Tech Stories: Learning About Money, Humility and Hunger

Earlier today, I was having a conversation with our UX Lead. She mentioned how some people who ended up hiring me from our previous job commented that me sticking with this industry gave them hope. It was meant to be a compliment considering I’ve been doing this for a while. But another thing she was wondering was how I managed to stick to it for this long. The short answer is money and hunger.

The longer answer is what happened around the end of 2000. Prior to the Dot Com crash, I had been a hard core, Perl religious nut. 2000 was one of the craziest years for me in that you had so much money floating around and my skills were in demand. For someone with barely a year’s worth of experience, it inflated my ego to epic proportions. I felt validated for all the stuff I had been working on with Perl and I thought it could carry me for the rest of my career, especially since I had mod_perl on my resume.

At the race parts ecommerce company, my CTO/boss asked me whether or not we should switch to Java. Jokingly, we both shook our heads and passed. Then over at the people search company, they were going to make me an offer for a full time spot where I would get training in the upcoming J2EE stuff with WebLogic. But rather than going that route, I went to interview with eToys, believing once I came back from my vacation from Japan that I would have a spot in THE best Perl shop in town.

Then while in Japan, I heard the news trickle in: eToys miss estimates revenues from the holidays, overshoots target by $110 million, mass layoff and bankruptcy declared.

The game was up.

Perl was dead.

Or rather the start of a long, painful death.

I came back from Japan with a few thousand in the hole. I spent so much money on this trip that I didn’t bother to see how much credit debt I was in. Add my car payments and student loans, I was in a horrible spot. I didn’t have a job lined up and most companies were pulling back, going up in smoke and my skills which would once hit a good number became nearly valueless as employers tightened the reigns and started only searching for the best candidates. Who cared about some joker with a year of experience under his belt, no comp-sci degree and only a few companies with short lived spots?

Worse yet Sun and companies like BEA managed to wage a successful war on companies using CGI or mod_perl such as the people search spot. Recruiters, who are nothing more than legalized pimps, would create ridiculous sounding job descriptions with unreasonable requirements such as 10 years of experience with Tomcat (when it was only around for a few). Also, Python began springing up harder. I thought it was just a snake.

So for the remainder of 2001, I managed to scrounge up two Perl related jobs, neither of which were satisfying but kept me going. Then later in the year I would get laid off while George Bush started to enact his machinations in dealing with the aftermath of 9-11.

With my encroaching debt and lack of skills, I pushed myself really hard to learn more. I had zero desire to ever be laid off again and I certainly never wanted to be in a state where not having certain skills would prevent me from finding a decent job. I would sacrifice hours and nights trying to study anything to make me a better engineer from design patterns to doing a stupid Japanese women’s pro-wrestling site completely in J2EE with JBoss.

Now, some people might say that I probably could’ve and maybe even should’ve dropped the whole tech career and followed my dreams into writing in staying at home in Los Angeles rather than moving to Tokyo. After all, I had a home, a family and a certain amount of stability there.

While part of that was true, I saw another reality emerge as a result of my parents’ situation. My father worked over at Raytheon/Hughes Aircraft for a good portion of his life. Down the line he got laid off and never truly recovered from that. But I think one of the problems with large companies like Raytheon is that they don’t seem to help employees develop new skills.

Pretty much my father was irrelevant since so much had moved to the web. He was just a simple missile test systems engineer, working with older systems. But whatever corporate culture Raytheon possessed, they never taught him how to stay hungry and pro-active with his career. Instead, the theoretical comfort of having this large corporation pretty much care for the bulk of your needs pretty much rendered him into this complicit creature that could not progress on his own two feet.

On top of that, my dad was horrible with finances. My mother often would grow angry at how my father would recklessly spend our money. Sure, he earned it but he never bothered to take a deep look at how he was using it. And when he got laid off, he had some savings from their retirement plan but it wasn’t enough. Shortly thereafter as a result of having very poor habits and a lack of control on his spending, he quickly ran through all that money, leaving him a broke man, dependent upon my mother.

My mother wasn’t that great at saving neither. Although she did try to manage to family finances, she did waste a lot too on superfluous junk. We had so much junk everywhere that never worked. I felt my mother was someone who was definitely a product of being brainwashed from television or stupid magazine articles. Obviously, things became worse when she ended up being the sole bread winner once my dad had his stroke but I felt she could’ve done more early on with her life.

Of course, all this is really tough to preach considering how everyone handles things differently. It’s easy to be away and describe what people ought to do whereas doing those things can be a lot tougher. That said, what’s important in this is to recognize the core problems through these harsh life lessons.

For me feeling that threat of companies being unstable (especially after witnessing things like Lehman Shock in Japan), the poor support from the government, the utter madness of our government leaders (not just the US but virtually every government in existence), etc. I simply came to the conclusion that you can only depend upon yourself.

And in depending upon yourself, you have to make sure you can survive in that environment. In my case, surviving means keeping on top of things, remaining relevant, staying lean and hungry even when the money is floating around, never truly getting too comfortable and keeping my ear very close to the ground. The abstract part of staying up to date in order to help progress technology is a nice ideal, but the reality of staying up to date really is about making sure you can survive every day.

At the end of the day, I still love the tech industry because I’ve managed to have a decent career and lived far better than if I had become an English teacher in Japan. But there are so many days where you look at what you’re doing and feel a great deal of shame. I mean, you being alive at a job implies that someone else doesn’t have that spot.

But you can’t live like that. Instead, you just keep pushing forward, recognize your mistakes, learn, admit when you’re wrong, embrace failure, realize that there’s always going to be someone far more intelligent than you and not taking things for granted. If you can follow those rules along with using simple common sense, you won’t have to worry. It all comes naturally.


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