Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What I Do

I always use the pathetic joke that I'm not quite sure what i want to be when i grow up, despite the fact that i've been grown up by any objective standard for at least 20 years. So i guess that i have to concede that what i do for a living is what i will do when i grow up. However, even though i have 20+ years of experience in the thing that i do, it's still kind of hard to describe to other people.

Some people in my life know that my education was in chemistry, so back when i was working on software related to the chemical and biotech industries, I could claim to be anything from a chemist to a computer programmer. In reality, i've never worked a day in my life as a chemist. I'm much closer to a computer programmer, but that description invokes the idea of either Initech or guys who code web pages in their mom's basement. If i said that i worked in molecular modeling or bio-informatics, etc; I got blank stares and changes of topic. In practice, my main task during that phase of my career was designing and writing application software that was used by chemists or other research scientists. Occasionally, i got to do some real thinking, like the time I created new code to calculate dispersion curves in polymer crystals, or the time i wrote a simulated annealing system. But primarily, I was a standard-issue software engineer, and at some points a manager of software engineers.

When i left that industry, I could look people straight in the eye and tell them i was a software developer without worrying that they would ask me for details. Briefly, I worked on a defense project, and all i had to say was "I work on a classified project for the Navy". Nobody knew what that meant either, but almost everybody knows somebody working in defense contracting so they have a basis for comparison. When i got into the digital music world, I could simply say that i worked for an on-line music service, and everybody knew exactly what i meant (Actually, they though i meant ITunes, but close enough). When i worked for Yahoo!, i just said "I work for Yahoo!". Enough said.

Still, even though i put software engineer on my resume along with all of the requisite acronyms and characteristics of said occupation, I'm not sure if that's exactly what i do. Almost every job that i've had has involved some sort of mathematical, quantitative aspect that is not necessarily a component of all software careers. I'm not exactly a quant either though. I don't know how to pivot an Excel spreadsheet or even start SAS; but i can create generalized linear models with R and write code to do steepest descent optimization. I once used the term "scientific programmer", and i've considered the mildly confusing "computational scientist" (as opposed to computer scientist) to describe my occupation, but both of those seem to describe a more focused role than mine.

Part of my problem is that i have always been the jack-of-all-trades types of programmer. I like the full-on analysis-design-build-test cycle of regular software engineering, but i also like to write Perl scripts, optimize SQL queries, and tinker with user interface widgets. This is a good quality to have if you want to be employed, but it's not that great if you want to be identified with a particular skill. I think this is a side effect of having entered the computing field without having gone through any formal computer science training. I did not begin using computers with the intention of developing a career, and so i never went through the process of identifying a specialty. I took whatever opportunities were available to people of my background, and those were initially in scientific realms without a lot of existing IT infrastructure. So, you coded, you wrote documentation, you did calculations, you ran cables, you did a lot of archaeology on crufty old code written a thousand years ago on in Fortran on stone tablets by long forgotten grad students.

I suppose that before too long all of the diverse skills that i've accumulated over the years will qualify me to call myself a consultant, which is sort of the high-tech version of a sign that says "Will Work For Food". Or perhaps i'll get around to finishing (also starting) my epic sci-fi/fantasy trilogy so that i can change careers entirely. Or, possibly, i'll become a personal trainer specializing in over-40 mid-life crisis types. Whatever. I guess i'll just change my approach and say that i don't know what i want to do even now that I'm grown up.

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