“An ENGLISH degree — How did you get into computers?”
I sat in a conference room, where I had spent over an hour drawing on all my English-major-honed skills to answer a battery of questions: “Can you describe a challenge you faced, and how you handled it?” “Tell us about your last project and the technical approach you took.” “What are the initialization stages of an ASP.NET web page, and how do you use each?” “Where did you get that ridiculous tie?”
I fielded them all deftly, succinctly, and at times verbosely, with at least a convincing illusion of assurance. This, while making evenly-distributed eye contact with each of my inquisitors, tallying up the various facial expressions I’d convinced myself I’d seen: Genuine interest, 5; Impressed, 4, painfully bored, 2; subtly concealed, bemused contempt, 1; probably hung over, 3. I felt good; I felt competent – two perceptions vastly enhanced when cloaked in pinstripes and be-noosed with a silk souvenir tie from Trinity University in Dublin. Most of all, I felt proud that I had spoken for roughly an hour without spitting out either of the breath mints I had popped on the way in.
And then it happened: The Question. Inevitable, logical, perfectly reasonable, and a multi-purpose rhetorical tool – kind of like a Leatherman with all but the screwdriver missing – that works as well in interviews as it does during the initial more awkward phases of parties or dates. How does an English major become a programmer? Yet, innocuous and reasonable though it is, I often find, in my weaker moments, that it inevitably invokes stirrings of self-doubt — invoking the angel-demon on my shoulder that whispers with contempt: They found you out! You actually think you belong here! You can quote Chaucer; what the hell are you doing talking about load-balancing and server farms? It is a self-doubt that originates in what I have found to be a common perception, if not conviction: that the liberal arts and technology are two worlds separated by an all but impossible chasm. Intellectually, I strongly disagree – I believe that they are at their root two dimensions of what makes a whole professional. Yet, looking with retrospect at the twenty years behind me, I will confess to wondering, in my more challenging moments, how much truth it contains. Have I in fact breached that chasm? Have my professional and academic choices, in fact, prepared me for the path I’ve chosen?
A Road More or Less Less-Traveled
The answer to this question began in 1994, with what was an arguably a happy dilemma: faced with two job offers, do I accept the one for the technical-writer position, in which I would truly be a writer for pay while pursuing a technical Master’s degree at night? Or, do I choose the one from the technology company that was hiring “at all levels” (word to the wise: ‘complete and total inexperience’ is a level), where I would immediately leap into the churning waters of a small but rapidly growing organization that, though willing to train me, would want a return on its investment rather quickly?
The decision didn’t take long. My reflex reaction had been to choose the safer, more predictable route – to write technical manuals that, however tedious, were well within my capabilities, until such a time as I felt that I was prepared to become a programmer. And then I heard the sound — a papery and distinct “WHAP!”
It was the sound of reality slamming headlong into wishful thinking. It was the sound of a long-dormant survival instinct being jolted to life. Specifically, it was the sound of a 300-page manual hitting the interviewer’s desk as he cheerfully said “here’s a sample of what you’ll be doing.” That “WHAP” may as well have been the sound of the document hitting me in the side of the head. As I looked at that document – at its thickness; at its unadorned format and equally unadorned verbiage, I saw hundreds of pages becoming months, and then years. I wondered how many words, phrases, and paragraphs were on those pages. Thousands, I marveled, with what was rapidly becoming horror. I wondered how much energy it would take to extract those words from my brain, and how much of that energy and inspiration would remain for the rest of my life – for evenings out, for hiking trips, for the hypothetical rigors of night school. And so, when the interviewer called me back, and offered me the job, it was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I politely declined, and accepted the entry-level offer from the other company instead.
Since then, as job has led to job, and as the “Senior” that adorns my current title has slowly taken shape, while satisfied with what I have learned in an at-times unstructured fashion, I have more than once reconsidered a variant of my original strategy — what a colleague once aptly termed “The Brute Force Plan” – and looked into formal degree programs. For the most part, I have found that experience has sufficed to keep me both employed and happily challenged, and confined the technology-making part of my life to what has, generally, been no more than 50 hours per week. Yet I don’t discount the value of formal education; of filling in the conceptual gaps in my knowledge that I think are inevitable when one learns “on the job.”
The good news is this: a formal education, with new paradigms of learning, and new tools to go with them, need no longer be the “brute force” plan of which I had once been warned. Training tools, such as Lynda.com and the more technologist-specific Pluralsight, offer a vast number of courses that cover complex topics in excellent clarity and detail. Other more comprehensive and formally academic resources such as Coursera offer actual college courses – many both free and available for credit – and that, in recent months, have recently expanded to include structured curricula with exams and final projects that more closely resemble the learning style to which, most of us are, arguably, well-accustomed.
Whether, or to what degree, these new trends in online education compare to traditional classroom education, and whether they can one day supplant it, is of course the subject of much debate. But I do believe, in 2015, that we live in a time where it is dramatically easier than in prior decades to do more than one thing, for pay, for fulfillment, or best of all, for the synthesis of both. And if there is any advice that I may offer to you, if you have read this far, it is this: allow your world to remain big. Allow your curiosity to roam as freely outside the serpentine walls of our alma mater as it had while safely within them. Resist, as much as you can, the pressure of assumptions, fears, or external pressures to force you to fit into a mold; to write off what you believe you can do best, and love, as subordinate to what pays your bills.
I don’t pretend that the job market is anything less than competitive, or that recent and even relentless news of unemployment represents any less than a very real challenge. And no less real, and pressing, are our needs to “pay the grocer,” as my uncle, a recently-retired judge who is still teaching law school part-time at 78, phrases it. But we have many years of professional life in which to specialize, to learn a trade, to adopt skills, to be productive. We have a lifetime to shape ourselves into cogs in a wheel, however honorable or exciting or challenging the turning of that wheel may be. And so, if you are still in college – then I urge you to savor every moment that you have in your “academical village” — to learn about the world and its history; to learn about science, the arts, athletics, writing, drama, mathematics; to absorb all that the diverse world of a university can offer you. And if you have left college — recently or twenty years ago – then I encourage you to remember that the most valuable gift you had received, when you descended from the stage at your graduation ceremony, was the affirmation that the world is far larger than it seems. And that, even for a forty-five year-old former English major, turned software developer, now turning, perhaps, somewhere else – there no such thing as “too late.”
Benjamin Haag graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1991 with a B.A. in English, and and as-yet-untapped flair for technology. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his fiancee and their two cats, and enjoys hiking, kayaking, writing, local theater performances, whiskey, and yearning for representation in Congress. He earns a living as a software developer with a large vocabulary.
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