Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Open letter to Amit

The other day, someone at work asked me if I had regrets over choosing a career in tech. Here's my response.
Updates 2016-08-11:
  1. Last night, Kesavan (the unnamed guy below) said it was fine to name him.
  2. This morning, I realized that I'd forgotten to mention something really important, perhaps the most important fact about me: I've been extremely lucky. More on this is in the addendum.


Thank you for asking about regrets over choosing a career in tech; your question honors me, and I hope my answer doesn't disappoint.

I think I mentioned that my career began over forty (40) years ago, which is a source of great amusement and sometimes astonishment. A few years back I was in a hackathon with Mohit and Katiyar and Narver and one other guy who I won't name… trying to do something in javascript, which I still don't know. And I was mumbling about how I wish I'd learned it in grad school. "But wait," I said, "when I was in grad school, javascript hadn't been invented yet."

The unnamed guy in our hackathon team said, "I wonder how many of us were even born when Collin was in grad school?" and it turned out he was the only one... which is why I don't include his name here :)

But to your question: do I regret my career choice? Well, after my bachelor's degree I needed to do something to pay for rent and groceries. I wasn't good at anything in school except math and circuits and programming. Maybe I could have gone into statistics or become an actuary or something, but frankly the path into a tech career seemed more straightforward.

I have been thinking recently about something Garrison Keillor said in one of his "Lake Wobegon" monologues: "I wonder if perhaps we are less than our parents, and have given less to our children." I think of my dad, who ran out of money and didn't finish college. He got drafted and taught electronics for a while. He got a radiotelephone license and was engineer at a radio station. He was a sales/support guy for IBM and worked under some pretty unpleasant conditions. He switched to working for the FAA, and had to spend months at a time away from home for training. He went out and found work to do on the side: he fixed and built and invented things. He knew how to learn stuff and made the effort to do it. Car repair, electronic equipment repair, remodeling—he did it all. One day when he was in his 60s, he called a plumber for the first time in his life.

In contrast, I've had an easy life. I've had two professional employers—essentially two professional jobs since college. I haven't had to reinvent myself, I haven't had to take a lot of initiative. Have I had to work long hours debugging something? Sure; everybody has. But that's not the same thing as having to invent myself or figure out my next step in life.

I think what I'd say is that I did the best with what I had and with who I was. Sure, sometimes these days when I speak with our friends who go to Mexico and do medical work, I wish I had gone into that field so that I could help people in a more direct, intense, meaningful way. Given my constraints at the time (private college was expensive, even in the 1970s), I needed to finish quickly and start making money soon.

Could I have switched at some point? Maybe, but things got a lot more complicated with a mortgage and children. Shoulda, coulda, woulda—but I'm no hero or sage; it was enough effort to keep all the balls in the air, without also thinking about making a major change. Like many, I never got dissatisfied enough to consider a career change seriously, until getting laid off in 2002.

At that point, I briefly considered becoming a teacher. However, as I have since learned (from teaching Eng101), it would be a YUGE effort for me to become suited to classroom instruction. Also, with two college educations still ahead, it just didn't seem practical to take a significant drop in income.

So as I think back, my career in tech has been a good fit for me. It's a good fit for my personality and my talents. and has enabled my kids to graduate from college with no loans. My wife has been able to spend a lot of time at home when the kids were growing up, and she's now working on a novel and a collection of poetry. We've had some extra money to give to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Now the content of the work hasn't been really significant in itself. It's not like inventing dwarf wheat (Norman Borlaug did that and saved literally over a billion people from starvation); it's just solving problems and writing stuff.

What has been rewarding in my view is learning stuff and helping others. It's like what does a plant do? It grows, it reaches for the sun, it pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, it drops seeds, it provides shade. In doing that stuff, it brings glory to its maker. I don't know if plants know they're created by God, or if when they do what they do they "feel his pleasure," but I certainly do. Feel God's pleasure I mean. The stuff I do isn't grand or terribly significant in a dwarf wheat kind of way, but when my code works, or when I can help somebody learn something, or encourage someone to try one more time, that's a good feeling.

You're near the beginning of your career, a career that I hope will bring you as much stimulation and challenge and learning and joy as mine has. I suppose I could try to tell you to take more risks than I did, or try more new things, or push yourself upward, but I obviously didn't follow that advice, and I'm not sure it's good advice anyway.

No, what's really important in life, in my view anyway, is to be home for dinner, to play with your kids, to manage your boss's expectations so you can live a balanced life. Because really, who's gonna hold your hand when you die? It's not gonna be your boss, or if you're a manager/director/VP, any of the dozens or hundreds of people below you in the org chart. It's your family and your close friends. The patents, the certificates, the quarterly recognition awards, etc. will be forgotten.

OK, that's way too long. Thanks for reading this far. I'd love to hear your story and your thoughts on all this.


Addendum: the role of luck in my story
If when you read the above, you think, "he sure was lucky," I'm here to tell you that you are 100% right. Did I work hard? Sometimes. Did I get good genes from my parents? The smartest thing I ever did was to pick the right parents at the right time in history.

Because all the talent and grit and determination and hard work in the world won't get you far if bombs are constantly falling outside your house, or if there's no electricity and you can't go to school because you need to help your parents gather food, or if your parents died in their 20s from AIDS or ebola or something. Robert Frank made a terrific case for the role of luck in this article in the Atlantic. And in the latest Hedgehog Review, Frank quotes David Brooks:

You should regard yourself as the sole author of all your future achievements and as the grateful beneficiary of all your past successes.... As you go through life, you should pass through different phases in thinking about how much credit you deserve. You should start your life with the illusion that you are completely in control of what you do. You should finish life with the recognition that, all in all, you got better than you deserved.... As an ambitious executive, it's important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it's important for you to know that's nonsense.
The Credit Illusion NY Times 2012-08-02 link

1 comment:

amit said...

Hey Collin, thanks for putting this post together. It's really nice to be reading about your 40 year long journey in tech industry. When I asked you the question the other day, you probably didn't answer it as briefly as you would've liked and somewhat shrugged it off. And frankly, I was surprised. But then as i understand it now, reflecting on a long career such as your's does probably need some considerable thought gathering and can't be done instantly. I'm so glad you did that and put together this.
40 years is a seriously a life time. The wonderful people you named above may have been just/about to be born when you were in grad school, but then looks like I might have been very much young then in my previous life (if at all there was any). Anyways the reason I asked you the question is, its rare to see a 'experienced' person such as you in this relatively young industry. And having been in tech industry for 2-3 years myself, I've had seen some people regretting about the career choices they made.
Reading through the post, it reminded me of a my father, who too started from pretty humble beginnings and had to sacrifice a lot of his dreams. He wanted to be a civil engineer/architect I guess, but had to take up early job and became a teacher, he is retiring next year after 35+ years of teaching. I guess I'll call him tonight and thank him. :-)
Well, the two bits I'd want to take from your story are the 'learning-stuff' and 'family'. I guess, with all the success to be achieved and money to be made, it's difficult to remain level-grounded and y to lose on those two things. Hopefully, I'll able to manage it as good as you did.
Thanks again for writing this brief answer. And hope to be seeing you in the industry for many more years to come.