whoami

As graduation approaches, I’ve been thinking more about where I fit into the world of tech. There’s so much to learn, so much to do.

For a little over a year, I’ve been academically-trained as a data scientist through graduate school. Before that I did my Bachelor’s in Information Systems, and taught myself how to code iOS apps on the side. Today, I work as a software engineer doing databases, back-, and front-end. Last week, I built a web app.

My daily tools are things like Python, Vue, Swift, Pandas, D3, SCSS, Postgres, ES6, Spark, Webpack, Git—you get the point. I always thought tools were a good way to define what you do. They shape you just as much as you shape your work with them. Carpenters have their hammer. Mechanics their wrench. Usually they don’t significantly overlap.

For me its never really been about the tools though. I find comfort in the words of my favorite Internet person—a self-described “designer who writes”—Frank Chimero, when he writes:

When it comes to nouns, I have a public relations problem: no one knows what I do.1

He continues on to talk about a hypothetical party where there are peers familiar with his work: designers, typographers, illustrators, web folks. Since the party is naturally separated into cliques (typographers with typographers, etc), he visits and chats with them all. In the process of talking to the designers, they think he’s a typographer. The typographers think he’s an illustrator. You might see where this is going.

Frank says he is shapeshifting across borders, and I totally agree. Being able to cross borders in any profession is an asset. But it doesn’t always feel this way, especially in tech. There’s always a Javascript framework-of-the-month, people tell you to learn (or not learn) X, and machine learning is so hot right now. Specialism is at a constant war with generalism. Perhaps it’s just the nature of tech nowadays.

The other angle I tried to view who I am through is what I work on in my free time. Let what I do when no one’s watching define me. Distilling that to one or even a few things is hard too, but I did learn that I generally like making things: iOS apps, websites, data visualizations. I make things of all sorts, irrespective of if I know how or have done it before.

When I was younger, I used to draw all the time. As I grew up, I wanted to be an animator on a Pixar-like movie.2 Projects I worked on helped me gain new skills, and those skills made me interested in doing new, often orthogonal, things.

Although I don’t draw as much anymore, I feel like making apps—things or products—is my new creative, euphoria-inducing outlet.

Ultimately, it’s all about the product. If it’s a fun idea and I don’t know how to do it, I’ll run through walls to figure it out. I sort of like the term: maker, but it’s very vague (and slightly overused by people that don’t actually ship stuff). Engineer and developer also fall victim to the same thing. Caitlin McDonald calls herself a “deselopreneur” (DESigner + devELOPer + entrepRENEUR).

It would be very tempting to steal deselopreneur or just call myself a maker. In a few weeks after I slapped that onto the front of my site, I would probably start searching again. It wouldn’t feel right.

In the meantime, I’m going to noodle on something and not going to call myself anything. To the data scientists, I’ll probably be a front-end developer. To the front-end developers, I’ll probably be an iOS engineer. Officially, I’m never going to feel like only one of those things so why limit myself to a single label?

The territory sometimes comes with misunderstanding about what I do, imposter syndrome, and bag of other not-so-fun things. However, I take solace from getting to walk across the borders and experience the other territories every once in a while. Very few do.


Thanks for reading! Would love to hear your hot-fresh take below in the comments or on Twitter.

  1. Designing in the Borderlands, a wicked-good visual essay by Frank Chimero. I suggest reading all his work, especially The Web’s Grain

  2. One of the animations I made a long time ago. 


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