I was just headed out the door to go to a coffee shop and read when I received a text from my dad. “You awake? WP Emergency”. When duty calls…
Kidding aside, I love when this happens. I love getting VaultPress tickets (the product I work on) saying a user’s site is down because it’s more often than not an opportunity for me to learn something new. Database connection error? GREAT! Let’s get to work. As a challenge to myself, I decided I wouldn’t allow this to interrupt my reading. I decided rather than heading back to the safety and comfort of my computer, I would help troubleshoot this with my dad via text message. Long story short, it worked 🙂
After completing an hour of reading, I was still texting my dad (don’t worry, I stopped texting for stretches of time in order to read and to let my dad try to troubleshoot on his end with my instructions) and decided to hop on the site he was working on. 2 hours, a lot of texts, and some key CSS changes later, his business client’s mock up site was ready to go. I forgot how much I loved that kind of work. Before I joined Automattic and when I was working at startup in SF that didn’t pay me well (at all), I had some clients on the side. In most cases, I would spend time with them chatting about what they were looking to do, what their goals were with the site, what they liked/disliked about their current site, etc. and then would create a first draft site for them. I loved it. I could take the information I was given and just GO.
At UNC, my job was quite similar during my last year. I was basically tasked with migrating and managing department site overhauls. It was a blast. Most probably dreaded those 2-3 hour long meetings with a rambling professor but I looked forward to them. It was a fun challenge and a unique chance to get to know brilliant UNC professors. With VaultPress, my challenges mainly have to do with site restores and security threats which are less creative and honestly more than a little bit harder. Understanding server configurations and how that might affect a restore is harder for my brain to grasp than how X client wants their site to feel a certain way. It works my brain in a different way though – one that is necessary and no better/worse.
I realized while working on my dad’s site that it was energizing me to do these little changes. It’s part of the reason why I’ve tried to jump back into the CSS forums recently. Hours will pass like they did this morning and I won’t even notice because I get so lost in these minor tweaks and weighing different options for how a button might look or react to being hovered over. I actually completely forgot I was taking the day off until I finished working. It was so much fun I didn’t think about the fact it wasn’t for pay – it was for my own pleasure.
I don’t think before my initial job in tech I would ever have considered myself to be creative. I say that truthfully. I was an athlete in highschool and a very anxious A student but I wasn’t an artist or a particularly adept brainstormer. I can’t draw worth shit and my handwriting is atrocious. With that said, there’s something about the ability to jump online and manipulate what’s there 320525390 different ways that frees your mind to do the same in reality. Combine that with my college education being spent on studying essentially culture and humanity and, well, you end up thinking critically about everything almost to fault (as my girlfriend sometimes points out). I’ve become creative because I’ve been given this amazing outlet that let’s me try out different ideas and learn new ways of doing the same thing. It’s beautiful. It’s not at all what I expected of learning web design.
One of my highschool friends said to me when he found out I was working at the ITS department at UNC, “But aren’t you bad at math? I mean I don’t remember you ever enjoying math.” I was a weirdo in high school in that I somewhat enjoyed torturing myself with things I was bad at (like Latin and Math) until I became good. My impression of web design was similar to my friend’s response though. Isn’t it just a bunch of code? Isn’t it boring? Gah how wrong I was. I’ll never forget that first time I sat down with a professor and he asked if he could ____ with his site. Boom – just like that I was given my first opportunity to either a) give an easy answer or b) be creative and provide solutions (yes, multiple). In the same way I found creativity trying to beat a player on the soccer field, I found a massive creative opportunity in tech.
If you ask me what working in technology has given me, I would say it’s given me confidence, curiosity, and creativity. Confidence may be odd to say seeing as women are typically seen as not being confident within technical roles. However, it has given me confidence even as I realize there’s so much I’ll never know or understand about how things work. That’s where the curiosity component comes in. The more I learn the more I want to know and the more I realize I know nothing 🙂 The more I know, the more creative I am and the more sources I can draw from. I’m a firm believer that nothing you spend your time learning, doing, reading, etc. is a waste. ALL of it prepares you for something. ALL of it can be used. When my brother scoffs at some of the classes he had to take in college, I shake my head thinking that he probably slept through invaluable lessons.
Beyond just personal lessons and traits I’ve picked up, learning technical skills has given me the ability to help. I still volunteer with 2 nonprofits I used to work for and be paid by before Automattic. Before me, their web costs hovered around $5,000-$6,000/year. When I started diving in to help them, I found they had been majorly ripped off and it broke my heart. Tasks that took me 5 minutes to complete had apparently taken the previous person 1 hour (or so she billed them). Their costs were lowered to under $1000/year while I was paid by them. Now? Free. Your skills, your time, and your resources can be used for good and for bad as cliche as that is. Technology has given me a very unique ability to help people in a way that I never thought I could. I can directly and profoundly help causes and people I care about everyday. It’s let me connect with people offline more than I would have otherwise.
I called my mom 6 months ago to catch up only to find her very stressed out and almost unable to talk to me. I soon learned a pipe was going to be put through my grandmother’s property and that she, my 70 year old mother, wanted to do something about it. “Anne, if you only had time to just build me a website or something. I don’t know how to get the word out about this.”. 2 hours later – done.
I’m not saying every problem can be fixed with a website 🙂 I am saying that thanks to WordPress and thanks to countless people taking the time to teach me I’ve been able to help tons of people in a variety of ways. I’m no longer afraid to get frustrated trying to learn a new skill because I know somewhere along the line it will help someone. I resisted technology at first because I didn’t realize how much it would allow me to help others. I always saw it as a selfish profession – one where people overcharge, apps distract, and arrogance abounds. I still see that side of technology. I’ve overheard people talk about how they overcharged someone to do something that took them 5 minutes to do. I’ve overheard people laugh at others for “dumb” mistakes they’ve made. If someone can’t use your product, the fault is not with them it is with you and who you chose your target audience/market to be.
Gah. If you see everything that you do as something that could possibly be used to help someone somewhere, it changes everything. Let it.