Work for a game company? No. Start my own? Hmm...
I got contacted by a recruiter from some Facebook game company called Kabam. She wanted to see if she could lure me in for a job interview. I politely turned them down because I'm not looking for a different programming job. And because, Facebook games? eww.
I did a little bit of research on this Kabam company and found a hilarious quote:
"Unlike Zynga, Playfish and other social gaming juggernauts, Kabam doesn’t focus on the millions of casual gamers that permeate Facebook. Instead, the development firm is honing in on 25- to 35-year-old males who are looking for a deeper and more competitive in-game experience."
Oh yes, because 25-to-35-year-old male gamers are SUUUUCH an under-served audience, amiright?
Anyway this was kind of interesting because it's the first time a game company has reached out to me. It reminded me of how badly I wanted a job making computer games, back when I was a teenager. It got me thinking about whether I would still want to do that.
I think the answer is "yes, but...". I wouldn't want to join an existing company to toil away in their coding dungeon on somebody else's game idea. Pretty much the only way I would do it is if I started my own company to work on my own game idea. Hmm. I guess I could do that, but building a startup company is an incredible pain. I've been through that once already and it's totally life-consuming.
Also, it seems like most successful startup companies don't end up making the product they were founded to make. Or rather, to be a successful entrepreneur you need to be willing to drop your original idea as soon as you spot something more profitable. Aza tells me that venture capitalists call this "pivoting". I'd make a terrible entrepreneur because I would care more about developing my idea than about chasing the most profitable thing. As a startup company, you don't have the luxury to do that.
Still, "Start a game company" is kind of floating around in the back of my mind right now as a scary but intriguing possibility.
Why I'm leaving Mozilla
I've told them June 7th is my last day. On June 8th (the start of Sushu's summer vacation) we leave for a two-month trip to China, and when we return I'm going to be jobless.
On the surface, quitting Mozilla seems remarkably foolish. They're a respectable company, they pay me the big money, they treat me very well, I like the people I work with, and I get to work on fun stuff. I've been extremely fortunate to have a good job while so many people around me were losing theirs, and I've been able to use the money to help my family pay off a lot of debts. I'm grateful for all they've done for me.
I started at Mozilla in spring 2008, so it's been more than four years now. I've been working for Mozilla longer than I've been involved with any other organization in my life. The first few years were great, but everything took a turn for the worse in early 2011.
I tried to make it work, I really did. I spent the second half of 2011 vacillating. I would tell Sushu that I was going to quit; then I'd have a few really good days in a row and change my mind. I really do like the people I work with and I don't want to let them down. But then I'd have a few miserable days in a row and Sushu would once again have to put up with my bitching about work.
I think it was early January that I first told Jinghua (my manager) that I was going to leave. She made a sad face. She talked me into staying for another few months, which I agreed to because there were some projects I wanted to finish up. By June I'll be able to finish my current work on Test Pilot and Collusion and hand both projects off to other people. (Up until now, every software project I've worked on has died the day I stopped working on it. It will be nice to have a project outlive my involvement for a change.) She's still trying to figure out a way to talk me into staying.
But I won't. Leaving is just something I have to do. I will try to explain why.
First: I've got the wanderlust.
They say some people have had 10 years of experience and others have had one year of experience ten times. Corrolary: if you find yourself having the same year of experience over again, it's time to try something new.
Mozilla has gotten too comfortable. I'm not challenging myself here. I'm not stretching, I'm not growing. The days and weeks and months have been slipping by with no sense of forward progress. I'm also not getting any younger.
I'm terrified of waking up one morning to find that ten years have gone by and I'm still sitting in the same desk, doing the same job, having accomplished nothing of lasting value.
Four years is a really long time for me to do any one thing. Most of the "chapters" of my life have been about three years; at around the three-year mark at Mozilla I started to feel the wanderlust, the voice inside me saying it's time to move on.
I desperately want to get out of Silicon Valley. It's hard to explain how much I despise this place -- its suburban sprawl, its strip-mall parking lots, its expensive lawns, its traffic jams; its rich, smarmy, boring yuppies; its disturbing lack of weather and seasons; its phony cheerfulness; its bubble culture; its incestuousness; its endless gossip about the same few software companies; its lack of history; its self-importance.
I miss winter, I miss artists and blue-collar workers and other people not in the software industry. I wish I could just ditch this place and move back to Chicago to be near my family.
But I won't, because the one thing I want more than that is to stay with my wife. So as long as her teaching job is here, I'm here. Mozilla would actually let me work from anywhere; ironically, it's not my software job that's keeping me in Silicon Valley, but Sushu's non-software job.
So we've been trying to figure out a way to live anywhere else. First we explored the idea of living in China for a year or so, but she can't get that much time off from school. Then we explored living in San Francisco, but it would make her commute much worse and we'd be paying twice as much for 1/4 of the space so it wouldn't make any sense.
So I've accepted that I will be physically stuck here for the forseeable future. The only way open for me to get the change I seek is to change my daily routine -- and that starts with quitting my job.
Second: Mozilla is changing.
The Mozilla manifesto says we're supposed to be fighting for freedom of individual user choice on the web. That sounds great, but how exactly does making improvements to Firefox advance that goal?
Mozilla is an organization forged in battle against Microsoft. Back in 2001, "freedom of individual user choice on the web" meant "don't let Internet Explorer have an unchallenged monopoly". But Mozilla essentially won that battle already. In fact, they won it before I even joined. Today, the web is very far away from a browser monopoly. People code to web standards, the capabilities the web can offer are advancing rapidly, and even if Firefox ceased to exist tomorrow, the competition between Internet Explorer and Chrome would keep them both honest.
The biggest question for Mozilla, therefore, is "Now what?" With their main goal accomplished, why do they need to continue to exist as an organization? As long as I've worked there, they've been flailing about looking for an answer to this question.
That was good for me, because it meant that I got to work on lots of experimental projects as part of the search for a new direction. However, a lot of the stuff I've been doing also doesn't feel very productive. The threats to web freedom in 2012 are very different from those in 2001, and it's hard to fight the threats of 2012 using an organization that was built up to fight the threats of 2001. It's kind of like that saying about generals always preparing to fight the previous war.
Honestly I think the biggest threats to the internet these days come from the government, not from any corporation. We can complain all day about how evil Facebook and Apple are, but at least we all have the choice of not using their products. Whereas 60 senators with no clue about how computers work could pass a law like SOPA or CISPA and force us to comply. You can't build an open-source alternative to the law.
Really, if you were building an organization with Mozilla's mission statement from the ground up today, it would make more sense to build a legal/political advocacy organization, not a software company at all.
Nevertheless, Mozilla-the-software-company continues to grow rapidly, and there are a lot of growing pains. When I started, they were under 150 people, and it was just barely possible to know everybody. Since then the number of employees has quadrupled, and with that comes more layers of bureaucracy. We're having to create formal processes for things that used to get done via personal relationships. And as we hire more people from Silicon Valley who aren't necessarily open-source advocates, the culture is starting to feel more and more corporate, with less of the open-source hacker spirit that made it an exciting place to work in the early days.
As for the "Now what?" question, they've recently decided that the best thing to do is try to build a mobile-phone operating system to compete with iPhone and Android. (Really.) The logic is that users have lots of choices for desktop internet software, but the mobile phones are still very locked down. Especially iPhone, where Apple gets to decide what software you are and aren't allowed to run. Maybe we could help break that open by creating another competitor together with some kind of open standard for apps which would be portable between different mobile platforms?
That's cool, I guess. Good luck! But personally I have zero interest in working on smartphone software. I don't have a smartphone, I don't want one, and I don't want to write software for them. If Mozilla's trying to turn itself into a mobile-phone OS company, they need people who understand that stuff. They don't need me; I'll just be slowing them down.
They'd let me keep working on Test Pilot as long as I wanted, but I don't really feel like I'm advancing the cause of web freedom by doing that.
And without the cause, Mozilla is just another software company.
Third: I've stopped caring about computers.
I used to care about computers for their own sake, because it was fascinating to have a machine that could do anything I wanted, provided I could figure out how to express it in code. I got all excited about learning new programming languages or techniques or whatever.
These days I'm like, a computer is just a tool; it crunches numbers fast. What are we doing with that tool? Are we using it to make life better for people? If not, who cares?
I used to have strong opinions about what hardware or software was good or bad, and would try to convince people to switch. Now I'm like, whatever; it's all basically the same, use whatever works for you; why should I care?
The rate at which people upgrade their computers is slowing down; computers are already fast enough for everything people want to do. Half the internet is still on Windows XP because there's no good reason to upgrade. The internet has matured and has been basically feature-complete since about 2005. Video game graphics are as good as they need to be. AI is stagnant. Computers are really boring now.
Postulate: The computer revolution is over. All that programmers are going to be doing from now on is rewriting the same applications over and over again, for ever-crappier platforms, using ever-higher-level languages.
The software industry today is an arm of the advertising industry. That's just a cold economic fact. Mozilla is no exception -- our money comes from Google and Google gets it from advertising. An industry driven by advertising is always going to serve the advertisers' needs, not the users'. ("If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product.") I don't really want to work for the advertising industry.
Since around 2005, when I got involved with Humanized, I had the idea that I could be a usability guy, and help people by making computers easier to use. But I've realized that usability, too, is just a tool. What is it that you're making easier to do? Something that's truly beneficial to the user? Or are you just making it easier for them to spend hours on Farmville while giving their private information away to advertisers?
In the last few years the industry seems to have decided that the way to solve the usability problem is to stop giving people computers and start giving them locked-down information appliances, which are "easy" because they can't do much. (i.e. tablets). This isn't what I wanted; I wanted to make the power of real computers accessible to more people, not some dumbed-down baby version. But maybe it turns out that people don't even want that power; maybe they just want to watch vidoes and play Angry Birds.
Anyway, being the usability guy was Aza's dream, not mine. I've given up on being that guy now. I'm looking for a different guy to be.
I don't think I want to make software anymore. But programming is my main marketable skill. Maybe I can find a job in another industry where I use my programming skills for some kind of higher purpose, like education or renewable energy resources or robotics or something. I'll go back to school and learn new skills if I have to.
Fourth: Sushu wants to have a baby soon.
This thought is absolutely terrifying to me.
Right now, I have the freedom to change jobs just to pursue personal satisfaction. I have the freedom to not care about how much money I make, because I don't have any dependents.
Once I'm a dad, I won't have that freedom anymore. I will have to be responsible.
If I'm going to change careers -- to green tech or robots or education or whatever -- I need to do it now, before any babies happen.
It might be my last chance.
In Search of the Unknown (dungeon module B1)
Holy crap, guys, tomorrow is my last day at Mozilla and I'm leaving for China on Friday morning. It's like I'm starting a whole new life. I'm excited! The future has a sense of wide-open possibility again, like I haven't felt for a long time.
My life has been too comfortable the past few years, which paradoxically depresses me because I'm like "Is this as good as it's ever going to get? Is the rest of my life just going to be a slow decline?" Something in my psychological makeup needs the unknown, needs weirdness. I have to believe in the possibility of growth, and growth requires encountering things outside my experience. I can't imagine a utopia or a heaven where I'd be happy, because they all sound so dreadfully boring.
Somebody asked me recently whether I was scared of leaving my job. No, quite the opposite: I'm scared of staying in the warm, stifling embrace of a well-paying job for so long that I turn into a Boring Person who plays office politics and acts entitled to his salary and hasn't questioned his beliefs for a decade. I need to get out there and fight for myself again. Worst case scenario, I said, if my next thing doesn't work out, I can always go get another software job. My interlocutor was like "No! Don't give yourself a backup plan, that will make you hesitate! You gotta commit!" He was a burn-your-ships and smash-your-pots kind of guy.
So yeah! Here we go! In Search of the Unknown!!
Sushu has some much more practical thoughts about getting ready to go to China (and Tanzania!)
Coding for SPACE
Software didn't dump me, I dumped software.
The love was gone; it was time to end it. Still, the relationship lasted over ten years, and the breakup has been hard. Some days I'm angry, some days I'm wistful, some days I just don't care.
I'm in the process of unwinding myself from my "computer guy" identity. It's hard. At the moment I don't know who I am. The only thing I'm sure of is that making software isn't what I want to do with the rest of my life.
Programming computers will probably be part of what I do. I have a lot of skill points invested in it, after all, and besides, everything's got a computer in it these days. But programming is just a means. The goal has to be something else, not just computers for the sake of computers.
This "Advice from an old programmer" (from "Learn Python the Hard Way") spoke to me:
Programming as a profession is only moderately interesting. It can be a good job, but you could make about the same money and be happier running a fast food joint. You're much better off using code as your secret weapon in another profession.
People who can code in the world of technology companies are a dime a dozen and get no respect. People who can code in biology, medicine, government, sociology, physics, history, and mathematics are respected and can do amazing things to advance those disciplines.
That sounds good!
Mozilla was a local maximum. Better than any similar job. Every adjacent direction was down. The only way to get a better job than my one at Mozilla is to do something completely different.
The most excited and optimistic I've felt about technology in the last several years was when I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning watching the livestream from NASA's site of the SpaceX Dragon capsule docking with the International Space Station.
The SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, seems like a really cool guy. He made a fortune at PayPal and instead of retiring young, he put his money into space exploration and electric cars (he's also CEO of Tesla Motors). Lots of respect for that dude.
And SpaceX is hiring computer programmers to do physics simulations. I bet I could do that.
Only problem is that they're in LA, and it would be hard on Sushu for me to ask her to leave her school.
Various possible work/life plans
A recruiter from Facebook contacted me. I was sorely tempted to tell them what I really think of Facebook, but no good would possibly come of that. So I just declined politely.
I've been thinking a lot lately about what I want out of my next job, and about different ways of balancing work with the other things I want to do in life.
I want to make a positive difference in the world, and I also want to make enough money for food and rent. Previously, my plan was to have a job that let me do both of these things at the same time. But that doesn't need to be the case.
For instance, I could:
- Be a freelance contractor. Take mercenary programming work, and do it as efficiently as possible. Work the minimum number of hours per week I need to get enough money to support my lifestyle. Do what I want the rest of the time.
I read about a guy who does this and only has to work 20 hours per week three months out of four. It does require a lot of discipline and self-management plus the ability to seek out clients and negotiate contracts, pay your own taxes and insurance, etc. But it seems like the most time-efficient way to turn programming skills into money, as long as you don't care what you work on.
The nice thing about this idea is that it would give me a lot of time to work on volunteer or creative projects.
- Work for some big dumb company 40 hours/week to support myself, try to make a difference in my spare time. Don't care about what the company does, as long as the work is tolerable and the company isn't actively causing harm in the world. (I wouldn't work for a tobacco company, for instance, or for Facebook.)
This gives me much less time than the freelance thing, but it's more predictable. That's really the only advantage.
I don't think I'm going to do this, I just include it for comparison purposes.
- Work for some company part-time to support myself, try to make a difference in my spare time.
At Mozilla I was making $X per year for working 5 days a week, so maybe I could make $3x/5 per year working 3 days a week? And $3x/5 per year would be plenty. Money has sharply diminishing utility after a certain point. I'd much rather have the extra two days a week to live life than the extra $2x/5.
There's a cultural assumption that a part-time job isn't a "real" job, but I know people who have negotiated contracts like this and have a much better work-life balance as a result.
- Join a company that's doing something I really care about, work really hard for them.
This was my basic plan for the last 4 years at Mozilla. So I would be continuing the same plan, and just picking a different company to work for. Since I don't really care about making consumer internet software anymore, this would involve a career switch to a company in a different industry.
The tricky part here is finding the overlap between companies doing stuff I care about, and companies that would hire someone with my skill set.
If neccessary, I can go back to school to expand my skill set. Maybe get a useful science or engineering degree.
- Make a startup company that gets big. Sell it, cash out, retire early. Never worry about money again. Devote the rest of my life to whatever I really want to do.
Paul Graham likes to talk about (successful) startups as a way of compressing work. Instead of working for several decades, you compress all that work into a few years and make all your money at once.
This is the Silicon Valley gold-rush mentality. I would have to stop thinking about what I would want to build, and instead think about what the market wants to buy.
There are a few problems with this plan. First, most startups fail. Second, without personal interest in the thing I was building, it would be hard to keep up my motivation. Also, making a lot of money fast in Silicon Valley probably requires doing things that I consider ethically dubious, like collecting personal information from your users in order to sell advertising.
Finally, I would probably be really bad at figuring out what the market wants to buy. When I first heard of Zappos I was like "Who the hell would want to buy shoes without trying them on first? That will never catch on." But, like most of the things I think are stupid, Zappos got massively popular. I am forced to conclude that I'm a really bad judge of marketability.
- Make a startup company doing something I care about, that makes enough money to support myself, but doesn't get big.
Some entrepreneurs semi-dismissively call this type of company a "lifestyle business" and use "Startup Company" to refer only to the get-big-fast style of company.
But there's a lot to be said for growing slowly, for aiming to serve a few thousand people well instead of serving tens of millions of people poorly. You can self-finance, which means not being in debt to venture capitalists. You can run your business on a personal scale and give customers individual support. You can maybe even get there without making ethical compromises.
The drawback is that it would take full concentration for at least the first few years. I wouldn't have much free time for any other projects while this was happening.
The game company, which I am seriously considering, would go under this category. A game company isn't world-changing, but it could be very creatively satisfying.
- Try to start a company that supports me AND makes positive difference.
This is possibly the hardest path. So many things would have to go just right. Many of the requirements would be in conflict with each other.
For instance, tne idea is that instead of just a game company, I could try to start an educational game company. Make something that helped people improve themselves, and not just entertainment. This is extra-hard because it's so easy to do educational games poorly. Either they're too much like homework and not actually fun, or they're too much like games and not actually educational.
It's a tough line to walk, but potentially the most rewarding of all.
I didn't quit Mozilla because I hated them. They've been quite good to me. My feelings towards the company are complicated.
Four years, man, that's a long time. It deserved some kind of commemoration. I picked the Mozilla dino-head logo rather than the more well-known Firefox logo because I wanted to show my association with the open-source community, the people and the shared values, rather than with the corporate entity or with a specific product that, who knows, might not even be around in a few years. (Plus, I don't really want my body to look like a launch bar.)
Side benefit: even if you don't know who or what Mozilla is, it's still a red tyrannosaurus head; what doesn't kick ass about that? Nothing!
I got it done at Graven Image in Mountain View. Their founder, a dude named Paco, is quite the artist and is famous for doing all these amazing Geiger-esque biomechanical horrors.
When I was there, Paco was working on a guy in the chair next to me, with a naked blue robot chick on his arm. The two of them were having a very animated disucssion about what are the top five metal albums of all time, and whether Ride the Lightning was better than Master of Puppets, and how could it be a top-five without any Megadeth, get out of here, and does AC/DC even count as metal, and what? you like fucking "Cowboy from Hell" better than "Reign in Blood"? You better check yourself before you wreck yourself! (his exact words).
When questioned, I had to admit that I did not have an opinion on the top five metal albums, as I never listen to any. Paco decided he needed to put on "Reign of Blood" right then so we could all hear its majesty from beginning to end. It was all CHUGGA CHUGGA CHUGGA CHUGGA ANGEL OF DEEEEEATH!!!
My musical horizons were expanded that day. Violently expanded.
Speaking of Mozilla mementos, this little guy was given to me at my going-away party by Gregg Lind (the developer who we hired to take over Test Pilot for me).
Gregg and his wife added the accordion and unibrow. The accordion even has the right number of keys!
I will treasure it forever.
My next job
A lot of people have been asking me what I'm doing next now that I'm done working for Mozilla.
"Trying to spend a lot less money" is the immediate answer. Honestly, I'm exploring several different opportunities at the moment. I've been tripping up and down the bay for job interviews with green-energy startups and internet-assisted education ("ed tech") startups.
There's a couple of companies who seem interested in hiring me. My current round of interviews is more about me trying to figure out whether I want to work for them. Is their business model legit? Are they likely to be able to achieve the results they're going for? Is it a job that would lead to further opportunities in the field? Are they people I would want to work with? And would I have to move closer to their office?
At the same time as I'm doing all these interviews I'm also continuing work on the backup plan: my own game business. I'm hacking on an game for learning Mandarin, since that's what I've been struggling with myself lately. I'm trying to land a bare-bones beta version by Tuesday. Sushu has volunteered her Mandarin 1 class as our first beta testers.
So even if some companies make me job offers, I might not take any of them -- if the educational game stuff looks like it could turn into a viable business, I'm going full time on that. (I've been up-front about this possibility during interviews).
I'm also turning down a lot of job leads. It's unreal - people are contacting me out of the blue several times a week to ask if I want to work for some startup or other. Most of the startups are boring and/or ridiculous. Some of them are OK, but if I just wanted to work at a software company I would have stayed at Mozilla.
I keep thinking aout all my friends and family members who are unemployed or stuck in jobs they hate, and I can't believe how lucky I am to be in the position of turning down job interviews. I feel like kind of a spoiled brat being so picky when so many are struggling to find a job at all.
I wish job offers were transferrable! I'd be forwarding these along left and right. But my unemployed friends and family aren't programmers, sadly.
My new job sadly did not work out
I started a job on Monday with a startup company in the East Bay that does clean-energy financing. The commute was unreasonably long (2 hours by public transit, 1:20 by carpool). For the job to work out at all, I would have had to move. I was willing to do that, if the job was awesome.
The job turned out to be not the job I imagined when I signed up. I was hoping it would be an opportunity to learn about clean energy tech. But in practice the job was all about the finance side and not really about the technology side at all; it was a great opportunity to learn about investments, not so much to learn about solar power. Which is fine, it's just not what I was looking for.
I've got no hard feelings against the company. They're working for a good cause, they're pretty cool people, and I wish them lots of success. (And they're hiring web developers -- if that sounds interesting to you, contact me and I'll put you in touch!)
On Wednesday, I told them that I wasn't a good fit for the position. They told me that it was unprofessional of me to start a job and then quit immediately, and they were right. I wasted their time, and I'm sorry for that. It would have been better of me not to have accepted the job in the first place. But it's like dating: sometimes you go on two dates with somebody and then realize you're not looking for the same thing out of a relationship, and even though it hurts everybody's feelings it's better to cut it off immediately than to drag out the suffering, you know?
Somehow I got an unrealistic idea of what the job involved. They pitched me quite a glowing vision of the green-energy future, and I got excited. It's not their fault that I misunderstood, though; they never said anything misleading. It was a case of me hearing what I wanted to hear and disregarding the rest. Only after I started doing the work did I realize that my imagination of the job was unrealistic.
Live and learn. I realize now the questions that I should have asked during the interviews that I didn't ask. I'm quite good at aceing a job interview (especially the programming questions) but evidently I'm not good at using the interview to find out whether I really want the job or not.
I felt lost and discouraged for a couple of days. I wondered what was wrong with me. I'm in my 30s; by now I should know who I am and what I want. I thought I would be accomplishing things by now, not still trying to figure out what field I want to be in. I felt like a failure.
But today, my mood is better. I tried an experiment and it didn't work out; because of that, I've got more information now than I had last week. I've narrowed down my search. That's progress.
Back from two weeks in Illinois, I now return to my regularly scheduled life in California, and the challenge of trying to figure out who I am and what I want to do. Now that I have outgrown my former dream of being some kinda fancy open-source usability hacker guy, my life is missing a main plot thread. The idea of life having a "plot" is nothing but retroactive self-mythologizing anyway, but it's been a useful illusion for getting myself up in the morning.
Lately I have the weirdest feeling that I am a new person, only a few months old, who has inherited the body and memories of this 32-year-old dude. Many of Past Jono's motivations, while I remember having them, hold no appeal to me. Why did Past Jono buy this box of crummy anime toys which are now taking up space in Mom's house? Why did Past Jono care so much about boring computer stuff? What's with all these blog posts Past Jono wrote? Why are they so poorly written and why are his opinions so terrible? I'm glad Past Jono decided to marry this cool wife, but why did they live in Palo Alto of all places?
Time for a fresh start. The downside of being a newborn is that I'm nobody. But on the upside, I can do anything I want. I can also look at Past Jono with eyes unclouded by certain illusions that he clung to. Such as: holy fuck did he derive way too much of his identity from his job. He would have argued that he didn't buy into society's definitions of success and failure, but he obviously fell for the one that told him he had to have a respectable job to feel good about himself.
The work now begins in earnest: constructing an alternate value system to replace the old ideas of success and failure that Present Jono no longer gives a shit about.
Guess who's applying to grad school again
Ever since my falling out with the software industry, I've been talking about maybe going back to grad school to learn some new skills. Like either getting back into the hard sciences (which I regret abandoning) or learning some engineering skills (real engineering, not this slipshod circus we call software "engineering").
Especially if I want to go into green energy tech, since my most recent attempt to break into that field left me feeling that my current skillset is just pigeonholing me in the role of web-monkey.
Stanford and Berkeley both have graduate programs in green energy (i.e. in the weird intersection of policy, engineering, science, and business that it will take to make a dent in humanity's fossil fuel addiction). They are both top-tier schools. Stanford is practically across the street; Berkeley is up north, but not so far that Sushu would have to leave her school. We could find a compromise address that allows us both to commute.
All autumn long I'd been running my mouth off about applying to grad school but not actually doing anything about it, because I procrastinate like a champ, especially when it comes to fractally tedious tasks like setting up applications.
Then Saturday morning Sushu finally got sick of my procrastination and kicked my ass into gear. We looked at application deadlines and discovered that I had less than a week to apply to the Energy Resources Group at Berkeley. There's a Dec. 7 deadline to apply for Fall 2013.
After a mad scramble for transcripts and recommendation letters it looks like I might actually make the deadline.
I have to take the GRE again. Last time I took it was like 1998 and they only keep your scores for five years, so I need to do it over. I've got an appointment for Thursday.
Feels weird to be preparing for a test again after so many years away from academia. I'm not worried, though. In 1998 I was nervous because I thought the GRE would, I dunno, measure my worth as a human being or something. Now I see it as just a bureaucratic obstacle that doesn't really mean anything. Don't sweat it, just get it over with and score whatever I score.
I looked at some sample GRE questions this morning and most of them are insultingly easy. Like, 6th graders should be able to answer most of these math questions, no offense to 6th graders.
Many of the grammar questions, meanwhile, are total bullshit. They're not looking for whether you can communicate clearly in the English language, they're looking for class markers, i.e. "prove you write in the dialect of an educated upper-class white American and not any other English dialect". I could rant about prescriptivist grammar but that would be a whole other blog post.
Even if I get accepted, that doesn't mean for sure I'm going back to school. I'll have to weigh it against whatever other opportunities I have before me in fall of 2013. But applying can't hurt.
I'd rather punch myself in the balls than write another grad school application essay
OK, I've finally submitted my applications to Stanford and Berkeley.
Both applications required a personal Statement of Purpose and in both cases I procrastinated until literally the last minute before submitting it. Like, I had a week to do the essay in each case and I literally couldn't force myself to write the first sentence until utter panic set in about four hours before the deadline.
This was way worse than my usual procrastination. This was some sort of black-hole time-warp form of mega-procrastination that paralyzed me for days. My usual amount of procrastination is just because I'm a terrible person who fails at basic life skills. But writing grad school application essays is so much worse. My brain rebels against doing it at all. Why is that?
- The stakes are high, so I'm stressed.
- I'm really bad at selling anything, much less myself.
- I'm writing for an audience I know nothing about: a group of people I've never met, judging me by criteria I'll never know, and there's no way to gauge their reaction or get any feedback until it's too late.
- They want me to talk about my research interests and career goals. Uh, I don't know anything about this field I'm trying to enter, that's why I want to go to school for it, so anything I say about research interests or career goals is a wild guess.
- I know how to write a job application: "You should pay me because I have these skills that I can contribute to your company." But for grad school, I'm paying them to get skills I don't have yet. Do I talk about what I can do for them, or what they can do for me, or neither?
Last and most frustrating, they want to hear my plan for my whole life, how everything I've done has led up to Stanford's Energy Resources Engineering program (or whatever), and how going there will make all the difference in my career plan. They want me to fit my life into a tidy narrative.
But honestly? I spent 2000-2003 teaching English in Japan because I thought Japan was cool. Then I got back and thought I wanted to be a computer programmer, so I applied to University of Chicago in 2003. Why the U of C? Because it had a good comp-sci program? No, because it was conveniently located close to my parents' house. Joining Humanized was the result of meeting Aza, which was the result of doing the Shingo Mama dance at an anime club party in early 2004. Coming to California in 2008 was the result of not seeing any other appealing prospects other than following the Humanoids to Mozilla. Staying in California was because I got married to Sushu. And then I didn't want to be a computer programmer anymore, because I realized the software industry has become nothing but a branch of the advertising industry, so I quit Mozilla. Now I'm stuck in California, unemployed, with a set of skills optimized for a career I don't want, looking for something meaningful to do with the remaining years of my life.
It's been an opportunistic random walk the whole time. Any narrative connecting my past education or life experiences to Stanford or Berkeley's programs would be pure retroactive invention.
I remember seeing some interviews with scientists when I was a kid. The scientists would always say things like "I always wanted to be an astronomer since I saw an eclipse when I was 6". Hearing that, I wondered when my eclipse was going to come -- you know, the life-defining event where it suddenly becomes clear what I was put on this earth to do.
But now I suspect that astronomer probably was interested in lots of stuff and could have been good at lots of stuff given the opportunity. What probably happened is he/she just lucked into a sweet gig, then cherry-picked a plausible narrative precursor from all the events in his/her past.
But I don't think graduate school admissions want to hear that. So writing these essays is like pulling my own teeth out because it feels like trying to pass off creative writing about myself as non-fiction. It feels dishonest. My brain rebels against writing shit that I don't believe.
Does everybody secretly feel like this? Or do competent people have life stories that make sense, where they know what they want to do from a young age?
Is all this doubt a sign that I really shouldn't be going back to grad school, after all?
This month, holy crap this month has been just
For an unemployed person, I'm pretty busy.
The first week of the month I was sprinting on the Legends of Hanyu code trying to get teacher features done in time for Sushu to show it off at a teacher conference. Partial success -- got a lot done, not as much as I would like.
Second week of the month I was doing a week-long statistical modeling / data analysis task for a startup I really like. I was one of a couple candidates they were considering hiring, and they offered this task as a way of letting me prove my abilities. In the process I learned a bunch about applied stats and data mining. That was pretty cool. But I didn't get the job, and I really wanted to work for them, so this was a bummer.
Ah well. If I never failed, it would mean I was sticking to things that are too easy for me.
There has also been... well, read Sushu's dreamwidth for details. It's been hard on both of us emotionally and hard on her physically.
If you follow my twitter you noticed I made some pretty angsty and depressed tweets the last couple of days. I'm worried I might be slipping back into depression. But this time I've decided to talk about it and reach out to people instead of withdrawing and trying to keep it secret.
Jinghua (my old boss from Mozilla) saw my tweets, got worried about me, and called me up to check on me. She's really sweet! She suggested meeting up for dinner that night with the Mozilla user research team (including Gregg who was visiting from Minnesota that day). We had shabu-shabu. It was really good to see them again. Man, for all the things that made me decide to leave Mozilla, I really do love the people I got to work with there. It will be hard to find such good co-workers anywhere else.
This week I wrote and thumbnailed a ten-page comic. Oh, right, I forgot to tell you guys: I pitched a comic idea to this anthology of science fiction short stories set in San Francisco, and it was accepted! The final pages are due on April 1, so I'll be drawing and inking like a maniac all next week to try to meet that deadline.
Even with all the deadlines that landed this month, the job hunt doesn't stop. Sushu's school is looking for a new math/computer-science teacher, so I went in and observed a class on Thursday to see if it's something I might be interested in. (Answer: probably not.) Next I'm trying to set up interviews with some companies involved in building the "smart electric grid".
March was also the month when, out of the blue, I had chances to reconnect at least five different friends who I haven't seen in years. All independently. That was great!
Oh yeah and I went hang-gliding, and played taiko in front of thousands of people at a baseball game. Somehow that happened while all this other stuff was going on.
On the 30th I'm flying to New York City to meet a bunch of people there, then road-trip (or possibly Amtrak) through Connecticut visiting friends and relatives on my way to the big Chinese teacher conference in Boston.
Why I Hate iPads
In the comments to a previous post, Ben asks:
"What's wrong with iPads?"
iPads crushed my dream of being a software usability guy.
It's hard for me to find the words to express why, so bear with me while I try to explain what iPads meant for my career.
My professional life in the software industry (first at Humanized, then at Mozilla) was all based around one question. It went something like:
"How can we make computers easier to learn without making them less powerful?"
"How can we give users more power without making their software harder to use?"
By "power" I don't mean gigaflops, I mean something more like the "empowerment" sense of the word. Creative power. The potential of computers to help people create things, to be a producer and not just a consumer of culture, to be smarter and more efficient and more connected and maybe even more able to self-organize and demand change from their governments or whatever. All the potentials that people used to mean when they talked about the "computer revolution".
By making computers easier to use without dumbing them down, that power could be democratized, made accessible to more people. That was my theory, anyway. Thinking about it that way made me feel like I was working on something important. The idea of this search was the source of my job satisfaction.
(Naiive techno-utopianism, in retrospect.)
When the iPad came out, at first I ignored it. Why would anybody want an iPhone that was too big to fit in your pocket and doesn't make phone calls? I had zero interest in iPhones and iPads seemed strictly inferior. I figured they'd disappear without a trace within a month.
When they started getting popular -- when every other company in the industry started scrambling to follow Apple's lead -- I slowly realized the horrifying truth:
The computer industry was no longer interested in searching for a balance between power and usability. The new trend was to make a thing super easy to use by taking away all of the power. Instead of making computers easier to use, they'd give people things that are not really computers anymore, but appliances.
Yeah technically they're "computers" in that they have a Turing-complete CPU inside them. But tablets are what you get if you strip away everything that made me interested in computers in the first place -- the ability to hack the thing, to reprogram it, to run whatever software you want, to use it to make creative works and share them.
Instead, with iPads and the "app store", it's Apple, not you, who decides what software you are allowed to run on this machine that you supposedly own. (Which by the way is far more restrictive than anything Microsoft ever did at its most monopolistic -- at least Microsoft would let you distribute whatever software you wanted for Windows. They might clone your product and crush you if you got too successful, but at least you were allowed to try.)
Also, the touchscreen UI and lack of a real filesystem or decent inter-app communication channels make it terrible for trying to create any kind of content. Trying to type words on it sucks. Trying to draw on it sucks. (Yes, I know you can attach an external keyboard. Congratulations, you've created the world's crappiest laptop.) The touchscreen UI is really only good for poking icons and panning/zooming through static content. It's an interface optimized for passive consumption.
Ironically, when I first heard "Apple is making a tablet" I imagined a thing optimized for drawing on. You know, like with a pressure-sensitive stylus and high-quality art software. Silly me; that's what Apple of 1984, the company focused on education and creativity, would have built. The Apple of 2010 is focused on being the middleman for streaming music, games, and TV shows, so that's what they built. An appliance for consuming streams of corporate-approved entertainment product.
iPads and other tablets are more similar to a new kind of television than to the computer revolution I imagined. The industry's recent obsession with them -- the "post-PC era" -- is a direction I have no interest in following. Feel free to laugh at me for being an old fogey who can't adapt with the changing times, but I wanted to make computers easier to use, not replace them with fancy TVs. If the industry doesn't want that anymore, then maybe I had no place in the industry.
Ultimately, the iPad posed a serious philosophical challenge to my whole narrative about democratizing the creative potential of computers. If the iPad got really popular, if most people saw this new appliance class as an acceptable substitute for a computer, that meant that most people are not interested in hacking or creating -- they're content with a locked-down, corporate-controlled internet media consumption device. The computer revolution I had imagined was never going to happen, because the people I thought I was fighting for didn't want it.
April 2010, when the iPad was released, marked the beginning of the end of my software developer career. I spent another year and a half trying to figure out some way to respond to this philosophical challenge, some way to fix my narrative, to get my job satisfaction back, to imagine a future for myself in that industry. (Tablets were not the only trend driving this; equally distressing was the software industry's move to an advertising-centric model that I find ethically dubious. But that's another blog post.)
By fall of 2011 I had given up. I'd accepted that my dream of being a software usability guy was based on phony assumptions, and that the role I had imagined for myself had no place in the post-PC era. I hung around Mozilla long enough to finish up my projects and then I walked away from the industry.
In short, iPads challenged what I thought computers were all about. They made me re-examine why I was ever interested in computers in the first place. And in that re-examination I realized that most of my reasons were no longer valid.
So maybe it's not quite right to say I "hate" iPads. Maybe I should really be thanking Apple for making me realize that software was not the right career for me and giving me the impetus to break away and search for something new.
Life script unraveling and maybe reconstruction
I don't know who I am right now.
Rather than calling my mental state "depression", I think it's more descriptive to say I'm in a state of "scriptlessness": I don't know who I am, why I'm here, or what I want.
The cultural/psychological/narrative construct that I used to use to understand my place in life began coming apart sometime around the fall of 2011, and by this year it had completely unraveled, leaving me staring into the abyss.
The symptoms of my "depression" - lack of enjoyment, lack of meaning, hopelessness, self-loathing, suicidal thoughts -- these are the results of living without a functioning narrative.
Humans can't survive on facts and logic alone. We need to make sense of the world by telling stories. Usually, stories where we can cast ourselves as the hero, on an epic struggle against the forces of evil, so that we can feel our actions have moral significance.
In fact, I've got a theory about meaning: If you want something to have a meaning, you have to tell a story about it. Meaning only exists within a narrative context, the way a variable "X" only exists within a set of equations that define it. If you strip the storytelling away from your life, well... a carbon atom in a live human body and a carbon atom in a dead one follow exactly the same physical laws. Biology can describe life as a metabolic process, but it won't give you a logical reason to prefer life over death, or good over evil.
I think I understand why people follow religions, now.
At the same time, I'm very suspicious of grand narratives, because they easily turn into ideologies, and ideologies can be used to justify atrocities (especially if "forces of evil" becomes identified with some other group of humans). Besides, if you believe too thoroughly in your own self-mythologizing, you'll reject information that contradicts your self-image, and then you'll never be able to grow into a better person.
But complete honesty with yourself can reveal extremely painful things. It's like that magic mirror in the Neverending Story -- confronted with their true selves, most men run away screaming. Deconstruct your own story too much and you're left with carbon atoms. So you have to strike a balance between questioning your own narrative (to avoid becoming a zealot) and building it back up (to avoid falling into despair).
When I became disillusioned with Mozilla, it wasn't just one company's weird internal politics driving me away. I lost my ability to suspend disbelief in my internal narrative -- the one that took me from the University of Chicago to Humanized to Mozilla. It went, "I'm improving usability of open-source software, thereby helping Mozilla fight its competitors, thereby helping keep the internet free, thereby helping decentralize democracy and culture, thereby saving the world."
I've already rejected two other easy narratives. One is the script of the responsible middle-class American male. According to that script, since I have now procured a job and a wife, my next steps are to put a down-payment on a house in a neighborhood with good schools, climb the corporate ladder, and produce offspring. Maybe some people find meaning that way but it holds no appeal for me.
The other one is the typical silicon valley computer programmer life script, which is different from my Mozilla script in many ways that may not be obvious to an outside observer. According to the silicon valley script I should be doing things like obsessing over the latest gadgets, staying on top of trends, getting rich quick by building an "app" that I can sell to Google or Facebook, blogging about "design" or cutting-edge software development techniques, trying to increase my number of Twitter followers, having an opinion about Android vs. iOS, living in a trendy part of San Francisco, and going to Burning Man and SxSW.
These easy scripts are examples of the unexamined life -- doing something just because everyone around you is doing it. To me it's always been obvious that this is a trap. In fact I may have a bad habit of overcorrecting too far in the other direction. I have a curmudgeonly streak. If I see too many people doing something, it makes me want to do the opposite. I have a strong aversion to doing anything I listed in the last paragraph, even if it might benefit me; maybe it's something about trying to prove my "unqiueness". I used to want to be a computer guy, but being around thousands of computer guys made me not want to be one anymore. It's like that joke -- "I wouldn't want to join any club with standards so low that they would have me as a member."
For a while I was obsessed with the idea of finding a different job and/or moving away from Silicon Valley, since I believed that my depression was caused by unhappiness with a specific flaw in my life situation, and would easily go away on its own once I had gotten away from the irritant.
But that's not right. Changing jobs and addresses whenever I get unhappy is itself just a piece of my old script -- something that worked for me in the past, so I mindlessly try to repeat it.
It won't work anymore. Depression isn't a passing phase that will go away on its own with the right lifestyle permutation. Depression is the normal state of things unless I construct happiness for myself, until I build a ladder to climb out of the pit. I have to build a whole new narrative for myself, from scratch. My old one is gone for good, beyond repair; the ones offered by the society around me are bum deals. I have to do something like bootstrapping a whole new operating system, except it's for my own brain, and it's made out of philosophy and storytelling instead of code.
When I put it that way, it actually sounds kind of exciting, not depressing at all. I get to invent a whole new way of living, with myself as the test subject. Creative destruction, applied to myself. Anything is possible!
This is my project now.