Conversations with Techies

I joined many public hikes in San Francisco, and while thus wholesomely engaged often found myself talking shop with techies: querying a coder about the merits of Java, C, Python while we panted our way up Bernal hill, or absorbing security tips from a sysadmin under the Lands’ End cypress boughs.

Two reasons why: IT pros are about as scarce as parking meters in the tech-centric Bay Area, and I was a receptive audience, almost a fan boy. I’ve never forgotten my numb-lobed wandering through the pages of a Javascript manual. Coding is hard. Expertise impresses me.

Only after moving 5,800 miles east did I realize that these chats with insiders in a tech hub were unusual. I learned a few things, think I ought to share:

Without exception, techs regarded potential privacy intrusions as real, serious, worthy of attention.

The Snowden revelations. Spyware, Big Data. Yes, it’s a problem. Yes, it deserves attention, plenty of it. No question.

I was usually the one to bring the subject up. In a few chats, I inferred from my partner’s tone and body language that he had been a professional part of the problem. (Boy, you should have seen that script we whipped up at StartUp XYZ, he might have thought, while yakking with ol’ Tim. If the majors ever start pulling stuff like that, we’re all dead.)

So goes the often disillusioning path of the careerist, and the familiar temptation to the dark side. You want to code profitably. So do others. You’re good. Others may be better. Your activist kid brother with the ‘Occupy’ t-shirt will flush with pride if you gig for EFF or Wikipedia, but maybe they’re not hiring, or don’t pay anything, and your landlord doesn’t smile at ‘late rent’ jokes.  But that startup with the borderline malware script for the Big Tobacco “affiliate” or “partner” site, well …

Only one tech appeared to take special precautions to safeguard privacy in his own computing.

The Mark Zuckerberg ‘dadada’ example will serve. I once knew a former professional mechanic who would let the oil level drop to inexcusably precarious levels in a personal car. Same psychology, perhaps.

The tech who did take precautions noted that PGP and other privacy protectors have been freely available for years, but that Joe Q. User doesn’t know why or how to use them.

Endless Job Interviews

In my Salaryman years, I took a long job interview as a sign of a likely hire. Not in this field, or at least not among the folk I talked to. Tech giants will unabashedly pass over applicants who submit to seven, eight, ten hours of interviews, multiple meetings, questions up the yin yang.

“But of course you’re going to get the job,” said innocent moi to a mapping software specialist, before I figured this out. He’d just described a full day interview at Apple.

“I hope so.”

Hope so?! They kept you there all day!”

I met him again on another hike some weeks later. Still no job, and certainly no job with Apple.

A senior manager self-consciously defended marathon interviews, noted that would-be hires had to be grilled by staff in many departments. Only one tech rebelled, and cheerfully told Google that they could review notes collected in past interviews if they wanted to consider him for a new position.

Ageism Concerns

Techs over thirty often cast worried, occasionally dismayed eyes at potential competition from juniors.

I inferred (perhaps incorrectly) that tech-employed grey-hairs are hobbled less by lack of skill than by inability to manufacture fresh interest for new technology. Maybe the synapses don’t fire as quickly as they did in your undergrad years, but you’ve learned a lot, recognize traps that would trip up a greenhorn.

Alas, you’ve also sweated your way up too many learning curves. First it was HTML. Okay, great: you learned HTML. <HEAD>, <P>, <UL>, you got ’em down cold. Then Javascript, CSS; you learned those, too.

But it didn’t stop! Flash. Dreamweaver. HTML5. ENOUGH! Not another start from scratch. You’re done.

But, too bad for you: the kids are all hot and bothered for HTML5, and it does clear hurdles once uneasily leapt (you reluctantly admit), and your inability to paste up a sincerely enthusiastic grin for HTML5 Boot Camp is tantamount to a career death sentence. Off to the programmers’ pastures you go!

In a few chats, I sensed an unstated (and unreasonable) expectation that techies would bag some sort of windfall to make late years employment unnecessary. I met one fifty something who cashed out of a start-up in the 1990s with funds to buy a house, but, as he straightforwardly put it, had to return to work after squandering ten years ‘watching youtube videos.’

Benevolence toward the Uninformed

Without exception, every tech showed commendable modesty while listening to my own primitive forays into geekery.

“Boy, you installed Linux, all by yourself! Wow! Way to go, Tim!”

This is a bit like being clapped on the back by a Marc Adamus for posting a smartphone selfie on Instagram.

Boiling Frog anecdote

“You know how to boil a frog?” said the tech, as we hiked. “You can’t heat up the water too quickly. The frog will jump out. You turn up the heat a little bit at a time.”

A worrisome anecdote in the EFF/NSA era! One might fear a tapped home phone when The Conversation came out in ’74. Now we all carry tracking devices that make phone calls.

The employer of the tech who offered this anecdote?

A household word megacorporation, strongly associated with global privacy issues.

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