2 min read

Background textures of work

One thing I've been enjoying about working as a technical writer is that the minute-by-minute texture of the work feels right. Something about formatting text, faffing about with SVGs, trying to rewrite a sentence more clearly... it's just enjoyable in itself, and I feel at home with it. It's pretty close to what I choose to do for free with my various writing projects, so I guess that makes sense.

Working as a programmer was very much not like that. There's something in the rough vicinity of professional dev work that I do like, which I could probably label as 'iterative hobbyist tinkering with websites'. I like working on something with a strong visual component, and I like to be inside of a fast feedback loop, and I'm mostly interested in just somehow bodging through until it works. I'm not very interested in either the computer-sciencey side of programming — data structures, algorithms — or the software-engineerey side of making things run reliably at scale in a maintainable way. So maybe it's not surprising that the minute-by-minute texture of professional programming was just... kind of bad. Occasional fun bits when I got into something, but the background experience was not fun.

I'm not going to try and make this into a coherent blog post with a point and a nice conclusion, but here are a couple of other anecdotes that fit the theme:

  • When I was a student in London I volunteered at the Natural History Museum one summer. I'd looked on their website on the off-chance that there was something I could do there, and amazingly there was a volunteer job in the entomology department that was almost designed for me, sorting rainforest insect samples by order to send to the relevant specialists. I was completely obsessed with insects as a kid, and 'working in the entomology department of the Natural History Museum' would been my idea of the greatest job in existence at that age, and still sounds pretty good now tbh. There was an interview type thing to check that we could reliably do the sorting, and I remember immediately feeling completely at home with the work and being good at it. On the other hand there were people there who had master's degrees in zoology or whatever, but not so much of the background experience of poking around in the dirt looking at beetles, and they were noticeably slower and had to keep referring to the reference guides. I could already just see if something was Hemiptera or Coleoptera, so I didn't have to bother.
  • I also saw this from the other side working on my PhD. I was in the general relativity group, and unsurprisingly some of the students there had a deep lifelong interest in astronomy. I didn't really have any of this, I'd been interested in insects not stars as a kid, and mainly I was there because I liked the maths. I enjoyed my time in the research group a lot, and I didn't feel out of place at all as many others had similar backgrounds to me, but I did feel like there was some dimension of appreciation I was missing that would have deepened my relationship to the work. In this case I feel like I would like the background texture if I had it, so maybe some time in my life I'll get a telescope and start from the basics.