a long time — most of my life — I loved what I did and who I did it with. I loved to write code and build the Internet as much as I loved the other people who wrote code and built the Internet. My grandfather was one of these people, and he liked me best of anyone. He served in WWII and Korea, later worked for SIGINT, and spent the rest of his career as a programmer at the Department of Defense (DoD). Wait for it…

My grandfather took programming courses from Grace Hopper herself. I am one degree from Grace Hopper!

But I digress.

This is why my grandfather had a Commodore PET in 1978 and introduced me to programming on it when I was five. Like so many, I made the turtle go in LOGO.

My earliest memory of the Internet, then, is also of my grandfather (dziadek, if you’re Polish, dziad for short). The pistachio green rotary phone rang and my dziad yelled, “Don’t answer it!” My being allowed to answer the household phone was a rare treat that only my doting grandparents allowed me, so I was disappointed, which my dziad could probably see. I was only more confused when he said “It’s my friend in California!” How could my dziad know who was on the other end of the phone without having picked it up?!

Dziadek ran into his office, I followed him, and he sat down at his desk and sat me on his leg. He reached around me to type. Then he pointed at white text moving across the black screen, text he wasn’t typing. “See? That’s a message from my friend in California.” I don’t know what my face looked like, but I know it made him laugh, a lot.

From that day forward, the early Internet was — for me — a gloriously free, open, creative, non-commercial, counter culture, maker, nerdy, often subversive place, despite (in spite of? because of?) its federal origins. Though the Internet retains elements of this today, it is no longer primarily this way, culturally.

I miss that.

On Barriers to Entry
Barriers to Internet entry used to be higher than they are today. You had to have a certain level of technical skill and equipment (or a certain level of patience and educational access in order to obtain the technical skill) in order to participate.

Higher barriers to entry acted as filters in negative and positive ways. They prevented participation by people who couldn’t afford what were then very expensive computers and Internet access and difficult to obtain education (not good), but they also prevented participation by people who could afford it but were either too lazy, didn’t want to be associated with nerds, or both (very good).

I feel safe in characterizing the period of time from 1982-1998ish as one in which, generally, most programmers were not primarily motivated by making money. (Many, in fact, seemed not to care enough about money. As long as they could earn enough to eat and pay for Internet access, all was well.)

This also explains why so many of us didn’t even think to do something like domain squat, before Coca Cola, most universities, and all hotels, banks, stores and airlines had websites.

Damn.

Independence and Security
I was stunned when a professor said, to 18-year-old me in the mid-1990s, “You can make websites?! Want to make some for the department? It can be work study and help pay your tuition!”

The man was obviously deranged, the wacky professor type. Someone — an institution?! — was willing to pay me money to write code? Me, the Polish gal who was working three jobs (cleaning houses, waiting tables, and at a bookstore) and carrying five classes?

Utterly deranged.

Not only that, but a few months later one of the Big Three called the school looking for someone to work on intranet development. The same professor who had me building websites recommended me for an interview.

My family was flabbergasted. I sincerely thought I’d thrown my father into the early stages of stroke when I told him I’d gotten an office job “on computers” making $9/hour. Our people worked the factory floor. They did not work in offices.

Here we are, in 2015. No one is more surprised than I that I ended up writing code for money for the past 20 years, and for decent money too.

I remember the day I realized that I had enough money to buy whatever I wanted at the grocery store. I know what store and aisle I was in, what I was wearing, and what the evening light looked like outside. It was that revelatory.

I can’t discount the value or importance of having had sufficient income. It is something every human being should have, and that no one can or should be blamed for wanting. But wanting enough is not the same thing as insatiable greed, and that is the greed runs rampant and is rewarded in tech right now.

All the Devils are Here
I recently read in the Economist that one in five MBAs come to Silicon Valley. I believe that many of these people used to end up on Wall Street instead, and that many of them are the same people who tormented us nerdier types in elementary and high school. They are leading (in appearance if not reality) software companies with little to no real knowledge of software. Yes, there are exceptions, but there are too few of them.

Similarly, brogrammers walk among us. (Since the HBO series Silicon Valley is actually a documentary, you can watch the first episode to get a good idea of what it’s like to work with them, if you haven’t had the pleasure.) Based on their behavior in the office, some of these guys are probably the very same who were chanting “No means yes, yes means anal” on their campuses not so long ago.

These are fairly recent developments, having taken place in the past seven years or so by my anecdotal measure. And I don’t have to like or even tolerate them any more than I have to accept them.

It is not only a sign that there is money to be made in tech, but evidence that barriers to Internet entry are much lower than they were. Network-enabled devices are part of most people’s everyday lives, even in some very poor places. This is great. Learning to program is also much easier. Praise be Coursera, Code Academy, MIT OCW, and all the rest.

But it’s also contributing to amateur hour in tech employment: because things are easier, people think they’re easy. Most tech workers don’t need to build their own machines and worry after the Linux kernel. I don’t miss those things (much), but I recognize that these frustrations also served as valuable checks against over confidence and hubris. Trying to write a compiler or effectively troubleshoot code before Stack Overflow existed keeps you humble.

Today, people spend six weeks in an HTML5 bootcamp, call themselves “software engineers,” and then look aghast when you ask an interview question about operating systems when they’re applying for a job… to work on an operating system. Or, perhaps, someone spends 17 months in a weekend MBA program and calls himself a “tech visionary.” I believe most of these people are primarily motivated by money, and that they care less about the quality of their work than how much they get paid for doing it (or having someone else do it for them and take credit for it, as is often the case).

Artists and neighborhoods in San Francisco are not the only beautiful cultures and places that are overrun by tech bros. An Internet culture based on technical skill and genuine passion is also nearing extinction as a result of the same forces: greed and hubris, the attributes that always lead to our demise.

I still love what I do (did?), but I absolutely despise most of the rest of the people who do it and the increasingly Wall Street like conditions in which it is done. I didn’t realize that I needed both things to be happy in my work, and that is the nasty surprise that has me in mourning.