The Straw That Wrote The Camel’s Back

PhotoAfter the vacation, I’ve been thinking over a few things that apply here and, if you’re patient, you’ll get to my point. This is normally fodder for my other blog, but I think it fits here on this site to this readership.

I’ve been a workaholic as far back as I remember. The reasons for this I understand, the effects understandable.

There are people floating around who know aspects of me – the Software Engineer who finds pragmatic solutions where others don’t, the writer whose work is liked by a small audience who reads it in secret and doesn’t share much, the person with a camera who gets labeled a photographer to get discounts – no, I will not do your wedding – the peculiar brother, the hard to understand cousin, the loyal friend, the uncompromising person who has learned to pick his battles, the sound of reason in the conversation and at the same time the frustrating person who isn’t convinced by passion.

In writing about a character writing itself, as well as experiences over the days since my return to Tobago, I began to think of how we write ourselves. And, over the course of the  last few days while encountering people who saw some of my printed photographs, I heard people talking about, ‘my art’, and even say the word, ‘artist’.

‘Art’ and ‘artist’ do not resonate with me. They conjure images of self-congratulating groups of people swilling cheap wine and cheese, of the cliche poet dressed all in black screaming into a microphone with the angst a good parent would have slapped them for – or is it more politically correct to put them in a timeout? Either way, you get the point. I don’t people who call themselves artists in that much regard – I don’t dislike them, I just don’t identify with them and their clique.

I play with things. That’s what I do. That’s what I’ve always done. It scares some people if you say that, so you learn not to say it, but I play with things. Objects, ideas, code, technology, words, light, whatever. I like to learn, and I like to be off the beaten path – spending a lot of my own time over the years doing just that, to the benefit of employers that never truly appreciated it.

I’m a recovering workaholic. The vacation, the writing, the playing – that shifted my perspective to it’s natural center, and what I found was the way I should have looked at the years of my almost completely unvacationed professional life:

What people call my work is just the collateral damage of me becoming better at things through experimentation. My life is my art, my work – what I leave behind is simply collateral damage of all of that. That stuff is not that important.

And my point here is that we have cultures and pressures from society that do not let us look at things that way, that make us believe that we are what we do. We’re not what we do, we’re what we become by doing.

With that as a focus decades ago, I can’t help wondering what I would be like now. I don’t expect that I would be much different, but knowing that would probably have made life a little more contented when things were not going the way I would have wanted.

You are not what you do, you’re not even what you’ve done. You are what you’re becoming, only partly because of what you do and have done.

Become.

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About What I Write (2018)

Taran Rampersad
Taran Rampersad, photo by Mark Lyndersay (2018).

This will be a long post, so come back with coffee, tea, something else, or not at all. It’s meant to be linked from the ‘About‘ page.

I’ve been going back and engaging some of Renard Moreau’s ongoing conversations – it’s a nice blog Renard has – and it’s healthy to pause for a bit and think about what, how and why I write what I write.

Would that more people did.

I started off as a technologist. In fact, if you can find bits of my writing over the last decades, you’ll find a definite technology bias.

But I’m more than that now, as people who follow can see. There’s a story there that, as much as I hate writing about myself, is a good story and one worth telling as I begin to connect different writing I have been doing in different ways.

Early Writing.

I had some poetry published while I was in my teenage years – nothing particularly great, I think. Writing was something I did every day – we all do, some more than others – but I was focused on the way out of my own prison, which at the time was computing. So I wrote logical code for systems that did exactly what I wanted.

As training goes, that’s pretty horrible training for a writer.

It did, however, get me out of Trinidad and Tobago and out of a house I wanted no part of. It got me to Irving, Texas, where… well, let’s say I enjoyed parts of the childhood I did not have while growing up. While paying my bills. While going to college. And then, while not going to college.

Then, as a sailor, I wrote logs where creativity was not considered… appropriate. No one found it funny when I logged in a Soviet Submarine into a lake at NTC Orlando, and they did not let that pass. They did, however, allow me to log rats in and off the compound without complaint.

Then, there were the SOAP notes in hospitals as a Corpsman – good training on observation, but again, creative writing was frowned upon.

It wasn’t until I got back into software that creative expression was allowed – not so much in the code (oh, the comments I left!), but in that new thing that they had come out with. Email. Not everyone enjoyed my emails, but those that didn’t were usually on the receiving end of some acerbicly made point.

Around this time, I restarted creative writing, largely as an attempt to reconnect with my late mother. We read our poetry at various places in St. Petersburg, Florida – I may even make it up there in 2019 for a CAMs reunion party. And there a conflict began within me – to pay the bills or keep writing. Pragmatically, I continued doing things to pay the bills.

Poetry was fun for a while. Then short essays. And so on.

Later in the 90s, I was able to do some creative and technical writing for a site called Brainbuzz.com, which later became Cramsession.com, and now I think it’s in the ether with study guides still floating around. And in those very late 90s, I began on a new platform.

I began blogging back in 1999. Almost 2 decades ago.

The Blogging Years – Present.

Writing at first in the medium, I was focusing on a lot of self promotion – as many bloggers do. However, I had a heavy distaste for self-promotion – I believed then, and still do now, that content should stand on it’s own. That it doesn’t is an entirely different topic.

Later, I would tire of that. At the request of my father, I returned to Trinidad and Tobago – and it was a time ripe with opportunity. Trinidad and Tobago was to be an Internet hub for South America and the Caribbean. Internet businesses had proven themselves, and my memories of Trinidad and Tobago were optimistic. Too optimistic. The infrastructure wasn’t there, the cost and quality of bandwidth at the time was below reproach, and people I thought I could count on were instead people who wouldn’t spit on me if I was dying of thirst.

So I did what I always did, what I still do with a more mature outlook: I tried to solve the problem. Call it an exercise of futility if you will, I call it an exercise of youth – much the same thing. And so I learned about why all the problems I did not think I should have were there, and tried to bypass them – to no avail. This took years. It introduced me to very quality people inside of Trinidad and Tobago and outside – as well as some people who only recently I found out were the people ripping off my ideas and selling them as their own. Mea culpa. The difference is that they were selling the golden eggs; I am the duck. 

I wasn’t making enough money to feed my reading habit. I read a lot of Gutenberg.org back then, and it broadened me some more. The humanities I had kept from myself came flowing in. The world as I saw it shifted into something broader, with more meaning than silicon.

Before I knew it, I was being invited to conferences on culture and ICT – which I honestly thought I had no business going to, but even when I said as much, they still paid for me to go. With their confidence in me, I dedicated myself to what we discussed, and ended up broadening myself further and further – enough so that even years later, I still get messages asking me what I think about things.

WorldChanging/Alert Retrieval Cache.

I was writing for WorldChanging.com for a while.

Then the South East tsunami hit, and I had an idea, the Alert Retrieval Cache (ARC) – one guy, Dan Lane, fleshed it out in amazing ways. That idea later became more of a problem than a solution because of humans and distrust and reasons why humans should distrust.

It also made me leave WorldChanging.com – don’t let anyone fool you, that was a very odd place to communicate with people. There were disputes with the third party involved who also wrote for WorldChanging.com – I simply wanted it to work, he wanted to capitalize his ego with it. The powers that be were Canadian about it, wanting peace instead of progress. I left. Screw that Utne.

One thing became clear: I wasn’t just a technologist anymore. I had been given the opportunity to see the world in more ways. It was very exciting, and I ended up traveling in Latin America and the Caribbean afterwards – not the tourist stops, but in the homes of people who lived there who showed me not what their tourism boards wanted me to see, but what people there wanted me to see. I had traveled a lot before, but every place I stayed gave me new insights into a world that so many of us take for granted.

Another thing had become clear: I had unrealistic expectations of people. They weren’t motivated by the same things as I was, and my world unraveled before my eyes. I put it back together again, every international disaster another stitch in that fabric as people asked me – pleaded with me – on setting up that ARC. There was anger. There was distrust in humans.

And I wrote. Mostly unpublished, in journals on a shelf not far from where I sit. My distrust in humans became more of an acceptance, and I became better at dealing with people and their quirks – their motivations. I grew. The alternative was simply not worthwhile.

The Land Period.

When my father died, I returned to Trinidad and Tobago to settle his estate. That took years. And then I tried to do things with some land I had inherited which required me to deal with people on it. This was another growth experience; even more writing on a shelf – and it was enough to get by, what I did, but it was not enough to get ahead.

I tried my hand at agriculture, which I wasn’t terribly bad at, but it just wasn’t enough.

The Return to the U.S.

I returned to the United States with the idea that I could make enough money to get back to that land and do something of worth with it. In the downturned economy, with the shifts in technology, I made ends meet. I saw very clean parallels between, as an example, Beloit, Wisconsin, and the Caribbean as far as not advancing and why.

I learned a lot more about the world, but in the end I broke even. I was getting to that age where people weren’t sure whether they wanted to hire me, I was at that age where I wasn’t sure I wanted to be hired by them.

Long gone were the days of the code monkey for me, but everyone wanted a code monkey so that they could play their silicon organ. Attempts I made to get past that failed. Honestly, I could probably be doing code for some company in the U.S. right now if I really wanted to, but I don’t – I turned down one huge company twice, and a slightly smaller company twice. They’re names you know, but they’re not names that will make a difference here. They’re not important to me, and that’s the point I’m getting at.

There was more to technology. I’d already been reading everything all this time. It was all beginning to make sense, and I read then – as I do now – to get the language to communicate things. To make simple what seems so complex at first. To see things work.

I made my way through jobs – even getting to work at a company that did Emergency Communications, learned more about telephony than a sane person should, and left.

To return to Trinidad and Tobago, to finish some things with the land, and ultimately, to write full time.

And Back To Trinidad.

Agriculture again, and dealing with land issues – pushing hard, harder than others. Adjoining landowners were useless despite being related. So I changed the paradigm.

And now I’m back to writing – connecting things beyond just technology, looking at things and seeing what needs to be fixed. I write about it. And also, I’m writing other things, unpublished…

Done.

cea_buddha
Image used with permission of photographer, Flickr user cea. Click for original.

I don’t miss it.

There was a time that it didn’t seem like I ever could. It was all I did. Coding, designing, architecting, playing with new languages and frameworks – it was great. I spent hours upon hours getting good at things that were, in the end, just passing fads.

Passing fads with ‘benefits’, really. The ‘benefit’ being the ability to find work maintaining someone else’s crappy code. Maintenance.

No one looks forward to a career in software engineering maintenance.

But that’s the majority of the industry, and if you’re good at maintenance, they’ll pick someone else to do the new development no matter your experience level. They need you there with your finger in the dyke as you watch them do it all over again – making similar mistakes.

No, I don’t miss it.

CubicleLife

I don’t miss sitting in meetings to watch other people beat their chests and claim credit for things that they didn’t do as political necessity. I don’t miss reading emails written by people more interested in trying to impress each other rather than actually communicate what they need to.

I don’t miss being told I should be at my desk more often when I was one of the few people meeting deadlines, milestones, yardsticks and tombstones. I don’t miss the tiresome code-jockeys who don’t know a thing about process and were graced with writing them. I don’t miss going through undocumented code and figuring things out to rewrite a new iteration that will never be used. Oh, and if you were ever on call…

There’s really a lot not to miss.

And as software engineering goes, that’s pretty much the way it is. That’s a pretty average career, since most work in software engineering is maintenance – and maintenance, after a certain period, shows you everything that was done wrong. But since you’re doing maintenance, you don’t ever get to use it at work. Maybe you do it at home, but honestly, after a few decades you may not want to stare at a computer when you get home.

No, I’m playing these days. I finally got back to why I started it all in the first place.

Except I have a lot more experience. And I can walk away from my desk, I can eat what I want when I want, I can wear what I want…

Cubicles? Offices? That’s for managers.

A Walk Down High Street.

It was a walk to see what had changed, to see if I could get a few things I needed. It was a walk to reconnect me with something that I felt I should reconnect with. My feet had pummeled there throughout the 1980s, when I often wore the Presentation College uniform. It was where I went into every business to try to sell advertising for my father’s ‘Trini Trader’ magazine, or to do things for the printery, or to desperately check for the latest computer magazines at Victor Manhin’s, long gone.

It was where I haunted when I ‘broke biche’, playing hookie in my last few years at Presentation College, hiding in an amazingly small coffee shop you would not know was there unless someone told you – to either meet with skirts of both shades of blue, or to read. It was where I hiked down to the old Muscle Connection Gym to work out and to later get my free Tandoori chicken meal at Tara’s Kitchen in Carlton Center. I paid for neither, having bartered for the first and earned the last through friendship.

Of course, most of it was gone, as the old dustbins that used to be were. I hadn’t walked down in that area for close to a decade. I was surprised to find it more clean than it had been, though it was still dirty. Library Corner no longer had the library. A facade in front of the old Library would have made me worry that it would suffer the same problems of the Red House, but on the way I had seen where it was relocated. A mental note to swing in there sometime.

A walk down the street saw me looking for the sports store that was no longer there, saw me heading down to look at shoes to replace the tired old running shoes I had – these were 10 years old, detritus from my last period of life in Trinidad, not looking worn but the bounce of the sole lost in time like the bounce of so many souls. I shopped around, toward the bottom of High Street, seeing all manner of shoes costing thousands of dollars that I would never be seen in public with. Gaudy. Eye catching colors. A culture I shunned in footwear and in most other things, preferring to remain as unnoticed as possible on the streets where I always stood out anyway. “The Professor”, as they called me back then on the Coffee and the Carib, liked to blend in but somehow always stood out. Damn it.

One store I was ushered into had me go down some stairs, into a basement that reeked of mold. Where there’s mold, there’s compromised inventory. To the credit of their honesty, they didn’t even try to cover the smell – maybe the product of having tried and failed over time. To their credit, they had their display shoes in clear plastic bags that had seen much reuse. But the scent. I have seen what mold does to shoes. To walls. How it secretes itself insidiously on everything. And then I remembered this plaza for the work my father had done on their electrical. I remembered the owner, who I am certain has not changed.

I was permitted an opening as the worker spoke with someone else very seriously about why their shoes were better priced than anything else in the area – but the price for the shoes I would put on my feet was still higher than what I saw in Detour. I went back to Detour, stood by the shoes and was attended briefly, they brought the shoes down and I purchased them without hesitation – 25% of the price of the majority of the shoes, 20% lower than comparable shoes where I saw them. The Syrian gentleman smiled slightly at this; he had seen me there 10 minutes earlier, he had seen what I did, and he also saw that I immediately put the new Nikes on and tossed the others, leaving them with box and bag.

Hands swinging.

I walked up further, finding new spaces where old ones were. The sidewalk was the same. The street smelled the same – that odor of dry season dust with the occasion of stale urine. No one talks about that pungent aroma in cities when they say that they love them. New York. Orlando. Dallas. Honolulu. Panama. Managua. Port of Spain. San Fernando. The list goes on about which brochures should have scratch and sniff photos.

Or the smell of the casual vagrant. That lurid smell of sweat upon layers of sweat, a topology on the sinuses not easily forgotten.

A new book store. A casual conversation revealed why there were only books marketed to women (read: romance) on the shelves, though it was spared 50 Shades of Bad Writing by the Muslim owner. Another bookstore I frequented with it’s meager selection poorly laid out so it seemed like they had more of a variety.

I stopped in one store, saw an old school friend who worked there and we chatted. Caught up.

I left High Street, striding home in new shoes and old memories, thinking as I kept an eye on the shadows near my own and the sound of footfalls behind me – a habit over the years. I thought about how big High Street had been for me in the 1980s, and how small it seemed now.

When I was younger, it was a window to the world. Thriving. Knowledge I craved was pooled in bookstores that no longer exist. The street had become smaller not because I had gotten larger, but because it was a window into what could sell in a country where the buying power of the average citizen limited choices of what businesses could bring in and make a profit from. The only local thing was a side stall of leather belts and sandals, a throwback to a forgotten age when Medford Gas Station was at the bottom of High Street.

The walk told me what I already knew. San Fernando had changed but not grown, just as the rest of Trinidad and Tobago. Perhaps it was the error of my younger eyes to have seen so much potential.

Reflect. Refract Toward The Future

Wall-E looking At The StarsI got it all wrong.

This is not to say that I have regret, or that I’m disillusioned. It’s more of the realization that I have suffered an illusion, and while I do not understand yet how I became illusioned, I understand that I have been.

It started as a child, really. I grew up the son of an engineer, and understanding how things worked was simply a way of living. It’s not a bad way to live. Later on, the personal computer revolution started and despite then living in a developing nation, PCs became my surfboard – and writing code became a primal need. I happened to be good at it.

The early 80s were a happening time in tech. It was a true revolution; the power of a computer in the hands of individuals and small businesses was unheard of. Given that we didn’t have the Internet and networks were just beginning, the world changed as rapidly as that would allow. The teenage version of me thought that it would be a great way to add value to the world. To make things that would make the world a better place, like the advertising promised… but I was too young to understand that one shouldn’t believe the advertising.

At one point, I began to understand that. And I began to understand that despite my best intentions, I wasn’t actually doing anything of worth. You, reader, may believe you are doing something of worth. I will tell you that maybe you are now, but it will likely not last – the churning evolution of technology swallows things, digests them and incorporates them into other parts – and you never see those things again. And it does so with people, too. Sure, you have the success stories.

In the end, though, you look back on the things you’ve played with and worked on decades later, nostalgically, and realize that they are gone. You made companies money for your living expenses, sold your abilities to the highest bidders, and one morning you wake up and realize that coding is the next blue collar job. There’s nothing wrong with that. But code has a way of changing, being tossed out or simply sitting somewhere on a server as technology rolls by.

I recall at job interviews over the past 10 years being asked about things I wrote, as if I single-handedly wrote anything or maintained anything in the last 10 years other than websites – and websites built disappear over time not through fault of the coders, but through faults of the businesses. And the same happens with the less visible code. Companies get bought out and their technology is either adapted, or tossed out (even if it’s better).

What I got wrong in all of this is not what I did but why I did it. This idea of generating actual value instead of making money is antiquated in this world, and perhaps the best reason for that is the people running things believe that money is the value and that everything else is transient.

Had I known that 3.5 decades ago, my approach on many things would have been different. I joke about being raised wrong, and there was a point when I wistfully pointed out that things used to be built to last  – but the world doesn’t want that. The constant evolution of everything requires, in this world, the financial backbone to do so. No technology survives without it’s own economy, and in that it is a slave to those with the disposable income to pay – not the masses whose lives could be improved by it. The cognitive dissonance of Silicon Valley in this regard, as well as others, leads a path to those who wish to follow – and that path is one of the financial backbone, of bankruptcies and failures unmentioned in the marketing brochures.

Tech will continue to change the world, but the socioeconomic disparity is playing itself out in democracies around the world. Interesting times.

 

 

The Long, Dark Tea Time Of The Career

NSB SunrisePeople don’t write about this stuff. I decided I will.

Without going into the details, I left the last job after a resignation, taking it back, and after realizing it was the same thing, resigning more efficiently. It’s not a bad company. It wasn’t good for me.

Let’s leave that where it is.

I had irons in the fire, of course. In a lot of ways I still do. I already had bad headhunters annoying the hell out of me, and some good headhunters with some interesting positions. I was courted by some CEOs and CTOs through LinkedIn.

That was a mistake. There are jobs, and there are careers.

Some things came into play and suddenly I had more breathing space to think about it – freed from the tyranny of income for a period, I could stop. Reflect. Think. Feel. Assess myself, inventory myself, decide what comes next. It’s a luxury in this day and age where salaries don’t allow for the mobility that they once did (and, kids, they did). If you have the luxury, though, you should take it. Taking it I am.

It took me about 3 weeks to forget about the last place I worked – not completely, mind you, but in some ways a job is like a shell – it provides safety once you conform to the inside of it. As I told my last boss at the beginning of 2016, “ultimately the only thing an employee can control is whether or not he or she works at a company.”

After the 3 weeks had passed, I found that I had been doing more creative writing again. I had dusted off my camera and started shooting again. I started reconnecting with people who I  had lost touch with, as one does when one gets into the intellectual toil of more work than play. I recognized myself a bit more every day, like a stranger becoming acquainted with a reflection in the mirror.

A friend at a coffee shop asked, “Why don’t you talk down to people like other software developers do?” I paused. I thought.

“I guess I outgrew that at some point.”

I have. I’ve outgrown a lot of the bad things and have evolved beyond being a Software Engineer, or a Writer, or a Technical Writer, or a Consultant. I transcended technologies some time ago, becoming agnostic after having spent time in the Microsoft corporate code caves and the Open Source code caves. The leadership qualities became more pronounced, my patience for the mistakes of others had grown and the lack of patience for mistakes of others had also grown. I’ve been published, suffered the editing of others and rejoiced at how they helped me grow.

I watched all manner of software process succeed and fail, and understood why. I pick up technologies like some pick up novels but I have become a picky reader. After seeing languages, technologies and architectures wax and wane, you become picky. That cool new technology doesn’t impress me if it does nothing new, and just because you can develop faster in it doesn’t mean that the end product is better. Typically, the faster you can develop in something, the more dependent you are on third parties that don’t care about your project.

I clean up ok.This guy is pretty different than the kid who started off in the late 1980s with the only real aspirations of getting out of a miserable household and being a professional computer programmer. Right now, that guy on the left doesn’t exist. His hair is unkempt, a full scruffy beard across his face, his focus inward. The man who would normally go out of his way to help his friends is suspended in carbonite, a caricature of a guy who shot first. It’s not selfish, it’s self-preservation. It’s coming to grips with what comes next, figuring out what that guy needs, what that guy wants – who that guy is. The kids aren’t going to understand this, and I imagine people with families at my age are too busy to dedicate some time to thinking about it until their children have not only left the nest but have stopped calling for money.

You see, you’re not supposed to write about all of this. In society, it’s taboo to write about this sort of thing publicly until well after the fact. To do that, you’re supposed to have that success that comes from a magical period like this – but that’s uncertain, fickle and cliche. It lacks originality, though originality is not something that is admired as much as people would want to think in this world – take a read of “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World“. It’s harder to live than to read about, like most things.

I have a deadline. The second week of May, 2016, for no good reason other than Cinco de Maya with Tequila seems like a bad time to make life decisions.

Should You Do What You Love?

That is all he has to say about that...So I was thinking of the possible dread irony of living most of our finite lives doing what we love, and then I realized it’s not an irony. Whether we’re happy with our time on Earth is appropriate, and ‘wasting’ time on it is not a life wastedThe irony is that I even thought it was irony. It’s what we should be doing.

 
I mean… the alternative is to die having not loved what you do.
 
How’s that better?