Discover more from Stoic Observations
The Engineering Path Not Taken
Another time travel question.
Q: As an IT professional, what would you tell your younger self?
A: It’s hard to say because I’ve been in it so long. Part of the difficulty is in interpreting this as a time travel question or a ‘starting now’ question, or a ‘path untraveled’ question. So I’ll answer all three. The last one is the most difficult.
Time Travel Question. “If you knew then what you know now, what would you tell your past self to do?” This is the easiest one. I would have hocked my life savings to buy an Apple Lisa in the mid 80s and spent my entire career at Apple, following Steve Jobs to Next and then back to Apple. I would have ignored the Unix wars and gotten away from applications software and gotten into systems software, especially as regards embedded systems. Ride out the 80s. Stay in Cupertino. Buy Apple stock. Basically be an Apple lifer.
Starting Now Question. “If you were to start your career today, given what you have seen, what would you focus in on?” I would focus on security and hacking. I would try to break every system and become a security consultant until I got to the point at which governments, banks and military intelligence organizations were paying for my services. This is because no matter what else you do in systems, nobody appreciates the most nitty gritty technical details of your work in commercial markets. You can always sell software engineering because it’s pretty, or because it’s cheap, but only a few people will pay top dollar for the best. You never quite know who’s the best, only security teams get to test the performance of status quo systems. I understand the power of “We’ve always done it that way.”
Path Not Taken Question. “What career choices would you reconsider, given what you know eventually happened?” This is hard because of a lot of things. And you never know.
A. (1991) I might have been a Visual Basic SME in Redmond. But I didn’t really respect the product and I never thought Visual Basic would beat Powerbuilder. (Bad Move)
B. (1991) I might have joined Bloomberg but decided against it because I anticipated companies like e-Trade. That is to say I thought the Bloomberg terminal was overpriced and clunky (Good Move). But I still never quit to go to e-Trade. (Bad Move)
C. (1993) I might have joined The Voyager Company when it was a small startup in LA because I was bored and wanted to do multimedia. I decided to stick with databases. (Good Move)
D. (1993) I might have become one of the first Avid programmers. But I decided that I hated Hollywood. (Bad Move)
E. (1994) I might have quit my area of expertise just to learn Wall Street trading systems which were still relatively young. I didn’t. (Bad Move)
The biggest dilemma I have faced is the fact that I absolutely have enjoyed being a consultant and working with dozens of different companies all over the country and across the globe as a specialist with commercial products. So I have a huge library of applications that I’ve built BUT since it’s not systems software I could never stay in one place and get deep into the engineering side of things. If I would have worked with low level code in embedded systems… who knows? I chose to go BROAD instead of DEEP. I think I made the best practical decisions which allowed me to dream in other things besides my actual career. In that regard I’m glad I’ve gone BROAD.
Still at this point in my career I’m glad I stuck with data architectures because that area is still growing, changing and getting better. But some days I wish that I was like a primary software engineer on something like openssl and on the cutting edge of improving a security protocol like that, just knowing all of the ins and outs of that code.
Sometimes it’s very difficult for me to reconcile how large the software industry and all of computing has become. That’s something that the greatest minds in the beginning might have dreamed, but I sense that they’re all missing. It’s almost all new money. I think that the death of Steve Jobs represents the end of the beginning.
On the other hand there are visionaries in CGI that have done some extraordinary things. I’m astounded by what has happened in gaming. The scale of MMPORGs are awe inspiring, technically. There are great stories out there as well.
Still, I’m troubled by the paucity of wisdom in the new media, but that can change…
Stoic Observations is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.