Surviving disillusionment

Engineers don't have a daily ritual that reminds us why we got into the field. Without a ritual, the drudgery creeps closer and the vision of the monastery recedes.

In the past few weeks I wrote about corporate politics, distribution of power, and disregard for ethics. Dozens of people reached out to say the posts were dark, cynical and depressingly accurate. There are more dark posts I can write— about lies in venture capital, the devastating price of failure, the destructive aspect of creative relationships, the ubiquity of envy. But I think I've gotten my point across. The industry can be depressing. I now want to concentrate on a different question: what to do with this knowledge.

The word "possession" means owning things, but it also means things owning you. Knowledge can possess people. Once you observe the darker side of human nature in the technology industry, you cannot forget or unsee it. The subsequent cynicism can be so disheartening that the romance of the computer revolution is beat out of people completely.

I've met many engineers with extraordinary talent who decided to stop making software. They wanted to program computers all their lives. They were born for it. After spending six, eight, ten years in the industry, they quit for good. Now they're running breweries and hydroponic farms, with no desire to ever again touch a compiler, let alone get back into the fray.

There is nothing wrong with brewing beer or growing hydroponic tomatoes. What's sad is that people weren't pulled into their new occupation by better financial opportunities or conviction; instead they were pushed away from technology. If brewing paid as much as programming, it still wouldn't have been their first choice. Something had to have gone wrong for them to abandon their first love.

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says:

For us, the monastic life was the usual life, and the people who came from the city were unusual people. When we saw them we felt, “Oh, some unusual people have come!” But once I had left Eiheiji and been away for some time, coming back was different. I heard the various sounds of practice—the bells and the monks reciting the sutra—and I had a deep feeling. There were tears flowing out of my eyes, nose, and mouth! It is the people who are outside of the monastery who feel its atmosphere. Those who are practicing actually do not feel anything. I think this is true for everything.

I still remember the feeling when I first glanced inside the monastery. My parents bought me a ZX Spectrum computer connected to an old Soviet TV and cassette player, a few bootleg games, and a Z80 assembly manual printed on a dot matrix printer that was out of ink; about one tenth of the text was unreadable. I spent countless hours playing games, learning BASIC and Z80 assembly, and deciphering the missing parts of the manual. I don't remember much else from that time. That little machine was a window into a different world— limitless, safe, and totally engaging. At the time, nothing else mattered.

My next computer was an IBM machine with an i386 processor, 2MB of RAM (the ZX Spectrum had 16KB), a 30MB hard disk, and a five inch floppy drive. I could load programs in seconds instead of minutes. I could run Dune 2 and Wolfenstein 3D and hex editors and Prince of Persia and MS DOS and Borland Turbo Pascal and Civilization and a C compiler and Windows 3.1. I could save stuff! I remember studying Win16 APIs and feeling like I made contact with an advanced alien civilization. As I type this now, I still have sense memory of that machine. The rubbery smell, the buzzing sound of the CRT monitor, the springy feel of the keyboard (with proper arrow keys and all sorts of extra buttons!)

Then my friend's parents bought him an i486 machine with 4MB of RAM. It could run Doom. Everything changed again. You didn't even need to play to know that computer history was just delineated into before and after. As soon as you saw the artwork of the game menu, you knew. Doom changed me in a profound way. I used to never think about computers or programming. It was just something I loved to do more than anything else. But a few seconds of Doom gameplay permanently flipped a bit in my brain. It made me aware that programming computers is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.

After that came the internet, and with it a whirlwind of new worlds. Some were brand new. Others were old, but the internet gave me the opportunity to access them for the first time. Windows 95, newsgroups, geocities, ICQ, Visual Studio, Diablo, Starcraft, 3Dfx Voodoo Banshee, Gamedev.net, IRC, Slashdot, DirectX, Windows NT, Java, OpenGL, NewEgg, Winamp, Napster, Deus Ex, World of Warcraft, Linux, Emacs, GPL, Google, Common Lisp, Standard ML, Smalltalk, the iPhone, Oculus Rift. Each had its own unique atmosphere. Each was a window into a different universe. Each one felt limitless. Safe. Engaging.

Everything, from the first ZX Spectrum to Oculus Rift was punctuated by countless books of science fiction. My dad introduced me to the genre with Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island, in which a team of five end up on an uninhabited island, and use their knowledge and ingenuity to rebuild a technological civilization from scratch. I remember reading this novel over and over, completely enthralled. I tried some of the experiments, with intermittent success.

My parents had a few shelves stacked with books, and I spent countless nights losing myself in them. I read everything by Jules Verne I could get my hands on, including From the Earth to the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. After Verne I moved on to Ray Bradbury (The Veldt), Arkadiy and Boris Strugatsky (Prisoners of Power), Stanislaw Lem (the fantastical Summa Technologiae). I also read every story we had by Jack London— I couldn't imagine anything more exciting than the combination of science fiction and the romance of the American frontier. Today, nearly thirty years later, I still can't.

After we moved to America I learned that there is an enormous universe of science fiction that I missed as a child. I started filling the gaps and read stories and novels by Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Ian Banks, Philip Dick, Cory Doctorow, Charlie Stross, Dan Simmons, Jack Vance, and Vernor Vinge. I also continued reading Russian science fiction. I read everything by Strugatsky brothers, and binge-read the pulpy Russian spin on the cyberpunk genre by Sergei Lukyanenko.

As I grew older I shifted to reading about megaprojects and the intersection of technology and commerce. I read about railroads, electrification, aviation, radio, television, silicon, and the stories of Bell Labs, Microsoft, The Manhattan Project, and The Apollo program. How the heck did we invent all this stuff, wire the planet, speed up transportation by two orders of magnitude, go to space, put a computer on every desk, and then, as if it weren't enough, put a supercomputer in every pocket?! How did we do all that?!

Sometimes I imagine what would happen if I could send my ten year old self a letter and tell him I could press a button and read Masters of Doom the next day, instantly send a short message to John Carmack from anywhere using an always connected supercomputer in my pocket, or that I worked for a company that published The Making of Prince of Persia. He would have been over the moon!

But sitting at a mandated retrospective or mindlessly gluing APIs together doesn't put me over the moon. It makes me feel the opposite (whatever the opposite of being over the moon is). And so, engineers are faced with two realities. One reality is the atmosphere of new technology, its incredible power to transform the human condition, the joy of the art of doing science and engineering, the trials of the creative process, the romance of the frontier. The other reality is the frustration and drudgery of operating in a world of corporate politics, bureaucracy, envy and greed— a world so depressing, that many people quit in frustration, never to come back.

If you work in technology, the monastery can be distant and vague, whereas Paul from marketing wants to circle back with you here and now. Then, as you circle back again and again, the monastery recedes further into the distance, and the drudgery appears closer and closer, until it occupies your entire field of vision and you can't see anything else.

I have friends in the medical field, and they vent about drudgery and endless bureaucracy all the time. They have more roadblocks than we do, and theirs are objectively worse than ours. The hours are longer, the bureaucracy is more entrenched, the regulators mandate their time be wasted on bullshit, and mistakes can have devastating consequences. Yet I haven't heard of a single doctor who quit his practice and moved to Colorado to run a ski lodge. When I ask why, they all give the same response: the patients. Every day they see patients brought back to health, the bullshit recedes into the background, and they're reminded why they got into medicine.

The default in engineering is different. We don't have a daily ritual built into our jobs that reminds us why we got into the field. Without a ritual, the drudgery creeps closer and the vision of the monastery recedes. So we must be very deliberate in developing rituals to keep the two realities in their proper proportion.

I think the reason many engineers have trouble with this is that so much of our field is about knowledge, but rituals aren't about knowledge at all— they're about practice. You must develop a daily mantra, a spell, a routine, whatever you want to call it, and then perform it religiously. I needed a lot of trial and error to get it right, and I’m still playing with the details. The internet desensitized me to text and video. Anything that happens in front of a screen doesn't help with perspective anymore. But I discovered that getting away from the screen and handling physical items does.

I don't know what will work for you, but here are a few ideas. Read used hard cover books on history of technology every day. The smell, the feel of old paper, the knowledge that someone read the book before you is incredibly powerful for bringing the romance of technology back into the field of vision. Buy the first computer you've ever owned on eBay and keep it on your desk. Read a chapter about the development of your favorite childhood computer game every morning. Buy a vintage bolt action hunting rifle and learn to take it apart and put it back together. Flip through an aerospace coffee table book before bed. Quit working for Google. Buy yourself a scale wooden model of a complex technological apparatus and spend half an hour a day putting it together. Pick up an analog oscilloscope on Craigslist, get an Arduino and code a game of Pong.

Maybe it’s an emergent property, maybe it’s an accident, maybe it’s by design; it doesn’t matter why, but the industry burns through people. If you leave your love of programming and the feeling of the computer revolution romance on autopilot, the industry will burn through you. It’s your responsibility to know exactly why you’re doing the specific job you’re doing, what your long-term goal is, how to develop a credible plan to achieve it, and what you need to do (and not to do) to keep your underground spring of creativity alive. Don’t outsource this to anyone else, and don’t neglect it. No one can do that job except you, and the job needs to get done. Unless you want to spend the rest of your life growing hydroponic tomatoes.

TL;DR: Develop a routine to keep drudgery away and the romance of technology close. Practice it religiously. Physical mechanisms and analog circuitry are better than digital; used hardcovers are better than Kindle. Know your long-term goals. Brewing beer and baking bread are canaries in a coal mine. If you find yourself interested in either of those, quit your job immediately and go to Akihabara for a month.