Client/Server Programmer Senior
Grad Year: 2000
Strength as a Writer to success as a Programmer
I arrived in Ann Arbor in 1996 to study English. It had been my plan for years. Literature, as I saw it, addressed the big questions head on, seeking to order and make meaningful the chaos of events and ideas that constitute human experience. I saw in the clamor of contradictory voices something authentic, for in the study of literature, as in life itself, no answer came down neatly with all feet on the ground. Knowledge was instead obtained by limping progress, a rhythm established by hours of difficult reading and writing and debate, and if that difficult work demanded I indulge my love of beautiful writing, so much the better. There was no avoiding tiresome utilitarian questions about the purpose of such study, but the intrinsic value of the degree was obvious to me. What I would do with it was irrelevant.
I can’t pretend my degree’s intrinsic value set me up with the ideal career immediately after graduation. I struggled some, working for a time at a fragile company specializing in books from former Soviet republics. In the evenings I rang up sales and restocked shelves in a book store. I spent my days as a help desk employee assisting technophobes point and click. And certainly to become a computer programmer I worked hard to turn a latent interest into something resembling a career. Yet there’s no denying that my success as a computer programmer stems from my success as a student of English literature.
The surprising overlap of my English degree and my current job is the importance of analyzing text. The Age of Information is founded on the utility of text as a medium for storing data, promising knowledge and value to those who most capably derive meaning from that accumulated text. The centrality of the search engine on the web, and Google’s financial success in particular, affirms this. From this vantage it seems obvious to me that my affinity for language, interpretation and analysis led me to my current job as a programmer.
A computer program has grammar, good style, clever turns of phrase, theme and structure, and as a student of literature I had little difficulty grasping these concepts. But the skills I learned as a student of English have proven still more valuable when I work with other coders. I write open-source software, which means that the code forming the software is freely available to anyone in the world. As a result of this open relationship with users of my software, I have collaborated with dozens of people around the globe whom I know only by their ideas as presented in e-mail. In this context, it’s crucial to be able to argue capably for or against a particular feature or change in the software. Great ideas couched in clumsy or incoherent language will be rejected as swiftly as bad code. One of my projects received a design award from Apple Computer, and I’m convinced I won in part on the strength of the writing I submitted in support of that software. The software was a strong contender for the prize, but I have no doubt that a well-argued essay describing and defending design choices elevated my submission above other software lacking such support.
As the proving ground of my writing and critical skills, my English degree has revealed itself to be an unlikely practical choice. While the degree is not practical in the sense that the market faces a dearth of employees who can in a crisis interpret “Lycidas” or deconstruct deconstruction, it has utility in that the market does need people trained in these techniques, people for whom the accurate expression of idea and experience in writing is paramount, whether that writing is bounded by the tradition of the sonnet or delimited by the idiom of machine code. These practical aspects of the English degree may serve me in my approach to representing and interpreting information as a computer programmer, but it’s the unquantifiable that sustains me.
There are days when working with computers seems to shrivel me like a raisin, desiccating me with demands to put technical process above human concern. What a relief it is then to turn to a novel by Woolf or a poem by Donne, to drink in the refreshing rhythms and savor the mastery in the finest work the English canon can offer. The degree strengthens my professional work, the degree shelters me from the excesses of my profession. More importantly, it has meant and continues to mean opportunity for me. In spite of success as a computer programmer, I continue to think of myself as a displaced student of English. In search of the road back, I spent the summer of 2007 studying trauma theory and the work of John Milton at a graduate program in Vermont. To get in, I submitted the usual litany of documents, but as always the crucial pieces were the letters of recommendation. I went humbly back to the faculty whose patience and expertise were central to my undergraduate studies, expecting to seem just another anonymous alumnus in need to aid. But the work I’d done as a student--that extra research on the Genre Evolution Project with Eric Rabkin, the extra hours spent talking and corresponding with John Whittier-Ferguson about James Joyce--paid off. Both of them remembered me and without hesitation wrote on my behalf.
Related Career FieldsTechnology