Once again I've had a very busy and stressful week, followed by a not-stressful but nevertheless busy weekend, with little time for anything apart from work and family-related doings. I brought this on myself to some extent by having signed up, back in late November, for a 20-hour course in the Java programming language, which took up five hours a day for the entire four days of the first work week after New Year's. When I signed up for it, I wasn't thinking about all the other things I would need to be doing that week. It put me behind on those, and I still haven't caught up. Well, I never actually catch up at work, but sometimes the backlog is greater than at other times.
The class was pretty challenging, but I enjoyed it. It felt good to exercise my brain in very much the same way that it feels good to exercise one's body: though it was psychological rather than physical, there was a similar sense of being stronger for the effort. And it reminded me of why I ever got into this line of work in the first place. I do like programming, and I wish my job consisted of more programming and less politics, less administration, less time supporting users of software that I didn't write and don't fully understand.
The economic crisis of the past few years has brought attention to the number of college graduates who can't get jobs, especially liberal arts grads. But although this situation may have gotten worse since 2008, it's hardly a new development. In the early 1970s I found myself in the same situation, with a BA in English, some work toward an MA, and no prospect of employment beyond retail clerking at minimum wage.
There were some humiliating experiences in the job hunt: being rejected for jobs that required little of the intellectual capacity I'd been demonstrating in grad school, but for which I was nevertheless clearly unsuited for other reasons. I remember especially taking a mechanical aptitude test at the state employment agency, along with a couple of dozen other young men. I doubt any of them had gone past high school, and they certainly could not have written the rather ambitious philosophical-literary essay with which I'd finished Dr. Williamson's course in criticism. But in the mechanical aptitude test, I was the idiot: what the other guys did quickly and correctly I did slowly and badly, or not at all. The experience did serve as a corrective to my pride, but under the circumstances--unemployed and apparently unemployable--it was also a shove toward despair, confirmation of a sense of worthlessness. I did at least recognize the humor in the situation, and that helped alleviate the bitterness.
I knew a few people who were involved in what was then called "data processing." One was a brilliant young mathematician and computer scientist, who had been involved in programming the University (of Alabama)'s computer--these were the days when there was only one on campus--when he was still in high school. He suggested that I give programming a try. I considered such things to be as far beyond me as most mathematics, and it had certainly never entered my mind to consider it as a potential occupation. He advised me to take an introductory course and see what happened.
At some point between receiving that advice and acting upon it, I was talking to a casual acquaintance at the Chukker, a Tuscaloosa establishment which was part bar and part subculture. I mentioned that I was planning to check out the possibility of learning something about computer programming. It turned out that she herself was a programmer, and she encouraged me, with a description of the job that has remained with me for all these years: "It's like going to work every day and having a really interesting puzzle to solve." Well, that sounded promising.
And it wasn't too bad. I found that the basics came fairly easily to me. But I also found quickly enough that I had definite limits. The abstract reaches of computer science were as beyond me as mathematics. What I soon realized was that what I had was an aptitude not for computer science but for precision in language, and a reasonable ability to think logically: I saw the essential task of programming as the expression in very precise and detailed terms of a sequence of operations, and I had a pretty good intuitive grasp of how the hardware worked. This was enough to make me a decent programmer, but not enough to make me a computer scientist, or an engineer, though the degree I eventually struggled through was in computer science, by way of the school of engineering.
I got my first part-time programming job in 1976 or 1977, then another and somewhat more demanding one, and in 1979 took my first full-time job in the information technology business, just in time to allow my wife to give up her job and stay at home with our new baby. And I've been doing that ever since. I count myself lucky to have been able to earn a decent living doing something that I can enjoy at least part of the time.
But the words of my Chukker acquaintance now seem a false promise. For the first few years of my work in the field, her description wasn't too far off, especially when I found a little niche for myself doing a somewhat esoteric type of programming which most people weren't interested in but which was a necessary component of the products developed by the company I worked for. But my niche disappeared with changes in the technology and in the industry. And I soon found that in this line of work you eventually have to choose between remaining in a purely technical role and becoming a manager. I would have preferred the former, but I wasn't good enough, at least not in that company, which was full of extremely bright programmers and engineers. Moreover, the pool of purely technical talent was constantly being replenished with new college grads who were not only very bright but single, or at least childless, energetic, ambitious, and willing to work long hours. I couldn't compete with them in technical ability.
I had absolutely no desire to be a manager or to climb the corporate ladder. I just wanted to do work that was at least sometimes enjoyable and by which I could support my family. But when offered the opportunity of a management position, I took it. I was soon miserable. Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad if I had been purely a manager, but I also had still some technical responsibilities. Moreover, as a manager, I needed to understand what my seven or eight team members were doing, and the company was now moving into a software technology in which I had no hands-on experience. I couldn't keep up with it all. It was a very unpleasant position to be in, and after several years of it I fled, in 1990, to the job in which I've remained since. It's a bit like the position I left--part management, part technical--but the technical side is less demanding, mostly involving support of existing software. The only programming consists of minor modifications and extensions of it.
The point of this lengthy recounting is that the course I took last week put me very much in mind, again, of what I'd heard in the Chukker back in the mid-1970s, and the disappointment that followed. It made me realize again how enjoyable and satisfying programming can be, and induced a bout of dissatisfaction and frustration with my job: I need to know how Java works, but I won't actually do much coding in it.
Programmers are notoriously introverted, if not anti-social (though I've know a few who were very much the opposite), and I fit the stereotype. When I was first put into a management job an evangelical Christian of my acquaintance assured me with great confidence that God was obviously doing this in order to bring me out of my shell.
Well, it didn't work. If anything it drove me further in, by putting me in a situation where I was always insecure and off balance, in which the beginning of the work day seems the beginning of a brief prison sentence, and its end an escape (as I think is the case for most people in most jobs). It did indeed require that I deal with people more, but it also increased my desire to get away from them. I don't greatly resent this--as I said, I'm thankful to have been able to make a reasonably good living for all these years, and especially so now that so many are unemployed. But as a matter of immediate subjective experience, it is a cross. A light and mild cross, certainly, but not a pleasant experience, and one which keeps me away from the things I really love. In my better moments I accept this without begrudging it, and in my very best moments, which are relatively few, I embrace it, and am thankful for it precisely as a cross.
But that doesn't mean that the hand of God was not in the path my career has taken. Perhaps--one can only guess at these things, and it seems a weakness of evangelicalism to attempt to read the mind of God too closely--the fact that I would not like the change was exactly why it was put before me. I can think of any number of reasons why that makes sense, and they all come down to the necessity of accepting the cross as an intrinsic part of life as a Christian. Evangelicalism often seems not to know exactly what to do with the idea of the cross as a blessing, with the obstacle put in our path not by Satan but by God.
I hadn't planned to write more than a few paragraphs on this subject. I had intended to mention several other things, but they can wait.