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Six Figures
2017-05-02

I used to work for a multi-national multi-billon dollar corporation. As recently as last Friday.

I was big shit in my corner of the third floor of the D building on the Eagan campus of Thomson Reuters. Of TR's 53,000 employees, I made a good impression on at least 50 of them. That last application I developed will probably be a $20 million a year earner for the company within a couple years.

So anyway, I quit. I'm going to give making no money a whirl for a while. But first allow me to reflect on some aspects of my life making six figures.

Opportunity

Four years ago today I was driving a cab three nights a week for Rainbow Taxi and attending night school at Metro State. So my first conclusion is that it's possible to in 4 years go from driving drag queens and blind ladies around town to being a lead developer at a large corporation.

Software development is a meritocracy unlike any other industry I've encountered. If you can figure out dependency injection and aspect-oriented programming, you can make a lot of money. Or at least a lot more than you can make as a cab driver.

When I started interning I didn't know JSON from XML. But I took to unit testing and mocking frameworks quickly. From there to service-oriented architecture and transactional models. A couple years later I was designing software solutions for a dozen other developers, conducting 50-some technical interviews, and flying to London to bring a codebase back to Minnesota.

I paid for my Computer Science degree. I took 14 night classes at a school for working adults over the course of two and a half years while driving a cab.

But it's also possible to find work in technology without a degree from a University. My friend and fellow sandwich delivery guy Micah for instance enrolled in a free Ruby-on-Rails two-month course in the Bay Area. The school claimed 20% of his first year's income. But tuition was free, and two months later he landed a job at $100k a year. If you can solve a Sudoku and you have the will to learn computer programming, six-figure jobs are well within reach.

Drinking and Bathing

Office work got me showering in the morning. I used to shower at night 3 or 4 times a week. But sitting near people all day at work made me loathe to stink. What happens when you shower and wear deoderant every day is that people who don't bathe start to have smells. So that happened. Turns out basement punk shows have unsavory smells besides cigarettes and beer. Luckily you can still get really drunk if you want those around you to have fewer smells.

But working 9 to 5 is inconvenient for closing bars and attending house parties. I stopped going out during the week for the most part. I also stopped drinking at home, though I'm not sure that's related. Drinking is mostly social for me. I'm worse at everything except being loud and gregarious when I'm drinking. So I don't much see the point of getting drunk at home by myself.

Nevertheless I still drank quite a lot as an office worker. I went out most Fridays and Saturdays, and there were plenty of days I took off or worked from home due to hangover. Or showed up to work boozy. And on occassion when drunk and out with coworkers I would tell a product owner that I did not respect him, or chew out a higher-up corporate guy who was acting douchey, or tell my boss's boss's boss about my union organizing past. I always got away with it.

Surplus Value

I made four times more per hour at TR than I have at any other job. But I was still underpaid.

TR paid me a few hundred thousand dollars over a few years to build products that will make the company tens of millions per year, if not more. The company's total revenue last year was over $11 billion, about $2 billion of which was profit.

Capitalism is still capitalism. There's just a lot more money in regulatory intelligence than in sandwich delivery. It's hard to complain. But you can still complain.

Mentoring vs Managing

I was a leader at TR. Formally, I left as a team lead, or a tech lead, or a dev lead, or some such. Informally, I was the go-to guy for software solutions for four dev teams across two applications. It was the closest I've ever been to supervising. But I don't think I crossed that line.

The U.S. Dept of Labor has several criteria that can legally qualify you as a "supervisor," and one of them is the power to hire and fire. I conducted interviews and my recommendations were almost always followed. But management always had the final say. And I was never management.

I used to be a union organizer, which made me pretty comfortable approaching my coworkers and speaking up during meetings. This is not the norm for software developers. Most programmers feel more comfortable at their desks listening to metal in their headphones than they do sitting around a table trying to reach a consensus. They have anxiety about approaching people to ask questions. I have none of those squabbles, which made it easier for me to learn quickly and slide into leadership roles.

My last six months at TR I stopped picking up new "feature" work, meaning I wasn't the lead programmer on any of the new features we built into our applications. Instead I was a teacher. I made sure I had a vision for how to do upcoming work, I made sure my coworkers all had work that was challenging but that they felt able to do, and then I jumped between people, pairing with them on their work. That's mentoring, not managing. I like mentoring.

(Not) Evil Corporations

I don't think Thomson Reuters is evil.

That may not sound too controversial, but for me it's a change of heart. Ten years ago I thought all corporations were evil. I didn't really know what a corporation was, but I knew that they were destroying the planet and exploiting the workers.

I now think that corporations can be better and worse. I'm open to the possibility of a democratic corporation a la Praxis in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy (TR is not that). I think it's good when corporations for instance pull their advertising for the O'Reilly Factor after it comes out that he's a serial sexual harasser. I think it's bad when a corporation forces an oil pipeline through an Indian Reservation that clearly does not want an oil pipeline.

I never felt guilty to be working for TR. I was working on Regulatory Intelligence software used mostly by banks and financial institutions to figure out who they're allowed to do business with and how. TR's most profitable product is an application for searching case law and legal statutes. Thomson Reuters is not angelic or revolutionary in any way. But the culture of the company embraces many liberal values I share - environmental and affirmative actionish policies, for instance. Their products aren't horrible. It was a good place to work.

Before I got a job at TR I interviewed for Dealdash.com. Dealdash is a much smaller company, and it's fucking evil. It's a penny auction site where you buy "bids" for say 25 cents a peice. Then you bid a penny at a time on whatever. So somebody ends up buying 100 AA batteries for $8, and Dealdash makes $200 from mostly people who got zero batteries. They prey on poor people who can't afford to, say, buy 100 AA batteries for $50 on Amazon. They also prey on gambling addicts who get addicted to auction sites. It's disgusting. I'm glad I didn't end up working there.

The Cost of Making Money

I made a bunch of money working at Thomson Reuters. But I also didn't do a lot of things.

As of this past Friday I wasn't writing, making music, or creating anything at all besides computer code. Writing used to be a big part of my identity. People called me Pudd'nhead because of the zine I wrote. I feel cruddy about letting that get away from me.

I also used to be in bands, which besides being a good emotional release was I think also pretty good for my sex life. I'm not nearly as attracted to business analyst types as I am to tattooed girls with gardens. And especially tattooed girls who play guitar in bands. How are you supposed to date one of them if you're not in a band yourself? Impossible!

Besides not creating art, I'm also not organizing, volunteering, or contributing to my community in any meaningful way. These are all I think possible areas of growth for me in the coming years.

Part of it may just be me growing older and more lame. But I also find computer programming to be mentally consuming, especially the way I do it. I always tried to work less than 40 hours a week, but I worked my ass off while I was there. I basically did 6-7 hours of mental gymnastics 5 days a week. Most people take Facebook breaks, but I for the most part did not. Just a one-hour lunch break every day where I would read a novel by myself. I'm a weirdo like that. When I got home from work it was hard to motivate myself to do anything but watch Netflix or shoot pool.

More generally I think that over the last 4 years I have not been thinking about the world as much as I once did. I haven't been writing stories because I haven't been coming up with ideas for them. It's been harder to engage in politics because I haven't been learning lessons from other people's struggles that could help me see a plan of action I could believe in. I've had my head buried in computer code for four years.

Unemployment

I was anxious about quitting, because the only period of my adult life where I experienced unemployment made me super-depressed. In that instance I had a shattered knee and while out on worker's comp got fired from my job for union organizing. I learned I suck at being idle. I also came up with a theory that I'm institutionalized like the old man in Shawshank Redemption and that I'll never be happy unless I'm making money for somebody else.

The good news is that early returns on unemployment suggest that it's fucking awesome. I feel great! I'm writing, I'm exercising, I'm social, and I'm flying through my to-do list. I don't intend to work again any time soon, so I have a ways to go. But I'm excited about the next chapter in my life. I'll keep you posted.

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