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Why do I code?

Tony Robalik
I do software for a living.
・4 min read

I recently had a brief discussion with a friend on Twitter. It began thus:

This in response to the question, "I code because ____".

Of course I enjoy writing code — who wouldn’t enjoy doing something they’re good at? But it wasn’t my first choice nor my first career.1 I initially went into public service as an urban (suburban) planner in Lancaster County, PA. It did not get off to a good start, considering it was 2008 and the financial system was collapsing, and therefore new construction was collapsing, and therefore no one really felt they needed (or could even afford) newly minted urban planners. So my first gig was basically a three-year underpaid internship. I watched as several of my old schoolmates left the field entirely due to lack of work, so I guess I was lucky in some sense.

One benefit of that position was getting introduced to the Brandywine Conservancy, a nature conservancy based in southeastern Pennsylvania and which also had a municipal planning arm. After three years at my prior position at Warwick Township & Lititz Borough, I leveled up to a proper planner in what I assumed was going to be my dream job. As an environmentally-focused person with an overwhelming interest in public policy and making the world a better place (one town at a time), I was very excited.

One of the first things I completed during my tenure was work I had begun at Warwick. It was a white paper on the greenhouse gas emissions produced by a three-municipality region in Pennsylvania, alongside recommendations for reducing these emissions, in line with global climate goals. This project had been my baby: I wrote the grant application to fund it, and spent countless hours collecting and collating utility bills going back years. Anyone who has seen the public meetings where people rage against wearing masks during the present pandemic can imagine what those municipal meetings looked like (clearly it was part of a vast global conspiracy to… reduce pollution?). I bring this up because I clearly recall a meeting I had with the new director of the Conservancy, in which she told me that the colors I used in my charts — various shades of red, because (1) pollution is bad, (2) it is causing global warming, and (3) red is idiomatic for “stop” in the US — that these colors were too inflammatory, and I should tone them down and use something more neutral. She went on to say that, because the Conservancy’s board was made up of predominantly Republicans, and even executives of large corporations based in the region, we couldn’t be too vocal about climate issues. It was, and as we all know remains, heavily politicized by bad actors.

So that’s when a little piece of me died. I stuck it out there for three years in all, because finding work in planning is hard (cf software eng), but for the last year or so I did two things: (1) I worked on my writing, because I’ve always liked writing and thought I might be able to make money doing it, (2) taught myself Java and Android development, because it was intellectually stimulating and I thought there might be a market for useful apps (this was in the days of the HTC One, ca 2013). I made myself a promise: the first one of these new hobbies to generate income would be the one I’d pursue, as a way to flee the soul-crushing realm I had found myself in.

As you can probably guess, Android apps turned out to be more lucrative. I had one more planning job (this time as a senior planner! I interview well, despite being empty inside), and during that year I spent all of my evenings and weekends teaching myself programming, and software design and development. Turns out I’m pretty good at it, not to mention very lucky. A speculative job application turned into an immediate offer — PLEASE START NOW, WE JUST SIGNED A $5M CONTRACT AND DON’T HAVE ENOUGH DEVELOPERS TO SERVICE IT, they cried — and the rest, as they say, is history.

People2 wonder why I’m so angry all the time. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent my entire adult life watching Republicans steal elections,3 both parties start and continue wars, and no one do anything about climate change, except actively stomp on those who try. The Columbine shooting happened the year before I graduated high school, and I’ve watched as the problem of school shootings has only grown exponentially worse. In 2012 when Trayvon Martin was murdered, I — a privileged white guy from the suburbs of Philly — finally became aware that systemic, murderous racism was still a problem; I had thought we were a long way away from the days when Fred Hampton was shot in his bed, by police, in a predawn raid in Chicago. In other words, I’ve watched as bad people deliberately made the world worse for their own selfish reasons (often using murder as their tool of choice), and nominally “good” people do nothing out of fear of being seen as having a backbone. And I worry that I’m one of those people.

Endnotes

1 This isn’t quite true. It was actually my first choice, but I dropped out of my undergrad CS program out of utter boredom, and having been dissuaded, by my professors, from my then-interest in video game development. up
2 My mom, mainly. up
3 I’m referring not only to presidential nominees, but also those for other offices. A recent example is Brian Kemp of Georgia, who stole the gubernatorial election from Stacey Abrams. up

Discussion (2)

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ruannawrites profile image
Ruanna

Thanks for sharing your story! Hang in there, and keep writing! :)

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

occ