It's taken me over four years to write this article; it takes a long time to know yourself. I think I'm a little further along now than I was when I started.
As an aside: every article photo on this website is chosen to be intentionally mismatched, ironic, or humorous. This is the only one I have chosen to match the article.
When I was a young boy, I told stories.
We all told stories as children. It's what we do: we're creating our own lore to understand the world, our imaginations are crazy hyperactive, and all other things aside, it's also fun.
But I told stories, and I couldn't stop. I didn't really understand why back then, but now I can articulate that it was the feeling of pure creation I got when I told them. It was the wonder of creating some bizarre pattern of reasoning to explain why people did what they did, or why they were absent from school, or what have you. You had to believe your stories, at least a little bit. That's what makes them worth telling. Even if the story isn't real, you have to be a believer in your story.
You don't have to believe the facts; you have to believe something greater than those. I'm not sure if telling a story has ever really been about conveying the facts, but rather about conveying the feeling of something. We're taught from a young age that history repeats itself and that we have to learn from it -- but if you're just hearing the facts of history, you'd have to be a Vulcan to base your decision on just the information.
No, I think we learn history to remind us of the feel of things that happened before we came around. We learn about wars that we can't possibly fathom being a part of to get the ghost of a feeling that warns us why we shouldn't go to war. It's that feeling, the feeling that drives us. It's the feeling that takes us to a time or a place; maybe a time or a place we've been to, or maybe not.
Stories are powerful like that.
Once upon a time, I was a child helping my father work in the basement. Really, this meant that my dad did all the work while my brothers and I watched for the most part. He was using a soldering iron, and our conversation went something like this:
Da! What's that called?
My father explained that it was a soldering iron, and what it was doing. For some reason, this caused me to spawn a very long story until it was time for lunch that began like this:
You know, I asked because. Because there's this girl in my class, and she used one of those and soldered a... da what's that thing called?
And I pointed to our water boiler. He patiently explained what it was, as well.
Yeah, she soldered a water boiler to herself! And then she carried it up on the roof! And it was attached to her cheek! And she came into school with it, and-and-and-and...
So went my story. It went on, and on, and to this day some 20 years later I actually remember a shocking amount of it.
When I was a kid, I knew that I liked the feeling I got when I told a story. It took me years to understand why I liked (and still like) telling stories. It took me years to understand why I was enraptured by the stories my grandfather and father would tell -- they clearly exaggerate; the stories get taller as time goes on. Nowadays, those tales are the stuff of legends.
When you tell a story, you're communicating an idea with a series of emotions. When I listen to my grandpa tell me about his travels across the world with my grandma or my father tell stories of the holiday dinners and parties of yester-year, the facts don't do anything for me. They're telling my wife and I a story that brings them back to a time and a place that they remember with such great power, such great joy, that they have to share it with us. You can feel it, and you get brought back right along with them.
My wife and I travel as much as we can, so we both know that he will never remember the awfully terrible parts of traveling. He doesn't talk about how swollen you feel after being on an airplane for hours, or how terribly hard it is to find decent food in most airports. He doesn't remember that. I'm sure factually he could, but he won't ever remember that. Those feelings aren't important. I'm sure that they're lost in time.
Stories, they're about feelings, not facts.
I grew up a little, and I spent my pre-teen and teenage years writing stories. I was intent on becoming a novelist. Usually, my stories revolved around this figure known as Cain (or some spelling variation depending on the year). Sometimes, it was about Seth Peterson; I submitted a 30 page short story for English in middle school about Seth.
Cain was a Psion, and he was the most powerful (and therefore tormented) one there ever was. I most definitely was not projecting any desires to be some cool hero with a tragic history that has super awesome powers. I definitely did not play too many JRPGs during my teenage years. Cain definitely did not have my hair color, or like coffee, or sushi (despite it being thousands of years from now, when sushi will probably be long forgotten). Definitely not.
I was expressing something with Cain. I wanted to create; it was all I could think about. The story was meta: I wanted to create a story about someone that could manipulate the universe around them. My favorite parts were describing how he would warp his surroundings in the same way would change things in our dream. Shadows became weapons that ate his foes, bullets could sometimes get him but he could send them right back. With his imagination and mental power he was invincible.
Except when he wasn't, to advance the plot, naturally.
Cain was everything I wanted to somehow be: he could take his feelings and emotions and force people to feel them, to be affected by them. His sheer force of will was so strong that it was tangible.
Looking back, the stories I wrote about Cain are worse than that vampire dude that made Robert Pattinson a very rich guy. They're trash.
Yet, when I read them, I can't help but feel that desire to create, to share, to change the world.
I grew up a little more, and then I was a young man. I wanted to be a journalist at the New York Times. I wanted to record what was going on, and present it to people. I wanted to take people around the world with me.
I was advised by everyone, from guidance counselors to my family, that print media was in grave danger of dying; there were actually news articles routinely posted in print media warning about the death of print media. That didn't actually deter me, because when you're sixteen you really, actually, truly believe that you know yourself and what's best for yourself.
I applied to New York University, my dream school; I made it in, and was intent on going there. I sent in my common application to colleges clearly tailored for what I believed NYU would like; I memed out in my essay before memes were really a thing. It's funny how arrogant you are when you're seventeen and think that you're brilliant in ways that no one else could ever be.
By the time I was making serious decisions about college, I was going to go to NYU for Classics (studying Latin) to either become a journalist or to get a degree that would lead me to law school. I found the whole law thing fascinating; we've gotten people to agree to (mostly) follow a set of rules, and people were needed to make those rules understandable for people without law school degrees.
My older brother was 3 grades ahead of me, and he went to a small college in Hoboken, New Jersey, which he liked very much. I applied to only four schools: New York University, Stevens Institute of Technology, SUNY Buffalo, and SUNY Binghamton.
I was urged by everyone to apply to more than that. I applied to SUNY Buffalo for Computer Science, but my real goal was to go there and spend some time mellowing out in the snow and focusing on my writing. SUNY Binghamton was widely regarded as one of the best SUNY schools, so I applied there; I believe my plan was to study English there, to work towards journalism. I applied to NYU because that was the dream.
I applied to Stevens Institute of Technology, the same school my older brother attended, because when I went to open houses with him they kept repeating that the ROI was one of the highest in the countries. I applied there because it seemed like something that I should simply do: my brother is an extremely smart man, and I figured if Stevens was good for him it wouldn't be a bad choice to send an application there.
Of course, I knew I wasn't going to go there -- that was Nick's school, and I'm not very much like him.
I most definitely would not go to learn to be a programmer and go into the technology industry; that would just be following my father's path. I was my own man, damnit, and was going to be a journalist!
I made all my schools; I decided to go to open houses for NYU and Stevens, because they were relatively close to me, and they were within a week or two of each other, and it would be nice to see my brother for an afternoon.
The Stevens open house was first; I attended the open house, and learned all about their Computer Science program. They had a demonstration about cracking passwords using PlayStation 3 clusters, and I asked my first technical question in a room full of people and was promptly embarrassed when the presenter explained rainbow tables; many of my peers were simply nodding as if they knew what those were.
I realize now, that was probably not the case; I doubt many sixteen or seventeen year olds would have come up with rainbow tables.
Despite feeling like a chump, I had the moment. I remember my friends all telling me about the moment they decided on their schools.
Oh, the campus is beautiful, I felt at home!
I've never wanted to go somewhere else!
My moment was a little different. I remember that moment, because it was the moment that everything changed for me. I had left my family to go take a trip to one of the hot dog carts that the school had provided and get something to eat. I looked around at the crowds of people while I stood on line, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.
I am not a terribly superstitious person, but I have learned all my life to not ignore that feeling.
My moment? My stomach dropped and I felt anxious, worried, and confused. My moment was that I realized something I did not want to admit:
You know, it's probably a better idea to come here
And so I went, and I thought my dreams were dead.
College was hard. I struggled. It hit me hard, but I was good at it much in the same way that fish are good at chewing bubblegum; which is to say, not at all.
In my first year, I tried desperately to define myself as the different, creative one. I swore that just because I was in Computer Science that I would still become a lawyer; a patent laywer, this time. Or, if I was lucky, I could be a tech journalist. Yes, you definitely need a CS degree to be a technical journalist. Print media was dead, but there was a prayer that there would be a job in technical journalism.
I joined the creative magazine RSO, Redshift. I felt like an outsider amongst the creative people there, too. I wasn't a very good developer, and I wasn't nearly as creative as those people. The photography I saw there was incredible; the stories, captivating; the poetry, moving.
For awhile, I felt lonelier for the experience.
I made a few friends that first year; in the dorm next to me was a guy named Bill. Bill was also a CS major. On my first assignment in CS ever, as I had my first homework related anxiety attack, Bill offered me a little help and got me through it.
I hated that feeling. It was terrible. Shout out to Bill, though.
Years later, Bill would say something to me: Phil, if something doesn't work out for you, at least you can always know it wasn't because you tried hard enough. I persevere, and I keep working; that's just my thing. Got it from my dad. By the end of the first CS class, I felt shaken.
I was probably the most average student in that class. I wasn't bad, but I wasn't good. I felt like I was so very, very far behind my peers. I didn't go to a fancy high school where I was able to take Computer Science courses. I didn't even get to take calculus like everyone else at Stevens.
My second semester did not go much better; I struggled in my math and science courses, and floundered, and failed one of them. In CS I started to gain some momentum. I kept working and working, and as I went through my first Data Structures classes, out of nowhere, I started to understand how to program a little better, and then I started to gain a little confidence.
You see, computers, they don't feel things. Computers, they're logical. They listen to the facts, and I wasn't used to talking to things that just worked on logic. I understood how to communicate through conveying the feeling of something. I wasn't good at talking to them, but I was learning.
Besides that Data Structures course, I wasn't doing so well. I left my first year at Stevens and started looking at other schools. I was not smart enough; I did not belong there.
My second year was even more rocky. I gained some traction with CS courses, but then I lost it when I struggled and failed a computer architecture course.
I was really, really wounded. I had made the wrong choice, hadn't I? I couldn't even pass all the classes in my major.
At the same time, I was confused. When it came down to classes where it was just about the programming, I was starting to get good at it -- in some classes, I was actually starting to excel. I understood algorithms, because for some reason I was able to think in terms of movement in my head. That part made sense, for the most part.
I was doing a pre-law minor at this point, to remind myself that this was all so I can go to law school. I was talking to my advisor for the minor one day, and in his office I met a CS student a year younger, Adam, that was just as lost as I was. I helped him out where I could, and in turn he became one of my best friends. Years later, now he helps me out where he can.
I took System Programming and fell in love with C. It was powerful, and I understood how to build a world. You see, building a world is easy: you start with nothing, and then you build the world.
I ended off my second year feeling like I was still at the back of group, the dumb one, the failure.
But I could program, and now that I had started witing C, I was starting to like it. I could see the movement of a program in my head. It's hard to describe, but I think it's a form of kinesthetic learning. I get things when I can see how they move, and make them move.
To this day, I think about most things in terms of movement. I don't think "I have to walk Sasha", but rather see the movement to the place we should be. My head is usually quiet, but darting around. My world is a spinning kaleidoscope.
At the end of my sophomore year, I got my first job writing code for a startup. It was fun, and I enjoyed it. I got to work on practical things, and I enjoyed that.
In my Junior year, I started to repeat courses that I didn't do so well in and I did a little better in them. I started to take harder programming classes, and I did well in them. I had practiced developing all summer, and it was going great. I was still behind my peers, I felt, but less behind.
That year my friends Bill, Jordan, and Ethan moved in with me. They had all been closer to each other, having lived together while I lived with my brother as a sophomore. I would continue to live with them through the following summer and the next year. We stayed close through the years.
Junior year was an interesting year for me. I kept working part time during it. Around November, everyone from the startup I was working at jumped ship to another startup; I followed them. I was getting much better at programming as time went on. I was still in Redshift to feed that creative spirit, and I was less worried about the opinions of others.
Towards the end of November, I started keto, and that improved my quality of life greatly. I lost a lot of weight, and I gained a little confidence. Most importantly, however, I felt like a cloud was lifted off my head: my mental clarity improved. It was weird.
In my second semester, I took two of the most important classes of my life: Human-Computer Interaction, and User Experience. Those classes made me realize something. I liked facilitating the interaction between humans and computers. I liked translating their languages, and I was starting to get good at it.
Not great, but good. Somewhere that year, I started to really enjoy programming. I was having more fun than ever doing it.
The summer before Senior year, I worked my ass off. I was losing weight, working on the product at the startup, and going into NYC to go to our main office as much as I could. I was finding that I was interested in taking part of the development of the product, seeing how people used it, interacted with it, and making it easier, more useful for them. I met interesting people, and I worked hard.
My supervisor (the CTO of the startup) was a tough man to work for, but he pushed me very far. I spent May through August becoming a better developer. It was my life, and at some point I had started chasing that concept of being better. Whatever that meant.
For the first time, I really loved college and was happy I went where I did. I am not a quick man: it takes me time to come around, sometimes.
I approached my senior year with an insatiable desire to be better, and I finally had both the drive and the understanding of how I learned best. I learned by doing, and so whenever I wanted to learn something, I built it.
I met the woman who would become my wife, fell in love, and spent my Senior year on airplanes back and forth to Houston to see her. I worked two jobs; I was a full time employee at the startup at that point, and worked full weeks there. I went to school, and I was also a part-time course assistant for some extra money so I could travel. I slept when I could, which was to say quite rarely and most commonly on an airplane.
I was really, really digging being part of the interaction of getting users something they needed. I fell in love with web development. I had started as a front-end developer since my supervisor was a talented back-end developer, but I had evolved to be a full stack developer. I didn't want to feel powerless when he was asleep or away, so I taught myself how to work on other parts of the application.
I graduated happily, and extremely happy that I went to Stevens. When I look back, I even see my bad years fondly. After all, it led me to my dream career and my wife -- I'm a really, really lucky guy.
Even though, I'm really not.
After graduation, I worked at that startup for a year. Things were good until they weren't.
I got an apartment with Ethan, and spent my nights dreaming of starting my own company one day. The world felt conquerable then. It was nice to know a little bit more about who you are. My wife-to-be had moved across the country and lived about three hours away from me, so I spent a lot of my time going back and forth to see her. It was an epic love story, the sort that lots of people do but that feels strangely like you're the only ones in the world that could ever love each other that way.
When things were good at the startup, we spent our days working on building out the entirety of a system. It was one of the greatest feelings of my life; we got to conceptualize something in its entirety, and then bring it forward. We started off and there wasn't something, and then there was, and we got to share that.
That right there? That was my story. It's to take a step back, build a world, and give it to someone else. It's to focus on your product and analyze it, hone it, make it better constantly. It's to give everything you've got to bringing your user to the place you know they need to be.
Things were good until they weren't, and then it was miserable and full of angst across the company. It closed while I was on my first vacation ever and I was informed that I would not be getting quite a few paychecks that I was owed. It put a damper on my vacation, that's for sure.
Really good for when you're trying to pay for a wedding.
I was scorned, hurt, and felt terrible. My confidence was hit pretty hard by the ordeal. I spent some time looking for work.
Careers are mendable, and much like scraped knees, they recover quickly when you're young. Clearing my head from the ordeal, however, took me over two years.
With time, the career started to matter a little less the longer I had it, and the rest of the world seemed to become a little more important. My career was less important than the wife-to-be, than family, than friends. I bought an engagement ring, and Bill was there with me as the chip reader broke and sent the engagement ring purchase through five times.
Bill was there for the ring, and Adam was the one who got in his pickup, loaded up my life into a UHaul trailer, and moved my whole life worth of stuff into a storage unit so that I could move in with the new fianceé. Not many friends would go drive 4 hours, then 4 hours back in a day.
A few years later, I got married; Adam, Bill, Jordan, and Ethan were all there. They're pretty swell guys. Bill and Adam were with me, standing there on the altar as two of my groomsmen. The helped me with a lot over the two year engagement. We've all got stories, and I think friends are by far some of the best parts of the story.
Through the last few years now, I've cooled off a little bit and learned to focus on the story we tell in web development. The user is our audience, and it is our duty to steward them towards the place we feel they need to be.
Web applications are my story, and I'm a story teller, and that's just who I am. There was never anything else I could have ever been.
Redshift died the semester after I graduated. I was very sad to hear that; you should be, too.