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.

Double-Edged

My department has shifted to remote install when the customer is amenable to it. So, rather than fly off to somewhere new when my next turn at a new installation came up, I drove into the office as usual, then sequestered myself in a vacant corner office.

That last part, I didn’t mind at all. I have enjoyed my own office in the past, and my first foray into remote installs was a welcome return to that aspect of office work.

The other part, however, was a bit of a letdown. Work knows, so I don’t think I’m risking anything by mentioning it here (insert music of impending doom).

Those who travel extensively for work will think I am nuts, but three or four week-long trips per year keep it a novelty for me. Being from a small town and until six years ago living in a fly-over state, and lacking my own travel budget, I see business travel as an opportunity, not a hassle. The Monday-Friday scheduling helps, too.

Often with the enthusiastic help of the customer, I always scope out locally-owned restaurants for lunch and dinner, and almost invariably find a nearby notable site to visit. All of this is in addition to the superb work I do while on the clock, of course.

Then, as those who read here know, I write and post pictures about it. Firsts still excite me, and that includes meeting people from other regions of the country and seeing the sites, no matter how mundane they may seem to those who take them for granted.

Speaking of mundane, my lunch breaks during my first remote install featured the same boring food as my normal workday lunch — a sandwich or leftovers from home. If I couldn’t go out for lunch and see something new, at least this time I could close the door to “my” office and find true solitude.

Not being on the road means more time with my family, and that is a good thing. Sure, a break is nice occasionally, but the time that I had two install trips in one month was kind of rough.

We don’t expect the onsite installs to go away, as the complexity of the job and the customer’s preference sometimes will dictate that we make a physical appearance. Generally those will come with destinations in or near larger cities, so while the frequency of travel posts here will be curtailed, I might not have to try quite as hard to find something worth sharing.

Everyday life between trips might be another story.

Wandering Away from Work (Three)

As one who brings his lunch to work, I rarely get out of the office until quitting time. When the weather’s right, however, I can be found wandering away from work. I have made a few discoveries along the way.

Wandering last Thursday, I drove to the spot where Plano holds its annual Balloonfest. If nothing else, I wanted to see the area without all the crowds, food and drink vendors, and other accoutrement of a summertime festival. The signs told me it was Oak Point Park, which I recognized from earlier online research of potential local hiking destinations.

I worked my earbuds into my ears, pressed “play” for some Rilo Kiley on my music player, grabbed my camera gear, and hit the paved path toward the woods. Just a hundred feet short of a bridge crossing a wide creek, I spotted and veered onto a trail leading into the trees.

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