Musings on tech culture and employment

31 Aug

How realistic an expectation is it not to be miserable one’s entire life?

It sounds pretentious to put it that way, perhaps. Or perhaps entitled; I do find myself wondering whether the main problem I suffer from is unrealistic and/or greedy expectations.

This all sounds rather vague, I’m sure; context will follow.

There is a response I often get, especially from my parents, when I complain about anything job-related or job-search-related, which essentially boils down to “everybody hates their jobs, so suck it up and deal with it”. Or to put it slightly more charitably, “nobody enjoys their job all of the time, and most people don’t enjoy their jobs most of the time, so suck it up and deal with it”. And while I am certain there is some truth to this, I still find myself unwilling to accept the consequences (and I do suspect there’s a level of “misery loves company” to my parents’ promotion of this view, because neither of them are particularly happy in their situations). And there are also practical considerations, in that the longer I languish unemployed the more inescapable that position becomes.

Nevertheless, I find myself pretty thoroughly miserable in the current job (and this is before being paid much of anything and/or getting an actual job placement out of it), watching my depressive symptoms intensify and despairing for the future. So you get to have an angsty rant from me! Aren’t you lucky? (I suppose I could only be more of a cliche if I were publishing this on LiveJournal, but I haven’t got an account there and have no intention of making one.)

Firstly, I’m being reminded all over again of how little I like programming and working with code in general (one of many reasons I didn’t pursue a CS degree: I’ve found recently that to get myself to work on code I often have to take anti-anxiety pills first), and how little I like programmer/tech culture. And while there may be something to be said for trying to do activism from within to change that culture, I doubt I have the emotional fortitude for it. (I keep thinking back to the Adria Richards incident, for example; I’ve been witness to quite a lot of similarly inappropriate ‘humour’ in the past few days. Lots of juvenile ‘humour’, lots of sexist/misogynist ‘humour’, etc, from the instructors as well as the students. I’m never sure whether it’s worth my while to speak out against this sort of thing – especially when it’s in a classroom environment and would be disruptive – but not doing so often reads as condonation and probably contributes to the problem in the long run. I do sometimes wonder whether I should consider myself to have a moral obligation to stay and try to effect change from within, much as I’d hate to actually have to do that.) And the endgame of this program is something like earning the privilege to be immersed in this environment for an extended period of time; just what I wanted, clearly. And furthermore I suspect I’ll find myself further entrenched in the tech world after that period has ended, with even less hope of escape than I have now.

But what right do I have, really, to a career I won’t hate? Maybe it’s my fault for being too picky or too depressive; I genuinely don’t know whether such a thing is even possible (and also there have been studies in psychology which suggest that paying people for doing a thing decreases their enjoyment thereof, which has further unpleasant implications: it may well mean that finding a career doing something I love, if there is such a thing, would just suck all the joy out of it and render me equally if not more miserable in the long term).

I almost want to make a slightly goofy analogy here and compare job-hunting to looking for a marriage as a woman in a Regency romance or the like: if it weren’t necessary for survival/livelihood a lot fewer people would be doing it, the odds of ending up in a satisfactory situation are rather low and there are far more people vying for the good opportunities than can realistically attain them, and, of course, one just has to hope against all odds to end up with someone who isn’t going to be abusive and exploitative, let alone merely not insufferably dull. The vast majority of job prospects are not going to be Fitzwilliam Darcy. But, merely to remain with Pride and Prejudice here, does that necessarily mean that one should resign oneself to the likelihood of having no better than a Collins? (Hmm, what would a Wickham be in this context? Something like my current situation, perhaps? – mandatory relocation, tempting offers of money and opportunity that mysteriously fail to appear in the promised quantities? God, that’s depressing.)

When I think about it rationally I think the best I can realistically hope for is to find some kind of 9-to-5, 40 hour per week job that I don’t absolutely hate, and then try to build the life I actually want in the fragments of time that that leaves me. But there’s another part of me that rebels against this, arguing that that’s actually quite a big time commitment as it is, and that if the work is even moderately taxing it will likely leave me unable to accomplish much of anything in mornings or evenings during the week, and essentially giving me at most two days out of the week to actually live. I know a lot of people are capable of living that way, but I have a hard time convincing myself it’s a pleasant lifestyle unless the job itself is better than tolerable. Plus there’s the annoying fact that – especially in technology-related fields, where I’ve mostly been pigeonholed whether I like it or not – many if not most companies have an expectation of being the worker’s number one priority and that a certain amount of work is going to be taken home with them (to the point where I almost find it refreshing when one is honest enough to just demand people work overtime). Shouldn’t the bloody 40 hours of servitude be enough? (No, of course not; THIS. IS. CAPITALISM!)

And then I’m reminded that it’s not even as simple as that, because people who enjoy their jobs also do better work and are therefore more likely to get the bloody jobs in the first place. I’ve been observing this recently as well – most of the others in this training programme actually seem to enjoy programming and working with code, don’t (much) resent being expected to do so at all hours of the day without regard for spare time, and are excited about continuing to do so at actual work placements. Whereas I, obviously, do not. As such, while passing no judgment on the relative intelligence levels of persons involved, I can safely say these people end up being better (and vastly more employable) programmers than me by virtue of enthusiasm alone even disregarding any other factors.

And then on occasion I listen to something like, for example, Mark Rosewater’s podcast, and am reminded that there do actually exist people who find careers they love and seem to have a marvellous time at it. Dare I actually hope for such a thing? (This comes full circle to the question I asked at the beginning of this piece – statistically, what are the odds, and is it greedy and unrealistic to use that as a standard?)

Sometimes I think I should just change my name to Marvin and give up on any hope of enjoying life.

This has been a rather amorphous rant and I’m honestly not sure how much sense it even makes, so I’m not sure whether publishing it was the best idea… oh well, it’s too late now.


Posted by on August 31, 2015 in mitchell


Tags: , , ,

4 responses to “Musings on tech culture and employment

  1. Angie

    August 31, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Hello! First time commenter here (I think? I’ve been following the blog for a while, though). Pleased to meet you. I just *had* to comment on this one. I hope you don’t mind me sharing some ideas and suggestions. I’ll write them here just in case they’re useful to you 🙂

    I can feel your pain. And I can also see that your parents are being rather unhelpful in the matter, making it in fact much worse than it needs to be.

    Look, having a job is a necessity, as you already mentioned: we cannot be a 100% picky with that stuff, because we need to eat, pay the bills and such. That’s obvious. It’s also obvious that finding a job that makes you absolutely happy and perfectly fits you is next to impossible. But that’s one thing, and another is being miserable all of the time and having to take anti-anxiety pills before starting to work. That’s inhuman! I’m so sorry you’re in that situation. No matter how many trillions of millions of people hate their jobs and have psychological problems because of it, that doesn’t make it right and that doesn’t make your expectations unrealistic or wrong in any way.

    I myself am a sensitive, creative person who has a job that doesn’t completely fit her, and occasionally depresses her. I will, no doubt, get a better job in the future if I can. But the future is the future, and now is now. My job isn’t perfect, but it’s somewhat related to something I enjoy (I’m a writer and an artist at heart; my job is related to making schoolbooks for children… the most boring and repetitive parts of the schoolbooks, but still it’s still related to what I enjoy, distantly), which is important because, when I’m feeling down, I can focus on the parts of it that I *do* like. “Everyone hates their jobs” = lie. I don’t adore my job, but I don’t hate it either. It’s nice. Boring, but nice.

    First thing you should do is get out of the vicious circle of always going back to coding stuff. If you don’t like coding at all, then there’s no possible common ground between you and your job/job opportunity. People (e. g. your parents, other people in the programme, job counselors) may tell you that your job/job opportunity is a great job, you should be grateful, yadda yadda; but, to answer the first part, that doesn’t make it a good job for *you*, and to answer the second part, fuck them. There must be plenty of other jobs out there that you could do that aren’t related to this, even if they are “lower” in the socially-acceptable-jobs-that-require-high-level-education scale (whatever that means) than the job you’re doing/working towards going now.

    Others may think, and state their thoughts LOUDLY for EVERYONE to HEAR, that you’re going backwards if you took a job lower in the so-called scale than your current one, or a job unrelated to your “field of expertise”; when in fact, from a personal point of view, you’d be going forwards. Ignore them. No regrets. You don’t necessarily have to find a “perfect” job, but something that gets at least a little bit closer to your true interests. It may be simply a thing that you do temporarily while you work towards something better… it doesn’t actually matter *what* it is, as long as you don’t hate it and it’s not related to coding stuff. That won’t make you ecstatic, but at least more comfortable, and it will get you out of the rut you’re in right now. It’s a big step. I don’t know if anyone’s told you this, a friend or a therapist or a random stranger like me, but, when depression strikes, you should always do *something*: change habits, shake your life a little, go somewhere you haven’t been, whatever. It gets things in motion. Been there, done that.

    Another thing that jumped out at me from your entry was the bit about expecting to have to do more than your fair share of 40 hours a week. I know it’s common practice among the tech industries, but take into account that, from an outsider’s point of view, it’s not normal. Or legal, as far as I know: labor rights exist for a reason. I’ve got plenty of coder friends and occasionally code videogames for fun myself, and for what I’ve seen you coders seem to be one of the worst-treated workers in the market. Which brings me to the second piece of advice I want to give you: *set boundaries*. Second rule for your job to not totally suck and let you live your own life is being able to clearly divide the time you spend doing it *and* the time you spend not doing it. So, while you’re at your job, you’re at your job, and while you aren’t, you aren’t. This is useful even when you love the job you’re doing: you must have the freedom to completely forget about it until you’ve got to go back. It’s healthy. It lets you focus on other things, relax and recharge. If they won’t let you do that, then well, it’s no wonder it’s taking a toll on you and exhausting you. Also, don’t let your fellow coders fool you: many of them don’t enjoy working extra hours as much as it would seem…

    On the same topic, you’re got NO OBLIGATION WHATSOEVER to single-handedly change tech culture. It sucks, the misogyny is definitely there, etc., but your priority should always be you, and if you don’t enjoy coding anyway, why bother? Go somewhere you’ll be happier! That’s not being selfish, that’s just taking care of yourself. I’d feel the same in your situation (I, too, feel a compulsion to change society for the better, and help people improve themselves wherever I go), but in the end you have to choose the healthiest option for you.

    I know it’s not a perfect solution. I understand what you say about all of this being a lot of time “wasted” from your life, because I feel the same way. I think it’s because of the kind of people we are: people like us need to know that we’re doing something worthwhile, something that improves us or that makes us happy. But at least in my case I like to think that I can be more or less comfortable *now*, and get the money I need to live, and do my own stuff around the job, and calmly work towards getting a better one in a distant or not so distant future. It’s not ideal, but it’s not total misery either, and that makes a great difference!

    Also, I promise you that not all bosses absolutely suck. They will always annoy you from time to time, but you shouldn’t accept having a boss that disrespects you or stresses you out or depresses you unless you really really really have no other option.

    Well, that was quite the wall of text I wrote there! Haha. I’m hoping that I’m not being too nosy, but after reading your posts for so long, and seeing that our situations are so similar right now, I thought I’d share my thoughts. I really wish you the best with your life, and do not worry. You’re not alone on this. You’re not the only person in the planet who feels this way, and you’re not being selfish or unrealistic or whatever your brain is telling you right now – you’re just asking for the bare minimum to function, and you’re certainly, definitely, absolutely entitled to it. I promise.

  2. DawnM

    September 1, 2015 at 1:29 am

    Yes, you did make sense. I have some thoughts. I don’t want to call it advice, given that I’m not some shining beacon of happy successfulness myself. So, thoughts…

    I feel like I am that future you are staring at in fear and trepidation. The thing about programming careers is that they are not so much career tracks as career ‘ruts’. The farther along you go, the deeper the rut becomes and the harder it is to get out. It’s easy to get more and more specialized at one type of thing and no one wants to hire you except to do that one thing you are specialized for. And the number of companies who need that specialized thing you do are not that numerous. Then eventually, the specialized thing you can do becomes obsolete technology so then all you are good for is management.

    So, yeah, you don’t want to move too far down a track that is heading where you don’t want to go.

    In my experience, the work itself doesn’t need to be the main reward. Obviously, food and clothing and shelter can be pretty rewarding, and as time goes on things like nice homes and vacations and expensive hobbies and offspring can maybe provide the happiness that you don’t get from your job. And, depending on your luck, you can find coworkers who can become your friends and make your days more worthwhile.

    It’s really a balancing act. Given the doors which are open before you, which one strikes the best balance of a) providing your desired level of current subsistence, b) positioning you for a better future and c) minimizing current unpleasantness.

    e.g. It might make sense to do something you really hate as a part time job for money while you use the extra time to look for a more suitable job / train for something you’d rather do /write your novel / do rewarding volunteer work / etc / etc / etc.

    I think you probably want to take the position of being realistic about the present without giving up hope for the future. You are where you are. Think about where you can go from here and where you want to end up, and make choices that move you in the right direction.

    Of course, if you look at all of the opportunities you have right now, and they all suck, and they all move you away from where you want to be in life? I got nuthin’

    Just as a data point: I like the intellectual challenge of programming, and I like having smart co-workers to talk to at lunch, and I like the salary. But I ended up in an industry where I feel like I’m making the world a little bit worse every day. And the only people who want to hire me are companies in the same industry. To them I am highly valuable; to anyone else I have no useful skills. What I did about it is I changed to work part time. I gave up a bunch of money, and I went back to school to learn about something I love. I’m getting towards the end of my bachelor’s degree now, and I have to start figuring out what to do from here. I was happy in my new part-time student rut, but I don’t know where to go from here. I suck at networking, so I haven’t made many connections with the professors; and I have no idea whether I want to keep going to grad school. There are few jobs in my chosen path (wildlife biology) and basically none of them can be had without at least a masters. I thought I would like to do research, but now I’m not so sure.

    So clearly, I’m not someone to be giving out advice to anyone. But maybe I’m a good example of how some things get easier with time but it’s still really hard to know what’s the right thing to do.

    (sorry about the wall o’ text)

  3. P.S. Paddfoot (@PSPaddfoot)

    September 2, 2015 at 9:38 am

    I can’t comment on the land of being a coder. (I have no idea what it entails these days to be honest.) I do however understand wanting a job that makes you happy but also provide for you. I’ve spent nearly a decade trying to figure that out. I think I managed to figure it out, and what I found is the answer was staring me right in the face, and I just kept overlooking it. (For me it is cooking and a desire to learn how to grow my own food.) Perhaps the career for you is also staring you in the face, only to be overlooked? You may have to go back to college for it, or if there is something in the coder world you can find happiness in, I say go for that. Do what makes you happy.

    As for changing the world and making it a better place? Just by having that desire alone, you are a step above a lot of people. You are probably doing it with out even realizing it. You do not always have to voice your disagreements about a situation to do that. For all any one knows, you attend feminist rallies, volunteer at a woman’s shelter for the abused, or maybe you donate clothes to a homeless shelter. Who knows, but you do not always have to speak out directly. Especially if you might find yourself in a position where you can’t, whether that be you can’t afford to lose your job, or perhaps you can’t handle the emotional backlash of a more direct confrontation. There are plenty of other ways to make difference.

  4. Lisa

    September 5, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    I think you are a terrific writer. How about going into the direction of writing for tech magazines or something like that? Reviewing or stuff like that…


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