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Living with Schizoaffective Disorder

Rolling Rocks Up a Hill

I compare the fate of computer programmers to that of Sisyphus,
whose crime was so great that he was condemned to roll a rock up a hill for all eternity.

Michael David Crawford, Baritone,

Copyright © 2005 Michael David Crawford. All Rights Reserved.

July 12, 2005

It seems a whole year has gone by since I've posted a newsletter. A lot has happened since then.

Maybe "Self Employment" is the wrong choice for the title, as I know many self employed people who are happy with their work. Maybe "Computer Programming" would be better, whether or not one owns one's own business. Any of you that work in any sort of programming job will find what I have to say familiar. When will your users stop filing feature requests? Have you closed your last support ticket yet? Fixed that last bug? Is your software fast enough?

Many, many years ago I realized that I shared my fate with that of Sisyphus, who Homer called "the wisest and most prudent of mortals". I don't know what I did to deserve it, but Sisyphus so offended the Gods of old that he was condemned to spend eternity rolling a heavy rock up a hill. As Albert Camus said in The Myth of Sisyphus:

They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

The Sisyphus I knew as a child had been subject to some artistic license. I learned of him from a simple animation done in black pen and ink on a PBS show called the International Animation Festival back in '76 or so when I was just twelve years old.

The way I first knew him, Sisyphus struggled mightily, muscles straining all the way, to roll his rock to the top. Once he got it there, he walked back down, while the camera zoomed out to reveal that the hill was made of ... more rocks. It seems that by achieving his goal by putting a rock on top of the hill, he had only succeeded in making the hill a little bit bigger. There was a fresh rock waiting for him at the bottom.

The myth of old, as Camus describes, had just the one rock. It rolled back down each time Sisyphus got it to the top. But I think the way I originally understood it more accurately reflects what it's like to be a software developer. Ask anyone who's written an operating system by starting with main() and then filling in the details as they go.

I wrote the original in early 2000, when everyone thought there really was a New Economy, and tulip bulbs were worth their weight in gold. I was inspired to write it by a headhunter who just wouldn't take "No" for an answer. I was able to keep most of the others at bay by not returning their phone calls or replying to their emails claiming they had The Right Job For Me. I wrote the article because of a particular one who was willing to go the extra mile to, uh, "earn" her commission.

How things change.

In October of that same year, my client told me they couldn't pay for seven weeks of work because all their investors had simply disappeared. I was out of work for a solid month, during which time I emailed my resume several hundred times each day to each and every resume mailbox I was able to find by spending the rest of my day scouring the job boards. I was saved by an old friend who worked for a dot-com that had not yet got the bad news, but had to take onsite work in San Francisco, to which I flew from St. John's, Newfoundland at my own expense.

I spent much of the Christmas season of 2000 sleeping on my friends' couches, riding in buses and Bay Area Rapid Transit trains at all hours of the day and night, eating crappy food in all-night restaurants and working like a madman. One night I missed the last train back to Oakland and spent the night sleeping on the floor of my office.

I wasn't willing to miss Christmas with my new wife (Bonita and I were wed on July 22 of that year) so just a few days before I flew back. But because I was flying so close to Christmas, I spent another all nighter sitting awake in the Halifax airport, waiting to catch the continuing flight to St. John's.

I'm glad I did, because that company is long-gone now. A visit to what used to be their website yields a page announcing "This Domain is For Sale" and a bunch of search links that I'm sure earn a miniscule quantity of pay-per-click ad revenue for the domain's owner. Perhaps it's just enough to pay for the hosting and domain registration. A whois query reveals that the domain's new owner owns hundreds of once-proud dot-com domains, all of them for sale. Cheap too, I bet.

They're lucky they weren't picked up by a pr0n site operator, as happened to a buddy of mine when he let his domain lapse, the one where he kept his resume and his photos of his son's Bar Mitzah. You see, you can capture traffic, links and PageRank that way. It's gotta be tough, working in such a competitive industry. Be grateful for what you've got!

But how things stay the same:

Times were hard for Bonita and I during the dot-com crash and throughout the economic downturn, but one way or another, I was always able to find enough work to get by. In fact, I made mortgage payments on the house we closed in Maine in December of 2000 when we had not yet realized the seriousness of the crash, until we sold it and moved to Canada in October of 2003 (did I tell you I live in Nova Scotia now? I'm expecting my Landed Immigrant card any day now) and I also bought and am still making payments on a Ford Taurus.

Sure, times were tough, but I know more than a few programmers, programmers who I will readily admit have far more code-fu than I do, who had to sell their houses - if their houses weren't just taken by the banks - and had to move back in with their parents. I know more than a few programmers - good, hard-working, talented engineers - who had to take awful, low-paying work just to survive.

Yeah, life has been hard. Just like rolling rocks up a hill only to make the hill even bigger. But one thing I can say is that I've always been able to do it by working in my chosen profession. Many people haven't been so fortunate.

How did I do it?

Well, I've rambled on so long you're not likely to want to hear from me for another year. I get this way when I stay up all night. I wasn't writing code this time, but working on my website. I like to write, you see.

You can expect many more articles and essays from me in the coming months. I'm sorry, I can't really say that they will always be programming tips, as my site claims. But I think I can say that you're likely to enjoy reading them. I work hard to write well, because I know very well the potential that much of my writing holds - that much of my writing has already demonstrated - to help people, not just in their work, but in their lives.



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