The satisfaction of the hand-off
I'm not going to go build tables or something, but still...
Hi, friends! Sorry for the brief absence. I’ve been off putting together some other things. Last week, I taught an introduction to Python for WSDS. And this week, I gave a talk about technical blogging to Code for Philly. On to the newsletter!
Art: The Hands, Moise Kisling
A few weeks back, I was shocked when I found something good to watch on Netflix. Due to The Algorithm, usually my husband and I end up scrolling through the beautifully-rendered UI with stunning overlays and meticulous metadata for about 25 minutes, throwing out show names to each other half-heartedly, knowing that we’re just going to end up watching reruns of Parks and Rec or Seinfeld.
Recently, though, we stumbled onto The Repair Shop, a show based in Britain where a bevvy of craftspeople and experts in making old things work again are based out of a charmingly cozy barn, and help customers with the heirlooms that people bring in.
Although the cast and crew were assembled specifically for the show, the experts making the repairs truly know their stuff and help bring treasured items back to life. In one episode, an expert in photography restores a camera that’s been through World War I in the trenches to take pictures again. (Side note, do NOT go down the old camera rabbithole.) In another, a toy train from the 1930s is lovingly restored and again makes real steam. There are mechanics, stained glass experts (do not go down this rabbit hole, either), a woman focused entirely on leather repair, a luthier, and on and on.
For some reason, the show made me extremely emotional. It could have been the late hour, the sentimental value attached to the fragile items many of which people have received at critical moments in their lives, or the fact that I finally found a single show worth watching for $8.99 a month.
Later, when I was at work, I realized what it was. These people had tangible proof of their success. They had things that people love and would hopefully pass on, long after they were gone. With the rise of minimalism, throw-away culture, and Marie Kondo running her anti-consumerist hustle, encouraging everyone to let go of things, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that sometimes, collecting things, within reason, can actually be good. And lovingly maintaining things is even better.
In my house, tucked away in a kitchen drawer, is a set of two oblong, sleek, white porcelain serving platters. Ten years ago, when my husband and I bought our house, a friend, A, brought them to our housewarming. Although she and my husband worked together, A was more than just a colleague. She helped my husband get his first job by giving him hours of guidance on his straight-out-of-college resume, giving him interview prep advice, and then, once he got a job, helping him navigate both the code and workplace politics. She was a mentor and a gem of a human being.
When we had our housewarming, she brought these two serving trays as presents. As I remember now, she had made dozens of little perfect crostini sandwiches, arranged them tastefully on the platters, and wrapped them in cling wrap. “Keep these, you’ll need them,” she said. I took the platters, thinking nothing more of it. Years passed, and we fell out of touch with A, although we visited her a few times. More years passed, and then, suddenly, we found out that she had been diagnosed with cancer, and then, even more suddenly, my husband was attending her funeral.
I use these platters every summer, from May to September, to cut up and serve watermelon, and every single time I take them out of their resting place in the cupboard and gently slice the red, tender meat into triangles, I think of A and what a good, kind woman she was, and about how she came into our back yard, hands full of crostini, laughing.
Physical things are good. They connect us to people, to memories, to places. They give our world vibrancy and depth.
In software, we don’t have the satisfaction of fixing a a physical thing and giving it to another person. We are constantly dealing with bits and bytes that traverse the ether, coded abstractions that move out from under us. We’re always deleting code, changing it, updating systems, changing the tools that we work with, in the hopes that, eventually, we’ll impact something physical, and touch someone.
There are often threads on Hacker News and other places about software developers proclaiming they’ve quit development to work the land or start a bespoke woodworking shop and I often joke about them, but in them, there is a grain of truth.
Maybe one of the reasons these platforms of ours are completely out of control is that we’ve lost our connection to the physical manifestation of what it is that we’re creating. We’ve lost touch with the person on the other side. One of the reasons places like Facebook are struggling (aside from the fact that Zuck owns it and can do whatever he wants,) is that it is truly impossible for anyone to, at scale, understand the physical impact of the code they’re pushing, how the bits get transferred into data, how data moves into the UI/UX, and how the small function that one person writes is transformed into a Like button that makes someone feel excluded or included, angry or elated, sad or thrilled.
We never get the satisfaction of hand-off of our work in the way that craftspeople do, and I used to not think it was a big deal. But now I’m not so sure.
One of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve done in my work with bits recently, as part of my onboarding at Automattic, was participated in a support rotation (which everyone in the company does when they first start.) For two weeks, I helped real customers struggling with real issues on their websites, both in tickets and live chat. Talking to real people about their problems, frustrations, and finally, happiness and relief once their issues were resolved was fantastic, and probably the closest to the same kind of feeling that the Repair Shop people get every day.
The closer you get to the back-end of any system, the servers, the databases, the fuzzy API layers that move data between various points of those systems, the Kafkas, and the like, the harder it can be to see the forest for the trees, the reason your site or company actually exists.
But it was in this way that I could see what the bits I’m working on are actually doing.
And maybe we don’t have to all delete Facebook, lawyer up, hit the gym, and start a woodworking shop, but it for sure would be nice to have to do something to better understand the impact our bits have on our physical world.
What I’m reading:
Interview with Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify
About engineering levels
What is the single best book for an introduction to your field?
This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once or twice a week. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!
I’m a machine learning engineer. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a kindergartner and a toddler, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.
On the topic of "Repair shop", I recently moved to a new city and for the time being am staying at a hotel. It has limited english channels, BBC one and two among them. I spend a lot of time on there, and cannot recommend BBC enough. It is a happy respite from all the loud, fast programming everywhere else. A few recommendations : Repair shop, Garden Rescue, Comfort foods.
This kind of yearning for the tangible is exactly why I run a hackerspace. The number of tech workers and office people who come in and are blown away by the experience of learning to make something themselves and hold it in their hands is one of the few pure joys I have left.
It almost doesn't matter what it is, from duplicating a part for an out of warranty dishwasher, a 3d printed knicknack, all the way up to a complex tool or project they've always dreamed about but no one ever makes for them to buy, it's all the same. There's joy in any tiny scrap of the universe we shape ourselves.