Thursday, May 1, 2008

Life in Technology

I hear from people who are not intimately associated with technology that they “couldn't” have certain occupations—computer programmer is perhaps the most frequently cited example—simply because it would be “too boring” to have a job that entailed “sitting in a cubicle and staring at a screen all day.” Sometimes I'll hear the same people wax philosophical about the “romance” of certain other pursuits like writing. The dichotomy presented is, of course, false. As both a programmer and an author, I can say from personal experience that creating software is very much like creating a book.

My choice of the word “create” is deliberate. I use the word because it can serve as a reminder that technology is not something to be contrasted with “creative” pursuits like literature, art, or music. Find me someone who is a success in technology and I will show you someone who has channeled a fundamental creativity to some productive end.

It is true that most of us have long workdays and quite a few workdays every year. And yet we don't spend all of our time in our offices and in front of our machines. Even those of us who spend the greatest amount of time with the technology itself have to spend some time in the management of domestic affairs. Then there is that time that falls somewhere in the middle between the work we live for and the work for our lives: exposing ourselves to ideas and just generally percolating.

This kind of life is quite a bit different from the stereotypes that we've seen and that I mentioned above. But then again, reality typically is a lot more nuanced and interesting than the stereotypes used to classify it.

Thinking back over my own career in the past fifteen years, I was able to identify a few things that I think I would call essential for my life in technology.
  1. Reading. Taking the time to read what other people have written about their work has been tremendously important for me. In particular, I mean formal research literature, technical reports, and other detailed documentation of the process of inquiry and analysis needed to develop technology and to make it work.
  2. Writing. I have found that the simple act of composing my thoughts into a form that others can consume is a powerful ally in helping me to understand clearly exactly what my objectives are and just what it is that I'm able to show. Even when I don't have enough area to cover for formal publication, the writing of a simple technical note or explanation for a program helps me to understand what I have done and what it means in the large.
  3. Discussing. Talking with other people is a great way to explore the possibilities offered by ideas that are new or are being applied in new was. When I worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories at 6200 E. Broad St., a group of people I worked with would take some time a few afternoons every week and discuss ideas over coffee. The coffee was both expensive and not delicious—it came from a machine—but the discussion more than made up for it. Sometimes we discussed utter nonsense (designs for computers that could be powered with readily available water, for example) and other times we discussed things that could inspire experimentation and analysis (such as the ability to predict small but meaningful changes in a complex system by influencing just a few variables inside of it).
  4. Doing. The input is necessary. The output is necessary. The processing of that input and output is necessary. But none of that does any good unless it's actually applied and turned into something that I was being employed to do. Having actually done something, of course, makes a whole new iteration of the process more productive.
How do you keep yourself on-task, living the life that you chose when entering technology? Do you use patterns of activity? What are the elements of your program?


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