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Re: (Extremely, unnecessarily long) Thanks for the pardoning

I recently pardoned all junior engineers.

In response, Steven (stevenscrawls.com) sent me a lovely and heartfelt email. I’m quoting it here, unedited, with permission.

It’s been a delight chatting with him over the past few months. I’ve grown to admire his pragmatism, optimism, and courage!

Steven is looking to contribute to “radically worthwhile” projects, so feel free to email him with opportunities and suggestions.

Anyway, I hope you all enjoy his original email as much as I do:

Hi Taylor,

(Sorry for the weird formatting)

I’ve been reading your site for months now and there have been a few times I’ve thought of reaching out and never did, but I ended up writing this because your post on ‘pardoning the junior engineer’ resonated with me, and I guess I’m just trying to work through some things. My e-mail ended up being really long. Things I write often do. Also, I sort of stole your style a bit while writing. That was mostly an accident.

I’m a few years out of college and your piece seems to be partially about people like me. I studied programming because I felt that I’d always regret not learning it if I didn’t. I studied it because I looked at the advanced courses and yearned for that knowledge.

I received it. I learned to make computers see and reason and multitask. All fields are like their own form of magic, but programming is among the flashiest. Physicists spend years carving runes into the earth to grasp knowledge that only they will understand; programmers can build a website in a weekend and transmit their thoughts to anyone in the world who cares to listen. Alakazam.

When I left college, my fingertips crackled with electricity. I did projects for fun that I would barely have dreamed possible a few years before.

But I’d been snared by the great seduction of an engineering education. I dreamed of doing good in the world—but dreaming in the worst sense of the word. My dreams were vague, baseless visions of an oversimplified or fantastical world, where problems are manufactured by the dreamer’s mind to create the environment where fancy algorithms are the solution.

When I wanted to learn to solve problems, the grand wheels of institutions churned to deliver the knowledge I sought. They rarely mentioned how to find problems worth solving. The worthiness of the task was assumed. When I thought to ask what was worth doing, there was silence, or confusion, or platitudes. Do you want to know ‘how’? Go to office hours and have an expert in the field explain every detail. Do you want to know ‘why?’ I guess you can go spelunking for blog posts on the Internet.

I get it. Knowing which problems are worth solving is far, far harder than how those problems can be solved. I’m not angry at my professors for their didactic failure. “What’s worth doing?” requires speculation and an opinionated worldview that is difficult to assume in a classroom. I doubt that a mandatory “Not Squandering Your Talent 101” would do a great deal of good.

It’s just that when I look around it seems abundantly obvious that we have failed miserably, and the problem is both gargantuan and utterly unchanged by our technical prowess. Our critical institutions tear off their own limbs to bloat their stomachs. Meanwhile, many—most?—tech workers play a dull, lucrative version of Candy Crush: solve a manufactured problem and your score goes up. We don’t fix the important problems—why would you fix a problem? How much money is there in abusing tax loopholes? How much money is there in closing them?

My mind tells me that I want to do good in the world, but the overwhelming evidence of my actions disagrees. I spent half my weekday waking hours building a product that on my most generous days I think is morally neutral and on most days I think probably shouldn’t exist. I dream again, but this time I dream not of solutions set against a backdrop of imagined problems, but of simply having a worthwhile problem in the first place. It feels sadder, somehow, than the misguided dreams of solutions that came before, even though it is more honest, more raw.

I should leave, I think—and go where? And do what?

Anyone with enough spare money to hire a software developer has certainly extracted a great deal of value, but nobody really bothers checking if they added any. Everyone needs to drink, but nobody needs to fill the reservoir.

I will admit I have barely even looked at job opportunities. The thought of looking at job postings feels empty. It is an impressive job posting that even explains what the role is, let alone why it ought to be done. I fear that part of me wants to remain helpless, remain tragically troubled, remain trapped under the weight of a world that isn’t actually crushing me. You said that whenever you find yourself endlessly fighting the world, perhaps your values need to change. I see the wisdom there, but I can’t help but think that, well, maybe the world actually is in need of a good thrashing.

Time passes. I spend time with my friends and work fades into the background. I get used to spending my days pouring my electricity into a miles-high metal contraption. The mechanical behemoth churns through the world, and I do not know if it moves for good or ill. It seems that if we build a monstrosity of this size, there should be robust debate on what it’s doing. It is nobody’s job to argue that we ought to slow down—nobody on the behemoth, at least. There aren’t even brakes on the beast, only wizards pushing it ever faster. Some wizards are catapulted off to save weight. Our leaders chant “TEAM. TEAM. TEAM.” in the hopes that we will be fooled.

It’s depressing enough that, among my friends, nobody cares about what they do. Nobody even talks about it. It’s almost an accepted part of life that the whole industry is a waste of time. Sometimes, rarely, I meet someone who does something worthwhile—usually not in the industry—and the difference seems staggering. If there are people who will die if you don’t ship your product, then of course you would work hard. Sounds a lot better than fighting for a promotion just to make more money I won’t spend.

When you spend all day with your fingers to the metal beast, you forget that electricity is flowing at all. You don’t hear the crackle and don’t see the sparks. And if you stop for a minute, an hour, a day, or longer, things barely change. The difference to the behemoth is nigh-imperceptible. You forget the power you possess. Your job is to press your hands to a mechanical behemoth for eight hours a day. Performative. The world that was once a tapestry of arcane potential is once more an immutable backdrop to your everyday life.

This feels like an impossibly tragic outcome. Sometimes I do something that makes me hear the crackling again. My fingers itch to cast a spell worth shaping.

My life experience, and your blog, have encouraged me to try to take responsibility for the outcomes of my actions, and so part of me always wants to attribute everything to myself. But when I think of what I should’ve done, it’s…what? Become a startup founder? Understand how the world ought to work when I barely understand how it does? Be a famous public intellectual who takes bold stances? Be a Twitter ‘activist’?

I won’t deny that maybe I could’ve done some of those things, perhaps even should have, but it seems like a lot to ask. Still, I might be willing to take drastic measures if I knew what those measures were. I would not be surprised if your advice would be to pick a date to submit my two weeks’ notice and then start researching my next steps. Perhaps this is indeed the way forward, but I feel hesitant when I don’t even know where the trail to worthwhile begins.

All this said, I guess it just felt nice to be pardoned this Thanksgiving, and though I have taken my thoughts here in a slightly different direction than your post took yours, I still feel the essence of both comes from a place of looking at the state of programming and thinking “Really? This is what we’re doing?”

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share on this tome I’ve just lobbed at you, I’d be happy to hear them, but if not, then I’m happy just saying thank you so much for your blog. I have found it to be a beautiful invitation to self-reclamation, and I feel it has been a lantern in my troubled search for the scattered pieces of agency that should have been mine from the beginning.

Steven