Archive for the 'Life' Category

Just Start

I wrote the last entry 4½ years ago, thinking my job couldn’t get any better.

“…working with a group of people you know well and trust implicitly, building something together…”

I was as happy a cog in the machine as any, and that was all there was.

Until it wasn’t.

What happened? Change happened, as it always does. People leaving, priorities shifting. So I finally — finally — decided to continue on my own start my own business.

For several years now, I’ve been wanting to write an open source student tracking system for the Dutch primary education. Earlier this year I gave it a name, Vollo, and just started writing the code. Yes I know, it’s stupid, it’s foolish, I’ve read Lean Startup and I’m still doing it this way. I believe public institutions (like schools) should use open source software more often. Right now though, there isn’t an open source option for this important piece of school software. So I decided to do my bit and start coding, and hopefully be able to offer this option in the near future. Vollo, the company, will offer paid hosting and support. In the meantime I’ll earn money the way I always have, by doing Java/Javascript contracting work. It turns out that my job did get a lot better after all.

2018-08-06. No responses.

All Work, All Play

When I was in college, a long time ago, I tutored a fellow student for the one mathematically-themed compulsory subject in our major. Our relation was complicated somewhat because she hit on me, which, normally, I wouldn’t mind; but she smoked, was twice my age and a complete nervous wrack. Not sure what put me off most. Anyway, perhaps because of her age she took it upon herself to tutor me back with what she thought were the important lessons in life. As long as these lessons remained non-physical, I didn’t object. Maybe I should have, as I was easily impressionable. Even at that age.

Before going back to college, my ‘tutor’ had worked as a journalist at a local newspaper. These years had provided her with much of the wisdom she now ventured to part on me. (Hopelessly failed relations with numerous men were another endless source of wisdom). One day we were strolling across the campus grounds, talking about life after college. At that point I was still determined to stretch my time in college as long as possible. College life was a near perfect starting point for the writing career I envisioned for myself. I was winging most of the tests they threw at us (there weren’t many) with a minimal amount of actual studying. It was the time of my life. I didn’t do much writing, but I figured that would come when the time was right.

“Work is like prostitution,” she said. “You’re selling your body to somebody else to do with it as they please.”
“I see what you mean… But surely there’s a difference between selling your brains, or your hands… and selling, well, your body?”
“Doesn’t matter, bottom line is, in both cases you give away control over your body, over your actions.”

At the time it was exactly what I wanted to hear, so I probably didn’t object much more. Work is like prostitution. Somehow it became a fundamental adage to me, fixed tightly among the most basic values and beliefs I’ve held over the years. Even when I started to work, much sooner than I foresaw at that moment. Even when work actually turned out to be not that unpleasant at all. My first ‘real’ job was so much fun that studying soon began to suffer. A writing career seemed even further away now. Never mind, I was sure that would come when the time was right.

Still, however much I enjoyed work, the idea that I was doing something wrong never really disappeared. I was selling my body, giving away control. I felt guilty for enjoying it. I decided to make the most of it at least, to keep working till my 40th birthday; then cash in and live quietly somewhere, finally become a writer.

My 40th birthday came and went. By then I was already working for Trivento, where work felt more like a group of friends making money with what we loved doing: making people happy by building software. I remembered the deal I made with myself, twenty years earlier. “Ten more years,” I thought. I liked working but still I kept feeling I should really be doing something else. Something more meaningful. Something for myself instead of someone else.

It wasn’t until last week, when I was reading The Year Without Pants, by Scott Berkun, that I was able to shed this crazy notion at last. This book is his account of working at Automattic for almost two years. Automattic is the company that created WordPress, the software that powers many blogs including this one. Berkun describes how the Automatticians manage to work almost completely distributed and are still able to get things done, forge teams, form friendships. His reflection, near the end of the book, on the nature of work, hit home with me:

“The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we’re paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own.”

“Many people believe that throughout history, work has rarely given people meaning, but that’s not true. The history of work is rooted in survival. We hunted and gathered in order to live. Little distinction was made between work and the rest of life. Rather than this making life miserable, it likely made it more meaningful. Every action, however hard, had personal significance. Working with your own hands to catch a fish or build a shelter gave deep satisfaction that few high-paying jobs ever will.”

“[…] the denial of joy as a central element of quality work is a mistake. Humor, storytelling, and songs are social skills we developed thousands of years ago around fires while we did the critical work of staying warm and cooking food to survive. It’s a shockingly recent notion that work and play should be mutually exclusive things. We learn about ourselves and each other through play, which helps us work together.”

I can’t say I make a living by catching fish or building shelters; nor am I saying that Trivento is much like Automattic. But working with a group of people you know well and trust implicitely, building something together that will ultimately give people the pleasure of doing their job more efficiently: that’s what gives me satisfaction. Why would I ever want to do something else?

2014-01-21. No responses.

A Golden Cage

Twenty years ago, my first job was to assist visitors of the Computerette–something of an Internet café without the Internet. This small company had been started by someone who did freelance jobs coding some very obscure Cobol dialect. While he kept doing his well-paid job, he hired me to take care of the shop. Besides this rather dull work, he let me do small programming jobs on the side. For this, he introduced me to Clipper, the compiled variant of the then-popular dBASE III language. Himself, he would not dream of quitting his Cobol job for this; even though he loved Clipper and Clipper jobs were abundant at the time. “It’s not about the language,” he told me, “it’s about the problems you’re asked to solve.” While I was coding my first address book application for a start-up law firm, his software was controlling the oil refineries of Pernis (the Rotterdam harbour). I did not understand him back then. Who ever would want to keep coding in Cobol, the language of the past?

At yesterday’s RubyEnRails 2008 conference, a friend told me that I’m in a golden cage: getting paid more in my current job for coding Java, than I could get in another job for doing Ruby/Rails–preventing me from switching to Ruby/Rails. His remark reminded me of my old boss who did not want to switch to Clipper. Am I turning into him? Am I coding in the language of the past? Will I still be doing so 10 or 20 years from now?

No way. It’s not about the language.

2008-06-11. 2 responses.

Where To Marry In Paris (Part 3)

(This is part 3 of 3; part 1 is here, part 2 is here)

We returned from Paris late Sunday evening (March 25th).

What remained was images, shreds of memories, and many of them, in spite of the short time we were there:

The Nautilus-like decoration of the Arts & Métiers subway station.

The American girl in the brasserie too close to the Eiffel tower (but we were too tired to go any further), shouting, “Sir, you’re from Philly, sir?” at an unsuspecting Frenchman wearing an Eagles cap.

The closed doors of the Fashion museum that we had wanted to visit after the Eiffel tower and lunch; apparently, the museum is now closed for visits altogether. We were lured to it by an entry in the Lonely Planet guide, promising “some 100,000 outfits and accessories from the 18th century to the present day”. Instead, we kept walking along the Seine to the Museum of Discovery (Palais de la Découverte), hoping to find traces there of the turn of the 19th century world exhibition that took place there in 1937. However, besides the building itself, very little reminded of that historic fact. The museum houses several themed exhibitions, some very entertaining (animals, visual tricks), some extremely boring. In the animal exhibition, a little rat was showing how it had been trained to run around in a maze and get a tasty snack at certain intervals. Somehow, that reminded me of our own wanderings across Paris.
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2007-05-11. 2 responses.

The Hot and Cold Summer

So much to do in this hot and cold summer (July: 36 degrees, August: 16 degrees) and so little to blog about. In case anybody wonders, this is what I’ve been up to lately.

Gone back two years in time: After I finally left the WebLogic project in May, a little later than planned, I was re-assigned to the organization I worked at two years ago. It was as if time had stood still when I got back there. Not only because there were many familiar faces to welcome me, but also because the entire development environment was pretty much as I’d left it. So it’s back to Java 1.4, back to Struts, back to EJB’s, back to this pre-SOA SOA architecture… Then again, as someone asked me: what would I use instead of Struts? What indeed, if not Ruby and Rails? Does it really matter which XML-infested Java framework you use? Would Shale or Spring MVC make so much of a difference? I get by because there’s a lot of code and XML to copy/paste from, but the amount of code that is the result is frightening.

Trying to keep up with the insane tempo of the JRuby guys: After trying to get Rails on JRuby to work for my NLJUG presentation in May, with help from Charles Nutter and Tom Enebo, the JRuby protagonists, I kind of stuck around on the JRuby mailing list, which reads like a Dan Brown novel (well it does if you like coding). I even got a small job, rewriting Mongrel’s HTTP/1.1 Ragel parser to a JavaCC grammar (Why is there no Ragel-to-Java translator? I wish I’d had the time to write one. Now I had to use JavaCC, which was rather frustrating, either because of the limitations of JavaCC, especially in its idea of regular expressions, or because of my own limited knowledge of parsing–but it’s here, checked in in a fresh new RubyForge project, ) and it seems to be working. Mongrel will work completely with JRuby if Ola gets his JRuby extension framework going, allowing you to extend the Ruby language with Java libraries as easily as you can now with C libraries.

Organizing the Java Summer Camp 2006: After last year’s success with Simon Ritter‘s presentation of Java 5’s new features (fortunately no-one seems to remember the train mixup that got Simon 50km away from the venue and cause Rietje (office Mom) and me to pick him up there and drive back at questionable speed), Profict decided to do another Java Summer Camp this year. Like RubyEnRails before, this turns out to be very time-consuming. Finding a theme (Java & Ajax), speakers (Greg Murray! Bram Smeets!), visitors (90+, we’re fully booked!), a venue (another castle!), seats, food, sound system, camera, parking space…

Got my first production-worthy Rails application live: as a side note to the Java Summer Camp, I rewrote the small Rails app that I used to keep track of the RubyEnRails visitors. It can now handle multiple events, multiple users, it sends bulk email to visitors, it exports visitor data to Excel to keep the managers happy and it has a new and improved gui (which took me longer to design then it did to code the application itself).

Busy finding new colleagues: Yes I know, I should be proclaiming the wonders of Ruby and Rails at all times–but the truth is, I don’t hate Java, I don’t mind (that much) doing Java as a day job, and I don’t mind working for a Java shop. Although I’ll never quit dreaming of my own world empire, someday, somehow–in the meantime I’m very happy to be working for Profict. In spite of its focus on doing application integration projects (some people love diving in at the deep end, writing code that never sees the light of day; but I prefer staying near the surface, where the code reaches the user’s screens); but there’s enough work to do at the edges of integration: portals for one; and there are always the external assignments that I’ve been on for the last couple of years (what’s English for detacheren??). But what I really like about Profict is the fact that it’s small enough to know everybody (no huge consulting firm for me, thank you). It is a close group of mostly very experienced people, formed over the years only ‘by invitation’ (employers asking those people around them to join that they themselves would like to have as colleagues). So maybe I shouldn’t advertise the fact that we’re looking for still more people on my blog, for everyone to read–on the other hand, if you’re persistent enough to read this blog entry, you’re welcome to come talk (well, if you live in Holland anyway)! Okay, end of shameless commercial intermezzo…

Done a Grey’s Anatomy and The O.C. marathon: If you hate The O.C., you have got to at least love its theme song: California by Phantom Planet. That alone makes me want to go there (or at least as soon as flying to the US becomes a little more relaxed again). And Grey’s, what can I say: it’s little more than the 835th romance-in-a-hospital show (St. Elsewhere, Chicago Hope, ER, Medisch Centrum West) but there’s something that makes me want to keep watching–maybe Izzie? (A supporting character is usually my favorite: Summer in The O.C., Chloe in 24, Paris in Gilmore Girls, Starbuck in Battlestar and of course Locke in Lost; the exception is Prison Break).

Making the switch to Linux: Somewhere in the process of getting Subversion with SSH to work under Windows XP, which proved a hopeless case, either with or without Cygwin or VMWare, I decided to to finally make the switch. I shrinked my XP partition (I’ll still need it for graphics and photography work, as I just can’t get the Gimp to do what I want just as easily) and installed Ubuntu Dapper Drake. It feels like coming home (I worked with VMS and Unix long ago). It’s still not MacOS yet, but at least my 3GHz Dual Core cost just a third of Apple’s new beast

2006-08-15. No responses.

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