Lately, I have been struggling to find the meaning in my work. I suppose that’s not surprising. I am a human being–a mortal creature. My age will soon flip a decimal digit. (I decline to specify which.) These can certainly cause one to spend time reflecting on one’s legacy. They can also cause one to buy a flaming red sports car. I may explore that option later.
I also work in a field of incredible transience. Two hundred years from now, no cathedral will bear my mark. No train depot of my design will grace the National Register of Historic Places. No literary critics will deconstruct the significance of my characters’ middle initials. In truth, the shelf life of my work compares poorly to that of a gallon of milk.
I am a programmer.
I and my comrades can usually be found behind our glowing screens, working hour after hour to bring some other person’s vision to life. We who grapple with chaos and ether and mud expend our spirit, energy, life, time, soul, and qi in the name of creation. We work long after the managers have left. We learn the janitors’ names. I have often gazed out my window to the neon street below, full of the theater signs, restaurants, and wandering crowds seeking to be entertained. I have wondered what kind of life I should have led to be in that crowd instead of watching it. I’ve wondered how I could rejoin that human mass. I think I’d have to change careers.
I cannot deny, however, that my work brings me deep–if ephemeral–satisfaction. The harsh joy of self-sacrifice combines with the exultant delight of success when a project comes together. When I finally get my programs to work, it’s a kind of magic, dense and layered. At one level, the thought that my work will be useful to someone–that it will make dozens, hundreds, maybe millions of people more individually powerful–is heady and exciting.
At another level, I have a fierce pride that my software works at all. Knowing that my creation is strong enough, powerful enough to survive the threat of millions of users doing their damndest to destroy it. Despite the teeming millions trying to prove that there is no such thing as "foolproof", my software keeps working. "Robust", we call it. "Resilient". "Come on", it says, "bring it on."
Deeper still, I take a craftman’s pride in a job well done. Like a mason or a carpenter, I know what is under the surface. I know how well it is put together. I know what skill went into its construction. No one else may see this, but I know.