Regular Life

Regular Life

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on. – Robert Frost

Alert, I’m Writing About Work

Or: How I Almost Tanked My Career

There are three things you can get from a job — good pay, learning, and fun. If you’re not getting at least two of those, then it’s time to move on. — former boss

I was a web developer. I worked for the psychiatry department of the local medical school, creating a new online system of forms to be filled out by patients. Painstakingly created by researchers in the field, some of the questionnaires went well beyond the 100-question threshhold. They attempted to give a pre-diagnosis of Substance Abuse, Depression, Schizophrenia, and other afflictions.

My job was to create the web pages that presented the multiple-choice questions, accepted the answers, and then fed the answers into a database. To accomplish this I built on the web technology skills I had developed as the systems administrator/webmaster (yes, it was a legitimate job title) at the same school’s library. A carefully crafted algorithm in the background figured out whether or not the patient had a tendency toward a given condition.

Advertised as a six-month position, the job was my first full-time programming gig. My boss was a programmer who did most of the back-end code heavy lifting. We attended weekly meetings to explain our progress to various M.D.’s and Ph.D’s in the department, showing them projected images of the site, and they gave feedback on how it all looked. I was told I was faster than expected at the HTML coding, and I was particularly fond of the javascript-based help page I had written.

At about the time the product — NetOutcomes — was ready to go live, my six months were up. My boss printed out a letter saying “time’s up!” and I signed it to acknowledge same.

Perhaps I should have gone a little slower.

I often wonder what would have happened had I not signed it. I was a state employee, subject to all the protections and pitfalls that entails, and in my previous job I had seen that instead of shedding under-performers, supervisors typically added personnel to do what was not getting done. That didn’t describe me, and the job description had clearly stated the expectations. Still, I wondered just how much trouble I saved them by signing that paper.

It was one of my most enjoyable jobs, but now being a web developer entails much more than the simple HTML and reverse-engineered javascript that I employed.

I decided it was time to leave the computer geek field and try something completely different. I saw an ad for a reporter/photographer at a weekly newspaper in northwest Arkansas. Coincidentally, my wife’s family had just been laughing at the police reports in that same paper on an extended weekend vacation to the area.

I drove up and interviewed for the job and, with only a paid photojournalism internship between my freshman and sophomore years in college for formal experience, I landed it. It was scary, knowing I would be paid exactly half of what I had been earning. Finally, I would be doing for a living the two things I loved most — writing and taking pictures. And, as luck would have it, my wife got a job at a local bank, so we might actually eat a few meals here and there.

The scenery behind our rented house was breathtaking, a heavily wooded ravine that featured barred owls calling out to potential mates. A beautiful hiking trail with large bluffs and a clear stream was within a mile of the house. We finally had been delivered from a trailer home and the daily commute to Little Rock to a scenic backdrop only a three-minute drive from our respective work sites.

I quickly found that my passion for writing and photography did not translate into the mindset needed for reporting. I was assigned all the sports reporting and the property owners association (POA) meetings (it was not an incorporated city). Sure, I enjoyed the fact that satisfying my curiosity was not only encouraged but expected, and got an adrenaline rush when racing to the scene of a large structure fire or seeing evidence from a drugs and weapons bust spread out on a table. Ultimately, the columns and feature pieces were the only times I truly enjoyed the writing.

Despite my disillusionment, I stayed on and moved to the company’s nearest daily newspaper, where I was a frustrated business reporter. I say that because Wal-Mart, locally headquartered, consistently ignored my calls when David Glass stepped down as President and CEO, until after it had broken in pretty much every major news outlet in the country. I found that ironic since Jim Walton owned 51% of the paper’s publishing company.

I returned to computers in a job literally across the street, in city hall. I liked my boss, and this fast-growing city’s government was run by a bunch of hard-working people. Sadly, the pay was dismal, and within six months one of my former co-workers called to tell me she had joined a different daily paper and thought I might be interested.

We had been struggling financially, so any little bit of increased salary sounded great, and I thought I would get more satisfaction in a more general reporting job for a company not mostly owned by the world’s largest retailer. So, I left computers again for the lure of the written word. This time, photography was not an official part of the job, but neither was reporting on a privately held POA that could reveal exactly what it wanted to the press.

I quickly discovered that, yes, I would be reporting on that same POA, but there were was a small city government beat, too. Oddly enough, my former computer boss served on that city’s council. I found that I didn’t care a thing about being the one to press local figures with tough questions. I admired and learned from those who did, but it just wasn’t for me. Although I got to report on an election ultimately chosen by a coin flip, only the features truly appealed to me, and this time I didn’t have a column.

One day as I left a city council meeting, my former boss stopped me in the parking lot. “Hey, Mark, I’m about to add a Systems Administrator position. You’d get more pay and more responsibilities.”

I ended up taking the job, and it was good. Most of the PC break-and-fix and help-desk duty was being done by someone else, leaving me to concentrate on servers and network projects. My boss said, “There are three things you can get from a job — good pay, learning, and fun. If you’re not getting at least two of those, then it’s time to move on.”

That time I stayed in computers and, remembering that quote, have been in the field ever since. My job-hopping slowed considerably, and never since that first jump into journalism have I taken a job for less pay. I often wonder where I would be professionally right now had I not taken that plunge, but I also would have far fewer stories to tell, and no accompanying tightly-written narratives and professional photography to go with them.

4 Responses to Alert, I’m Writing About Work

  1. Very cool Mark…. never knew all that about your work!

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  2. Like me, you have had many extinguished careers!

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  3. I see so much of my history reflected in yours. I’ve lived on that ragged edge between media and IT for so long that there are days where I pause before launching into my 30-second pitch of who I am. Other folks simply say “writer” or “analyst”, but I’ve got to paint my history because, well, I never fit into any unique job description.

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  4. Dave – Yep, I’ve done a little of a lot of things. I didn’t mention the 6 months I worked at a 1-hour photo lab/studio, nor the two years I waited tables (while still in college, but I was not very good at it).

    Pops – Indeed! But I never ran my own business. Um, yet.

    Carmi – Thanks for dropping by. I regret that I have been a lurker on your blog for so long now. I do still see it every time you post, thanks to Google Reader, but my job now is much different from my previous post, and most of your photos are blocked. I don’t eke out much time for blogs anymore at home, but I’m feeling a mental backlash against the short attention span theater that is Facebook.

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