Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas with the emphasis on Merry

Today is Christmas Day, the second most holy holiday on the Christian calendar after Easter. It turns out that I am not a Christian, and this year I have the unique opportunity to do a little extra work so that the gentiles on my team can feel a little more at ease as they go and celebrate with their family. In practice, this means that I get one of the pagers and am saving up my day off time for a more personally relevant holiday. I won't discuss what I am working on, but needless to say it's going to be a tasty treat of App Engine goodness.

For most people who celebrate Christmas, it's meant to be a "Merry" day, hence the constant flow of good tidings and well wishes. In the spirit of merriness, I'm going to talk a little bit about it, and how it's important for the production of good technology.

When I was a little rug-rat just starting out at College I had a really interesting Assembly teacher. This fellow by the name of Robert Doggett looked more like he should have been in front of the Army of Northern Virginia than a classroom. This guy was full of grit and tobacco and an unfathomable love for assembly languages, especially 8088 assembly. He was an adjunct professor from IBM Poughkeepsie and he seemed to also enjoy teaching dopes like myself. One of the many catchphrases he had that I can remember was "Don't tell my employer but I would be willing to work for a lot less money than they're paying me." He once came up to the campus to teach me, just me, the ins and out of FAT based file IO under DOS. Well, actually, under DOS us not really accurate because he was more about bypassing DOS and going directly to BIOS than anything else. But by the end of the session, which was not more than an hour or so, I understood what was meant by a "File System". Why did he do these things? Why be willing to work for less money than someone will pay you? Why spend your time with dorky undergrads on your time off?

The answer is that he enjoyed these things. He enjoyed technology... well not all of them, but the ones that were central to his interests. I can't underscore this enough. If you could look past the fellow who must have been the model for the Half-Life G-Man, you see a very merry man.

What does this have to do with technology? Lots. Most of the technologists I work with are not doing it because it is currently a lucrative line of work. They do it because they enjoy it. The best technologists got in to it because it was something they enjoyed doing or led to something they enjoyed.

For example, and for those who know me this won't be much of a surprise, my primary motivation for getting in to computers was my interest in video games. While it must have seen a perverse and unhealthy obsession for a kid, and one can often see why, it ultimately led me to the career I am in and the person I am now. I wanted to write programs because I wanted to write video games. As soon as I had the smallest inkling of how to program, I went right for the jugular. Tried to figure out how the graphics systems worked, maybe even sound (back then it was a crude endeavor) and put it together in to something crude and entertaining. My best game ever was an elaborate and enhanced version of the Tron Light Cycles game.

Doing something you either like to do or that leads to something you like to do is an important motivator. Something that is missing from most classwork that I had to do in school didn't have any more motivating appeal to me other than that I could be through with it and possibly get an abstract grade for it. In other words, I was never motivated. Unless it was something where I could end up with something that I liked personally in the end.

Most of the work people do in the world fits in to the category of "do it or else something bad happens to you". You can not get paid, lose your job, not eat, or a whole host of other calamities. People usually work because of fear of negative reinforcement. Few people work for some kind of positive reinforcement.

I think the technologists are the lucky ones. Most of the time I find what I am doing interesting and compelling. There are always the painfully dull tasks that one has to do, in fact a given job might be mostly these sorts of tasks, but as long as there is something for at least some of the time that can keep you going on your own steam, it's all worth while.

When I recently went down to Guatemala, I was expecting to find students motivated by the same principles that motivated me. I figured most the student projects would somehow be related to Football ("Soccer" for the American speaking countries) or music, or any number of potential regional interests (choose whatever Latin American stereotype you wish). Most people were focused on trying to find projects that were intended to be relevant and profitable. While it's true that money is an important motivation for pursuing a career, and it's enough for some people, I can't help but wonder if it's yet again an example of negative reinforcement at work.

The pressure to graduate and find a way to make a living is always very high. Opportunities even in technology can be rather scarce in a place like Guatemala City. The consequences of investing time and money in to education and not having something substantial to show for it are dear. Most people are worried about focusing on the business side of things, because that's where the money is and ultimately is what a successful enterprise has to be about. But there is no technology business without good underlying technology. If your good at technology, you can worry about how to turn it in to business later (unless you are living in Silicon Valley during the Dot Com years - tee hee). I'm not saying the business side is not important (learned that lesson, thank you very much), but I am saying that business is not going to get you anywhere if you don't know what you're doing.

Let's say you are an athlete, training for a Football match. It would be a tremendous help and advantage to study various Football tactics and techniques, how to work play as a team, and how to out think your opponents. You can become the most knowledgeable team in of Football history, but if when it comes time to play and you go out on the field you are too out of shape to run up and down the pitch, then you're going to lose the game. You need to be in shape and know how to run.

Technology is the same way. As the technologist, your the person running up and down the pitch. You need to exercise your skills, build them up, become stronger and faster. As a nerd, to me the idea of strenuous exercise can be a daunting proposition. It means eating the right bland foods and running until it hurts, and all sort of other potentially unpleasant things, depending on your mood. The good news is that Technology is full of things to do that are fun. It's like you get to eat chocolate in preparation for a work out and can drink Coca-Cola to refresh yourself. More to the point, though, one of the best ways (I presume) to get fit for a Football match is to just play a whole bunch of Football with your friends just for fun.

So find a way to do it just for fun. And be merry.

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