I don’t know what to write on my resume.
I know, this sounds like a common complaint. But I genuinely have no idea how to compress down the half-lifetime I have now invested into tinkering with technology down in a way which makes sense to a potential employer’s eye. I think often about the fact that almost every element was there for me to be one of those whiz kids who started programming as soon as they could (14 for me), except for one derailing factor: Abuse.
Not physical abuse, for 99% of it. I think I got spanked once when I was in elementary school, that was it and it honestly didn’t bother me. No, I’m talking the creeping abuse of simply being so unliked that communication, sometimes about very important things, gets totally derailed whenever it happens.
A few standout examples:
My father admitted to me in private he stopped liking me around the time I turned 2 years old. This was about the time I am told I fiddled with the remote and accidentally turned on closed captioning on the TV, which my parents couldn’t figure out how to turn off, but which had the nice side effect of teaching me to read.
I have atopic dermatitis, and it was quite severe as a kid. It causes your skin to dry out quickly, to become itchy and red when exposed to allergens.
When I grew up and moved out of the house for the first time, my skin almost entirely cleared up. It turned out the house had been rife with allergens floating in the air that made my life hell from the beginning - dust, pollen, mold, later animal dander - and instead of doing anything to deal with the root cause of the problem my parents told me over and over it was my own fault for scratching.
When I was 5 my room was moved to the furnished basement which was even dustier, so dusty and moldy I had trouble breathing as I went to sleep every night even though I never passed any clinical tests for asthma. To this day I refuse to sleep in a room without an air purifier and large openable windows to allow for circulation.
In high school my friends and I, plus a kid we didn’t know terribly well, were given a project to make a short film in English class. A tight turnaround meant the only place we could film the project would be one afternoon around my parents' house.
Knowing how they get about having their nights interrupted, I first sat down and cranked out 10 pages of scripting, paying attention to each little detail, sketching every scene so that we could be in and out of filming within 2 hours. I reminded them every night for the two weeks leading up to recording that I would like the house on Sunday night. I was told every time “Yes, of course, we get it, shut up!”
5 pm Sunday night rolled around. They were stuck on the couch in the front room. I asked them what they were doing, I asked if I could borrow the house for a few hours. “We’re not fucking leaving, what are you talking about? Go fuck yourself, bucko.” (They loved calling me names any time I did something that went against their will.)
“This movie is due tomorrow. We don’t have time to figure something else now. Can I ask you to at least go stand in the kitchen for a few minutes?” We took out the camera we borrowed from school and started to shoot. Within 5 minutes my brother was in the kitchen playing by screaming at them as they screamed at him, red-furious that they can’t watch television and that there is noise being made by us reciting our lines.
The song and dance which transpired: Me, or my brother, would argue with them and slowly lead them into whatever room of the house we didn’t need to shoot in; the other one would take the camera and try to get things done as fast as possible. We had to shoot scenes over and over again because one of the two would raise their voice halfway through lines, and we didn’t know what overdubbing in post was. What should have been a 2 hour project took until 1 in the morning to wrap up, because my darling parents couldn’t connect the dots that being asked to leave the house at a future date would eventually mean they had to be out of the house at a current moment.
My academic talents were recognized early on. As first-generation immigrants to the US, denied the chance to higher education themselves, they were thrilled. What was less thrilling to them was when I started asking them around age 8 “How are we going to pay for college, though?”
The line they constantly trotted out was “You just worry about getting in, and leave paying to us.” Meanwhile tuitions continued to surge, but I took their word for it anyway. A single income household on an electrician’s salary was thoroughly middle class, but even if we were income poor, that only meant I would get a lot of financial aid. We would pull through.
But we weren’t asset poor. My parents had bought 3 houses in Boston during the 80s when property values had hit rock bottom; come 2012, they were real estate multi-millionaires. The colleges caught wind of this and raised their expected cost of attendance substantially. No financial aid coming. “Okay,” I though, “but we’re actually well-off then. They’ll surely pay.”
Not so. Many years later my father told me he maybe would have been willing to pay $10,000 out of pocket, but not $50,000 - and definitely not $50,000 a year. That would have been fine, had they not spent my entire time in high school telling me the opposite and causing me to adjust my own plans. Since I already knew I was sharp, and since I trusted them to keep their end of the deal, I decided not to push myself to the limit - to relax, have fun with friends, play guitar in a punk band.
Had I known ahead of time I might need a merit scholarship or to break into a top university to afford college, I would never have taken the scenic route. I would have buckled down, as I did the second time around, when I did break into a university so elite it could take me in for pennies on the dollar.
It took me 4 years to climb out of the depressive, alcoholic hole I crawled into at 17 when this all came to light. By the time I reached Northwestern I was an independent student, freed of needing to share any details whatsoever about my parents' assets. I am eternally, spiritually, indebted to my alma mater for giving me a second chance at life; as for my parents, I don’t speak to them anymore.
If you managed to get through all of that, kudos. I have a Markdown file about 10 times as long of these charming vignettes. It was one of the last things I emailed to them before I broke contact entirely.
But I include them to paint a picture of a particular kind of person, not so much unreasonable so much as unwilling to consider counterfactuals at all. There is, I believe, a kind of dark power within such people, an unknowing persistence which lets them surmount obstacles most rational people would, entirely justifiably, balk at. My father might have screwed up my ability to afford college, but he still worked 12-hour-days 6-days-a-week to acquire the wealth that made him so dangerous in the first place. His mistake was simply one of seeing no evil.
And the evils he was able to see he understood. I was an alcoholic during those 4 years. Alcohol was one of the few ways I could escape the torment of feeling like my future had been destroyed, by being swallowed by the maw of actual oblivion for a night. He didn’t kick me out of the house for that; he let fester down in that dust-filled, mold-ridden room. Convinced I’d someday make it through, even though he couldn’t see quite how.
(In my mid-20s it became their favorite thing for a while to attribute any anger or sadness or fury I portrayed to alcohol. I liked it a lot better than being called “bucko.")
College broke me nevertheless, the senseless malevolence of the situation broke me. Prior to that I still had some small tallow candle lit in me, flickering and untamed. Which returns me to where I started: At 14, after 2 more years of arguing with my parents that they needed to get a computer and an Internet connection for their kids to make it in the modern world, I installed Ubuntu Linux 12.04 on the thing and began to tinker with it.
I learned enough to land an internship with Akamai Technologies for the summer as a Unix sysadmin through a city-led effort to get more low income kids into STEM with their Unix sysadmin department. My guess is Boston was footing my bill; they didn’t have much work for me. But I managed to outcompete my friend Rose for the position, so I figured I should make the most of my time there, and spent any minute I wasn’t doing their rudimentary data cleaning tasks learning Python through a tutorial on modding Civilization 4.
I never actually ended up modding Civ 4. If I did I would have realized XML mods are much easier than Python mods. But going in on the summer train to Kendall Square, walking into a peaceful air-purified office, sitting down and working hard through lunch at an adjustable desk mostly independently - it all had a powerful effect on me. I think it was no coincidence that I walked into tenth grade remarkably calmer than any year I had in school prior or since. I was no longer Andrew the nerd, I was Andrew the Linux nerd.
I was out of high school more often than I was in it, due to both poor mental and poor physical health (surprise surprise). But I found solace at 15 working my way through AP Physics in tandem with my growing interest in all things Unix, and I was picked up for a second internship through the same program as before, this time by State Street Corporation. It was 2009. Half my department was laid off at the end of week 1. They sat me down at a Windows XP terminal with a PDF open of an example document, and 500 printed documents I was expected to double-check by hand. I lasted until week 2.
I don’t think I have ever listed my brief stint with State Street on any resume. I do remember feeling ashamed and confused when I left. Wasn’t I good at this? Wasn’t I a “computer guy”? I didn’t know it at the time, but I wouldn’t touch a computer professionally again until I was 24 years old. Oh, I was tinkering the whole way through - writing my own Python scripts, picking up esoteric Unix lore. But nothing of value ever came of any of it.
I was one of the perennial nine-tenths of
/g/ that had no clue what they were doing, no clue on how people could actually make money with technologies. I was convinced, in one of my apocalyptic failure modes, that open source, despite being a thoroughly good thing for humanity, also meant that no profits made from tech could truly be sustainable and that it was a silly career to go into long term (LOL). I was sad, I was sick, I was tired, I was tired of fighting with my parents, I was tired of being disliked, I was tired of being tired, there was simply not enough gas in the tank to pursue any optimistic line of thought for long enough that I could start anything of value at all.
And when I turned 17, when I applied for colleges and felt firsthand the brutality of getting people who decided a long, long time ago, when you were a toddler, that they just don’t fucking like you bucko to finance your pursuits - I buckled. I stopped trying.
I don’t know what to write on my resume. Even now. I just don’t know.