Around middle of last month, I got fired from my job as a web applications developer at this company that does web stuff for the state – the job I moved to Des Moines for in the first place. In the midst of a long time-wasting build-up to breaking the news to me, they gave me a lot of what sounded like out-of-their-ass rationalization about their reasons, but I think it really comes down to a couple specific incidents and I’m not going to talk about them here.
It’s fine though, I guess. I’m taking on some freelance stuff. It’s not enough yet, I need more. I’m really strapped for money, enough that it worries me, but in some important respects I’m happier. At the end of the day, I’m not all wiped out with that “tired from doing nothing” feeling where I can’t get up the wherewithal to do anything but veg out in front of the TV. Maybe the illusion of security makes me lazy and I need to be out hustling, chasing down the next job or gig to really feel alive – maybe I’m just wired to be self-employed. I do know that I don’t like being expected to hang around an office certain hours when I don’t have a whole lot to do there. I like working when I have something to do and am ready to do it. That might be a few hours in the morning and a few in the middle of the night – if that’s the case, don’t make me sit around an office all afternoon trying to look busy. It’s a sure way to turn me into one of The Working Dead. I had assumed if I was in someone’s employ, that the management above me would see to it that I was assigned as much work as they believed I should be getting done. I thought that was their job. Just because I can always come up with piddly little bugs to tinker around fixing doesn’t mean I’m not bored out of my mind waiting for someone to assign me something I can sink my teeth into. I guess most programmers watch YouTube videos or something, instead of tinkering with those piddly bugs, which is why I look busy while they look available to have more work assigned to them.
Whatever. I was thinking today how great it would be if I could make my living in music, because then I would always have time to work on music, and if I was working on music all the time, I would get really, really good at it – and being really good at music is more satisfying than being really good at programming because when you’re good at music, people can tell. Even people who generally listen to Top 40 crap can tell, if you put them in a venue and let them watch a gig, the difference between the performer who has become very skilled at writing songs, or singing, or playing their instrument, versus the one that’s just dicking around on the side and thinks he can get by with that. In music, quality is conspicuous.
Programming is a different deal. I realized this from a freelance maintenance project I’m involved in, where the code constitutes a “web application” in roughly the same sense that a beaver dam is a “structure.” Every little task I’m assigned takes twice as long, and is twice as frustrating, as it could be, because I have to root around in the code to find the relevant bits, which never seem to be anywhere sensible. The client doesn’t have the budget to pay me to put a lot of time into restructuring it, so I make do. When I successfully get a new feature working or bug fixed, it still feels like a victory, but it’s a hard slog to get there, when I have the full knowledge that it shouldn’t have to be. With customers of my programming work, be they my clients, my employers, or the clients of my employers, basically if the graphic design looks pretty and the app appears outwardly to do most of what they asked for, the code underneath can be shit. I take pride in the quality and maintainability of my code, but hardly anybody whose opinion makes a difference to my career can tell the difference, even if they care. People will even put up with features that don’t work, and will devise workarounds, because they honestly don’t seem to know they could have it better. So why have I put all this time and energy into being good at programming? We can see how it’s paying off: I can’t hold down a full-time job doing it.
Another consequence of my move to Des Moines has been that I ended up playing in a band that’s light-years better than any I’ve been in before. I’m playing gigs in other towns for a change. We have an album out that’s actually on CDs, not on CD-Rs I burned on my computer. And the music is crazy good. There are people who really love it, and they say so. And with every bit of time we put into it, we get even better. We aren’t making anything approaching a living at it, but it has the best chance by far of becoming a paying proposition of any music venture I’ve been involved with. It makes me happy, instead of frustrated. I really ought to be taking it seriously, refusing to compromise or let anything interfere with it.
As Bob Lefsetz reminded me in yesterday’s letter, “an artist creates because he has to.” And that’s me. I could quit just about anything else I do, other than music and my family. I could give up programming if I had to. I could give up coffee, or meat, or beer, or writing bitchy blog posts that cause me to catch hell from people who are close to me. But I don’t think I could give up music. Besides, “in this economy,” (the phrase has become a cliche) and in any economy really, it’s a fallacy to treat any job as permanent.
In my heart, I’m a musician, who slings code for money. I even write good code for money, because I find it easier and more satisfying than writing crap. I’ll write as much code as I need to, to make whatever part of a living music doesn’t cover, up to and including all of it. I still love programming, and would probably love it with more conviction given the right company or project, but so far that company or project either isn’t out there, or doesn’t return my e-mails. But music lovers are right in front of me.
All I can do is trust in the universe that if I keep doing interesting things and doing them well, something is eventually going to work out to my advantage. So far though, everything seems to go bad eventually, so it’s hard to keep confident and motivated.