Saturday, June 12, 2010

A crisis of "faith"?

I am currently out of work, and looking for a new job. Looking for work is never fun, since it can easily turn into a seemingly-endless gauntlet of negative affirmations that "you're not good enough". That takes a tremendous toll on any person, no matter how well adjusted they are.

And apart from that aspect, there's finding something that would actually make you happy, that would make you excited to spend a large part of your life doing. There are a lot of jobs out there, at lots of different companies, with different management and work styles, and finding that precious golden needle in a stack of needles... that can cause a bit of anxiety. Am I looking in the right place? Is this company going to treat me well? Will I get along with my manager and coworkers? Am I going to be able to do this job for the next several years? Or the most important one: is this really what I want to do when I grow up?

I've been doing system administration for the past several years, in various capacities. That kind of job attracted me initially because there seemed to be an infinite variety of tasks which fell under the job description, and on any given day, I would get to do something completely different than what I was doing yesterday. It would keep things interesting, for sure, and there would be great opportunity to expand my knowledge and skills almost without limit.

And exactly as I had hoped, I do have a wide array of skills and abilities at my command. I have had the great fortune to work in some diverse companies, which were using a wide variety of different equipment, in a wide variety of different ways. Some of those companies were not shy about trying new things, and looking in different directions to accomplish their goals, and I was lucky to be able to participate in choosing those new directions and helping to shape the environment in which I worked. I recently acquired a professional certification for which my knowledge of the subject was such that I was able to pass the exam without even studying.

Despite my success, the reality of the situation has come crashing down upon me. Most companies don't actually want people to do a wide variety of things, and they are not interested in letting people expand themselves to take on other tasks; they want people who do one thing, and they want them to do that one thing in a prescribed way. They want cogs. They want limited-use, replaceable, discardable, faceless, nameless, interchangeable nobodies.

It's no longer "personnel", it's "human resources". We're no longer people, who have feelings and families and dogs and lives, we're resources to be used up and thrown away. In my particular job, I'm often treated exactly the same as the machines which I manage - expected to be working and productive 24 hours per day, all the time, never break down, never require maintenance, and take on an ever-increasing workload with no additional resources. To the contrary, both the machines and I need downtime, we need maintenance, and we have needs which must be fulfilled. We have limits which must be observed. When those limits are inevitably surpassed, bad things start to occur. Breakage, sometimes catastrophic, is common in overtaxed systems, and in overtaxed people.

I think I may have suffered the ultimate, critical, catastrophic failure. Finding another system admin job feels like it would destroy me, utterly and irrevocably.

I can't just leave IT and do something else, because that would mean I would lose my earning power, and be forced to start from square one, making entry-level pay. Not only that, but starting any new career fresh would probably mean going back to doing entry-level work, and there's a lot of entry-level work out there that, truth be told, is just the mind-numbing work that nobody else wants to do. It gets shifted onto the people who need the experience, and are willing to endure quite a bit of indignity simply to establish themselves in their industry, whatever that industry might be.

The problem is that I've been there, and I've done that, and I am unwilling to go down that road again. I am not as young as I once was, and I can't play those young-persons' games anymore. But I am smart, and I can learn new things, and I have experience simply being out in the working world.

I had a conversation with C yesterday, during which he brought up an idea which I've had percolating in the back of my mind for some time now: try something related, but not exactly the same. Programming, perhaps. After thinking of what that would mean, I came to the realization that most of my hobbies involve creating something. Programmers create new things, out of mere thought. I have worked as a programmer in the past. A large part of working as a system administrator, at least the way that I approach the job, involves writing new tools to accomplish various tasks. Programming. Creation. This aspect of my past jobs has always brought me the greatest happiness.

My first job in the IT industry was as a programmer. When I cast my mind back, I realize that what made me want to leave the job wasn't that I disliked the work, it was that I disliked the way the company was run, and the way I was treated. Creating new things was a great reward, and a great source of fun and of satisfaction and happiness.

So all this rumination raises the question: have I actually figured out what I want to be when I grow up?


Wol said...

If it helps, I'm 52 and still working on that question. Follow the love.

Anonymous said...

3/4s of a year after my graduation ceremony and I'm still unemployed, looking to start any grunt work I can to get on the game industry career ladder. These thoughts have crossed my mind.. many times; but I appreciate that there's a renewed urgency when you've already been working at things for a while.

I think the same as I did when seeing your tweet: a slight sideways shift, particularly into something more creative, sounds like a wonderful idea.

I'm sure somebody with your experience could find a pretty keen niche in coding too, particularly in.. I dunno, developing game engines? I only have my own narrow field to go on, but it seems like someone keen to create stuff and who can handle sys-adminny type things could pretty much rule the roost in a game studio. :)