Why I work in the tech industry

Because of the cool toys, of course. But for me, there's also something else: Making a difference in peoples' lives.

I'm sure that sounds corny, and not everyone feels the way I do, but for me there's something very compelling about the ability of technology done right to improve the lives of lots of people, in ways you don't expect and can't plan for. I got my first taste of that years ago, when I was a Mac software developer in the early days of desktop publishing. I was mostly creating PostScript fonts, which is a thoroughly commoditized process today but was difficult back then, before third party font-creation products were available.

There was a lot of demand for fonts, so I would go to Mac trade shows and sell the fonts from a booth, $30 or so a pop. I didn't get rich, but it was fun and I learned a lot. One of the things I learned was that you have to take the work really seriously, even on something as trivial as fonts. A man walked up to me at one of the shows. He didn't look like one of the technophiles there, just a normal guy in his 30s, someone you might run into at the gas station. He spoke with a slight southern accent.

"I like your fonts," he said, and smiled.

"Thanks!" I said. One of the coolest things about those shows was that you got to talk to customers.

"Especially that one." He pointed to a font that imitated calligraphy, lots of curves and soft angles. "When my niece died, we used it to make the engraving for the tombstone."

I thanked him and expressed my condolences, as politely and gently as I could. But I was in shock the whole time. I thought my fonts were for throwaways, things like flyers or newsletters that people glanced at and then tossed. It was fun to make them, and a good learning experience, but I wasn't expecting anyone to use them for anything serious. Certainly not as serious as saying goodbye to a loved one who died young.

What it taught me was that making a new enabling technology is a trust. You don't know what people might do with it in their lives, and so you should always take it very seriously and make sure it really works the way you promise it will. Because chances are, in a world this big, someone will depend on it an awful lot.

That lesson came back to me a few weeks ago, when I saw a photo essay in the New York Times showing real-life people with the avatars they use to represent themselves in computer games (link; you can read about the underlying book and exhibition here). There were the examples I expected -- the chunky geek guy who shows himself as a red-haired ninja girl, etc. But most of the avatars looked a lot like the people who made them -- thinner maybe, or with better hair or bigger, uh, appendages. But quite recognizable.

And then there was the photo of Jason Rowe, a young man in his 30s who has muscular dystrophy (link). He's in a wheelchair, with a breathing mask on, and a report by NPR said he can move his hands just enough to control a character in Star Wars Galaxies, which he plays about 80 hours a week (link).

His avatar is a huge husky guy in armor, waving politely at the viewer -- something that you imagine might be difficult for the real-life Mr. Rowe. In all of the other pictures, you get the impression that the real person is saying to you, "here I am in real life, the avatar is my mask." But Rowe's avatar seems to say, "this is the real me over here where I can move around, don't judge me by my physical shell."

I've never met Jason, and I may be reading way too much into his picture. But if he's not thinking that, I know there are a lot of other people on the Internet who are. I doubt the folks who wrote Galaxies or Warcraft or Second Life were expecting to have this sort of impact on peoples' lives, but that's what happens when you work in tech.

And Jason, thanks for posing for that picture. You reminded me what this industry is really about.


Simone said...

thankyou, magnificent post.