Zerø Wind Jamie Wong

The Monoculture and Me

Photo credit Katie Dowd

Note from Dec, 2019: This is a piece I wrote in 2016 while between jobs, originally posted as a note on Facebook. There’s a pretty bitter tone underlying this. I don’t feel quite the same way any more, but it was a pretty honest representation of how I felt in 2016.

I’m on the Caltrain back to Mountain View following a Friday night karaoke session. I hear a guy and a girl across the aisle two rows up talking the standard Silicon Valley talk. Startup equity, interns, and rent. “I’m just out of college, so I can’t take a job just on equity — what am I going to tell my landlord? I’ll give you 1% of the 20% of $0, ten years from now?” They laugh and talk, and I hear the same conversation topics I’ve heard cycled hundreds of times. I find myself pulled away from reading my book, unable to stop eavesdropping on this conversation that irritates me so much.

I’m trailing behind my dad’s rattling shopping cart in Grade 11, absorbed in my copy of “The Programming Contest Training Manual”. I’m excited to sponge up the secrets of the book to apply them to the next monthly contest, clawing my way up the ranks of the couple dozen young Ontarians who compete in algorithm contests. When the contest rolls around, I work alongside the only other 3 people I know with a firm grasp of what “algorithm” means. We rank top in Ottawa, failing only to best our competitors in Toronto. I’m ecstatic, and slowly fall from the adrenaline high of the timed competition.

I’m sitting at my dining room table in Mountain View, chatting with a friend from out of town. “Why do you all listen to the same music?” he asks. The conversation meanders to the hobbies, and onto the standard trio of hobbies among the techies that compose most of our friends and acquaintances: rock climbing, biking, and weight lifting. “Doesn’t anyone write stories or poetry?” our friend demands. The Bay Area residents at the table ponder the question, and simultaneously shake our heads.

I gather with friends in the undergraduate software engineering lab, which is a glorified seating area with an abundance of outlets and a distinct lack of natural light. Having been the computer kid among my high school friends, I’m now excited to share my knowledge and code editor configuration with my newfound freshman comrades. I talk at length with a new friend, preaching the virtues of a command line interface over GUIs. I set up a server for my classmates to experiment on. I write frequently on my blog, tailoring each post to the audience of my classmates. I discover a security vulnerability in a friends’ side project and they’re fascinated to hear about it. I spend 9 hours a week training with a classmate to represent my university in an international programing competition (on our C team). I teach a classmate graph algorithms as we walk to and from class. I’m energized by my peers and savour every technical detail I gather from them.

I’m at a friends’ house party in San Francisco, and catch up with a few classmates I see every few months since our graduation over a year ago. I introduce myself to a few other party attendees and ask where they work, secretly hoping they aren’t an engineer. Infrastructure at Uber. Or maybe it was Machine Learning at Twitter. Or perhaps Web Developer at Square. I try to steer the conversation by asking what they do outside of work, hoping to avoid this conversation ending with commiseration over JavaScript. They list some combination of rock climbing, biking, weight lifting, drinking with friends, and TV.

I’m lounging at the back of a first year calculus lecture, casually checking my application status for my first internship. The previously “pending” status surprisingly now reads “selected”. I nearly jump out of my seat in the middle of our professor explanation of something or other in terms of a parachuting grizzly bear. I marvel at the possibility of achieving my goal of interning at Google, and doing it on my first internship! My friends propose that my middle initials LF now stand for “Lucky Fucker”.

I’m walking towards the dull, rising roar of a day concert far enough for you to hear but not see. I’m back after a several month break from life as a new grad software engineer. The roar slowly evolves into voices as I approach the entrance to a Google-employee-and-friends-only concert headlined by OK Go. I pass through the gates with a friend, donning a free bracelet yielding free alcohol at the free concert. I see a sea of engineers swaying a little to the music, decorated with t-shirts advertising a plethora of Google projects. I was looking forward to coming back to California after months abroad, but this was a little too much Valley for me at once. It seemed only fitting that I followed a Tesla with an Apple sticker and the license plate “1984MAC” on the way to the venue.

The shift was slow: from wide eyed aspiration to learn everything I can about technology to disdain for those who want to discuss programming at mealtime. Instead of taking pride in my computing abilities, I now shy away from it when talking to friends and acquaintances and change the subject.

When I complain about the monoculture, when I list density of engineers as a primary reason for wanting to leave the Bay Area in 3-4 years, when I judge every person I don’t know who talks tech on public transit or in coffee shops, I judge myself. Because I’m that engineer at the gym lifting weights. I’m that stranger at the house party that my conversation partner hopes is not a developer. I’m the guy talking excitedly about the HTC Vive on the Caltrain while others groan because they’re overhearing a conversation they’ve heard before. I miss being the top ranked competitor in Ottawa in a competition nobody in my school had even heard of. I miss having easy to pursue, obvious aspirations to work the Google dream job. I miss being the computer guy among my friends.

So when I see Red Bull ads specifically targeting programmers, billboards for Twilio reading “Ask your developer”, or Haagen Daaz ads featuring JavaScript, I cringe, because it reminds me that I am not a special snowflake.

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Zerø Wind Jamie Wong
Previously Metaballs and WebGL July 6, 2016