Dis-alignment

My friend Mei-Li, of business and artistic fame, invited me to her birthday party yesterday. She thus offered me the opportunity to meet and mingle with a social group which was both new and afar from my usual crowd.

As expected by social protocol, strangers were fast-tracking to acquaintances by means of exchanging efficient summaries of their social identity.

I too was expected to partake. As usual, it was an uncomfortable experience. Yet, this time, I endured the trial more like the pain of physical exercise than that of unnecessary torture. A milestone achievement!

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The challenge to overcome is that there is not just one story I can tell. I still have trouble narrowing down the summary to a form that can be communicated effectively.

Every time the situation arises, I must go through the exercise of quickly gauging who is my interlocutor, how much detail they are expecting, and how familiar they are with the topics considered. Depending on my guess, I will pick between several rather different variations of the presentation.

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The standard instance, which I half-jokingly describe to myself as “I-am-only-doing-this-because-I-have-to-please-go-away,” goes more or less like this:

— so, what do you do?

—I own my own business in IT.

— so what do you do in IT? what does your company do?

—I provide software services and consulting.

That canned answer, while true, is suitably incomplete: I designed it with the express purpose to prevent further conversation (non-technical audiences will be intimidated and not dare to follow up, and technical audiences know exactly that this is a non-answer and an invitation to not further the topic) while still ensuring it surrounds me with a modicum of social respectability (because “business owner”).

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At another corner of this design space, there is the conversation that occurs when a close friend introduces me to another close friend, and we have a tacit agreement that I will share something about me that is both true and revealing of what I care about; with the purpose of establishing rapport and trust. Then the conversation would usually go like this:

— so, what do you do?

—I study software and how it changes society and the way people think.

— so you are a kind of researcher? or philosopher?

—yes, absolutely.

— and how does that pay the bills?

—I was extremely lucky to find a software company willing to fund my interests with a combination of money and flexible working hours, in exchange for me helping them with their project. I am even more lucky that they even sometimes allow me to do my research on their own product and team.

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Meanwhile, I also navigate in a couple of social circles with a majority of teachers and education professionals, and then the conversation goes, still truthfully, as follows:

— so, what do you do?

—I am a teacher, I used to work for the university but now I only give guest lectures incidentally, on the side of some freelancing IT work.

— oh.

(understanding silence, smiles, moving on)

Not much more needs to be said; the current politics of education employment in the Netherlands is disastrous. Every educator suffers from it.

At that point in the conversation, I have conveyed implicitly that I would rather teach full time but that the “system” will not allow me to do this while staying psychologically healthy and financially secure.

I also convey this way that I know how to balance personal aspirations with practical necessities, and provide an opening to a follow-up conversation where I am ready to share tips on how to combine education with other side projects.

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There is also the conversation I have great fun with. That occurs when an acquaintance of a friend approaches me randomly during a social event, with the pretense they care about the conversation (by virtue of being “friend of a friend”) but when I also have license to be creative and challenge their labeling system:

— so, what do you do?

—I am a psychological worker for software companies.

— huh? what does that mean precisely?

—I go talk to people in software engineering teams and make them become better humans. You see, in IT most often technical staff fail to realize what is really important to them as human beings, what boundaries they should set between their work and themselves, and what is truly important to them. So we talk and explore these topics together, and this helps prevent burnout, frustration, lack of confidence, etc.

— so you’re a psychologist or a coach?

—it looks like this, but, of course, most IT organizations would not accept to hire someone with this title. So they hire me initially and officially for my technical skills but with an implicit understanding that I will do this social work. And then they keep paying me because that job is really important to their productivity.

This truthful starter enables a conversation about the human dimension of technical work environments, which I usually enjoy (in moderation) and makes for good social lubricant.

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It so happens that I study programming languages, the design and implementation thereof, as a hobby, and some of my friends and acquaintances share this hobby. When the conversation turns to our current projects, it usually goes like this:

— so, what do you do?

—I am trying to help a startup build a SQL engine in Go. It is very hard.

— what is hard about it? SQL or Go?

(at this point we laugh politely; then share conniving smiles)

—really, SQL is an interesting subject in PL design, because it evolved in a parallel universe to everything else, like Japan did during the Edo period. I like to study and understand how common, well-known traditional PL problems have their unique solutions in SQL engines.

— and what about Go then? how can you bear that?

—it is the price of a learning experience: I am actually studying how far a group of USAmerican engineers is willing to compromise on their psychological health for the sake of “getting things done.” To me, this is a case of Google pushing broken tools with a shiny appearance to their potential competitors, to bog them down. I am waiting for the moment where the bubble will pop, what will be the triggering circumstances and what they are going to do about it. I predict it will be a valuable lesson in the historical record.

Then we usually drop that angle of the conversation, and instead talk about Rust envyingly, try to characterize what could be added to Haskell to give learners a good mental model of operational costs, and lament how all many good ideas in Erlang are failing to propagate to other languages.

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Incidentally, I tend to gravitate towards social circles where I find honest concern and strategic planning for social good and the betterment of society. I fully own my humanist inclination and I enjoy the company of those who do the same.

Then the conversation would usually go like this:

— so, what do you do?

—I work on open source infrastructure software.

— more precisely?

—I found a database project to contribute to, which aims to commodify safer data storage and improve software engineering practices around data. I like that they care about correctness first and that they aim to educate their users and generally push the industry to modernize data-oriented applications.

— and so what do you work on?

—I help solve correctness issues in the project itself and design both UX and teaching materials to make programmers think better about how they manipulate their data.

This intro creates a risk that the conversation will turn into a discussion of how poorly some companies contain their data collection practices, which bores me to no end, but at least it communicates succinctly my commitment to contributing to open source infrastructure and improving general knowledge and best practices in the software industry.

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In one of my side projects, I help a past colleague and friend from the time where I was studying computer architecture to design and develop a new microprocessor. We have grown closer to each other time and there is thus legitimate interest from his side to keep updated about my current activities.

With him that conversation went as follows:

— so, what do you do?

—these days I help a database company develop and improve their query engine.

— that seems rather different from your doctoral thesis?

—well actually my previous research was really about understanding the design trade-offs in a hardware/software stack when building for scalability and concurrent execution in a dataflow-oriented system. They have very similar trade-off concerns so I think it is a natural extension of my previous work.

— and would they be interested in architectural extensions in hardware, by any chance?

—I have a hunch that they may, although they don’t know it yet. It is hard to teach a software team with no previous experience in comp arch that the hardware is also a parameter space they can tweak. Also, as long as they only provide software that users can go and run on their commodity hardware, they cannot really play with the hardware. But that is bound to change when they start hosting their stack and search how to optimize performance in their own hosting environment. I think I’ll pitch some of our past research when that day comes.

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Sometimes, I meet another remote worker who also contracts for US companies from outside of the US. For them, the topic hones on practicalities immediately:

— so, what do you do?

—I work with a database startup in New York.

— oh, lucky you. That must be very lucrative.

—I am very lucky indeed they did not localize the salary to where I live. I guess this is a perk of joining a startup at a very early stage. But retirement savings and disability insurance for independent contractors are really a bog. Also, I fear that they will reconsider when they start reorganizing for “efficiency” and realize they are paying me more than market value in my area.

— yeah but if you got stock early, that might not matter in the end, right?

options, not stock. Options which I cannot exercise in the Netherlands because we are taxed on capital and not gains. As long as their stock is not liquid, I cannot take it.

— woops, that doesn’t sound like an ideal deal then.

—it could be optimized, I guess. For now I am getting a good deal, with opportunities to travel and flexible time. We’ll see what I do when that changes.

From then on the conversation usually goes on to optimizing the practicalities of remote work, and how to balance a social life with time zone differences.

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One of my social circles developed around our shared progression through the understanding of what autism is and how it impacts our lives. We meet regularly and share experiences, struggles, and personal developments.

Finding a work environment that “works” with autism is a challenge; also, it is hard for one person with autism to figure out themselves what works for them, because of inherent limits in self-perception. Therefore, talking and sharing with others, i.e. going through the effort to explain to others how things work and observing their reaction, functions as the mean to recognize and evaluate the compatibility of a work environment with neurological requirements.

So that conversation goes like this:

— so, what do you do?

—I help a software company as a remote freelancer.

— how does it work? do they know about autism?

—I was very lucky to join a team with very diverse personal requirements already. They seem very willing to accommodate personal circumstances. For example it is OK to work from home during work days to get some “alone” time. Also autism is prevalent in IT so even though people don’t really dare to talk about it they know pretty well what it entails and how to deal with it in a group.

— isn’t it complicated to be far from your colleagues? how do you find enough structure to work effectively?

—I have taught them that I will utilize regular travel to develop and maintain the social links, and they saw the value in that. Also I am stimulating a culture where we talk regularly, multiple times per week, and I make it clear that I want to be told explicitly what is going on and what is expected from everyone. Over time. I am forcing them bit by bit to develop habits that favor explicitness over implicitness, to enable remote work and to ensure most important communication tends to happen in writing—so I do not often get the feeling that I am missing out on important stuff.

Although I am pushing them in these directions out of self interest, I noticed they like the exercise because it also enables them to grow their staff with other remote employees and generally improves the transparency of their organization. So we have a win-win situation.

From there, the conversation usually evolves in how to navigate inter-personal relationships and incidental communication challenges.

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And then there is my mom. She does enquire, usually perfunctorily, sometimes out of curiosity, occasionally out of legitimate concern:

— so how is your work at the university?

—I do not work at the university any more, mom. You remember, they did not want to offer me a work contract.

— oh. But did you not say you had an offer from <name of other university>?

—yes, I think that offer still stands, but it would not be full-time and probably not very good for my career at this point. So I may reconsider in a couple of years instead.

— so, really it is just temporary contract work?

(said with a disapproving / doubtful tone.)

—yes, but I can’t complain, it pays the bills and I get to travel a lot.

— oh so, you’re still working with these Americans?

(said with a disapproving / condescending tone.)

—yes mom. And “these Americans” are good people too. I learn a lot from them. And they have money which they willingly share with me, and you were the one who taught me to not spit on the hand that feeds you.

(incidental reference to the fact I am sharing that money with her.)

—I really hope you find a real job soon. And be careful to save for your retirement. I hope you are properly insured in case of disability. You know how hard it was for me.

— thank you. You know it is hard to find long-term work these days and the job market is very different now than when you grew up. I do what I have to do and what works in these times. And yes mom, I promise I am financially responsible.

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My close friends already know the multi-faceted nature of my work, at a high level. They have heard me deliver all the intros. With them, when that conversation starts, I know that it is really about them caring about the current state of affairs and polling where I am currently at and where I am heading.

— so, what are you up to?

(the lack of “do” is my cue to step out of the masks and mirrors.)

—Really, I have no idea. Just life, I guess.

And there it stops. There is really no summary that really makes sense to me. But that’s also the point where we share delicious cake and/or the joy of friendship, and then nothing else matters.