Starving Artist

2010/04/09

The trouble with passions connected to well-paying professions is that in your early days, there are no comrades in arms with whom you can drink liters of wine and fantasize about finally finding success. Young people who decide to be actors–or writers, or painters–dream desperately about their Big Break, the point after which jobs will fall into their laps and they can buy new shoes at full price and enjoy modest name recognition in their chosen field. In their day-to-day lives, though, their peers are pretty much in the same places they are: working ill-fitting jobs to pay the bills, shopping the store-brand oatmeal, wondering if it’s all worth the effort. They may or may not go on irresponsible benders. The necessity of emotional support is well understood.

Kids who go in for computer science, though, are pretty much snapped up as soon as they can demonstrate the basic skills. Sure, they secretly dream about being the next Dijkstra (who doesn’t?), but I imagine they suffer the indignities of non-rock-stardom from posh digs, with more health insurance than they know what to do with, and enjoy satisfying conversations with their brainy coworkers. Their day jobs may not be glamorous, but they avoid the identity crisis of constantly explaining their nonaligned “calling” and “job”: “I’m a writer, but I work as an accountant.” Plus, when programmers want a break from their interesting projects, they can take a month off to go study a new language in a different country. There are no emotional support groups for coders who crave their own eponymous algorithm.

For now, for lack of a more structured support group, I will redirect comfort from Anne Lamott’s guide for beginning writers, Bird by Bird (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994). Replace “writing” with “coding,” and it becomes eerily accurate:

So I tell [my students] what it will be like… when I sit down to work, with a few ideas and a lot of blank paper, with hideous conceit and low self-esteem in equal measure, fingers poised on the keyboard. I tell them they’ll want to be really good right off, and they may not be, but they might be good someday if they just keep the faith and keep practicing. And they may even go from wanting to have written something to wanting to be writing, wanting to be working on something, like they’d want to be playing the piano or tennis, because writing brings with it so much joy, so much challenge. It is work and play together… [T]heir heads will spin with ideas and invention. They’ll see the world through new eyes… At cocktail parties or in line at the post office, they will … sneak away to scribble these things down. They will have days of frantic boredom, of angry hopelessness, of wanting to quit forever, and there will be days when it feels like they have caught and are riding a wave.

And then I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway. But I try to make sure they understand that writing, and even getting good at it, and having books and stories and articles published, will not open the doors that most of them hope for. It will not make them well. It will not give them the feeling that the world has finally validated their parking tickets, that they have in fact finally arrived…

But I also tell them that sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something.

Back to it.

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Hello Markov, my old friend

2010/03/11

For interview practice, I’ve been trying to talk out loud during my whiteboard brainstorming and coding, but mostly I just psych myself out. (“My voice sounds weird. I sound unsure. I just lost my train of thought and stared out the window in the middle of my sentence. Am I making sense at all?”)  Plus, once I get into ‘think out loud’ mode, it often degenerates into singing whatever song is stuck in my head, and making sound effects to go with my emerging diagrams! But this is why I practice at home, before an interviewer is looking over my shoulder: so I can learn how to talk sensibly while cutting back on impromptu musical interludes.

I accidentally deleted all my code last week just before heading out of town, and I’d been afraid to come back to my newly empty project–like returning to the site of a fire that had wiped out hours of effort, made extra painful by knowing that I’d personally started the blaze out of ignorance–but honestly, it’s been good rebuilding from scratch. Starting at the whiteboards, setting up a new Makefile, remembering how to add files to projects in geany (my IDE for LINUX)… Really an excellent review of things that I should be able to do in my sleep.

Plus, there’s something about the Markov text generator that just grabs me. I love manipulating language. If I’m feeling bold after getting the English one to work, I’m tempted to adapt it for Korean language input… I have no idea where to even start, but for a language nerd like me, understanding the basis of international character encoding will be HUGE.

It is so good to be back ^.^


Spin

2010/01/15

I had a secret hope that one day–perhaps while I’m walking down the street carrying my Carnegie Mellon intro to computer systems guide, or at a coffee shop working out some algorithm on a white board–someone would glance over and exclaim:  “I can tell by your diagram of arrows, circles, and hex notation that you are working on some programming! Plus, you look young and hip. Would you like a job?”

After months of working in coffee shops and walking around Redmond, though, I still haven’t had any spontaneous job offers. In fact, the only person to strike up a conversation about my topic of study was a coffee shop employee with Down’s Syndrome, who asked what I was studying. “Computers,” I answered. “Oh,” she said, “maybe you can teach me!” (“If I ever understand it myself,” I thought, “that could be great.”) “Maybe someday!” I said, more cheerfully than I felt.

I’m struggling, in some ways, to live up to the image I’m trying to create for myself: brilliant in prose and in code, capable of laser focus even in pajamas, and relentlessly upbeat while maintaining a cool sense of irony. Who wouldn’t want to hire that person?

In my first ever “real” job–in my then-chosen field of teaching–I truly believed they’d fire me if they learned I was anything short of Mary Poppins with flawless French. Of course, this ended up hurting me in the long run, because I missed out on opportunities to ask my supervisor for advice. I will not let myself make that mistake again.

But in the hiring process… employers assume you’re putting your best foot forward, and if your A-game is flawed, then they’ll assume that on a day-to-day basis, you’re barely sentient. This really implies that until I’m in the door, I need to actively monitor my image. But even though I’m a pretty private person, I highly value honesty in my dealings with people.

In helping our clients, I’m able to maintain genuine communication by looking for the real good in any situation; even if someone’s been unbelievably difficult to work with, I can thank them honestly for taking the time to talk with me about their issues–and in the end, that leaves me feeling more positive about the whole interaction.

When I’m talking about myself, then, I’ll just have to keep looking until I find genuinely positive things to relate–and will keep quiet (or talk to friends) about the rest.

As always–glad we had that talk ^.^


Zeroth Interview

2009/12/08

Really, it’s more like a null header: I’m going for a pre-screen at a non-technical recruiting agency. Whether anything comes of  it or not, it’ll serve as a great reminder that I’m learning to code so I can WORK as a coder–not just pursue programming as a quirky hobby.

I can’t print my resume until the library opens in an hour–so just to bring a little joy back, I’ll play with Project Euler in C++. It’s gotten easy in C#, but I could still use the practice with C++ syntax. (Although… the tricks with PE tend to be more logical, and don’t really expose the tricky parts of the language. It’ll be a confidence booster, anyway!)