“I don’t think you understand! / There’s nowhere left to turn / Walls keep breaking. / Time is like a leaf in the wind / Either it’s time well spent / Or time I’ve wasted … / Don’t waste it.”
– Cage the Elephant, “Telescope”
In truth, I didn’t want to be a software engineer at all.
The act of programming itself had never entranced me all that much. I had been drawn to computer science by my curiosity of systems and how pieces of technology I owned worked, not because I wanted to build the next Instagram or TikTok. I wasn’t the type of person to, say, work on little coding projects just for the hell of it, or to meticulously investigate bugs until I got to the bottom of them. I liked reading code, and I liked understanding it, but a hacker I was not.
My “dream job” was to be a content creator. I had been producing art and memes and short pieces of writing for the Web since I was half the age I am now; it was the one thing I always returned to, time after time, even after I swore I was done forever. I got so much joy taking concept pictures and writing about whatever happened to cross my mind.
However, I was under no delusions that full-time content creation would be easy and fun. I knew too many digital entrepreneurs my age who were faking it until they made it, hiding their anxious breakdowns and feelings of isolation behind perfectly edited veneers of success. A lot of them had yet to actually make it, too. Running my own business seemed no less stressful than working at a startup — and I knew how quickly passion could burn itself out. I worried that the negative aspects of running my own business would poison my love for creating, and make me bitter about doing it in the first place.
So I kept booking and accepting interviews for software engineering roles. My life quickly became a never-ending series of phone screens, on-site interviews, programmer coffee dates, take-home challenges, and adrenaline-fueled whiteboard interview prep sessions.
I was aware that this was the exact scenario my college self would have killed for, that it was what I’d spent all four years of my undergraduate career preparing for. But I wasn’t that person anymore. Instead of being excited every time I was buzzed into an interview, I was apprehensive and dispassionate.
In other words, I wasn’t afraid that I wouldn’t get a job as a software engineer … I was afraid that I would. Everything I said in interviews began to sound like bullshit. I am so excited to work here. I’ve always been passionate about coding. I can’t wait to come in here every day and …
I couldn’t get the idea of being a content creator out of my head. I was obsessed with writing articles, taking pictures, and doing those things well. There had to be a way to do it without falling into misery and financial instability, right?
Words, not code
On the last day of my stint at the startup, I’d had a conversation with my coworker about alternate careers.
“If programming isn’t your thing, you could try technical writing,” he’d suggested. “You’d be writing documentation for other programmers who want to use the company’s APIs in their own projects. It would essentially involve talking to software engineers and creating articles that explain code in a clear, simple way.”
For some reason, I’d dismissed this notion — even though I frequently wrote articles for my personal blog and delighted in maintaining a technical website, I didn’t see myself as any kind of wordsmith. I had taken a single Humanities class in college — a philosophy course that only required three short essays to pass — and had never studied grammar or structure. I could struggle my way through a coding career, but there was no fucking way I’d be able to immediately become a professional writer.
After what seemed like my hundredth technical interview, I started thinking differently. I may not have written anything for classes, but I had plenty of experience with software development and enjoyed explaining concepts to others. According to people in the field, not many technical writers actually had technical backgrounds. Maybe, if I tried really hard, I could stand a chance.
I decided to go all in. I updated my site, wrote up a new resume that highlighted my programming skills and dedication to writing, and began the tech-conference-coffee-date-interview cycle all over again. This time, however, I actually enjoyed myself. I met and shadowed people who were also content creators at heart, who loved words and creating delightful user experiences with their articles. Through technical writing, I could use both my computer science degree and production skills I’d honed through trial and error.
The more I immersed myself in this new world, the more I felt like I belonged. If the beginning of my post-graduate career was the floor falling out from under me, this was finding solid ground after treading water for hours. Each step felt more clear, more certain.
This is not to say that I had an easy time with the interview process — I overthought everything and psyched myself out way too much. After I left my interview with a company I’d dreamed of working at since I’d declared my major during my second year of college, I was so nervous about how I did that I dropped my phone on the ground, shattering it in spite of its protective cover.
In the end, my hard work (and unnecessary fuss) paid off. I received my offer from that company in June, exactly a year from the day I stepped into the San Francisco airport, full of conflict and resignation. When I walked into my new office on the first day of this job, I finally felt like my post-graduation existential crisis had come to an end.
Uncertainty is here to stay
I like what I do and feel at home among technical writers, but I’m still deeply skeptical about capitalism and what it does to workers. I now directly benefit from the same economic structure that oppresses the majority of people around me, which makes it harder to think critically about my own role in this entire mess. I used to believe that I would regain my sense of sureness once I had a better hold on things, but the truth is that I still feel ambivalent on a daily basis.
Maybe it’s a consequence of being an adult, or a side effect of existing in a time period where everything seems to have gone backwards and upside down. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure that the Marty that was so confident about absolutely everything is gone. With everything considered, though, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. ♚