When Did I Do Something Hard?

Mar 16, 2013

After reading this interesting post Searching For Beasts In Silicon Valley's "War For Talent" on the lack of challenge and huge money at many Silicon Valley startups these days. Young engineers are being treated like rock stars before they've even done anything.

The quote that struck me most was "evaluating a Redfin job applicant one of the big questions I'm trying to answer is 'when did she do something hard?'".

Thinking back on my three decades of being a programmer, all I can think of is when did I ever not seek out the difficult, the ridiculous, the impossible? For whatever reason (maybe insanity) my entire career has been looking for stuff other people fear or give up on or think can't be done. In the process I've been able to do incredibly fun and challenging stuff. Yet at the same time I have little to show for it financially.

I've lived my entire work life in Texas, except for a year in the Bay Area right before the internet exploded, so I've never known what it's like to have people throw money at me. It's always been a constant changing process, finding one hard thing after another, all the while trying to move at the leading edge of software. Too many places I've worked at gave me enough hard stuff to do but failed for reasons I had no influence on. My first startup in the mid 80's had some success but not monetarily, the second, a small mac programming shop lasted nearly seven years but was never a big deal either and I decided to just focus on programming thereafter. Of course I should have stayed in Silicon Valley but I never realized that the internet would explode and that Apple would not only survive but become massive. D'oh.

What I do like about my career is all the tough stuff I've been able to do, some I've talked about over the years in this blog and many stories still to come. But what drives me more than anything is the challenge of doing something hard. Not hard in the number of hours I worked, or hard in the stupidity I had to put up with, but doing things other people found impossible, or things no one had ever done before so there was no guide, or solving problems that looked insolvable. I guess it's something like why people climb mountains or sail alone on the ocean or something equally crazy. Impossible can be really appealing.

You can't look for jobs though that ask for people who can do the impossible, it's just not very common! But even when I took a job because I didn't have one and needed the money, I've always looked around to see what was hard there. Most of the time you can find it if you look around; then you have to maneuver yourself into position. It's amazing how many programmers fear going outside of their 3-D box where failure and blame lies just outside. Hard scares people and not just the programmers but managers and CEO's alike. Sometimes the challenge is getting people to believe that not only can you do that hard thing but that you actually want to.

Before my current job I worked at a struggling game publisher of a game I had played for years just because the code was so awful, the performance reeked and it leaked like a sieve. They couldn't afford to pay me much at all but I stayed until I had fixed everything I could. The game performed great, ran on a decent memory budget and I even defeated the cheat company that pissed them off. It was probably some of the most difficult coding I've ever done. It also almost cost me my house. Sometimes being crazy is pretty insane.

Even at my current job I've found ways to do the unexpected. Outside of my area (mobile) one of our biggest problems is our dreadful search performance and although I have no influence on those teams I still have a plan and something fairly radical and hope to build a demo of it. Pretty hard to improve something by an order of magnitude but I've done it before. At least I get paid this time!

If someone had tossed me a huge salary and stock options and I made millions when I was 22 and never did anything hard I might have enjoyed the money but felt pretty empty at the same time. I've enjoyed my Mr. Toad's Wild Ride but of course in the end it's still driving a jalopy on a rut-filled road. No one would ever toss silly money to someone with 3 decades of doing hard stuff but it does make you wonder, why do people desperately throw it at people with no actual experience? It does seem a little strange but that's the funny world of Silicon Valley.

Hard problems are not going away, which is a good thing for those of us who seek them out. Despite all of the improvements in the software world the challenges seem to be getting bigger not smaller. So I still have a future which is good since I may have to work until I'm a living fossil. But if I ever decide to take the easy road I'm going to quit.