Garrett (garote) wrote,

I need another label

For two decades of my life I have identified myself primarily as a "computer geek".

At first I was into it just for the thrill of exploration; computing for computing's sake. Making the lights blink and the sprites dance. Then, I embraced the holy wars, and the one-upmanship of coding as close to the metal as possible; choosing hardware for political reasons, wearing my self-assigned outcast badge with pride and without a hint of irony as I stuck close to my own insular tribe of fellow outcasts. I felt that my friends and I were "the real deal", because we didn't just talk about coding, we wrote it, in copious sugar-fueled bursts, inventing techniques from blank graph paper that would later emerge - to our delight - as entire paradigms in textbooks and APIs and hardware. We were on the forefront of something big and exciting and we knew it, and I reveled in it. I was pretty cocky about it. It gave me a direction, self worth, and a set of employable skills, above and beyond what high school supposedly provided.

After barely graduating high school due to my obsession with my extracurricular computer activities, I cast about for the next step. The obvious choice for my career path was to attend university and get a Computer Science degree, so I went for that. People told me it was possible to get a job without the degree, but I would be forever relegated to a lower pay grade, and I wouldn't have time for school later, so I better get the degree up front. After a false start I eventually gained admittance to UCSC.

Then, a funny thing happened. As I branched out into the environment of college, I was surprised to discover that I had a vast appetite for social interaction. I had been starving for it. I was welcomed into a crew of people who were smart, excitable, enthusiastic, and refreshingly uninhibited. They became my second family. I was also shocked to discover that I was in high demand as a romantic partner, after years of isolation and self-doubt. I was surrounded by fascinating people and things, and every day was full of debates and lessons and joy and laughter.

I dropped out of UC Santa Cruz after three years with no degree, because the upper division math classes overwhelmed my cavalier study habits, and I ran out of money. Even so, I look back on that time as a triumph, a great blast of positive change and activity that fortified me for the wider world. It put a lot of good tools in my toolbox, and surprisingly few bad ones.

But also, with the advantage of hindsight, I identify that time as the era in which I stopped really being a "computer geek". If anyone had ever challenged my possession of the label, I would have been forced to admit that it was a sideshow at best, among equally inspiring pursuits like singing, sketch comedy, music composition, anthropology, poetry, various natural sciences, autobiography, all kinds of photography, wilderness exploration, political advocacy, and definitely romance. I had seen and done too much; there was no fitting back into the box.

A few years later, someone - I can't remember who, exactly - told me something very interesting about that time. She said that I had been a member of a big cohesive group mostly because I had a kind of penumbral force to my personality that made people around me behave that way. She said that she always felt better when I was at a gathering - no matter where it was, no matter who else was there - because my attitude seemed to insist that everyone around me play nicely with everyone else.

I was surprised to hear this, and I had to think about it for a while. I do dimly remember some incidents where I acted as a self-appointed referee, when people exchanged angry words or got a little too sarcastic with their tone, but mostly, I had been oblivious to this habit. Where had it come from? Had my "crew" of friends really been a delusion of my own making? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I know the effort wasn't all mine. My friend Ken did what he called "recruiting", which was to walk up to random geeky-looking strangers at large events, introduce himself, and then ask them point-blank to come hang out with the rest of us. Somewhere I have a group photo of my "crew" on the promenade of the Beach Boardwalk at night, during a UCSC orientation event, our ranks swelled with a dozen people all posing in the photograph like old friends even though we'd just roped them into the group hours or minutes before. Ken was amazing with that. Many of those people became regular players in our social circle.

The point of this digression is, I developed a "cooperative" aspect of my personality, but I wasn't aware that I had it. And, I had branched out far beyond the label of "computer geek".

But in my post-college life, I doubled down on that label. I sought jobs in the computing industry exclusively. After a few years, I entered into a wonderful stable relationship and found that a lot of my life had fallen into easy order, and with energy and enthusiasm to spare, I felt restless for more challenging work. I wanted a career. As luck would have it, one of my oldest friends gave me a foot in the door at Apple, and I hovered nervously on the welcome mat for a while, then pulled the knob and barged eagerly inside.

I have blogged about this era before, both the good and the bad aspects of it. Mostly it was another triumph. But I don't wish to repeat myself; I have something else to say about it here:

I now have nothing left to prove, as a "computer geek".

At age twelve I was hacking machine code in hex with a sector editor and bridging pins inside game consoles. At fifteen I was chatting with Russian computer engineers and Australian teachers over the precursor of the internet. Fast-forward two decades, and at age 34 I was lead developer and designer for a development toolchain that became so successful it was spun off into its own department, and I was granted - without asking - a spontaneous raise that pushed my salary into six figures. This, at the most competitive and respected computer company in the world, and as of a few days ago, the most valued company in the entire world, period. Go up to the third floor of Building 2. See that poster in the lobby, of Abraham Lincoln holding a ghetto-blaster over one shoulder, labeled "think different"? I put that there.

I have to ask myself: Did I ever really have anything to prove, though? I always did it out of an enthusiasm for the activity itself. The politics and the one-upmanship just came with the territory, and were set aside as soon as I stepped into my job at Apple. From there it was just a marathon to make things better, faster, and more flexible. I did eventually move within earshot of some of the old guard, people who had been Apple employees for decades, and got a rude helping of their poisonous self-satisfaction. It was around that time that I also began to dream of ... escape. A nagging voice appeared from the back of my mind, repeating a question:

"Is this how you want to spend the rest of your adult life? 50 hours a week, behind gray walls, for twenty years, until your hair goes white and your spine bends and you turn into one of the self-satisfied old guard with no memory of the world beyond your fancy house in the suburbs and your sacred pieces of legacy API? Is this where you will stay, while the rest of everything happens in distant silence around you? Is this the top of your game?"

I was sitting pretty in my geek pursuits, but it just wasn't enough. In fact, once my social and home life became stressed, it wasn't nearly enough. The money made life easier, but it didn't let me reclaim my mind from deep space to attend to the fires on the ground.

So, in light of what's happened, I think I have to drop the "computer geek" banner. It's been pissed on by too many of the younger crowd anyway. Handy tip: If you call yourself a "computer geek" because you obsessively check Facebook, you're Doing It Wrong. In fact, just to vent my own spleen for a minute, here's a totally self-aggrandizing list.

* Being employed as a contract web designer does not actually make you a computer geek.
* Awareness of an emerging meme before it appears on meme-tracking websites does not actually make you a computer geek.
* Employing a cheat-code in a console game does not actually make you a computer geek.
* Staying indoors to watch movies on your laptop when your friends are outside playing does not actually make you a computer geek.
* Being attracted to computer geeks does not actually make you a computer geek.
* Enjoying XKCD, Doctor Who, Super Mario Brothers, Slashdot, Reddit, Monty Python, anime, electronic music, Xbox, Burning Man, Weird Al, Jonathan Coulton, They Might Be Giants, raves, steampunk, Tron, World of Warcraft, twitter, blogging, your iPad, Red Bull, comics, Pixar movies, your Android phone, or anything to do with The Matrix or Star Wars or Star Trek, does not actually make you a computer geek.

What actually makes you a computer geek? Exercising a strong interest in how computers do things, so you can make them do more things, because that is fucking fascinating. If it isn't fascinating, then get out of my office. Go back to making web layouts in Dreamweaver for beer money with all the other dot-com wankers.

If I come over a bit angry, it's because I am a bit angry. A label that used to signify devotion to a craft is now used as a cover for sloth and/or incompetence. On the other hand, that label is something I am distancing myself from anyway, so, why should I care?

Moving "computer geek" to the background leaves a gap in my self identity; a pretty big one. And recently I've had a few revelations that may have finally showed me the way to go, from here.

I'll write about those next.
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